Report of Maj. George W. Randolph, commanding Howitzer Battalion.
Engagement at Big Bethel, or Bethel Church, Va.
O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME 2 [S# 2] -- CHAPTER IX.
YORKTOWN, June 12, 1861.
Col. JOHN B. MAGRUDER,
Commanding Division at Yorktown.
COLONEL: I have the honor to report that in the action of the 10th instant the Howitzer Battalion, under my command, fired eighteen solid shot and eighty shells, spherical case and canister, and was injured in the following particulars: A lieutenant and two privates were wounded, one severely and two slightly; five horses and three mules were killed or disabled; the Parrott gun (iron rifled) had its linstock splintered, and a musket ball passed through the felloe of the left wheel; a musket ball pierced the corner plate and a partition of the limber chest of one of the howitzers and lodged against a shell; two poles of caissons, one set of swinglebars, one large pointing ring, a chain for a rammer, and several priming wires were broken, and one of the howitzers was spiked by the breaking of a priming wire in its vent. 1 have already made a requisition for ammunition enough to fill all the chests of the battalion, and will submit, as soon as practicable, requisitions for whatever else may be required.
As the position of the pieces was under your own observation, it is only necessary to state that the Parrott gun and one howitzer were posted in the battery immediately on the right of the road leading to Hampton; that a howitzer was placed in the battery erected on the right beyond the ravine, through which a passway was made for the purpose of withdrawing the piece if necessary; a howitzer was posted near the bridge; the rifled howitzer was placed on the left of the road behind the right of a redoubt erected by the North Carolina regiment, and a howitzer was posted in the rear of the road leading from the Half-way House, a howitzer having been previously sent to the Halfway House under the command of Lieutenant Moseley.
Early in the action the howitzer in the battery on the right, having been spiked by the breaking of the priming wire, was withdrawn from its position, and the infantry supporting it fell back upon the church; but it was subsequently replaced by the howitzer of Lieutenant Moseley, which arrived at a later period of the action.
The ford on the left being threatened, the howitzer at the bridge was withdrawn and sent to that point, and the rifled howitzer was withdrawn from the left of the road and sent to assist in the protection of the rear. The same disposition was subsequently made of the howitzer at the main battery, situated immediately on the right of the road.
The enemy came in sight on the road leading from Hampton a few minutes before 9 o'clock a.m., and their advance guard halted at a house on the roadside about six hundred yards in front of our main battery. Fire, however, was not opened upon them for ten or fifteen minutes, when from the number of bayonets visible in the road we judged that a heavy column was within range. The action then commenced by a shot from the Parrott gun, aimed by myself, which struck the center of the toad a short distance in front of their column, and probably did good execution in its ricochet. At no time could we see the bodies of the men in the column, and our fire was directed by their bayonets, their position being obscured by the shade of the woods on their right and two small houses on their left, and somewhat in advance of them. Our fire was immediately returned by a battery near the head of their column, but concealed by the woods and the houses so effectually, that we only ascertained its position by the flash of the pieces. The fire was maintained on our side for some time by the five pieces posted in front of our position; but, as already stated, one of them being spiked and another withdrawn to protect the ford early in the action, the fire was continued with three pieces, and at no time did we afterwards have more than three pieces playing upon the enemy. The fire on our part was deliberate, and was suspended whenever masses of the enemy were not within range, and the execution was good, as I afterward ascertained by a personal inspection of the principal position of the enemy. The cannonade lasted with intervals of suspension from a few minutes before 9 o'clock a.m. until 1½ o'clock p.m., and the fact that during this time but ninety-eight shot were fired by us tends to show that the firing was not too rapid. The earthworks thrown up by the battalion were struck several times by the cannon-shot of the enemy, but no injury was sustained.
They fired upon us with shot, shell, spherical case, canister, and grape from 6 and 12-pounders, at a distance of about six hundred yards, but the only injury received from their artillery was the loss of one mule.
We found in front of our main battery, in and near the yard of the small house already mentioned, five killed and one mortally wounded by the fire of our artillery. We heard of two others killed at Cramdall's, about a mile from us, and have reason to believe there were many others. The injury done to our artillery, was from the fire of musketry on our left flank, the ground on that side between us and the enemy sinking down so as to expose us over the top of the breastwork erected by the North Carolina regiment.
