"Green Ones and Black Ones"
The Most Common Field Pieces of the Civil War
By James Morgan
At the beginning of 1861, the American field artillery consisted almost exclusively of pre-Mexican War smoothbores not significantly different from the pieces with which we fought the Revolution. By 1865 however, advances in metallurgy combined with new manufacturing techniques, better powder, and more dependable fuses to bring muzzle-loading artillery to its highest possible state of effectiveness.
This article will attempt to provide reenactors with some useful background information about the artillery pieces, old and new, which were most commonly used during the war. In that sense, it is a follow-up to the author's earlier contribution, "Mounted But Not Mounted: The Confusing Terminology of Artillery," which appeared in the March 1990 Camp Chase Gazette.
First however, some definitions. Early field artillery was identified by the term "pounder" (usually abbreviated "pdr"), which referred to the weight of the solid shot fired by a particular size gun. Thus a 12-pdr gun was called that because it fired a solid round shot weighing 12 pounds. With the development of howitzers in the 17th century, the term became obsolete, though it continued to be used right up through the Civil War.
"Howitzers," technically speaking, are not "guns." They are shorter, lighter pieces than guns of the same bore diameter, have chambered bores, use smaller charges, fire explosive shells instead of solid shot, and were meant, essentially, to lob their projectiles at low velocity into a target.
Guns are longer and heavier. They use larger charges and have untapered (unchambered) bores of a consistent diameter all the way to the breech. They were originally intended for relatively long range pounding or battering (thus the word, "battery") of targets with projectiles fired at high velocity.
These distinctions had blurred considerably by the time of the Civil War, but the terms continued in use. Howitzers, in any case, had come to be manufactured in the same standard bore sizes as guns, so the "pounder" designation of a particular gun was automatically applied to the howitzer of the same bore size.
A Model 1841 12-pdr gun, for example, had a 4.62 inch bore. The Model 1841 howitzers of the same bore size were therefore called "12pdrs" even though their hollow shells usually weighed less (though, depending on how they were packed, could weigh more) than 12 pounds. In short, by the time of the war, "pounder" actually referred to bore size rather than to projectile weight.
Not long ago, the author heard someone say that, based on what we see on the battlefields, there must have been only two types of cannon used during the war - "green ones and black ones." Of course he was joking but that, in fact, is not a bad starting point for a discussion of Civil War field artillery.
The "green ones" obviously are the bronze (sometimes called "brass") pieces, usually smoothbores, which have weathered to a pale greenish hue. Their designs generally pre-date the war by from five to 20 years. The "black ones," for the most part, are the iron rifles which were being developed just as the war began.
When the fighting actually started, the armament of the field artillery consisted only of "green ones." There were six altogether, though one, the little 12-pdr "mountain howitzer," saw such limited use during the conflict that it will not be considered here.
The five main pieces were the Model 1841 6-pdr and 12-pdr guns, the Model 1841 12-pdr and 24-pdr howitzers, and the Model 1857 Light 12-pdr Gun-Howitzer, or "Napoleon."
Larger pieces such as the 24-pdr gun and 32-pdr howitzer could also be used in the field, but only with difficulty due to their size and weight. Technically, these are classed as "siege" pieces, rather than ''field'' pieces.
Note again that these smoothbores were all there was. There were no rifled field pieces in the U.S. service before 1861.
Let us take them one at a time.
Model 1841 6-pdr Gun
The 6-pdr was a popgun. Used extensively during the Mexican War, it was made obsolete by the increased range of the available infantry weapons as much as by the coming of better artillery.
Though fairly mobile at 900 pounds, it's softball-sized shot was entirely too small to do much damage and it could easily be outranged, especially once rifled guns came into play. Most sources give it a range of about 1500 yards, but this is being generous. No doubt the gun could throw a shot that far but, at that distance, it's small round projectile could hardly be accurate and would be easy for troops to avoid.
These guns existed in large numbers at the outbreak of hostilities, however, and were pressed into service by both sides. Both sides also got rid of them as quickly as possible.
Model 1841 12-pdr Gun
Packing a solid punch and having a respectable 1600-1700 yard effective range, the 12-pdr was a much better weapon than its little brother. But its weight (1800 lbs) was a liability, just about at the top limit for the requirements of mobility in the field.
