How to Fire a Civil War Cannon

James N.

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#1
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Part I - Cannoneers Post!
Image (5).jpg


We're all familiar with the roar of the guns and maybe even the smell of the gunpowder, but exactly how was it that Civil War artillery was manned and the guns were fired, according to regulation and the period drill employed by the armies of the North and South? Above is only the final act of what was an involved routine adopted for safety and efficiency. The following examples are taken from a period 1861 manual written by George Patten. (NOT that George Patton!) The gun in this case is a full-scale replica 12-pounder mountain howitzer, the smallest gun utilized during the war other than the Dahlgren boat howitizer, a naval gun generally found aboard ship, and a few experimental types never in general service. Regardless, the drill as demonstrated here is the same as used for larger field guns such as the six- and twelve-pounder guns, 12-pounder Napoleons, 3" ordnance, and 10-pounder Parrott rifles.

Image (6).jpg


For drill the gun crew forms up at attention at the trail of the limber; in this case, the howitzer is on what was known as a prairie carriage. This small gun was capable of being carried by mule-back through rough terrain, hence its designation mountain howitzer. However, the carriage and wheels were smaller and built differently; one mule carried the gun tube or barrel in a special saddle on its back, while another mule carried the disassembled trail and wheels, and still another carried ammunition chests. The prairie carriage was just a smaller version of the regular carriage for the larger field guns. The crew is assembled so that by merely performing a right face - march they can march to their positions on the gun.

Image (4).jpg


These first photos appear to scramble the members of the gun crew and should not be considered sequential; in point of fact ALL members of a battery were instructed thoroughly in every position on the crew and were able to "switch out" even while in combat in order to keep the guns firing. Normally there were nine members of each gun crew, not including drivers of teams, officers, etc. The positions were numbered except for the gunner who was often a corporal and effective commander of the gun crew. Number one rammed the charge and sponged out the barrel after each fire; number two was the loader; number three aimed the gun at the direction of the gunner; number four actually fired the gun using a friction primer; number five brought ammunition charges from the limber to number two; numbers six, seven, and eight stood behind the limber an prepared each round by setting and cutting fuses and stood ready in case it became necessary to relieve or replace one of the others.

Image (3).jpg


In the photo above, from left to right, are: No.s 6, 7, and 8 - in no particular order - standing behind the limber; No. 5 wearing the pass-box (or more correctly, a gunner's haversack) in which the charge was carried from limber to gun; the Gunner; No. 3; an officer section commander lieutenant not part of the crew looking through binoculars; No. 4 (partially hidden); No. 1 with rammer; and no. 2.

Next, Part II - Gun Drill

20yr75CL.jpg
 
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bdtex

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#2
Part I - Cannoneers Post!
View attachment 116915

We're all familiar with the roar of the guns and maybe even the smell of the gunpowder, but exactly how was it that Civil War artillery was manned and the guns were fired, according to regulation and the period drill employed by the armies of the North and South? Above is only the final act of what was an involved routine adopted for safety and efficiency. The following examples are taken from a period 1861 manual written by George Patten. (NOT that George Patton!) The gun in this case is a full-scale replica 12-pounder mountain howitzer, the smallest gun utilized during the war other than the Dahlgren boat howitizer, a naval gun generally found aboard ship, and a few experimental types never in general service. Regardless, the drill as demonstrated here is the same as used for larger field guns such as the 12-pounder Napoleons, 3" ordnance, and 10-pounder Parrott rifles.

View attachment 116916

For drill the gun crew forms up at attention at the trail of the limber; in this case, the howitzer is on what was known as a prairie carriage. This small gun was capable of being carried by mule-back through rough terrain, hence its designation mountain howitzer. However, the carriage and wheels were smaller and built differently; one mule carried the gun tube or barrel in a special saddle on its back, while another mule carried the disassembled trail and wheels, and still another carried ammunition chests. The prairie carriage was just a smaller version of the regular carriage for the larger field guns. The crew is assembled so that by merely performing a right face - march they can march to their positions on the gun.

