Confederate Whitworth Rifled Cannon at Gettysburg NMP

James N.

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#1
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Most visitors today to Gettysburg National Military Park likely have no idea that located just a short distance behind and to the left of the Eternal Peace Light on Oak Hill is a group of very rare and unusual rifled breech-loading cannon, used here in the battle by the Confederates. These are imported British Whitworths, capable of firing an elongated hexagonal shell called a bolt upwards of three or four miles! Below, the Peace Light monument as seen from the rear with a Whitworth in the foreground.

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Whitworth guns as described in Wikipedia:

Whitworth

The Whitworth, designed by Joseph Whitworth and manufactured in England, was a rare gun during the war, but was an interesting precursor to modern artillery in that it was loaded from the breech and had exceptional accuracy over great distance. An engineering magazine wrote in 1864 that, "At 1600 yards [1500 m] the Whitworth gun fired 10 shots with a lateral deviation of only 5 inches." This degree of accuracy made it effective in counter-battery fire, used almost as the equivalent of a sharpshooter's rifle, and also for firing over bodies of water. It was not popular as an anti-infantry weapon. It had a caliber of 2.75 inches (70 mm). The bore was hexagonal in cross-section, and the projectile was a long bolt that twisted to conform to the rifling. It is said that the bolts made a very distinctive eerie sound when fired, which could be distinguished from other projectiles.

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Whitworths are associated with Confederate usage in the Civil War, although there was only one battery equipped with them here at Gettysburg. Attached to the Second Corps of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell the battery was placed here on Oak Hill with other guns of Carter's Battalion where its fire could reach most parts of the battlefield. Although these guns might seem like a good idea, they were actually unsuited to most actions of the war due to limitations of visibility caused by intervening buildings, terrain, etc. The Union also deployed a battery of Whitworths on the Virginia Peninsula but due to problems like those mentioned they were withdrawn from field service and relegated to the defenses of Washington. These long-range guns were really more suitable to use at sea where unlimited visibility was the norm.

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Below a close-up of the breech mechanism; the breech piece was unscrewed to insert the bolt and powder for each shot. Supposedly a shot from one of these killed an orderly at Meade's headquarters during the bombardment preceding Pickett's Charge but that could easily be a myth.

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Above and below, two well-known wartime views showing a (captured?) Whitworth; in the above photo the breech has been opened.

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Tom Elmore

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#4
Several Union officers and soldiers from different commands were convinced that the opening shot of the grand cannonade on July 3 came from a Whitworth on Oak Hill. The only explanation I can figure is that the faster velocity of the solid bolt enabled it to reach the Union lines ahead of the many other incoming artillery rounds fired in the initial volley. These two guns (one of which was mostly out of action) caused more concern among the Federals than any other cannon in the Confederate inventory, and it was mostly psychological.

Whitworth strikes as recorded by participants; paraphrased (I love Jesse Bowman Young's description):

-(Battle of Gettysburg, Christian Commission, by Cross) Pieces found within a hundred yards of Meade's Headquarters.

-(H.S. Stevens, Souvenir of Excursion to Battlefields, 14th Connecticut) Several bolts thrown into line of the regiment.

-(Autobiography, George Perry Metcalf, D/136th New York) 30 seconds apart, came screeching down for several hours on July 3, hit ground, tore out bushels of earth and then bounded through the fields. It frightened the whole regiment every time it came.

-(16th Maine, by Major Small) At 1 p.m. (July 3) a Whitworth shell from a wheatfield on Oak Hill crashed into the Union lines.

-(History of the Philadelphia Brigade, p. 187) About 1 o'clock (July 3) a single Whitworth gun was fired from the extreme left of Seminary ridge, a distance of three miles. The bolt just reached the right of the brigade.

-(Osborn, 11th Corps Artillery at Gettysburg) Whitworth gun opens the cannonade (July 3).

-(Jesse Bowman Young, The Battle of Gettysburg, Humphreys' division) This writer recalls the fiendish wailings of certain oblong, convoluted, heavy projectiles which came from a few Whitworth pieces on the Confederate side, which broke now and then into a horrible discord, sounding like predatory howls of demons in search of their prey.

