Horse Artillery – Action Front!

Constitution and Deployment of a Union Horse Artillery Battery during the Civil War

artman.pngAlthough active in the early part of the Civil War as a four gun mounted battery, Company A 2nd U.S. Artillery didn’t achieve its full measure of recognition until after it was converted into a horse battery in 1861.

‘Field-artillery is divided into mounted and horse batteries of four or six guns,’ explained Lt. John Calef, one of the battery’s acting commanders during the Civil War,  in his memoirs, ‘the first serving with the infantry, the cannoneers walking, or riding on the ammunition chests, while the latter operate with the cavalry, the cannoneers being mounted on horses like the cavalry and riding in detachments behind their respective pieces. The popular appellation for this arm is flying artillery, from the speed of its evaluations. It combines the dash of the cavalry with the power of the artillery, and from the adventurous character of its service has ever been an attractive arm to the young artillery officer. There is no more inspiring military spectacle than a horse-battery in full uniform and in full swing. The service is anything but a sinecure and calls for ceaseless activity and constant readiness.’

On becoming a flying battery Company A, until then a four-gun unit, gained two extra field pieces. ‘Six pieces worked well during the Civil War’, wrote Capt. John Tidball, the Company’s commander during most of the war.  ‘This number [made] a good sized, compact and handy command for one person to handle, whether upon the march or in battle.’

Tidball, also, believed that ‘the service of field batteries differs essentially from any other branch of the service. While it has the ordinary duties of both infantry and cavalry it has, in addition, that which belongs to artillery as a speciality. A battery, to be efficient, must be complete in all its parts; in its personnel, its horses, its guns and carriages, its ammunition and its means of repair. It moves and operates as a whole, the strength of which is measured by its weakest part. An infantry or cavalry regiment may be greatly reduced in numbers, but that which remains is proportionally as effective as before. Not so with a battery, which, to be efficient, must be complete in its parts—in officers, men, horses and material.’
 
‘Pre-eminently it is the case with the batteries of horse artillery, the service of which, with cavalry, frequently requires them to be remote, for indefinite periods, from sources of supply.’

‘As the operation of the cavalry are mostly on the exterior of the army and out of view of the greater part of it, but an imperfect knowledge exists of the importance and arduousness of its service. So also of the batteries of horse artillery serving with the cavalry; batteries and section., constantly detached and frequently engaged with the enemy, with that uncertainty of position, force, and other circumstances which always attend reconnaissances and skirmishing, necessarily call to the fullest extent for the intelligence and all other resources of the officers commanding.’

As with all military units the chain of command in an artillery battery was of utmost importance. When Company A mounted as a horse battery its commander would, theoretically, have been in responsible for one hundred and sixty-two men and one hundred and forty-six horses. The battery consisted of six field pieces and limbers, six supporting caissons and their limbers, plus other support wagons which carried the battery’s forge, supplies, forage, tools, equipment, etc.

A captain’s duties included commanding the company in camp, on the march, and in battle.  He, also, had to maintain discipline, keep the unit in the highest state of efficiency possible, as well as compiling battle reports, etc.

‘The commanding officer of the battery,’ wrote Tidball, ‘is he who is chiefly responsible for the good or bad qualities of the battery. He must be endowed by nature with an aptitude for such command. Experience will do the rest for him.’

‘As a battery is an aggregation of many parts, each of which is of importance to the completeness of the whole, it calls for unremitting attention from its commander to maintain it at a proper degree of excellence. Like a chain, its strength is measured by its weakest link. In a command of such diversity of duties the captain should possess an inherent aptitude for recognising the fitness of men for the several duties and assign them accordingly. His control over men, while firm should be tempered by kindness and consideration and ever free from the taint of martinetism or crankiness. Soldiers readily respond to good treatment and thus ensure the foundations of a good battery. But there are various degrees of goodness. Excellence belongs only to a few.’

One test of a battery’s quality was to what length it endeavoured to protect and conserve its personnel, animals, and equipment. This in turn reflected the quality of its commander.

Ideally, a captain would have had four lieutenants to carry out his commands, unfortunately, Battery A seldom, if ever, had the luxury of a full compliment of officers during the Civil War. It was frequently reduced to a lieutenant acting as captain, and only one other junior officer—with sergeants taking the place of the absent commissioned officers.

Regulations held that three of the lieutenants would be Chiefs of Section,  the fourth the Chief of Caissons. The duties of the former would be to command two field pieces (a section) and their limbers; the latter the line of caissons. They would pass on the orders of the captain to the six Chiefs of Piece.

The Chief of Piece would normally be a non-commissioned officer with the rank of sergeant. He commanded a field piece, its limber and supporting caisson. The men he controlled constituted a Gun Detachment, which was normally composed of seven cannoneers, a Chief of Caisson and a Gunner. The Gunner and the Chief of Caisson were usually corporals.

