Civil War Artillery


Civil War Artillery
There is a real challenge for a blogger to attempt to write something new on Civil War artillery, given the array of information available in books and on the web today. But I felt compelled to, at a minimum; provide a brief overview (part 1) in order to follow up with an analysis of the impact of the Confederate artillery (parts 2 and 3) during the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862.
Let us begin. First I would like to recognize two bloggers that were of immense assistance as I boned up on the subject of Civil War artillery. They are Jack W. Melton at and Craig Swain at Other references are provided at the end of this blog.
Artillery is defined as: large-caliber guns used in warfare on land. Both Union and Confederate armies had Field Artillery and Siege or Heavy Artillery. The latter was too cumbersome due to weight and size to be of use in the field. It was normally used for the defense of fixed locations such as Washington or Richmond or to protect harbors or other high value locations.


Field or Light Artillery on the other hand, was mobile enough to accompany troops in the field. This type of artillery typically pulled by up to six horses and could be quickly placed in battery. I will focus on the most common types of Field Artillery that were in service with both armies during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.

In the beginning, all artillery was smooth bore, generally made of bronze. Basically it was a substantial metal tube out of which a ball, the cannon ball, would pass at a rapid rate propelled by an explosive charge. Cannons were used to batter something; a fortification, a city wall, buildings, other cannons, troop concentrations, etc. using kinetic force to accomplish its task. Smoothbore cannons are broken down into two categories; guns and howitzers. Guns used a long barrel and were heavier. Guns were designed to fire at distance having a relatively straight or flat trajectory to their targets. Howitzers conversely were shorter barreled and consequently lighter. Howitzers were optimized for firing explosive shells in a high short trajectory, using a smaller propelling charge.


As the science of metallurgy matured, the challenge was always to be able to shoot farther and more accurately, yet not be encumbered by too much bulk or weight, loosing mobility. While cannon balls were sized to fit snugly in the gun tube, they generally skidded or ricochet down the gun barrel as they were fired. Their flight path towards the target was strongly influenced by the last bounce. At longer distances, consistency in hitting the target became an issue. Secondly, the gasses associated with the explosive charge used to propel the cannon ball would leak out around the ball during firing while the ball was still in the tube. It became a trade-off between the strength of the metal tube vs the size of the propellant charge.
The answer to this dilemma was to add rifling to the gun tube. This caused the design of the cannon ball to change. It morphed into a cylindrical-conical shape. A gun, having a long spirally grooved barrel made the cylindrical projectile rotate on its axis thereby imparting greater accuracy over a long distance. Rifling however required a harder metal for the gun tube than bronze which was found to be too soft. Iron was adopted for rifled guns. Another advantage of rifling was with the addition of a sabot used to grip the rifling also prevented the gasses from escaping around the shell, thereby improving the range as well as guidance to the projectile. Simultaneously, it also reduced the amount of powder required to propel the projectile. A number of different manufacturing solutions to the problem of gripping the rifling appeared. Names of some of these included; Dyer, Read, Burton, Schenkl, and Hotchkiss. Rifled cannon needed the projectile to engage the rifling to be accurate, but it must be small enough to load from the muzzle on the battlefield. This was accomplished in different ways, which fall into three major categories: expansion – where a ring or cup of soft metal (lead, copper) expanded at the base of the round by the gases at firing; forcing cone – where the rear of the projectile (paper-mache, lead ring -iron cup) was forced toward the front, expanding a band of soft metal into the rifling; and shaped – where the projectile was the same shape but a smaller diameter, and had ridges or flanges which fit into the rifling.


