Introduction to Civil War Artillery

Introduction To Civil War Artillery

At the onset of the Civil War, the Confederacy had to scramble to meet the demands of the need for artillery and ammunition in the field. The Union had on hand 4,167 pieces of artillery, of which 163 were field guns and howitzers. "When the Confederates took over Federal arsenals, they acquired a considerable amount of heavy guns, but only 35 field pieces." (Boatners -121) Most of the country's powder mills were located in the North, and little ammunition had been made in the South for some fifty years. Starting almost from scratch, the South built some remarkably efficient mills and arsenals in places such as Augusta, Georgia; Nashville and Manchester, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana; Marshall, Texas; and Petersburg, Virginia. The mill in Augusta didn't go into production until September of 1862, but managed to produce a total of two and three-quarter million pounds of fine quality powder. (Coggins-65)

Artillery was generally classed by its weight and caliber. Also taken into consideration was its mobility and the form of its carriage or mounting. "Field" artillery was the class name for ordnance light and mobile enough to move with the army, and to be maneuvered during battle. "Mountain" artillery was included in this class, as these guns had to be exceptionally light to be manhandled or transported over steep and rough terrain. "Heavy" artillery included siege guns and mortars. Although these guns were considered mobile, they were slow and unwieldy. Weighing up to 117,000 pounds, the Rodmans were considered the largest of these guns, firing a 1080-pound projectile.

After being divided into classes, ordnance was again divided into types. Those types were "Guns," "Howitzers" and "Mortars." A rare exception to these types was the 12-pound Napoleon model of 1857, which was a gun-howitzer. Guns were fairly heavy, had a long range and flat trajectory, while Howitzers were lighter, shorter and fired a heavy shell. Mortars were the shortest of the three, heavy and fired large projectiles with high trajectory.

Guns were either smoothbore or rifled, firing solid shot, shell, spherical, grapeshot and canister (or "case" shot). The smoothbore Howitzers fired shell and case, while the smoothbore mortars fired only shell and spherical case. Few guns during the Civil War, were breechloaders, since they could be loaded "down the spout" just as fast as operating a breech mechanism.

In this period there were no recoil mechanisms, and when guns were fired they would leap back in recoil and have to be redirected for the next round. Gunners had to push their pieces back into position after each round, a tiring process. Aiming, rather than loading the gun, was the most time consuming of the process. Accuracy degenerated over time as cannoneers got tired and smoke blotted the battlefield.

The most lethal load of a field artilleryman was canister. Canister consisted of tin cylinders filled with iron shot, or musket balls, which would explode into a mass of troops, wreaking devastation.

To be effective on the battlefield, gunners had to get the piece within range of the enemy. Rarely though was an artillery battery ordered to gallop up at close range and unlimber their gun. Officers, knowing this was suicidal for the gun crews and their horses, did so only in moments of absolute necessity.

At the Bloody Angle, Spotsylvania, an artilleryman of Battery C, 5th U. S. Artillery, recounted an episode where just such an order was given. "...We were a considerable distance in front of our infantry, and of course artillery could not live long under such a fire as the enemy were putting through there. Our men went down in short order...Our men went into action with 23 men and one officer. The only ones who came out sound were the lieutenant and myself. Every horse was killed, 7 of the men were killed outright, 16 wounded; the gun carriages were so cut with bullets as to be of no further service... 27 balls passed through the lid of the limber chest..."

Many of the larger guns in both North and South were tied up in permanent fortifications. The Washington defense alone contained 807 guns and 98 mortars. (Coggins-63) A majority of these fortification guns never fired a shot at the enemy through the entire war.


Field guns were grouped into batteries. Although six guns to a battery was considered ideal, it wasn't uncommon for a battery to have only four guns. The organization of field artillery often differed within the two armies. The battery was usually commanded by a captain, while two guns formed a section commanded by a lieutenant. When on the move, each gun or "piece" was hooked up behind a limber, which carried the ammunition chest, and was drawn by six horses. Each gun had its caisson, carrying three ammunition chests, and also drawn by six horses. These two units made up a platoon, which was commanded by a sergeant (Chief of Piece) and two corporals. A battery was also accompanied by a forge, a wagon carrying the tents and supplies, and generally six additional caissons with reserve ammunition.

There were three drivers for each six-horse team, who rode the horses on the left side. A typical gun crew was made up of nine men. Where the artillery was designated as light artillery, the cannoneers either rode on the ammunition chests or walked beside their piece. With horse artillery (sometimes called flying artillery), the cannoneers each rode a horse, with two additional men acting as horse-holders in action.

In addition to the lieutenants commanding each section, another lieutenant usually commanded the line of caissons. There was also an orderly and quartermaster sergeant, five artificers, two buglers, and a guidon-bearer.

Four batteries were usually assigned to a division. When several divisions were organized into a corps, half of the divisional artillery was generally grouped as corps reserve. There was an army reserve of some one-hundred guns. (Coggins-63) When the horse artillery wasn't attached to the cavalry corps it was held in the army reserve.

Up until 1863, the Confederate armies and the western army of the Union assigned a battery to each infantry brigade. This was found to be a bad system since it eliminated the concentration of fire that was needed to beat back an attack. A good example of the effectiveness of the Federal divisional and reserve system was Malvern Hill, where 60 pieces of Federal artillery were amassed to smash one Southern battery after another as it was thrown piecemeal into action.

The composition of the individual batteries themselves varied in both armies and there was no set standard for either. Initially, a six-gun battery would have two howitzers; a 12-pounder battery thus had four 12-pound guns and two 24-pounder howitzers. A 6-pounder battery would have four 6-pounder guns and two 12-pounder howitzers. The 6-pounder was used mainly by the South, and was later replaced by 3-inch rifles and 12-pounder smoothbores. There wasn't much extra metal needed to make a 12-pounder, and over the winter of 1862-63 the Tredegar Works in Richmond (among others) was busy melting and re-casting guns.

Since Confederate batteries were often made up of captured pieces, and a mixture of types of weapons, the work of the ordnance department to supply ammunition became a complex one.

The Northern armies, more uniformly equipped, were usually armed with the 3-inch rifle, the 10-pounder parrot, the 20-pounder parrot, or the 12-pounder Napoleon. However, artillery batteries on both sides often had a few non-standard rifles, and all guns required several types of ammunition.

Among artillerists, there was a difference of opinion as to which weapon was more effective, rifled guns or smoothbores. While the rifled gun had longer range and far greater accuracy, the smoothbore was thought to be more effective in wooded and broken country, its larger bore inflicting more damage at close range. The large windage and loss of velocity of the smoothbore's roundshot made long-range accuracy impossible. Some artillerists reported that a disadvantage with the rifled gun was the fact its projectile would burrow itself into the ground if it had the slightest angle on it, yet it had a slightly higher rate of fire than the smoothbore.

The ammunition used for a smoothbore varied from solid shot to cannister. Solid shot was used for battering and against massed troops, while shell was used against earthworks and troops under cover. Spherical case, or shrapnel, was used against bodies of troops at a distance, usually from 500 to 1500 yards, while canister was used at close range, usually 350 yards or less. In some instances, double-canister with a single charge was used.

The most commonly used ammunition for the rifled gun was the 3-inch Parrot Shell, 3-inch Reed Shell, 3-inch Confederate Shell, 3-inch Absterdam Shot, the 12-pounder Blakely, Whitworth 12-pounder shot (also referred to as "bolts"), 4-inch Hotchkiss Shell, the James Shell, the 2.4 inch Pattison Shot, 3-inch Schenkl Shell, 2.25-inch Confederate Shell, 3.75-inch Sawyer Shell, 24-pound Dyer Shell and the Confederate 3.5-inch Winged Shot. Also used was the Confederate 4.2-inch Flanged Percussion Shell.

Fuses were used to explode shell and spherical case shot. These fuses were either ignited by the flash of the discharge, timed to set off the bursting on or near the target, or fired by the impact of the projectile striking the target (percussion). The majority of the smoothbores used the first type of fuse, as the percussion fuse only worked if the projectile struck the target nose-first. The rifled guns used either the timed or percussion fuse, and sometimes both. Neither kind of fuse was very reliable since black powder doesn't burn at an entirely reliable rate, but they improved during the war.

During the Civil War, few breechloaders were used, as their breech mechanisms were thought to be clumsy and complicated. However, two of the breechloaders that did see usage were the Armstrong and the Whitworth. Both of these guns proved to have a far better accuracy than any of the muzzle-loading smoothbores.


Heavy artillery was divided into two classes -- siege and garrison, and seacoast. The siege and garrison pieces could be moved on carriages by road, while the seacoast artillery was much heavier and had to be moved on special carriages. There were times where siege guns were brought into action and used on the battlefield, such as Shiloh and Malvern Hill.

As a siege gun, the smoothbores were eventually replaced or rifled, due to the greater accuracy of the rifled gun. Their destructive firepower also made the old brick and stone forts of a thing of the past. Although attempts were made to convert some of these smoothbores to rifled guns by reinforcing them with wrought-iron rings, the cast iron of the gun was not strong enough to stand the increased pressures. Many of these converted guns burst, proving deadlier to the crew than their enemies.

As in heavy artillery, mortars were classed as "siege" or "seacoast" guns. The 8-inch and light model 10-inch mortar siege guns, while cumbersome, could be transported on mortar wagons. The longer and heavier models of the 10-inch and the giant 13-inch mortars were classified as "seacoast," as they could only be moved with great difficulty by rail or ship. Mortars typically used spherical shells, and both timed and percussion fuses. Although experiments were made using canister shot as shells, the gun crews were unable to remain at their guns under the shower of metal.

Although there was great technological advances made during the Civil War, such as the improved casting method by Major Rodman, real progress would come along later with the introduction of nitroglycerin-based propellants. Still, the artillery proved pivotal and deadly in almost every major engagement during the war. From the massed Union batteries at Stones River and Malvern Hill, to the work of a few guns during Hood's 1864 Campaign, the cannoneers bravely and laboriously performed their work.

Coggins, Jack "Arms and Equipment of the Civil War," Double Day & Company, New York, 1962

Boatner, Mark M III., "The Civil War Dictionary," David McKay Company, Inc, New York 1959


Article written by: Alethea D. Sayers