Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Artillery at Kennesaw

Kennesaw Mountain NBP has begun its spring/ summer
activities, including a series of lectures on aspects of the
battle and the time period. Last night (May 12th) was
"Artillery at Kennesaw Mountain" by Danny Brown . Mr.
Brown introduced us to the main types of artillery* and
projectiles** in use by both armies at the time, and then
discussed some particulars about artillery positions along
the Kennesaw line, who held them, and what took place.

A lot of this was fairly common knowledge (at least to us
buffs), but some important points stuck out:

1. The movies got it all wrong (again, this isn't news to
serious students of the war)! Those pluming geysers of
smoke and debris that shoot up in Gettysburg during
Pickett's Charge, as the Confederates come under Union
artillery fire? Well...they weren't that big. According to
Mr. Brown, the ratio of gunpowder to projectile in those
days was about 1 to 10. Granted, a pound of gunpowder
is still a pound of gunpowder, but it's not going to make
that big of an eruption when it goes off. A more accurate
portrayal would have been a greater number of smaller
"puffs". Apparently, those director types have been
watching too much All Quiet On The Western Front.

2. Speaking of shrapnel, turns out that this nasty little
projectile was in fact the type most commonly used, even
though everyone loves to talk about the deadliness of
cannister. Mr. Brown pointed out how difficult it was for
artillerists to fire cannister effectively, since it had a lower
margin of error for overshoots and incorrect fuse settings.
To drive home this point, he read from a dispatch from
the chief of artillery for the Confederate Army of
Tennessee, some time after the battle of Stones River
(December 31st, 1862 - January 2nd, 1863), in which
the army's depots were requested to cease sending
forward cannister, since the army's artillery crews had
arrived at a workaround: cutting the fuses short for
shrapnel rounds, so that they might burst upon
discharge, just like cannister.

3. Those guns shot off a lot of rounds! Mr. Brown proved
this by reading from a summary of all ammunition fired
by a single battery (group of four to six guns) in Sherman's
army, the 5th Battery, Indiana Light Artillery. Between
the campaign's beginning in May, 1864, and its ending in
early September, these Hoosiers shot off between 3- and
4,000 plus rounds of solid shot, shell, case, and cannister.
And this was but one four-gun battery out of more than
250 guns in Sherman's immense force! Without even
taking the Confederates' 150+ guns into account, there
are potentially tens of thousands of artillery shell relics
to be gleaned from the countryside between Dalton and
Jonesboro (so as long as you don't make the mistake of
trying to dig them up at Kennesaw, which is a Federal
no-no, punishable by fines and jail time). So if you're a
relic hunter in the area...there's no better time than the
present to get out and get to digging!

4. Considering how difficult it was to coordinate a
combined artillery barrage, most artillery exchanges
were probably closer to a Bruce Willis/Cybill Shepherd
fight on Moonlighting than the 19th-century
equivalent of "shock and awe". In other words, batteries
would probably have shot off enough rounds to get the
other side irritated; then they would respond in kind;
then the first side would start it all over again. Sustained
exchanges between two opposing sets of batteries were
probably the exception, rather than the rule. Still, for
men trying to sleep, catch their breath, or maintain
some grasp on sanity, these "annoyance" barrages
were extremely distressing.

5. Perhaps the greatest inaccuracy, in Mr. Brown's
opinion, about battle reenactments, is the small
number of horses. A typical four-gun battery would
have required between 60 and 70+ horses, to pull
the guns, the ammunition chests, the caissons, the
battery wagon and traveling forge, and to carry the
battery and section commanders, who had to stay
mounted in order to observe the effect of their fire.
That means literally thousands of horses for an army
the size of Johnston's (60,000+) to say nothing of
Sherman's (100,000+). How many horses do you
see at the usual reenactment?...That's what I thought.

6. Contrary to popular belief, artillery crewmen went
into battle on foot; they did not ride on the back of the
limber chests (except for short distances under dire
emergencies). And why not? Well, according to Mr.
Brown, who had the distinct pleasureof riding on
one once, the experience could be nerve-wracking
(rough paraphrase): "a springless vehicle, flying at
often breakneck speeds across rutted fields and
rutted roads, with only a single handle to cling to."

* By this point, they were the 12-lb. Napoleon gun/howitzer (the most common
type; you see it at most of the battlefield parks), the 3-inch ordnance rifle,
the 10-lb. Parrott rifle, and (occasionally) the James rifle.

** Solid shot, for extreme range; shell, for long range; case (shrapnel), for
medium- to close-range; and cannister, for extremely-close range.

No comments: