Large Heavyweight Seacoast Mortars were typically used for defensive purposes at fixed locations, and in Siege operations, but rarely in other offensive operations. The large 13-inch Seacoast Mortar was the largest mortar available in Federal arsenals, the measurement in it's name describing the diameter of the gun bore.
Major General Butler conceived the idea of an experiment, making use of a large mortar, to be mounted on a specially designed and reinforced railroad car for this purpose. The chosen mortar was cast at the Fort Pitt Foundry in 1862 by Mr. Charles Knapp, was a famous 13-inch Seacoast Mortar, and used for a short time in the summer and fall of 1864 during the siege operations near Petersburg, Virginia. It was given the nickname "The Dictator" by some Union soldiers, but also the "Petersburg Express" by other soldiers.
- Model: Model 1861 13-inch Seacoast Mortar
- Type: Muzzleloading Mortar mounted on a Railroad Flatcar
- In Service With:
- Battery G, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery; July 8th - 30th, 1864
- Battery I, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery; Aug 6th - September 30th
- Under the Command of: Colonel Henry L. Abbot
- Purpose: Dropping large munitions behind fortified positions
- Current Disposition: Unknown, no surviving mortar with expected weight has been discovered. May have been sold for scrap iron.
- US Casting Foundry: Fort Pitt, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania
- Years of Manufacture: 1862
- Tube Composition: Cast Iron
- Muzzle Markings: Unknown
- Registry Number: Unknown
- Foundry Number: Unknown
- Purchase Price in 1862: $1,341 (US)
- Bore Diameter: 13 inches
- Bore Length: 35 inches
- Rifling Type: no grooves
- Trunnion Diameter: 15 inches
- Barrel Thickness: at Muzzle - 15 inches
- Tube Length: 56 inches
- Tube Weight: 17,186 lbs. (8.56 tons)
- Carriage Type: Iron Mortar Carriage (About 5,000 lbs.)
- Total Weight (Gun & Carriage): about 22,000 lbs (11 tons)
- No. of Crew to Serve: A gunner, 9 men to service piece
- Standard Powder Charge: 14 to 20 lbs. Cannon Grade Black Powder
- Projectiles: 220 lb. Mortar Shells
- Effective Range (at 45°): 4,325 yards (2.45 miles)
- Time to Impact (at 45°): about 30 seconds
- Maximum Range (at 45°): 4,752 yards (2.7 miles)
The unusual mortar on a flatcar arrangement also was a favorite subject of photographers covering the war at Petersburg, making it one of the more famous individual weapons of the conflict.
The "Dictator" and Crew, at a fixed platform at Petersburg, Va. (Alexander Gardner, 1864) NARA Collection.
The men of Company G of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, served the Dictator. A curve in the tracks allowed the Dictator's gunners to stay mobile and adjust the plane of fire. A platform was also constructed at a nearby railroad spur, giving the Dictator a more Heavy Duty platform.
A member of the 1st Connecticut Artillery wrote, “This 13 inch mortar was used principally against what was known as the ‘Chesterfield Battery,’ which from the left bank of [the] river, completely enfiladed our batteries on the right; all our direct fire seemed to have no effect. From this mortar was the only fire that seemed to hold the battery in check”
The power of this weapon was enough to shatter most field magazines and bomb-proofs, and it is credited with causing the Confederate gunners to withdraw their attempts at enfilade fire along the right of the Union line.
The Dictator fired a shell weighing 218 lbs., with a charge of 20 lbs. of powder. At an angle of 45 degrees the range is set down in the Ordinance Manual at 4,325 yds., but, if it is true that the shell thrown by the Dictator reached Centre Hill, in Petersburg, then it must have been carried at least 2.7, miles, or 4,752 yds. Reports state that the flatcar recoiled 10 to 12 feet each time the mortar was fired.
The recoil of the Dictator was so powerful, after firing just five rounds on July 11th, the mortar broke the flatcar it was sitting on, even despite the flatcar’s iron reinforcing rods and plates. After repairs and additional structural reinforcement for the flatcar, the mortar was able to return to action.
On July 30th, during the Battle of the Crater, the Dictator fired 19 rounds in support of the Union attack. One good shot from the Dictator took out a cannon in the Chesterfield Battery, and another shell killed ten or so men near the same location.
The Dictator remained in service at Petersburg though the month of September, firing a total of 218 rounds. After that, the mortar was returned to the City Point ordnance depot on September 28, 1864, never to be fired again during the Civil War.
Excerpt about Mortars including the "Dictator", from a book written by Noah A. Trudeau, Little Brown and Company, Boston: 1991, pages 291-2.
Soldiers on both sides hated the mortars. "These mortar shells were the most disgusting, low-lived things imaginable," declared W. W. Blackford, a Confederate engineer. "There was not a particle of the sense of honor about them; they would go rolling about and prying into the most private places in a sneaking sort of way." "Mortar shells fly into the works occasionally," a Maine soldier confirmed, "at which times we get out in double-quick time." Added a Georgia infantryman, "Old veterans can never forget the noise those missiles made as they went up and came down like an excited bird, their shrieks becoming shriller and shriller, as the time to explode approached."
A soldier in the 35th Massachusetts described a mortar attack: "In the daytime the burst of smoke from the Confederate mortars could be seen; a black speck would dart into the sky, [and] hang a moment, increasing in size, rolling over and over lazily, and the revolving fuse [would begin] to whisper audibly, as it darted towards us, at first, softly, 'I'm a-coming, I'm a-coming'; then louder and more angrily, 'I'm coming! I'm coming!;' and, at last, with an explosion to crack the drum of the ear, 'I'm HERE!'"
Mortar batteries alternated with tubed guns all along the front. Some artillery even acquired nicknames: one seven-gun siege battery just south of Fort Morton was called the Seven Sisters, while Union soldiers referred to several different artillery pieces as The Petersburg Express, most notably the thirteen-inch heavy mortar that was also know as the Dictator. This gun, the only one of its size at Petersburg, went into action on July 9, and remained active until September, firing 218 times, from various positions. 'It made the ground quake', one infantryman swore.'
The current whereabouts of the Dictator are unknown, this famous weapon may no longer survive. Its oft-repeated identification as the 13-inch Mortar, No. 95, at Hartford, Connecticut may be false, as that piece does not match the recorded weight of the Dictator. Some have suggested that the original gun was melted down for scrap metal.
FOR FURTHER READING
- Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War, by Olmstead, Hazlett, & Parks, Univ of Delaware Press, 1988.
- Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, by Warren Ripley, Battery Press, 1984.