Types of Projectiles
Four types of regulation projectiles were used by Civil War field artillery: solid shot, common shell, case shot and canister.
Solid shot – Round (spherical) projectiles of solid iron for smooth-bore guns are commonly called cannonballs or just plain “shot”. A skilled gunner could ricochet the shot across open ground against advancing infantry and cavalry. Elongated shot for rifled guns was known as a “bolt”. The bolt was not used a great deal and was thought useless in ricochet fire because it would bury itself in the ground at first contact.
Common Shell – Both spherical and conical, was a hollow iron projectile filled with a bursting charge. It was designed to break into ragged fragments. It was typically fired to explode 50 feet above and 50 to 75 yards in front of the intended target. The velocity of the shell would carry the fragments forward. Spherical shells would use a fuse set to explode at a predetermined time or distance. Conical shells were detonated by a time fuse or on impact with a percussion fuse.
Case Shot – Case shot or “shrapnel” was invented by an English artillery officer, Henry Shrapnel, as an anti-personnel weapon. It was found with both smooth-bore and rifled guns. It had much thinner sides than the common shell. It was filled with numerous lead or iron balls in a matrix of Sulphur or asphalt. A small bursting charge was used to break open the exterior walls and scatter the contents into the air. It was often tactically used as long range canister. It used a time fuse to achieve its result.
Both the common shell and case shot fuses were notoriously fickle and unreliable; bursting too soon, too late or not at all. To compensate for these artillery shortcomings, General Hunt’s guidance to Union Army artillery officers forbade firing over advancing troops. Confederate artillery fuses were reportedly even more unreliable. Confederate Artillery Officer Colonel E.P. Alexander was scathing in his after action report of the battle on the unreliability of southern fuses.
Canister – Is likened to a large shotgun. It consisted of a number of large balls, usually iron, packed in sawdust in a tined iron cylinder nailed to a large wooden plug at one end and crimped over an iron plate at the other. The Napoleon canister contained twenty seven 1.5 inch diameter balls. Upon discharge from the barrel, the balls fanned out as the cylinder disintegrated. The burst pattern resembled an ellipse with the long axis on the trajectory path. At 100 yards most balls were spread to a width of eleven feet with a maximum distribution of thirty-two feet in width at this distance. At 200 yards, 83 percent of the balls were in the ellipse which had enlarged to twenty-two feet in width. Canister was less effective when used with rifled guns. The rifling tended to concentrate the balls, still deadly, but not as effective as if fired by a smooth-bore gun.


This graphic provides an overview of standard US artillery smoothbore ammunition during the Civil War. The black powder ammunition was pre-attached for ease and speed of loading and firing. Rifled guns had the shell and powder separate which added another step during the firing process.


Field Artillery Weapons.
Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, bore diameters of most British and American smoothbore pieces were known by the weight of their solid iron round shot. Thus “pounder” evolved into an expression of diameter of the bore for any smoothbore canon.
The designation of US or CS for each weapon in the following photographs was provided by the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park based on the known foundry of origin.
The 12-pounder Howitzer, Model 1841. Howitzers were intended to lob hollow explosive or incendiary projectiles among massed troops or into fortifications at intermediate range. High or curved trajectories permitted firing above the heads of friendly troops, from emplacements screened from direct fire. It fired spherical case, shell and canister. This photo was taken adjacent to the Sedgwick monument at the Spotsylvania battlefield.


The light 12-pounder, Model 1857, commonly called the Napoleon. This was named after Napoleon III who brought it into service in the French Army in 1853. It fired the cannon ball, now termed “shot”, also spherical-case, shell, and canister. It was widely popular in both armies. Styled a gun-howitzer, because it could do both jobs, it was largely responsible for the general elimination of separate howitzer pieces, especially in Union armies. This photo was taken on Hill-Ewell Drive at the Wilderness battlefield.


The 10-pound Parrott Rifle was developed by Robert Parker Parrott. It was an expedient of war. Developed just prior to the Civil War, it was plagued by failures in service, especially among the larger sizes, and never used again after the war. At the Battle of Fredericksburg it had a 2.9-inch bore. This was upgraded to 3-inch in 1863. It is visually identified by its broad reinforcing band located at the rear of the piece. It fired bolt, case shot, shell and canister. This photo was taken at Hazel Grove on the Chancellorsville battlefield.


