Notes on Artillery Organization

I’ve started reading John C. Tidball’s The Artillery Service in the War of the Rebellion which is a published collection of essays this Union officer wrote in the post-war era. Tidball offers a good perspective since he was there, on the ground with the artillery, but wrote these articles with hindsight and additional perspective toward the end of the 19th Century.

The first essay in the volume deals with how the artillery units were organized and assigned in the order of battle. Here’s a cliff-notes version and some general rules which may be helpful for your own research or battlefield exploration…

  • There’s heavy artillery (think big guns at big forts) and there’s field artillery (think battlefield batteries).
  • At the beginning of the war, it’s not uncommon to find a variety of cannons within one unit; eventually the Union started standardizing, or at least putting the same six guns in the battery. The Confederates wanted to do this in theory, but it didn’t always work due to their supply situation.
  • The Army of the Potomac standardized its artillery organization quicker than Union armies in the western theater – thanks to General McClellan and his chief of artillery, Major William F. Barry.
  • In the opening days of the war, Union volunteers simply attached artillery units to their infantry regiments. Some infantry regiments simply showed up with volunteer artillery in tow.
  • Slowly, artillery batteries moved from regimental to brigade to division attachment. It took the Army of the Cumberland until autumn 1863 to move their artillery from brigade level, creating unique order of battle.
  • By 1864, Union armies had created a full, separate brigade just for artillery that attached to each corps; now the artillery had its own command and supply department, rather than relying on the infantry.
  • The Artillery Reserve for the Union armies became its own command, holding guns and crew or acting as a “refitting depot”; however, the Artillery Reserve also generally engaged in battle, acting as a mobile, semi-independent unit that could take the field pieces where most needed.
  • The Union Army of the Tennessee had no formal artillery reserve, and this army and the Army of the Cumberland kept their guns at the brigade level significantly longer than the Army of the Potomac.
  • Infantry commanders became used to having artillery attached to their brigades or divisions and didn’t like it when their artillery formed an independent brigade attached at the corps level, creating a mix of orders and confusion for the artillerymen regarding which directives to follow.
  • Interestingly, the Confederates – particularly in the Army of Northern Virginia – reorganized their artillery and attached it to corps much sooner than their enemy. Lee created artillery battalions with four or six batteries in each and gave command to a colonel or lieutenant colonel. This allowed his artillery to independently follow orders and support the infantry without as much confusion in the chain of command.
  • Evolution of weapons and tactics contributed to the need to have artillery independent and still supporting the infantry. As tactics became more mobile, artillery needed to move, changing positions to be most effective.
  • At the beginning of the war, loyal U.S. artillery officers from the regular army – many experienced veterans from the Mexican American War or trained soldiers from West Point – were not allowed to leave their branch and accept command of volunteer infantry. Their skills were valuable and needed with the guns.
  • Generally speaking, artillery units had 400 rounds of ammunition per gun, and the Union armies rarely had trouble filling this demand, though sometimes the ammunition trains ran into difficulty, making it hard to get the ammunition to the actually artillery unit.

Parting Shot: General Henry Hunt, chief of artillery for the Army of the Potomac, issued orders that artillery batteries could not withdrew from a position because they shot all their ammunition. There had been problems with artillery batteries going into position, rapidly firing off all their shot and shell, and pulling out to leave a dangerous zone. Hunt decreed that a battery could not leave until ordered or replaced by another artillery unit.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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5 Responses to Notes on Artillery Organization

  1. Mark Harnitchek says:

    thanks Sarah…you’ve distilled out some great nuggets.

  2. Chris Kolakowski says:

    One thing to keep in mind is the different scale of operations in the West – smaller armies meant the basic unit of maneuver was the brigade, whereas in the East it was the division.

    Question to ponder: how much did that affect artillery organization for armies East and West?

    • John Foskett says:

      That’s a good question. One thing to keep in mind is that much of the terrain in western fights was not conducive to the use of artillery on a massed scale. it happened – see Mendenhall at Stones River – but there weren’t many occasions when you had fields of observation and fire such as at Malvern Hill, Second Bull Run, and Gettysburg. That never really changed – see the Atlanta Campaign. in fact, in the east terrain was a factor in Grant’s decision in the Overland Campaign to reduce standard battery size to 4 guns. Another factor in the west may be that there was a longer period on the federal side during which batteries retained a mix of types/calibers. That was very much on the wane in the Army of the Potomac by April 1862.

  3. John Foskett says:

    One thing to keep in mind is that this material was written after Tidball had been commandant of the Artillery School and reflected his views on post-war organization, etc. of that branch. By the 1890’s he had succeeded Hunt as the lead proponent of the “long arm” and its importance. Both of them strongly believed in the branch’s independence. .

  4. scott s. says:

    It’s not like we have it figured out now. US Army got rid of DivArty in the early 2000’s only to bring it back several years later.

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