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Chapter 5: field artillery in the Army of Northern Virginia

  • Inadequacy of General equipment
  • -- formation during first two years -- high character of men accounted for -- an extraordinary story.

The writer having served almost exclusively with the artillery, what he has to tell must necessarily refer largely to that arm. Some general observations upon field artillery in the Army of Northern Virginia will therefore not be out of place.

With the exception of a couple of long-range Whitworth guns, run in from England through the blockade and which I never saw, the artillery of General Lee's army consisted of old-fashioned muzzle-loading pieces, for the most part 12-pounder brass Napoleons and 3-inch rifles. Batteries were usually composed of four guns. For the equipment and operation of such a battery about seventy-five officers and men were required and say fifty horses. Every old artilleryman will recall the difficulty we experienced in keeping up the supply of horses. After Gettysburg it was our habit, when a piece became engaged, to send the horses to the rear, to some place of safety, preferring to run the risk of losing a gun occasionally rather than the team that pulled it.

During the earlier stages of the war our artillery corps was very inadequately provided with clumsy ordnance and defective ammunition, manufactured for the most part within the Confederate lines; but as the struggle went on this branch of our service, as well as our infantry, was, to a constantly increasing degree, supplied with improved guns and ammunition captured from the armies opposed to us. We also learned to make better ammunition and more reliable fuses, but never approached the Federal artillery either in these respects or in general equipment. [53]

For the first two years the armies of thy Confederacy adhered to that very defective organization in which single batteries of artillery are attached to infantry brigades. Two evils resulted: the guns were under the command of brigadier-generals of infantry, who generally had very little regard for artillery and still less knowledge as to the proper handling of it; and the scattering of the batteries prevented that concentration of fire in which, upon proper occasion, consists the great effectiveness of the arm. At and after Chancellorsville, however, the artillery of the Confederate armies, certainly that of the Army of Northern Virginia, began to be massed into battalions composed of, say, four or five batteries and fifteen to twenty-five guns, and these placed under the command of trained and experienced artillery officers. From that time the artillery began to be really reckoned and relied upon in estimating the effective strength of the army.

So much for the physical aspect of the artillery of General Lee's army. A word now as to the character of the men who composed that corps. It will of course be admitted by every man of intelligence and candor who served under Lee, that his infantry was essentially his army; not alone because it constituted the bulk and body of its fighting strength, but also because it did the bulk and body of the fighting; and yet I think even the infantry itself would admit that the artillery, though appearing to afford least opportunity for personal distinction, yet furnished, in proportion to its numbers, perhaps more officers below the rank of general who were conspicuous for gallantry and high soldiership than either of the other two arms. Their names rise unbidden to my lips-Pegram and Pelham, and Breathed and Carter, and Haskell, and many, many more. Every veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia is familiar with the splendid roll.

If this claim be challenged, it may perhaps best be tested by asking this question: admitting that the fact be so, can any satisfactory explanation of it be suggested?

For one, I answer unhesitatingly-yes, I think so; explanation amounting to demonstration. I believe that any man [54] who looks into the matter without prejudice will be ready to admit that it is to be expected that artillery soldiers should excel in four great soldierly qualities-intelligence, self-possession, comradeship, loyalty to the gun.

I will not stay now to prove that these qualities characterized our artillery in an eminent degree. The remaining chapters of this book will furnish abundant demonstration. As to intelligence, the chapter last preceding would seem to be all-sufficient; but apart from these positive exhibitions of intelligence and even culture of a high order, it is obvious that the very nature of the arm and its operation, its comparative mechanical elaboration and complexity, and the blending of scientific knowledge and manual and bodily dexterity required for its most effective use, must in large degree influence the original selection and the after development of the men of the artillery branch of the service.

Again, an artilleryman, officer or private soldier, should be a broader-gauged man, especially as to his view and comprehension of battle and campaign, than an infantryman of corresponding grade. An infantry company in the Army of Northern Virginia, during the latter part of the war, averaged certainly not over fifteen or twenty men, and covered but a small space on the line. A captain of infantry saw and touched little outside these narrow limits. Two or three strides, so to speak, would cover all of the line he was familiar with and responsible for, and he came in contact with no officer of wider domain and control, save his colonel, under whose eye and immediate direction he was always, save when on picket duty.

A captain of artillery, on the contrary, was often separated from his colonel by the stretch of several brigade fronts; for a battalion, as usually placed, would cover about the front of a division, and as he received no orders-after the organization of the artillery into battalions — from any infantry officer of less rank than a major-general, he was necessarily thrown in great measure upon his own resources in the management of a command which, including all its departments, was really of greater complexity and difficulty than an infantry brigade. [55]

I trust I may not be misunderstood, or regarded as attempting to magnify over-much myself or my office, when I say that all this applies with special force to the adjutant of an artillery battalion. This officer,--if he does his full duty,--as adjutant of the command, as personal staff and aide to the commanding officer, and often as battalion chief of the line of caissons-familiarizing himself with the positions of all the guns in battle, seeing that all are fully supplied with ammunition and anything and everything else that may be required, and passing from one to another as the exigencies of the fight may demand-covers as wide a stretch of the line, sees as much of the campaign, and comes as much into contact with officers of high grade as any officer of his rank in the service. To-day, more than a generation after that heroic Olympiad, it is a deep satisfaction to be able to say that I endeavored to do my full duty as adjutant of Cabell's Battalion — to attend to all my duties in this broader and fuller construction of them, and in battle, as far as possible, to be with that one of our batteries which was most heavily engaged. The campaign of 1864 was the only one in which I acted as adjutant of an artillery battalion from the outset to the end, and in consequence my knowledge of that campaign is at once more comprehensive ana more detailed than of any other, and what I have to tell of it is of greater value.