Model 1841 12-pdr Howitzer
This was by far the most effective field piece of the war for use at any range under 400 yards. Its large shells gave it firepower, while its light weight (less than 800 lbs) made it highly mobile and easy to position, even by hand.
Because of its mobility, the piece was readily adaptable for close infantry support. Nine of them were supposed to have followed the infantry in Pickett's Charge so as to protect its flanks and render whatever service they could in front. However some confusion of orders and effective Federal artillery fire during the pre-charge cannonade resulted in the nine pieces being unavailable. It is interesting to speculate what difference they might have made had they accompanied Pickett's troops. The 12-pdr howitzer's great weakness was its effective range, which is not much over 1,000 yards, well under that of even the 6-pdr gun. It made the piece an easy target for other artillery.
Model 1841 24-pdr Howitzer
When positioned in field fortifications, these were extremely useful pieces of ordnance because of their powerful 5.82 inch shells. Their 1400 pound weight made them a bit unwieldy in the field, and their 1300-1400 yard effective range put them at a disadvantage to other pieces. Nevertheless, infantrymen could not have relished the idea of charging a battery of 24-pdr howitzers.
E. Porter Alexander, General Longstreet's de facto Chief of Artillery for much of the war, called them "my favorite guns." (Alexander, p. 182) On occasion, he even had them mounted on skids and used as mortars.
Model 1857 Light12-pdr Gun Howitzer
Undoubtedly the best known field piece of the war, the "Napoleon" was a kind of hybrid in that it could do everything the other four smoothbores could do. It had more firepower than the 6-pdr gun, weighed 600 pounds less than the old 12-pdr gun, was every bit as sturdy as the bigger 24-pdr howitzer, and could fire shot or shell, with effect, to 1700 yards.
In another sense however, it was not a hybrid at all as it possessed none of the technical features of a howitzer - notably, it lacked a chambered bore - and was called a howitzer only because it could fire shell.
The basic Napoleon came from the French Emperor Louis Napoleon, who in the early 1850's ordered his Ordnance Department to design something with which he could standardize his field artillery. Not only would such standardization save money, but it would greatly simplify the manufacture, supply, and distribution of the guns themselves, not to mention their carriages, implements, and ammunition.
Unlike many hybrids, the Napoleon was a resounding success. It greatly impressed the three-man American military commission which toured Europe in 1855-56 (one of whose members was George McClellan). On their return, they brought back the specifications of the new French gun, and a recommendation that it be seriously considered for the American service. About a year later, with minor modifications, it was formally adopted.
Strangely, (or perhaps not so strangely, given the Congress's well-known lack of interest in the military during peacetime), only five Napoleons were purchased for the army between 1857 and the outbreak of the war. One of these was used for proofing. The other four were given to Battery M, 2nd U.S. Artillery at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, in late 1857.
It was no coincidence that the new guns went to that particular unit. Battery M's commander was Capt. Henry Hunt, acknowledged even then as one of America's premier artillerists. Hunt later brought the guns to First Manassas where they were the only Napoleons on the field and where, without infantry support, they broke up a Confederate flank attack on the beaten Union army as it retreated toward Centerville late in the day. Hunt actually was credited by General Winfield Scott with saving the Union army that day. He went on to become the Army of the Potomac's Chief of Artillery. The Federal government quickly began ordering more Napoleons.
General McClellan, as part of his reorganization of the army, ordered that all four Model 1841's be replaced with Model 1857's, which is precisely what had been intended when the Napoleon was first adopted. This process was begun immediately, though logistics problems and the emphasis on the war in the East resulted in the western Federal armies using the old models much longer than did the Army of the Potomac.
The Confederates, without the Union's industrial capacity, were required to keep the older guns and howitzers in service throughout the war. In December of 1862, General Lee suggested that all 6-pdrs be melted down and recast into Napoleons. Though a few were recast right away, it was not until after Chancellorsville that the Army of Northern Virginia managed to replace even these smallest of the 1841's with Confederate-made or captured pieces.
Just under 1200 Napoleons were produced for the Union army during the war. The Confederates produced some 500-600 of their own, though these came in several styles. The early Southern pieces closely resembled the Model 1857, while later designs eliminated the distinctive muzzle swell and otherwise changed the appearance of the piece.