-(History of the 97th Regiment New York Vols., by Isaac Hall) On the 4th [yes, the Fourth of July], the first shot of a Whitworth struck into the soft ground a little to the left of the front of the 97th - scattering the dirt in all directions. They all struck nearby; one hit to right of regiment in a pile of wood in front of the 90th Pennsylvania, wounding some with splinters. The regiment, jumping up, started back, but soon resumed its position amid shouts of laughter from the other regiments. Artillerymen in our rear announced the smoke from the Whitworth, and it seemed like a minute before the shot hit ... ceased firing after a few shots.
 

James N.

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Several Union officers and soldiers from different commands were convinced that the opening shot of the grand cannonade on July 3 came from a Whitworth on Oak Hill. The only explanation I can figure is that the faster velocity of the solid bolt enabled it to reach the Union lines ahead of the many other incoming artillery rounds fired in the opening volley. These two guns (one of which was mostly out of action) caused more concern among the Federals than any other cannon in the Confederate inventory, and it was mostly psychological...
I'd read that before too, but hesitated to post it as a fact; I just re-read George Stewart's 1959 Pickett's Charge and he attributed the signal to a gun along Alexander's line which makes more sense if Alexander was actually controlling the bombardment.
 

Tom Elmore

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Two signal guns, fired in quick succession, opened the cannonade. They (Napoleons) belonged to Captain Merritt B. "Buck" Miller's battery, in Major Benjamin F. Eshleman's battalion, Longstreet's corps (per Eshleman's official report). The battery was posted opposite the Klingle place, down the Emmitsburg road.
 
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#7
At one time, the Park Service had Whitworth Guns positioned on the Seminary Ridge line (where they were never located) and next to each one of them was a stack of Whitworth shells/bolts. At today's prices, each one of these stacks would have been worth about 20K. A later picture shows them with cages placed over what remained of these shells/bolts, so I have to wonder how many of the originals survived (it was reported that copies had been made from an original) and where are they now?
 

Bruce Vail

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There was a story I read years ago that US Grant had a captured Confederate Whitworth delivered to Washington D.C. to be displayed in front of the British Embassy. True? or folklore?
 

James N.

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At one time, the Park Service had Whitworth Guns positioned on the Seminary Ridge line (where they were never located) and next to each one of them was a stack of Whitworth shells/bolts. At today's prices, each one of these stacks would have been worth about 20K. A later picture shows them with cages placed over what remained of these shells/bolts, so I have to wonder how many of the originals survived (it was reported that copies had been made from an original) and where are they now?
Here's a photo showing the Whitworths and the stacks of their bolts on Seminary Ridge/West Confederate Avenue dating to around 1905 according to the caption, posted in the thread on Witness Trees at Gettysburg back in June, 2015 by member @goberg4

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#12
The Whitworth was evidently a rather fragile weapon, I have read several accounts of after them having been in action that they had to be returned to Richmond for repairs. The South also didn't have the capabilities for casting and machining the shells and bolts to the fine tolerances that the English did and this affected the accuracy of the piece. The design of the shells also limited the explosive power that they had and this affected their ability to do much damage when they exploded. The Whitworth's overall value in my opinion was more psychological than actual.
 
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James N.

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#17
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Here's a *BUMP* for this thread on the anniversary of the battle; Oak Hill is now the site of the 1938 75th Anniversary Peace Light Memorial with its Eternal Flame.

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During the battle several Confederate batteries were positioned here, represented by the ten-pounder Parrotts above and the Confederate-manufactured 12-pounder Napoleons below in addition to the Whitworths.

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#18
Pretty interesting. I don't know much about artillery, and knew almost nothing about Whitworths until you launched this thread.
 
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#19
The thing that I find interesting about the original period photo is that the gun was moved for the second photo. The difference I see is the chain is secured in the 2nd photo compared to hanging in the 1st, also the pole is hanging in the 2nd and secured in the 1st, and the breach is closed in the 2nd. The same USCT soldier in in both photos. I would like to know what the sign posted on the building reads.
 



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