View attachment 116914

These first photos appear to scramble the members of the gun crew and should not be considered sequential; in point of fact ALL members of a battery were instructed thoroughly in every position on the crew and were able to "switch out" even while in combat in order to keep the guns firing. Normally there were nine members of each gun crew, not including drivers of teams, officers, etc. The positions were numbered except for the gunner who was often a corporal and effective commander of the gun crew. Number one rammed the charge and sponged out the barrel after each fire; number two was the loader; number three aimed the gun at the direction of the gunner; number four actually fired the gun using a friction primer; number five brought ammunition charges from the limber to number two; numbers six, seven, and eight stood behind the limber an prepared each round by setting and cutting fuses and stood ready in case it became necessary to relieve or replace one of the others.

View attachment 116913

In the photo above, from left to right, are: No.s 6, 7, and 8 behind the limber; No. 5 wearing the pass-box in which the charge was carried from limber to gun; the Gunner; No. 3; an officer section commander lieutenant not part of the crew looking through binoculars; No. 4 (partially hidden); No. 1 with rammer; and no. 2.

Next, Part II - Gun Drill
Who is the one standing by the flag? So the actual number of the gun crew was 8?
 

James N.

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Part II - Gun Drill
Image (7).jpg


At the command by the Gunner (or Sergeant or officer conducting the drill) Take Implements, the crew faces inward toward the piece (gun); at Load, No. 1 places the sponge head of the rammer to block the bore from any sparks or other impedimenta that may be blowing about; No. 2 steps between the tube and the wheel, taking care to stand behind the muzzle face as a precaution lest the gun discharge prematurely; unseen in this picture, No. 3 has stepped to the breech (back end of the gun tube) and placed his thumb over the vent hole to prevent a draft and seal off any excess air in the bottom of the bore; No. 4 has taken a friction primer from the brown tube pouch worn on his waist belt and attached it to a hook on the end of the lanyard and is standing with the primer in one hand and the lanyard handle in the other; meanwhile the Gunner is beginning to lay or aim the piece in the general direction he wishes to fire. In the background No. 6 and No. 7 have opened the limber box and are preparing the charge. (In practice, for safety the box is ONLY opened when the charges are being readied and never simply left standing open!)

Image (8).jpg


No. 5 has received the charge from the limber attendants and after showing it to the Gunner to make sure it's what he wants has brought it forward to hand it off to No. 2; note how he takes it over the wheel in order to stay behind the plane of the muzzle. All other cannoneers maintain their positions, observing always what is being done; this is because in the heat of battle in a noisy artillery battery consisting of up to six guns there are always sounds and for safety everyone needs to know exactly what's going on within their own gun crew!

Image (9).jpg


No. 1 now rams home the charge, taking care to see it seats entirely all the way to the bottom of the bore; since this is a drill, No. 5 has returned to his normal position halfway between the gun and limber. (If this were a combat situation instead, he might've returned to the limber for the next charge.) The Gunner oversees what's going on while everyone else maintains their positions.

Image (10).jpg


At the Gunner's command Prime, No. 3 removes his thumb from the vent, taking a long brass rod called a vent pick and inserts it down the vent to punch a hole in the (usually) linen bag containing the powder charge.

Image (11).jpg


The piece is now loaded and primed; the Gunner now completes the aiming, often using a pendulum hausse (not pictured here) to sight in the target; No. 3's thumbing being over, he drops back to the handspike, a short but stout wooden dowel fastened onto the trail of the carriage. At the Gunner's pats on the trail, No. 3 moves it to the right or left as indicated using the handspike. Once satisfied, the Gunner nods to No. 4 who steps to the breech, inserts the friction primer, and stretches out the lanyard - not taught, though, lest he stumble and jerk it accidentally! At the command Ready No.'s 1 and 2 lean away from the muzzle, still watching to make sure their piece discharges; No. 3 steps out of the way of the wheel to avoid its recoil; and No. 4 stands ready, also out of the line of recoil, to pull the lanyard and fire the piece; one hand raised as a signal.