In drill, or, in action, the cannoneer in position Number One used the sponge end of the sponge/rammer tool to soak out the tube after a round had been fired; he did this to extinguish any smouldering debris and to cool the barrel. After sponging he would use the rammer end of the tool to ram the next round down the bore, seating the charge in the breach of the gun. He would then step outside the wheel and wait in position for the gun to fire.

The man in position Number Two would receive the ammunition from Number Five (the cartridge in his right hand, the shell in his left), and place it in the bore of the gun muzzle. He would then step outside the wheel. It was, also, his duty to re-prime the piece in the event of a mis-fire.

Number Three thumbed the vent while Number One rammed home the round. He then, under orders from the Gunner, moved the piece to the left, or, to the right, to aim it. He then pricked the cartridge using a priming wire and then moved a little to the rear.

Number Four then primed the piece by using a friction primer, which he inserted into the vent, and then connected the primer to a lanyard. He then stood back ready to fire the gun. At the command “fire” he pulled the lanyard.

Number Five would carry the ammunition from the chest on the limber to the piece and hand it to the Number Two. He carried it in a leather haversack, to prevent any stray sparks from lighting the cartridge prematurely. Before giving the round to the Number Two he would show the fuse to the Gunner.

Number Six issued the ammunition. He had a fuze gauge and prepared the timing for each shell according to the time, and, or, distance ordered by the Gunner.

Number Seven assisted Number Six. During rapid firing they alternated delivery of the rounds to Number Two.

Number Eight was the Chief of Caisson. It was his duty to keep the limber full of ammunition, and to oversee replenishment of the caisson from the ammunition train when running low.

Apart from those men already mentioned there were the Drivers—who rode the horse that pulled field pieces and the spare limbers. Drivers also drove the wagons. Other ranks in the battery included blacksmiths, artificers and buglers.

Finally, a full strength battery should have had a number of spare men. These served as a reserve force, slotting into any vacant position. The vacancies could arise from the death, wounding, illness, or, exhaustion of the incumbent. The cannoneer in position Number One was the artilleryman most likely to be replaced by a spare man, as his position was the most dangerous and fatiguing.

Two examples of the use of a spare man are given by a Union artilleryman James Horrocks in his memoirs:

‘I tired of my work and asked a spare man to take my sponge while I rested. He cheerfully did so, and I sat on the ground to one side of the battery, and filled a pipe with a plug of tobacco…’

‘…We fired steadily… After a little while the first sergeant came to me and said, “You seem tired. Go to the rear with the caissons after ammunition.” I handed the heavy sponge to another cannoneer [a spare man] and walked to the caissons.’

All the cannoneers were trained to assume any of the positions. It was, also, common practise for drivers and other battery personnel to be able to fill in for killed or wounded cannoneers—as indeed happen in Battery A on several occasions.

Artillery drills—which had to be fitted in alongside a company’s other daily chores and duties—were extremely hard work, and almost universally disliked by the enlisted men:

‘We have had a hard day’s drill today. The bugle sounded about 6 o’clock this morning for the all men to rise. Five minutes after the names were called and then we had half an hour for breakfast. Then went to the stables, cleaned the horses and fed them. This and cleaning the stables took till 8 o’clock. We then harnessed the horses and got ready for going out to drill. The drill ground is about a mile from here. It was after 11 when we got back. We then had to unharness the horses and take them to water and then feed them. It was now 12 o’clock.’

‘At one we harnessed up again and drilled till after three. Then watered, cleaned and fed the horses again, which took till half past 4 o’clock. Then we had tea and then the bugle sounded for retreat, which means the work is over for the day. The names were called and [then it was] 6 o’clock.’

Apart from having to learn a diverse set of new skills and disciplines, the major problem faced by recruits was the timing and co-ordination of the various aspects of artillery drill. ‘We have no such thing as Common Time in the mounted or flying artillery,’ wrote one artillery private.

‘When the men and horses are all ready for action you hear such commands as these: Cannoneers prepare to mount! Mount!!! Drive on! Halt. Cannoneers prepare to dismount. In Battery!! Limber up, Action to the rear. Load by Detail. Load two, three. Four. Sponge two, three, four. Ram, two, three. Ready! Fire! Fire to the right etc, etc. All the time every man is going through a different kind of work. Horses gallop round with the limber at the commands, In Battery, Action Rear or Front or Right as the case may be.’

Flying Artillery drill could be exciting for both participants and spectators. However, even ‘show drills’ were never completely safe. ‘There is considerable danger in learning artillery drill,’ recalled a private, ‘no battery ever learned artillery drill without a few being killed or crippled.’ He further stated that, ‘There is more practise and science required in the artillery service than in any other.’