Shortages of bronze ultimately required Richmond to manufacture Napoleons of cast iron. These were strengthened with breech reinforcing bands which made them look rather like fat Parrott rifles. For convenience however, all of these Confederate-made models are simply called "Napoleons."
The reader should note that all Napoleons were 12-pdrs. Occasionally, someone will write or speak of "6-pdr Napoleons," but this is a misnomer, as there was no such thing.
Before moving on to a discussion of "the black ones," it might be useful to note something of the use of particular metals for particular field pieces.
The early United States used bronze (an alloy of approximately 90% copper and 10% tin) for most of its field artillery. This was the traditional material and was used by the big European powers. Around the turn of the 19th century, the factors of cost and supply combined to bring about a switch to iron.
Bronze was 5-6 times more expensive than iron on a per-piece basis. Moreover, while there were large deposits of iron ore in the United States, there was little available copper or tin and foreign sources of supply would most likely be cut off during a war. Thus, the "Iron Age" of American artillery began in 1801.
For a variety of reasons mostly involving the domestic politics of the day, the Iron Age ended with a return to bronze around 1835. Bronze is a better material for smoothbore artillery anyway. It is not brittle like cast iron and though it will wear and even stretch, it is much less subject to bursting.
With the return to bronze came design experiments which resulted in the Models of 1841. These, as we have seen, remained the standards until the coming of the war demanded their replacement.
The Napoleon was a significant step forward which took the smoothbore concept about as far as it could go. But the real advances in field artillery during the Civil War came with the development of iron rifles with their great ranges and astounding accuracy.
Early in the war, it was thought that the need for rifled guns could be met quickly and easily by rifling existing smoothbores. As a rifle's elongated solid shot (called a "bolt") weighed about twice as much as a smoothbore's round shot of the same diameter, doing this seemed to offer the promise of magically turning 6-pdr smoothbores into 12-pdr rifles.
Charles T. James - inventor, militia general, and former U.S. Senator from Rhode Island - made one of the first attempts at rifling bronze guns and created the short-lived "James Rifles." Some of these were merely re-bored 6-pdrs. Others were manufactured from scratch, with one style resembling the old guns and another looking very much like the sleek 3-inch Ordnance Rifles.
Unfortunately, none of them worked very well as friction from the projectiles quickly wore down the soft bronze, in effect turning the guns back into smoothbores. The experiment of rifled bronze field pieces was abandoned early.
Curiously though, the 2nd Connecticut Battery was still armed with four James Rifles and two old 12-pdr howitzers as late as Gettysburg. It was the only battery in the Army of the Potomac not then equipped with Napoleons or with one of the iron rifles.
Two of the Ordnance-pattern James Rifles now mark the position of the 2nd Connecticut at Gettysburg (Hancock Avenue, just south of the large Pennsylvania monument).
The two most important "black ones" were the Parrott Rifle and the Ordnance (often misspelled "ordinance") Rifle. Other types were tried, but none were produced in as large quantities or saw as extensive use as these two.
Model 1861 2.9-inch and Model 1863 3-inch Parrott Rifles
Captain Robert P. Parrott resigned from the army in 1836 to take over as superintendent of the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, New York. He had long been interested in the problems of cast iron artillery and tried various experiments to overcome those problems. Apparently concluding that it was not possible to improve the metal itself, Parrott decided to create a stronger piece by reinforcing the cast iron with a band of wrought iron shrunk around the breech, the point of greatest pressure during firing. This was critical because rifles, with their tight-fitting projectiles, generated much greater internal pressures than did smoothbores.
The idea was not new, nor did Parrott claim it as his own. But he did devise a better method of manufacturing banded guns.
Typically guns to be banded were held in place while the band was heated, fitted, then allowed to cool (ie, shrink) onto the breech. The problem was that gravity acted on the cooling metal to pull it downward so that the fit around the breech was uneven.
Parrott's innovation was to slowly rotate the gun tube throughout the fitting and cooling so that the metal would retain a consistent density and cool evenly. In his larger guns, he also used the Rodman method of piping water into the bore to help ensure even cooling. The result was guns which were much stronger at the breech than normal cast iron guns. He hoped this would prevent bursting, a long-recognized problem even with the lower pressure cast iron smoothbores.