The 3-inch Ordnance Rifle. It had a sleek silhouette. The muzzle swell, decoration of any sort and abrupt changes in diameter were avoided. The exterior contour was a series of gradual curves blended gently into one another. This minimized strain and spread the load caused by the act of firing the gun. It fired bolt, case shot, shell and canister. This photo was taken on Willis Hill adjacent to the National Cemetery on the Fredericksburg battlefield.


The following table provides information on my four selected artillery pieces. Note differences in tube weight and amount of explosive charge used by each. In addition to range advantages, rifled guns weighed less and required less powder. This made it easier on the crew to handle and the horses to pull.


In the graphic below, I look at range for the four different artillery pieces which accompanied both armies on that day. Well, the howitzer was marginalized by this time. I include it because it was 20 percent of the artillery pieces of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans that was stationed prominently on Marye’s Heights during the battle. For non-explosive projectiles, the distance is marked where the first graze of the ball is made on horizontal ground. For exploding projectiles (spherical case and shell) the distance is counted at the point of the explosion.


Smoothbores were favored at ranges less than 1,500 yards due to their ability to skip shot off the ground at an advancing enemy catching the exposed troops chest high. Rifled guns tended to bury their solid shot or bolts in the ground rather than bounce.
Field Artillery Battery Composition
Field Artillerymen have always used the term “guns” when speaking about the actual weapons in a given battery, whether the “guns” were actual guns or howitzers. The number of guns per battery differed between armies. The Union, with more manufacturing resources, organized batteries of six guns, usually of the same type, broken down into three-two gun sections. The Confederates organized batteries of from anywhere of two to six guns due to various resource realities. The gun types were generally mixed which added logistic headaches. The Confederates had to rely upon weapons taken from Federal armories at the beginning of the war. Additional sources included imports of weapons from foreign countries and home manufactured weapons at locations such as the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. The Confederates also supplemented their artillery with weapons captured from the Union armies during the war.
The amount of ordnance carried by each type of gun also mattered. The standard limber chest for the 12-pounder Napoleon held 32 rounds; that for the 3-inch Ordnance rifle and the 10-pound Parrot held 50. There were a total of 4 chests per gun, making 128 rounds for each 12-pounder and 200 rounds for the Ordnance rifle and the Parrot. The ordnance trains also carried additional ammunition equal to that carried in the chests of all the batteries. This increased the basic load of a 12-pounder to 256 rounds and 400 for the ordnance rifle and Parrot.
12# Napoleon Ammo Chest
• 12 solid shot
• 12 spherical case
• 4 shell
• 4 canister
32 Total
While researching this portion, I was able to document smoothbore ammunition chest composition. But to date, other than feeling reasonably confident that the rifled guns carried 50 in each limber chest, I have not found a breakout of the number, by type of projectile, that they carried. Any input on this topic would be welcome.
My next blog on artillery will focus on the locations of the various Confederate batteries and explore the question of why it was so dominate on the day of the battle. The Union had more guns but they were across the Rappahannock River for the most part. But more on this the next time.
Hazlett, James C., Olmstead, Edwin, Parks, M. Hume, Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2004.
Naisawald, L. VanLoan, Cannon Blasts, Civil War Artillery in the Eastern Armies, White Mane Books, Shippensburg, PA, 2004.
Thomas, Dean S., Cannons, an Introduction to Civil War Artillery, Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, PS, 1985.
US War Department, The 1864 Field Artillery Tactics, reprinted by Stackpole Books, 2005.

About Peter Glyer

I am retired with a lifelong interest in history, primarily the Civil War and WWII - Europe. I was an Army engineer, hence my interest in terrain. I graduated with a degree in City and Regional Planning and a Masters in International Relations.
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2 Responses to Civil War Artillery

  1. Pingback: Washington Artillery (part 4) | Mercer Square

  2. Pingback: Confederate Artillery Dominance | Mercer Square

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