Image (12).jpg


Following the discharge of the gun, the gunners resume their post position, except for No. 1 who uses the wet sponge end of the rammer to sponge - never SWAB! - the bore to quench any remaining sparks or embers and remove any remnants of the linen powder bag while No. 3 resumes his thumbing of the vent; should he fail for any reason someone is to jar his memory or get his attention by calling out Stop Vent! In a combat situation, this would likely flow immediately into loading the next round; for drill everyone returns to the post position until the crew is rotated for the next session or dismissed, in which case a command Return Implements causes them to replace all tools.
 
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James N.

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Who is the one standing by the flag? So the actual number of the gun crew was 8?
The Gunner - he makes nine. The drill called for using as few as three to load and fire a gun in a combat situation, and in one notable case at Reams Station near Petersburg, a Union gunner from the II Corps received the Medal of Honor for continuing to load and fire his gun all by himself!
 

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Part III - A Battery in Action
a-j-houston-goods-battery-at-pea-ridge-jpg.jpg


One of my favorite representations of a Civil War artillery battery in action is the painting above by Andrew Jackson Houston, son of Texas Governor Sam Houston, which he did for his father-in-law, Captain John J. Good of Dallas, Texas. This depicts Good's Texas Battery - as it was called then - at the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern/Pea Ridge on March 8, 1862, and from its accuracy was undoubtedly painted with the consultation of Capt. Good, who led the battery from its original organization in early 1861 until shortly after the battle when the former lawyer became Judge Advocate General of the Confederate forces in Mississippi.

The perspective is unusual because instead of depicting the unit from the "sharp end" up by the guns it shows the support elements usually glossed over if represented at all. To the viewer's rear stood an additional line of limbers, each pulling a caisson or ammunition cart, one for each gun in the battery. Here note at left No. 5 of the nearest gun racing back to the limber to get the next round from the limber attendants No.'s 6 and 7 standing behind the limber. (Another No. 5 from the next gun can be seen just above them returning to his gun with another round.) There are three mounted officers or sergeants all racing to and fro, none of them the battery commander. There are four guns shown, so two of these are likely lieutenants, each of whom was responsible for a section of two guns each. Each gun also had a mounted sergeant known as the chief of the piece who was responsible for keeping his own gun, its limber and team, and the second limber and its caisson all functioning like the proverbial "well oiled machine." He was often found seeing to it that ammunition chests from the caisson or second limber were brought forward on a timely basis.

The photo below on the battlefield at Pea Ridge National Military Park, Arkansas, shows the painting on an interpretive sign at the actual position of the battery it depicts. In this full view of what is in actuality a fairly small watercolor, note at far left a pair of riderless horses just above a group of infantry lying in the foreground; standing beside the horses looking through his field glasses is the battery commander, Capt. Good. He has moved upwind so his view is not obscured by the billowing clouds of black powder smoke from his guns so he can gauge the effectiveness of his fire. At lower right can be seen the lead horses of the team pulling the second limber with its caisson. Also at right are the final section of two cannons in what was a six-gun battery of six-pounder guns. (In this case, gun refers to a specific type of cannon which fired a round ball weighing six pounds on a flat trajectory.)
dsc02244-jpg.jpg
 
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bdtex

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#7
Are the 2 wearing gloves in your photos the only 2 that usually wore gloves in actual combat?
 

James N.

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Thanks for the photos James ! It's a fantasy of mine to actually be a part of a gun crew so I'm just a little jealous.

And to think those guys - often a number fewer than nine - could load and fire three times a minute (under duress).
Thanks, John; as you can possibly tell, I'm acting as No. 4 in all these photos, taken at a drill encampment of my reenactment group which then called itself Good's/Douglas' Texas Battery.
 

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Are the 2 wearing gloves in your photos the only 2 that usually wore gloves in actual combat?
Unlike what is routinely seen in reenactments and NPS demonstrations, NONE of the cannoneers wore gloves! No. 3 was supposed to be equipped with a leather strap called a thumbstall that fitted over his thumb, but soon burned and calloused thumbs did the job just fine sans protection. Gauntlets were sometimes worn by the drivers and mounted officers though. (In fact that particular No. 1 is wearing mittens because his hands were cold!)
 

