Civil War Photo Contest
Featured Book Reviewer
- Feb 23, 2013
- East Texas
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.
Whitworth guns as described in Wikipedia:
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.
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also deployed a battery of Whitworths on the Virginia Peninsula but due to problems like those mentioned they were withdrawn from field service and relegated to the defenses of Washington.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.
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.
Above and below, two well-known wartime views showing a (captured?) Whitworth; in the above photo the breech has been opened.