Parrott's first model was a 2.9-inch 10-pdr developed in 1859-60, but finally known as the Model 1861. It is easily distinguished from his Model 1863 by the muzzle swell which was eliminated on the later piece. Parenthetically, though Confederate-made Parrotts do have the muzzle swell, they may be readily distinguished from the Federal-made 1861's by looking at the forward edge of the breech reinforce. On Federal guns, the edge is vertical (perpendicular to the bore), while on the Southern 10-pdrs, it is bevelled.
One of the first Parrotts was sold to the Commonwealth of Virginia in the summer of 1860. In light of the worsening political situation in the country, Virginia had inventoried its state arsenals and decided to upgrade from the approximately four dozen 6-pdrs which were all it then had in its possession.
Francis H. Smith, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute and an old army friend of Robert Parrott's, visited Cold Spring, watched tests of the new 10-pdr and ordered one for further testing back home.
When it arrived at VMI, the gun was turned over to the school's instructor of artillery, Professor Thomas J. Jackson, not yet known as "Stonewall." Jackson, a former artillery officer, conducted a series of firing tests and pronounced himself thoroughly satisfied with the gun. Its accuracy at ranges well over a mile made it an impressive piece. Another dozen immediately were purchased from the West Point Foundry. Using the specifications and models obtained from Cold Spring, Tredegar and other southern foundries manufactured the piece during the war. Ironically, one of those Virginia Parrotts was the first of its type to be fired in anger, as it was used against United States troops at Big Bethel on June 10, 1861. Only three weeks earlier, the Federal army had taken delivery of its first Parrotts.
For all of Robert Parrott's improvements and Stonewall Jackson's enthusiasm, the Parrott rifles proved a major disappointment. They were still cast iron pieces and they still burst unexpectedly and often. All Parrott had really managed to do was move the bursting point forward. Strengthened at the breech, Parrotts became infamous for bursting at the center near the trunnions.
The real difficulty was the gun's unpredictability. Some Parrotts served long and dependably, firing several thousand rounds with no problem. But cast iron cannon tended not to show wear and tear. The metal simply gave way whenever it gave way, after few rounds or many, so there always was a high level of uncertainty in connection with the use of cast iron guns.
Private Augustus Buell of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery (a Napoleon battery) later noted, perhaps with some sarcasm, that "so long as the Parrott gun held together it was as good as any muzzleloading rifle." (Buell, p. 22)
Unfortunately for the crews who worked them, Parrotts too often failed to hold together and became extremely unpopular with artillerymen. Buell himself best expressed the common view when he later said, "If anything could justify desertion by a cannoneer, it would be an assignment to a Parrott battery." (Buell, p. 147)
Another less dangerous problem with the 1861s was its 2.9-inch bore. The Ordnance rifle was a 3-incher and the two guns could fire some of the same ammunition. More than once, 3-inch ammunition was issued to crews of 2.9-inch guns, causing delays and ammunition jams.
The Parrott Model 1863 was a 3-inch piece created specifically to alleviate this problem. Additionally, some 2.9-inch guns were re-bored to 3 inches. But it was too late. Though the 3-inch Parrotts continued to be purchased by the Federal government through 1865, the army began phasing them out in favor of Ordnance Rifles mid-way through the war. At the beginning of the Wilderness campaign in May 1864, only five of the 49 batteries in the Army of the Potomac (excluding the IX Corps which was not technically under General Meade's command) were Parrott batteries, the others being armed either with Napoleons or Ordnance Rifles.
Even with its weaknesses, the 2.9-inch Parrott was an important artillery piece. In 1861 it was the first workable rifled gun available to either side. For the Union, it could be produced quickly, inexpensively, and in large numbers.
Altogether some 500-600 Model 1861 and 1863 10-pdr Parrotts were produced for the Union army. Perhaps another 150 came from Confederate factories. The end of the war, however, brought the end of the Parrott, for the gun was never used agaln.
Model 1861 3-inch Ordnance Rifle
Unquestionably the best rifled gun of its day was the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle. Originally called "Griffin Guns," after their designer, John Griffen, the Ordnance Rifles were often mistakenly called "Rodman Guns" because of their superficial resemblance to the large Rodman coastal defense smoothbores. In fact, however, there was no connection.
