The Artillery Charge

I have finished Earl Hess’s The Rifle Musket in the Civil War and will posting a review by and by, but before I do that I’d like to address one of his points, that of the role of the artillery. Hess and several other historians (e.g. Mark Grimsley, Gregg Biggs, etc.) have adopted the thesis advanced by British historian Paddy Griffith in his 1988 book Battle Tactics of the Civil War that the US Civil War was “a badly fought Napoleonic War” and not the first modern war (that distinction being reserved for the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71).

The conventional wisdom, so ’tis said, was that the increased range of the rifle musket made it impossible to push the artillery up to the line to blow a hole in it as Napoleon’s gunners had done. Both Griffith and Hess disagree, at least so far as the effect of the rifle musket was concerned. Hess cites other reasons (e.g. the larger size of the guns) as why it might not have worked in the American conflict.

The Napoleonic “artillery charge” was pioneered by General Alexandre-Antoine Hureau de Sénarmont, who first used it at the battle of Friedland on 1807. Sénarmont pushed his guns up to within 60 yards of the Russian line, blasting their infantry and actually leading his own. There is an excellent account of French artillery in general and of Sénarmont and his methods in particular (scroll down a bit in the first section) here. The post author notes, however, that although Sénarmont was spectacularly successful, there were special circumstances—the Russian artillery was unable to effectively reply, and they failed to deploy light infantry to screen their line of battle, allowing the French to get quite close without interference.

Was this still possible in the 1860s? I think it questionable, and both Hess and Griffith have been rather light with their evidence. While looking for something else last night I came across this account, a transcribed letter from the battle of Williamsburg in 1862, that to me summarizes the situation in the Civil War nicely. Keep in mind that in May of that year the Confederate Army was still almost entirely armed with smoothbore muskets, although there were probably some riflemen on the skirmish line.

On Sunday morning, May 4th, we discovered for a certainty that the enemy had evacuated Yorktown, and at noon we were ordered to advance in pursuit. We marched as fast as our legs would carry us until half past ten at night, then laid down just as we were, with our guns by our side. About two in the morning it commenced raining very hard, and at four we started on. The mud was awful, and we had to wade right through it. In a very few moments, our clothes and blankets being wet, and our feet and legs covered with mud, it was with difficulty we could get along. About six o’clock our advance guard were fired on by the enemy’s rear, just as they emerged from a piece of wood into a piece of felled timber. The 1st Massachusetts regiment were in advance, the 2nd New Hampshire next. The Massachusetts regiment formed into line of battle and advanced on the left—our regiment in front. As soon as we started put of the woods the enemy opened a battery directly in front of us; and just as we crossed the road a cannon ball, the first one fired, went right through our ranks, killing one and wounding two of our company. Then commenced a shower of balls, and we were ordered to keep under cover as much as possible—the fallen trees affording us a good protection. We advanced from one tree to another about fifty rods, to the edge of a large open field in front of the enemy’s breastworks.

They were pouring a deadly fire into us, and Gen. Hooker ordered one of our batteries up in front of us to engage their battery, but before they got their guns in position all but three of the men belonging to the battery were killed, and one of their guns stuck in the mud. For a few moments the guns were left entirely alone! Oh, if you could have seen the Captain, his hat off, crying, as he turned round and shouted, “For God’s sake send me some men to work these guns!” The rebels, seeing the guns deserted, came out of their intrenchments and were about to make a charge to capture them; but immediately the boys of our regiment, without any order, fixed bayonets and rushed out to receive them, when they ran back into their intrenchments. About a hundred of us then caught hold of the gun that was stuck in the mud and took it into position in an instant. By this time some men arrived to work the guns, ammunition began to arrive, and until about noon it was fight in earnest. Our battery had to contend with two—one in front, and one on the left—we lying all the time within eight rods [about 50 yards. FR] of the enemy’s guns! The rebel sharp-shooters by noon had killed nearly all the gunners, and the guns were all disabled but one, the horses all dead, and the cannon and musket balls showering around us. We were ordered to fall back. Charles Putnam and myself, who bad been lying together behind a log, were just eating some hard bread and molasses, several balls and shells having hit within a few inches of us—one ball grazing the leg of my pants. We started with our Captain, but it was impossible to keep the company together, as the surroundings presented a perfect slash of heavy timber. Charles and myself, however, agreed, if the company did not get formed, to remain together. We fell back, amid a perfect shower of balls, to the edge of the woods where we started from. (Otis Waite, Claremont War History 1868)

Thus Joe Hooker ordered up the guns in the best Napoleonic fashion, and almost lost them. Unlike the Russians at Friedland, the Confederates did have artillery to reply and light infantry (at least some of whom were probably armed with rifles) who cut the gunners down. I’ve seen numerous other examples that amount to the same thing—advancing the guns up to the line of battle was tantamont to suicide. One can argue as to whether the effect was due entirely to the rifle or not, but in Civil War terms it wasn’t just a viable tactic. Later in the war, as the number of rifles increased, the situation just got worse.

