Book Review: Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield
Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield. By Earl J. Hess. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2022. 440 pages, Hardcover, $50.
Reviewed by Tim Talbott
Despite field artillery’s important role on most Civil War battlefields, “The King of Battle” has received limited scholarly attention. Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield by Earl J. Hess helps correct this surprising void.
Much of the previous available literature on Civil War field artillery focused on the “stuff” of the big guns. Books and articles about various types of cannon and their ammunition—often geared toward collectors—certainly provide important insights about elements of artillery, but often leave out key component discussions in relation to this branch of service’s origins, implementation, perception, unit organization, operation, effectiveness, and legacy. Hess’ study tackles all of these significant aspects and many more.
Civil War Field Artillery opens with a look at artillery’s evolution. Taking the reader through its European history and explaining its use in previous American conflicts helps readers contextualize where 1860s artillery had advanced to and also what artillerists were working with when the United States went to war with itself. With advances in technology, artillery would change tremendously toward the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, creating a whole “new system.” By giving us this background information, Hess reinforces his argument that “Civil War field artillery contributed little if anything to that new system while representing one the most advanced examples of the old system.” (xxii)
Understanding the organization and responsibilities of the gun detachment and how it worked as part of a battery (4 to 6 guns) is key. To do so Hess uses Instruction for Field Artillery, an army manual published in 1860. Sprinkled in also are primary source quotes from the men teaching and learning how to effectively implement artillery. After all, as Hess explains, about 80 percent of the Civil War’s artillerymen came from volunteer participants who “had to learn everything from scratch.” (62)
As mentioned above, much of the previous literature on Civil War artillery deals with specifics of hardware. But instead of focusing on say one type of shell or one style of tube, Hess gives brief but numerous explanations on everything from friction primers to lanyards and the various hand-held implements; and from the carriages, limbers, and caisson components to powder bags, sabots, and vents. Just as importantly, Hess ably describes how the detachment made it all work together, even when casualties reduced numbers and enemy fire damaged equipment.
Similarly, Hess discusses the different types of ammunition available to artillerymen when firing smoothbore and rifled artillery. The advantages and limitations of solid shot, spherical case shot, explosive shells, canister, and even rockets, all receive coverage. Fuzes, their effectiveness and consistency (or lack thereof in Hess’ opinion), and thus their effect on the detachment’s battle morale are also explored. To gauge fuze effectiveness, Hess found that the Official Records offered a significant amount of useable data. Extrapolating figures provided in artillery reports, Hess determined that “fuze problems were endemic and persistent throughout the Civil War, significantly limiting artillery effectiveness North and South.” (139)
As Civil War combat presented a wealth of diverse situations, artillery commanders for both belligerents often came to prefer maintaining a mixture of smoothbore and rifled field pieces. Obviously, rifled pieces were advantageous at long distances, while limited at short ranges, and vice versa for smoothbores. However, as Hess argues, three primary types of guns became most prominent on Civil War battlefields. The Napoleon reigned supreme in the smoothbore class, while the 3-inch Ordnance rifle and 10-pounder Parrott led among rifled field artillery.
Another controversy that Hess wades into concerns the practice of concentrating artillery into mass groups or dispersing it out among infantry units, and whether it would be ultimately under the orders of infantry or artillery officers. While many infantry officers were not familiar with how to effectively use the artillery assigned to them, those who did had good success. However, many artillerists lobbied for more control over their guns, not so much for massing fire, but for maintaining and administering their guns.
In the two chapters explaining the experience of “Soldering with the Big Guns,” and the importance of “Artillery Horses,” Hess mines a wealth of soldier primary accounts. His section on battle losses is difficult reading due to the horrific nature of casualties that gun detachments often endured. Horses served as the engines of artillery. As the horses went, so went the artillery. Being large targets that stood quite near during combat, ready to pull or move an artillery piece, horses often fell victim to counter battery fire and enemy infantry who targeted them. In addition, high equine death rates resulted from disease and exhaustion.
Was artillery more effective as a defensive weapon? How did artillery fare versus infantry? When the nature of combat evolved toward using field fortifications more often, how did artillery adapt? How did technological advances change artillery’s effectiveness following the Civil War? These are all important questions that Hess examines as well. In addition, covering so much ground demands a time of reflection and summary, which Hess capably offers in his conclusion.
Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield is a book that the Civil War community has needed for a long time. This study gives enthusiasts who are unfamiliar with the hardware and operation of artillery an excellent foundation to build upon, while it also provides the advanced students of artillery with compelling new evidence-based arguments to consider and discuss. Like Hess’ previous book on the rifle musket, this scholarship on field artillery is a must read for anyone desiring to better understand the Civil War battlefield.
6 Responses to Book Review: Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield
If you have an interest in Civil War Field Artillery, I highly recommend this book.
“This study gives enthusiasts who are unfamiliar with the hardware and operation of artillery an excellent foundation to build upon, while it also provides the advanced students of artillery with compelling new evidence-based arguments to consider and discuss.”
I concur with this assessment. There are a number of minor annoying and “unforced errors” that IMHO could have been avoided if the author had vetted the manuscript with folks who are knowledgeable in this specialized area. He may have done so but that is not apparent from the acknowledgements. That said, none of the errors are “deal breakers”, in isolation or cumulatively. The review correctly describes the “new” arguments as legitimate subjects to “consider and discuss”, rather than simply accepting their conclusions.
I really enjoyed this read. It was very engaging and fascinating book!
Got a lot out of this book. Only thing is I would have liked to see a discussion of the Ordnance Corps in the field, in the depot, and lesser extent at HQ (as I think HQ issues have been studied sufficiently previously). Some things are touched on such as fuze development but could be expanded on.
Excellent review and also helpful comments above. On my never-ending and always-expanding reading list.