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Unlike what is routinely seen in reenactments and NPS demonstrations, NONE of the cannoneers wore gloves! No. 3 was supposed to be equipped with a leather strap called a thumbstall that fitted over his thumb, but soon burned and calloused thumbs did the job just fine sans protection. Gauntlets were sometimes worn by the drivers and mounted officers though.
Thanks. I recall what you said about No. 3 in a book about Sabine Pass. I believe one of the Confederate No. 3s at Sabine Pass lost his thumb from burns.
 

bdtex

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Thanks, John; as you can possibly tell, I'm acting as No. 4 in all these photos, taken at a drill encampment of my reenactment group which then called itself Good's/Douglas' Texas Battery.
I thought that was you. The uniforms look great.
 

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I thought that was you. The uniforms look great.
Our Confederate uniforms were very deliberately copied in large part from those depicted in Houston's painting, which at that time in the late 1970's still hung in the office of one of the Dallas City Courts which Capt. Good had once been judge over a century earlier before being elected Mayor of Dallas in 1880.
 
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Championhilz

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#17
Part I - Cannoneers Post!
View attachment 116915

We're all familiar with the roar of the guns and maybe even the smell of the gunpowder, but exactly how was it that Civil War artillery was manned and the guns were fired, according to regulation and the period drill employed by the armies of the North and South? Above is only the final act of what was an involved routine adopted for safety and efficiency. The following examples are taken from a period 1861 manual written by George Patten. (NOT that George Patton!) The gun in this case is a full-scale replica 12-pounder mountain howitzer, the smallest gun utilized during the war other than the Dahlgren boat howitizer, a naval gun generally found aboard ship, and a few experimental types never in general service. Regardless, the drill as demonstrated here is the same as used for larger field guns such as the six- and twelve-pounder guns, 12-pounder Napoleons, 3" ordnance, and 10-pounder Parrott rifles.

View attachment 116916

For drill the gun crew forms up at attention at the trail of the limber; in this case, the howitzer is on what was known as a prairie carriage. This small gun was capable of being carried by mule-back through rough terrain, hence its designation mountain howitzer. However, the carriage and wheels were smaller and built differently; one mule carried the gun tube or barrel in a special saddle on its back, while another mule carried the disassembled trail and wheels, and still another carried ammunition chests. The prairie carriage was just a smaller version of the regular carriage for the larger field guns. The crew is assembled so that by merely performing a right face - march they can march to their positions on the gun.

View attachment 116914

These first photos appear to scramble the members of the gun crew and should not be considered sequential; in point of fact ALL members of a battery were instructed thoroughly in every position on the crew and were able to "switch out" even while in combat in order to keep the guns firing. Normally there were nine members of each gun crew, not including drivers of teams, officers, etc. The positions were numbered except for the gunner who was often a corporal and effective commander of the gun crew. Number one rammed the charge and sponged out the barrel after each fire; number two was the loader; number three aimed the gun at the direction of the gunner; number four actually fired the gun using a friction primer; number five brought ammunition charges from the limber to number two; numbers six, seven, and eight stood behind the limber an prepared each round by setting and cutting fuses and stood ready in case it became necessary to relieve or replace one of the others.

View attachment 116913

In the photo above, from left to right, are: No.s 6, 7, and 8 - in no particular order - standing behind the limber; No. 5 wearing the pass-box (or more correctly, a gunner's haversack) in which the charge was carried from limber to gun; the Gunner; No. 3; an officer section commander lieutenant not part of the crew looking through binoculars; No. 4 (partially hidden); No. 1 with rammer; and no. 2.

Next, Part II - Gun Drill
You left out a couple of important duties carried out by the #3 man - he covers the vent with his leather thumb stall while the gun is being sponged and rammed to prevent sparks from entering the vent, and after the gun is loaded, he inserts the vent pick into the vent to puncture the cartridge, which allows the flame from the friction primer to set off the round.
 

bdtex

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You left out a couple of important duties carried out by the #3 man - he covers the vent with his leather thumb stall while the gun is being sponged and rammed to prevent sparks from entering the vent, and after the gun is loaded, he inserts the vent pick into the vent to puncture the cartridge, which allows the flame from the friction primer to set off the round.
I think that's in post #3 of the thread.
 



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