All firearms larger than small arms are known collectively as artillery or cannon. Several dozen different types of artillery were used over the course of the Civil War, but they all fell into one of two distinct categories: smoothbore or rifled cannon. Artillery was further identified by the weight of the projectile, the caliber of the bore diameter, the method of loading (muzzle or breech), and sometimes the name of the inventor or manufacturer. Further distinction was made by the path of a weapon's trajectory (guns had a flat trajectory; mortars a high, arching shot; and howitzers a trajectory that fell between the two) and its tactical deployment, such as seacoast, field, and siege artillery.

Guns and Ammunition

The most commonly used artillery on both sides was the Napoleon, a smoothbore, muzzleloaded howitzer whose projectile weighed twelve pounds. It was developed in France during the reign of Louis Napoleon and was first introduced in the United States in 1856. The Napoleon was a reliable, sturdy piece of machinery that worked as an offensive and defensive weapon. Napoleons were first made of bronze, but Southern manufacturers were forced to make later versions out of iron when bronze fell into short supply. The maximum range of the Napoleon was 1,000 yards, but the weapon proved most effective at shorter ranges — 250 yards or less. It used both grape shot and canister ammunition and is believed to have killed more men on both sides than all other artillery weapons combined.

A 200-pound Parrott rifle in Fort Gregg on Morris Island, South Carolina, 1865 Photo courtesy of the National Archives (165-S-128)

Second to the Napoleon were the three-inch ordnance and Parrott guns, rifled cannon that had greater accuracy and range than smoothbore artillery. On a good day, a three-incher could lob a shell up to 2,500 yards, but such long-range artillery proved ineffective during most battles because the gunner had to see what he was shooting at. Rifled cannon did have their valuable uses, however. They were very good at destroying fortifications and played an integral role in the battles of Vicksburg and Atlanta. Most of the artillery used during the Civil War was muzzleloaded. Breechloading cannon were available, but most gunners found them unreliable and difficult to use.

Size played an important role in the use of artillery; the heavier guns were more difficult to transport, especially over hilly or muddy terrain. The most portable artillery and thus some of the most widely used were the six-and twelve-pound mountain howitzers, which proved very effective during battles fought in mountainous areas. Naval and siege cannons were some of the heaviest and provided the greatest power. The eight-and ten-inch siege howitzers had ranges of more than 2,000 yards and could fire forty-five and ninety-pound shells, which inflicted tremendous damage on their targets.

The big guns fired an array of ammunition, including solid shot, grape, canister, shell, and chain shot, most of which came in any of the nine common artillery calibers. Solid shot and shell were used to destroy distant, fixed targets such as fortifications, while chain shot, which consisted of two balls connected by a short chain, was employed primarily against the masts and rigging of ships. Grape shot and canister were used most commonly in the field. Both were scattershot projectiles consisting of several iron balls in an iron casement. When fired, the casement would disintegrate, releasing the shot in a deadly spray very much like a giant sawed-off shotgun. At close range (250 yards or less), these weapons could inflict serious damage.

The Union Advantage

The Union had artillery in greater quantities and better quality than the Confederacy, and its officers used the weapons to tremendous advantage. Typically, Confederate infantry would move forward against Union infantry, often through fields and woodlands, until they were within a specific range. At that point, the Union artillery would be moved into place, and iron death would rain down upon the hapless Confederate troops, breaking their charge and forcing them back. This tactic repeated itself throughout the war and enabled Union victories in such battles as Shiloh and Gettysburg.

One of the biggest reasons the Union was able to maintain superiority in the area of artillery was its manufacturing might. The North contained far more manufacturing plants and skilled technicians than the South, as well as far greater access to the raw materials needed to build reliable weaponry. The South did its best to keep up, but in the long run it was simply out-manufactured. Quite a bit of artillery was acquired from foreign manufacturers, but the Northern blockade of Southern ports played an important role in keeping the Confederate army undersupplied. General Henry Hunt, chief of artillery for the Army of the Potomac, noted, “While the South had at the beginning of the war the better raw material for infantry and cavalry, the North had the best for artillery. A battery requires many mechanics, with their tools and stores, and also what are called handy men. No country furnishes better men for the artillery proper than our Northern, and particularly our New England, states.”

Firing artillery required the efforts of several men working in a sort of ballet. Experienced gunners could load and fire a fieldpiece every thirty seconds, even in the face of enemy fire. Not surprisingly, gunnery teams were a close-knit bunch who treated their weapons as members of the family, often giving them special names.

Once the war began in earnest and it became apparent that hostilities would not be quickly concluded, foundries in the North worked almost around the clock to produce cannons and ammunition for the Union army. The greatest output was of twelve-pounder smoothbore Napoleons and three-inch ordnance rifles, which quickly became the muscle of the Union artillery because of their reliability, durability, and accuracy. A huge number of Parrott guns were also produced, primarily at the West Point Foundry. The Parrott came in various sizes, from ten-and twelve-pounder field versions to huge cast-iron cannons that fired 100- and 200-pound shells. However, the larger cannons were greatly disliked by the Union soldiers because they had a nasty habit of exploding if they were fired repeatedly.

Union Work on the Battlefield

The U.S. regular army artillery was a small but extremely well-trained corps of specialists that provided expert guidance in the art of field gunnery and tactics. These soldiers made sure their weapons hit their targets with deadly accuracy. During the Battle of Antietam, Brigadier General John Gibbon placed six Napoleons of Battery B, Fourth U.S. Artillery, on a knoll overlooking a cornfield to protect his right flank but realized too late that his gunners had aimed the cannons' muzzles too high and were shooting over the heads of advancing enemy troops. Before too long, forty of his battery's 100 men had fallen. As Confederate troops charged the Union battery, Gibbon leaped off his horse, ran to one of the guns, and quickly adjusted the elevating screw. On his orders, the crew fired several more volleys into the cornfield, blasting away a fence as well as a high number of Confederate troops. Gibbon's daring saved Battery B from almost certain annihilation.

Horse artillery consisted of small but powerful cannons disassembled, packed onto horses, and carried over rough terrain. It was commonly used by the cavalry, and both Jeb Stuart and Nathan Forrest made excellent use of it during the Civil War.

Artillery played an equally important role in the Battle of Malvern Hill, the last of the Seven Days Battles. Almost the entire artillery arm of George McClellan's retreating army, approximately 250 cannon, was positioned on a bluff flanking the James River as Robert E. Lee's pursuing forces attacked. The big guns did extraordinary damage to the Confederate forces, cutting wide swaths within their ranks.

The Confederate greatest use of field artillery was on the third day of Gettysburg, when Southern artillerists assembled almost hub-to-hub more than 130 guns they had hauled all the way from Virginia. For more than an hour they fired; it was the largest bombardment on troops in North America. However, the Confederates' aim was slightly too high and they did not significantly impact the Federals. Pickett's Charge, which followed the artillery bombardment, failed to break the Union line.

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