Thursday, November 27, 2014

Visualizing Artillery on the Battlefield

I've always found this photograph fascinating.

Original LOC Caption: "Antietam, Maryland. Captain J.M. Knap's Penn. Independent Battery 'E' Light Artillery."
Photographed by Alexander Gardner. To view and zoom in on a high res version, go here.

Taken by Alexander Gardner on September 19th, 1862--just two days after the battle of Antietam--it depicts Captain Joseph M. Knap's Independent Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery on the battlefield.

This is an important Civil War photograph. The exact location of this scene was first identified by William Frassanito in his book Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day, published in 1978. With Frassanito's discovery, this photograph became a tremendous resource for historians. It presents a panoramic view of a broad expanse of the terrain over which the battle raged on the morning of September 17th, 1862. The photograph provides documentation of what the terrain looked like at the time of the battle. Behind the battery stretches the fields of David R. Miller's farm, including the bloody cornfield. In the distant background of the photograph, the North Woods loom on the horizon.

I enjoy this photograph for another reason though: it provides a visual reference for what a battery looked like on the field of battle.

When touring battlefields, I find that visualizing the action can sometimes present a challenge, especially when I am leading others with limited knowledge of the Civil War. This applies especially to to the role and appearance of artillery. At most NPS sites today, cannon dot the landscape to mark where batteries deployed. Occasionally, you will find a full compliment of caissons, guns, and limbers to mark out a battery's location. Cushing's battery at Gettysburg and the guns at Hazel Grove come to mind in particular. Yet while the guns provide helpful information in locating a battery position on the field, they don't give us an adequate idea of what a battery in action would look like.

Each gun in a battery was hooked to a limber and pulled by six horses. Each gun then had a caisson, also hooked to a limber, and also pulled by a six-horse team. Therefore, each gun in a battery had typically 12 horses. For a six-gun battery, that's 72 horses, not counting replacements and officer mounts. Each battery also had a traveling forge, a battery wagon to carry tents, supplies, and tools, and usually six more caissons carrying reserve ammunition. That all adds up to a lot of horses.

When deployed for action, regulations suggested that the nose of the lead horse of each limber would be six yards behind the trail of its gun, and the lead horse pulling the caisson should be about 11 yards behind the limber. According to Jack Coggins' wonderful book, Arms and Equipment of the Civil War, a gun, its limber, and its caisson would take up a depth of almost 50 yards. Meanwhile, artillery manuals called for 14 yards in between each gun, meaning that a six-gun battery would occupy a front of more than 80 yards.

Another great image of an artillery battery, this one attributed to army photographer Andrew Russell. This photograph was likely taken during the Chancellorsville campaign. Here's a great blog entry exploring the photograph in detail. To view and zoom in on a high res version, go here.
I find all of that difficult to imagine when I stand on a battlefield looking at a couple of guns flanking a monument. Luckily, Gardner's photographic documentation of Knap's battery at Antietam, and many other similar photographs taken during the war, can help to create an image in your mind of what a battery would look like on the field of battle.

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