Civil War Artillery is a subject near and dear to my heart, because for the better part of a decade I was a reenactor with Battery C, 1st Mississippi Light Artillery. In addition to reenactments, our battery also did a number of live shoots, and it was while firing the cannon live that I truly came to appreciate what Civil War artillery could do when it was manned by a highly trained team of cannoneers. I recently received a message from Kimberly Chavez asking about artillery used during the Siege of Vicksburg, and her question inspired me to post the following article on the subject:
Confederate General John C. Pemberton employed for the defense of Vicksburg 172 cannon, 103 fieldpieces, and 69 heavy guns. Of this number, 37 of the heavy guns, along with 13 of the fieldpieces, served in the river batteries. The rest were employed in the landward defenses, spread throughout the eight miles of siege lines and averaging one gun every 250 yards.
The Rebel artillery emplaced in the landward defenses had two main missions during the siege. The first was to provide defensive firepower to help break up any Union assault against the Confederate line. They were used in this role to good effect during the May 19 and 22 assaults. The second mission of the Rebel artillery was to hamper the work of the Union soldiers digging approaches toward their fortifications. In this role they were generally not very effective. The guns in the Vicksburg defenses were so dispersed that the Confederates were unable to achieve artillery dominance at any point on the battlefield. The Southern cannoneers were also hampered by General Pemberton’s orders to conserve ammunition for use against Union assaults on the earthworks, and by a shortage of friction primers needed to fire the guns. The restrictions left the Southern artillerymen at a great disadvantage against their Union counterparts, who did mass their guns to great effect, inflicting numerous casualties with the shot and shell they pumped into the enemy line on a near constant basis during the siege.
In August 1863 the New York Times published a synopsis of the Union expenditure of artillery rounds during the siege of Vicksburg. Lt. Colonel William L. Duff, General Ulysses S. Grant’s chief of artillery, provided it. He stated that during the 47 day siege, the Union artillery fired 9,598 rounds during the May 19 assault, 10,754 rounds during the May 22 assault, and 111,614 rounds during the remainder of the siege. This averaged out to 653 rounds fired by each Union cannon during the siege.
To be on the receiving end of a Union artillery barrage during the siege was mind-numbing, as Sergeant William
Tunard of the 3rd Louisiana Infantry found out first hand. He wrote in his memoir that on June 20, 1863, “At early dawn every gun along the line suddenly opened, keeping up a rapid and continuous fire. All concurred in the opinion that such a tremendous cannonading had never been equaled in their experience, and the volume of sound surpassed anything yet heard. It seemed as if heaven and earth trembled under the heavy concussion.”
The Union army at Vicksburg had some 220 cannon, organized into 89 separate batteries, and they had three objectives during the siege. The first was to keep the Confederate artillery suppressed, the second to smash openings in the enemy earthworks, and the third to provide fire support for the men digging the approach trenches. The Union artillery fulfilled all three of these missions by concentrating their cannon and laying down a withering amount of fire that quickly smashed any Confederate gun foolish enough to challenge them.
ARTILLERY MODELS COMMONLY USED AT VICKSBURG
Model 1841 6-pounder gun
This model was first adopted by the United States in 1841, and was used to good effect during the Mexican War. By the time of the Civil War, however, it was nearing the end of its usefulness, having been surpassed by newer and more powerful models. The outbreak of war gave the Model 1841 a new lease on life, as large numbers of these guns were in both Northern and Southern arsenals, and they were pressed into service until newer models could be built.
Model 1857 12-pounder gun-howitzer
Invented in France and named for the Emperor Napoleon III, the Model 1857 was adopted by the United States army in 1857. One of the most popular smoothbore guns used in the war, the Napoleon was a versatile weapon that could fire solid shot, explosive shell, explosive case shot, and canister. Both the Union and the Confederacy manufactured these cannon during the war, and they can be distinguished by looking at the muzzle. Union-made guns swell at the muzzle, while Confederate-made guns have a straight barrel with no muzzle swell.
10-pounder Parrott rifle
Invented by Robert P. Parrott, the superintendent of West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, New York, this gun was widely produced by the Union. They were liked by the Confederacy as well, and they were manufactured in considerable numbers for the Southern armies. The Parrott can be quickly recognized by its distinctive iron-reinforcing band on the breech of the gun. This band provided additional strength to the cannon to help it withstand the stress of firing.
3-inch Ordnance rifle
Invented by John Griffen in 1855, the 3-inch Ordnance rifle was one of the most popular and accurate small-caliber rifled cannon used during the Civil War. These guns were constructed using a wrought iron forging and welding process that produced a very strong weapon that easily withstood the stresses of firing black powder charges. The Union built over 1,000 of these guns during the war. The South never manufactured this model, but they used all that they captured.
32-pounder Seacoast gun
In service for decades before the Civil War in many different models, the 32-pounder Seacoast gun was widely used by the Confederates at Vicksburg in the river batteries. Although designed as a smoothbore, both sides rifled many of these guns to increase their accuracy and range. 32-pounders were often mounted using a front-pintle barbette carriage, which was stationary and not easily moved once put into position.
42-pounder Seacoast gun
Similar in construction to the 32-pounder, the 42-pounder Seacoast gun was used by the Confederates in the river batteries, both in its original smoothbore configuration and in the modified rifle version. The Union army served two 42-pounder rifled guns at Battery Benton during the siege that had been borrowed from the ironclad USS Benton. Like the 32-pounder, these guns were generally mounted on a front pintle barbette carriage.
30-pounder Parrott rifle
Parrott rifles came in a number of sizes: The 30-pounder was classified as a siege and garrison weapon, as it was not easy to transport due to its weight. The tube alone was 4,200 pounds. The cannon generally used a wooden siege carriage, and the Union artillery had a number of guns in this configuration during the siege of Vicksburg. The 30-pounder was an accurate weapon, but all of the larger Parrott rifles were plagued with a distressing tendency to blow up due to the great stress placed on the iron gun by the shock of firing.
An old design, the Columbiad was first adopted by the United States in 1811, as one of the main weapons to defend the nation’s seacoast. These very large guns had a smoothbore tube weighing 15,400 pounds, and the Confederates used a number of them in the river defenses at Vicksburg.
13-inch Seacoast Mortar
The 13-inch Seacoast mortar was a massive gun weighing over 17,000 pounds, and was capable of firing a 200-pound shell over two and a half miles. The Union navy had six of these guns mounted on rafts in the Mississippi River, and they fired over 7,000 rounds into Vicksburg during the siege.