The training of the artillery service in the development of imperturbable self-possession, in emergency and crisis, is self-evident and requires no comment. To appreciate it to the full, it was only necessary to look at one of our guns, already overmatched, at the moment when a fresh gun of the enemy, rushing up at a wild gallop, and seizing a nearer and enfilading position, hurled a percussion shell, crashing with fearful uproar against our piece, and sweeping almost the entire gun detachment to the earth. At such a moment I have marked the sergeant or gunner of such a piece coolly disengage himself from the wreck and, stepping to one side, stoop to take his observations and make his calculations, of distance and of time, free from the dust and smoke of the explosion; then, with ringing voice, call out to No. 6 [56] at the limber,--whose duty it was to cut the fuse,--“three seconds!” then, stepping back and bending over the trail handspike, doggedly aim his strained and half-disabled piece, as the undisabled remnant of the detachment step over the dead and dying bodies of their comrades, each in the discharge of the doubled and trebled duties now devolving upon him. The story I have to tell is full of kindred scenes.

Another of the most marked and developing features of the artillery service is comradeship.

I do not mean that lighter sense of happy and kindly association which certainly did characterize the artillery, of General Lee's army at least, in very high degree. I refer now to an element far deeper and more powerful — the interdependence, the reliance upon each other, which inheres in the very nature of artillery service, and is indispensable of the effective working of the gun.

The unit of the infantry is the man; of the cavalry, the man and horse; of the artillery, the detachment. While co-operation is a duty and in some degree a necessity in infantry service, yet a single infantry soldier operates his arm perfectly, indeed each one is complete in himself — more than one cannot operate the same arm at the same time. If one runs away he only renders himself useless, he deprives his country of his services alone.

No so with the artillery. It takes ten cannoneers (exclusive of drivers) to make a gun detachment. Each man has his special part to perform, but all indispensable to the perfect working of the piece, so that each man is dependent upon all the rest. If one fails, all the rest are affected, and even the piece itself is rendered so far inefficient. Upon each man rests the responsibility for the effective service of the detachment and the gun.

It is impossible not to perceive this distinction, and equally impossible not to admit the importance of it, in the development of a soldierly character. Again, I say, my story will not fail to furnish apt and impressive illustration.

But the strongest sentiment, aye, passion, of the true artillerymen is loyalty to the gun. [57]

The gun is the rallying point of the detachment, its point of honor, its flag, its banner. It is that to which the men look, by which they stand, with and for which they fight, by and for which they fall. As long as the gun is theirs, they are unconquered, victorious; when the gun is lost, all is lost. It is their religion to fight it until the enemy is out of range, or until the gun itself is withdrawn, or until both it and the detachment are in the hands of the foe. An infantryman in flight often flings away his musket. I do not recall ever having heard of a Confederate artillery detachment abandoning its gun without orders.

Nor were the Federal artillerymen one whit behind in this loyal devotion to their pieces. One of the Haskells, who, as I remember, served on General McGowan's staff, told me this vivid story. It seems almost incredible, yet I have no reason to question its truth; at all events, it is too good not to be told.

In one of the late combats of the war, far away down on the right of our line, Pegram, passing ahead of his infantry support, had advanced his entire battalion against the enemy strongly entrenched-showering double-shotted canister into their infantry line and belching solid shot across the narrow ditch, in the very faces of their gunners and into the very muzzles of their guns. The Federal artillerymen, as was their wont, fought him fiercely, muzzle to muzzle-until McGowan's infantry coming up, Pegram passed around the work, to the right and front, after the retiring Federal infantry, while the artillerymen and their pieces fell into Mc-Gowan's hands.

Most of the horses of the staff had been killed or disabled, and they had mounted Federal artillery horses from which in some cases the harness had not been removed, so that, as the staff officers rode to and fro delivering orders, the trace chains rattled and jingled merrily.

The Federal gunners had done what they could on the instant to disable their pieces for the time, throwing away the lanyards and running the screws down low, so that the muzzles pointed high in the air. Having rooted out a few friction primers from a gunner's haversack and fished a [58] string or a handkerchief out of someone's pocket, for a lan. yard, McGowan's infantry managed to load one of the captured pieces and, turning it in the direction of the retreating Federals, sent two or three shots whizzing over their heads, to seek the quartermasters and wagon camps in the rear.

Meanwhile, the gunner of this particular piece, a tall, splendid-looking fellow, stood hard by, with his lip curled in scorn and his arms twitching convulsively; until at last, unable to stand it longer, he sprang into the midst of the blundering infantry and hurled them right and left, shouting:

Stand aside, you infernal, awkward boobies! Let me at that screw!

meanwhile whirling it rapidly up, until the gun came down into proper range. Then, seizing the trail handspike and aiming the piece, he sprang back, yelling out: “Now, try that! Let 'em have it! Fire!”

Away flew the shell on its flight of death, until it tore through the line of his own friends. And he continued thus to direct the movement of the awkward squad of rebel cannoneers, and to sight and fire the piece, until the Federal infantry were out of range. Then, stamping his great foot upon the ground and gesturing wildly with his great clenched fist, he exclaimed:

Damned if I can stand by and see my gun do such shooting as that I

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