After some intermission of the assault in front, a heavy column, apparently a re-enforcement or reserve, made its appearance on the Hampton road and pressed forward towards the bridge, carrying the U.S. flag near the head of the column. As the road had been clear for some time, and our flanks and rear had been threatened, the howitzer in the main battery had been sent to the rear, and our fire did not at first check them, I hurried a howitzer forward from the rear, loaded it with canister, and prepared to sweep the approach to the bridge, but the fire of the Parrott gun again drove them back. The howitzer brought from the Half-way House by Lieutenant Moseley arriving most opportunely, I carried it to the battery on the right to replace the disabled piece. On getting there I learned from the infantry that a small house in front was occupied by sharpshooters, and saw the body of a Carolinian lying thirty yards in front of the battery, who had been killed in a most gallant attempt to burn the house.
I opened upon the house with shell for the purpose of burning it, and the battery of the enemy in the Hampton road, being on the line with it, and supposing probably that the fire was at them, immediately returned it with solid shot. This disclosed their position and enabled me to fire at the house and at their battery at the same time. After an exchange of five or six shots a shell entered a window of the house, increased the fire already kindled until it soon broke out into a light blaze, and, as I have reason to believe, disabled one of the enemy's pieces. This was the last shot fired. They soon afterwards retreated, and we saw no more of them.
The action disclosed some serious defects in our ammunition and equipment, for which I earnestly recommend an immediate remedy. The shell of the Parrott gun have a fixed wooden fuse which cannot be extricated, the shortest being cut for four seconds. The consequence was that the shells burst far in the rear of the enemy and served merely as solid shot. Had they been plugged and uncut fuses furnished, I think that our fire would have been much more effective. The power and precision of the piece, demonstrated by the thirty rounds fired from it, render it very desirable that all of its advantages should be made available. I therefore respectfully suggest that the shell be hereafter furnished plugged and the fuses left uncut.
It is reported to me that the Borman fuses used by one of the howitzers were defective, the shells cut for five seconds exploding as soon as those cut for two.
The caissons of the Navy howitzers were made by placing ammunition chests upon the running gear of common wagons, and the play of the front axles is so limited that the caisson cannot be turned in the ordinary roads of this part of the country, and wherever the road is ditched or the woods impassable it cannot be reversed. There is also great danger of breaking the poles in turning the caissons quickly, as was shown in the action of the 10th instant. I am aware that the expedient of using wagon bodies was resorted to in order to save time, but as it might lead to great disaster, I recommend that their places be supplied as speedily as possible with those made in the usual way.
The small size of the limber of the howitzers (Navy) renders it impossible to mount the men, and the pieces cannot move faster than the cannoneers can walk. In a recent skirmish with the enemy, in which we pursued them rapidly, we could only carry two men, and having got far ahead of the others, we had to unlimber and fire with only two cannoneers at the piece. The piece having only two horses, and the carriage being very light, it is hazardous to mount any person on the limber. I therefore recommend that four horses be furnished to each Navy howitzer, one for the chief and the other three for the men usually mounted on the limber.
We have succeeded since the action in unspiking the howitzer disabled by the breaking of the priming wire, but from the inferior metal used in making our priming wires we shall have to lay them aside altogether, and I must request that better ones be furnished. At present I can say nothing more of the conduct of the officers and men of the battalion than to express the high gratification afforded me by their courage, coolness, and precision, and to ask permission at a future time to call your attention to individual instances of gallantry and good conduct. I have requested the commandants of companies to furnish me with the names of such non-commissioned officers and privates as they think especially worthy of notice.
I am happy at having an opportunity to render my acknowledgments to Colonel Hill, the commandant of the North Carolina regiment, for the useful suggestions which his experience as an artillery officer enabled him to make to me during the action, and to bear testimony to the gallantry and discipline of that portion of his command with which I was associated. The untiring industry of his regiment in intrenching our position enabled us to defeat the enemy with a nominal loss on our side.
I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,
GEORGE W. RANDOLPH,
Major, Commanding Howitzer Battalion.
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