There were certainly many reported accidents involving both the horse-drawn manoeuvres (the ‘evolutions’) and the firing of the guns. One example of the former occurred in late December 1863, near Camp Barry, the artillery’s School of Instruction in Washington. William Farquhar Barry, a former Battery A commander, but, by then a General and Chief of Artillery of the Washington defences, was a spectator. James Horrocks, a participant, recorded the event:

‘A grand review took place by General Barry and some of the members of Congress of all the Artillery in our Camp and in Camp Marshal not far from here. We were reviewed on a large plain near Lincoln Hospital. All the batteries were arranged in rank and the General passed along the front with his Suite. After that each battery made a left wheel and walked—Order in Column—past the grandstand over which floated the Star Spangled Banner.’

‘When every battery had passed and were again in their old positions, a fat country looking gentleman—Representative of some place in Ohio—was heard to sat to the General, “Now General they have walked past very nicely—Just give us something lively—Make them run like the very devil.” So the General gave the order to Double Quick!!! And the earth fairly shock under the tramp of more than 1500 horses and the rolling of so many pieces. It was splendid and exciting. With whip and spur I was the lead driver of our battery, and when nearly to the grandstand passed a caisson of the 33rd New York which was literally smashed by a collision with one of the pieces. The cannoneers who were unhurt were standing near by and the drivers were holding their horses. When I saw the wreck, I could not help giving a fiendish yell, which must have given the horrors to the lady spectators round the General…’

‘After this we returned home. The causalities, not reckoned in destruction of property, were happily all included in the items of one broken leg and one horse killed.’ 

Firing the guns, even with blanks, carried the danger of serious injury or death. The Number One, as already stated, was the cannoneer most at risk. A number of recruits—and several experienced cannoneers—lost hands during practising the firing drill. Horrocks gives an example of this category of accident:

‘There was a grand review of the Artillery in…Camp [Barry]. There was blank cartridges shot and one poor fellow had his hand blown off.’

However, when properly trained and experienced, cannoneers in regular batteries carried out their duties in as safe and efficient manner as was possible. Serving the guns with, according to Colonel Charles Wainwright, ‘aplomb and sharp, almost, jerky, movements.’ The envious officer of volunteers added that his men lacked the ‘snap’ of regulars. Of course, the heat, excitement and eventual fatigue of ‘live’ firing during combat, increased the risks dramatically; and there were accidents even in regular batteries.’

Artillerymen as a whole saw themselves as a cut above those in the other arms of service. It was commonly believed, and with some justification, that the more intelligent soldier gravitated toward the artillery. According to the official manual of instruction the personnel of a battery should be ‘intelligent, active, muscular, well-developed, and not less than five feet seven inches high; a large proportion should be mechanics.’

One artilleryman of the period thought that the cannoneers of a gun detachment were an ‘aristocracy.’ He believed this was because they held the ‘recognised post of danger… a post whose duties when well executed were the most showy on parade, as well as the most effective in action, upon whose coolness and courage depended not only the safety of their own company but often that of regiments.’ The realization of this led to the belief that ‘they rightfully outranked the rest of the rank and file.’

 On the march a battery was usually deployed in a column of platoons.  When ordered “Into Battery” the guns were halted and deployed into line facing the direction they were to be fired. On the command “Action Front” the guns were brought into action. They were unlimbered and moved by hand into the firing position. The ammunition chests were opened, and the rounds primed for firing. An efficient battery was usually able to fire the first round twenty-five seconds after being given the “Action Front” order.

An unlimbered horse battery covered a large area. The Field Artillery Manual stated that, ‘in the [horse artillery] the interval between the pieces is 17 yards… On the field of battle the front would be more commonly extended; the pieces being posted so as to obtain the greatest advantage from the nature of the ground, and the caissons sheltered as much as possible’. The deployment was, usually, staggered, to prevent enfilade fire. When a battery had, or, were going to occupy, a position for some time, the unharnassed horses were taken to the rear to shelter them from enemy fire.

When the gun’s limber chest was empty a full chest was brought from the caissons. When the final chest was emptied the battery usually retired to the rear to draw fresh ammunition from the artillery ammunition train. It was hazardous to send the caissons back for more ammunition, as in the heat of battle they could easily lose contact with the rest of the battery.

When a battery was reloading at the train it would normally redistribute personnel and horses—to make up for any losses incurred during the action. In cases of severe loss they would reduce the number of guns manned. Again, there were instances of this during Battery A’s Civil War service.

SPECIAL NOTICE: Over the next few weeks I will be migrating all the existing information about Battery A from this site to one decated to the subject. See Battery A 2nd US Artillery link in Blogroll.

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  • Light Company A, 2nd U.S. Artillery

    If anyone has any information about the Civil War service of Light Company A, Second U.S. Artillery, please contact me via this site. I am particularly interested in individual members of the battery - officers, non-commissioned officers or privates. SPECIAL NOTICE: Over the next few weeks I will be migrating all the existing information about Battery A from this site to one decated to the subject. See Battery A 2nd US Artillery link in Blogroll below.
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