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4 responses to “The Artillery Charge”

  1. Dean West Avatar
    Dean West

    In “Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War” (published in 2003), historian Brent Nosworthy analyzed the effectiveness of the rifle-musket in great detail and very convincingly. Paddy Griffith was the first to challenge the prevailing idea that the rifle-musket vastly altered black powder era warfare, but Nosworthy was the first one to explain the technical and human reasons to support Griffith’s theory. It appears there is quite a buzz suggesting the Earl Hess has broken new ground on the subject of rifle-musket effectiveness, but Nosworthy anticipated him by five years and his scholarship is superb. “Bloody Crucible” received excellent reviews, even from the reenacting community, and I cannot understand why his groundbreaking analysis of rifle-musket effectiveness is not better known by serious students of Civil War tactics.

  2. Bryn Monnery Avatar

    I’ve been reading up on this subject myself recently. My survey of the Napoleonic “artillery charge” has led me to the conclusion that no such beast ever really existed. At Freidland then “artillery charge” was an act of desperation due to having no cavalry to hand to pursue a broken enemy. Examining other “artillery charges” showed most were no such thing.

    So if the artillery charge has no basis in Napoleonic warfare then what about Mexico? The classic example of a “flying battery”* action is Palo Alto; however the range here that the batteries unlimbered was about 600 yards, which was reckoned at the time to be the extreme effective range of 6 pdrs**. There seems no basis in history here for an artillery charge.

    A survey of ranges from the OR on the Battle of Antietam showed that when artillery unlimbered 300 yds from the enemy it did so successfully and with no impact on their effectiveness from enemy fire. However, when artillery tried unlimbering at 150 yds they suffered heavily from “sharpshooters” and their position was untenable.

    * A US flying battery was essentially a normal European foot, or field artillery battery. Throughout the period from 1820’s-1880’s (excepting the ACW) each US artillery regiment had a single company trained as field artillery, one serving as a depot whilst the other 10 coys were organised as a conventional infantry battalion. By 1885 each regiment had 2 batteries (the second being converted from th depot), and it wasn’t until 1898 that the US artillery was relieved of the requirement to field an infantry battalion out of each artillery regiment.

    ** 6 pdrs = 600 yds, 9 pdrs = 800 yds and 12 pdrs = 900 yds

  3. RJ Samp Avatar

    1. CSA Brown’s 6 pounder’s were moved up closer to the Pickett’s Charge zenith…..July 3rd 1863, Gettysburg PA. Federal Artillery quickly put them out of action, forced them to retreat.

    2. the CSA Artillery Charge to the Peach Orchard July 2nd 1863 Gettysburg PA was out of LOS\LOF of Federal infantry and Artillery for the most part….at best their were better targets of opportunity\more pressing need to not fire long range at the Peach Orchard.

    I’ve often wondered why they never wheeled guns up at close range…..Sunken Road at Antietam…..2nd Manassas assaults against the railroad cut…..Brawner’s Farm (2nd Manassas) left flank. Push the guns forwards whilst the infantry was being mauled\closer to you and presenting themselves as the higher priority target….retreat your infantry just past the gun line and triple canistering everything to oblivion out to a range of 200 yards….

    3. The CSA Sharpshooter battalions did yeoman’s work against many Federal Artillery pieces\positions. This was targetted at individuals direct fire (not firing at the horses, not firing at ‘the battery’).

    4. US Marines during WWI used aimed rifle fire to take out machine guns….bloody work to be sure.

  4. John Walton Avatar

    Dear Fred,

    I strongly urge you to acquaint yourself with the artillery tactics of Nathan Bedford Forrest. This is the easiest, richest source for hard examples of guns being pushed up to 200 yards or less of the enemy. Putting six pounders on the firing line was almost a Forrest standard.

    Past that, there are many other examples of this tactic being used successfully, although only in Forrest’s commands did it ever become a normal tactic. The “artillery charge” was like so much else in the war – done under the right circumstances, it worked well. Done under the wrong circumstances, it was a cock-up and the guns were lost. I so often see extreme views on the subject, from people who basically ignore all the evidence on one side or the other.

    As Frederick the Great emphasized, tactics out of context are a fool’s business.

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