Wrought iron was expensive and had been difficult to work with, which explains why it wasn't successfully developed earlier for artillery. But in 1854, Griffen modified a procedure then being used in the production of wrought iron for lighthouse construction. (For a detailed explanation of this complex procedure, which involved welding together bundles of wrought iron rods then passing the whole through a rolling mill, see Hazlett, pp.120-29.)
The new technique resulted in an enormously strong gun tube. When first tested in 1856, the Griffen Gun amazed the representatives of the Ordnance Department. Griffen himself challenged them to burst the piece. After more than 500 rounds with increasing charges and loads, they finally succeeded only by firing it with a charge of seven pounds of powder and a load of 13 shot which completely filled up the bore! (Hazlett, p. 121)
The bursting problem was solved. What plagued the Parrott was virtually nonexistent in the wrought iron gun. Only one Ordnance Rifle is known to have burst during the entire Civil War (a gun in a Pennsylvania battery burst at the muzzle - the safest place for a gun to burst if it must do so) while firing double canister during the Battle of the Wilderness.
The "3-inch wrought iron rifle" had a slightly greater effective range than the Parrott and compared favorably even with the British Whitworth for accuracy. "The Yankee three-inch rifle was a dead shot at any distance under a mile," said one admiring Confederate gunner (Hazlett, p. 120) and it was quite effective at a mile and a half.
On top of all of this, the gun was a hundred pounds lighter than the Parrott (800 lbs to the Parrott's 900) which made it highly mobile. For just this reason, it was the preferred weapon of the Horse Artillery (that is, those batteries working with cavalry and therefore requiring maximum mobility).
The Ordnance Rifle, not to put too fine a point on it, was a nearly perfect field piece. The absolute epitome of muzzle-loading artillery, it remained the primary rifled field gun in the U. S. inventory well into the 1880's when it finally gave way to steel breechloaders. About a thousand of these remarkable guns were produced for the Union army. Lacking the technology, the Confederates did not produce them.
In summary, then, there were but seven pieces of artillery which did the bulk of the cannoneer's work during the Civil War. These were the Model 1841 6-pdr and 12-pdr guns, the Model 1841 12-pdr and 24-pdr howitzers, the Model 1857 Light 12pdr gun-howitzer, the Model 1861/ 1863 Parrott (which, for our purposes, can be considered as a single type), and the Model 1861 Ordnance Rifle.
The last two of these, in particular, demonstrate the tremendous advancement in artillery made during the four years of the war. The leap from smoothbores to rifles was the first necessary step in the development of modern artillery.
Indeed, the gap between even the best of the smoothbores and the least effective of the rifles serves to illustrate the old truism that our great l9th century bloodletting was, at one and the same time, the last 18th century war and the first 20th century war.
Partial bibliography and suggestions for additional reading:
John Gibbon, "The Artillerist's Manual", D. Van Nostrand, 1860 (reprinted by Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn., 1970).
William E. Birkhimer,"Historical Sketch of the Organization, Administration, Materiel, and Tactics of the Artillery, United States Army", Thomas McGill & Co., Washington, DC, 1884.
Augustus Buell, "The Cannoneer", The National Tribune, Washington, DC, 1890.
Fairfax Downey, "The Guns At Gettysburg", David McKay & Co., NY, 1958.
L. Van Loan Naisawald, "Grape and Canister: The Story of the Field Artillery of the Army of the Potomac", Zenger Publishing Co., Washington, DC, 1960.
James C. Hazlett (et. al.), "Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War", University of Delaware Press, 1983.
Gary Gallagher, Ed., "E. Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy", University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
About the Author:
Jim Morgan has been involved in Civil War living history since 1980 when he spent on summer as a seasonal ranger with the National Park Service at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola, Fla. His primary interests are artillery and Civil War music. He has reenacted both Union and Confederate artillery and infantry over the years.
Jim has written several articles for the reenactor's publication, "Camp chase Gazette," and has produced two tapes of Civil War music titled "Just Before the Battle" and "60's Music." He holds master's degrees in Political Science and Library Science and currently works in Washington, DC, as Acquisitions Librarian at the U.S. Information Agency. He lives in Lovettsville, Va, and serves on the board of the Loudoun County Civil War Round Table.
This article originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Camp Chase Gazette ( Vol. XXIII, No. 7 ) and is published here with the permission of the author.
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