Old Army By the Numbers: Union Artillery at Chancellorsville

Regular army sergeant Charles T. Bowen confessed the following in a letter to his wife.  “I think I should as soon be in action as not if there were no artillery used.  I dont [sic] fear musket balls a bit & a fellow has some chance with them for may only give slight wound, but if a shell strikes a man it is sure to carry away the part hit anyway & he has no chance.”  Perhaps no other 19th century weapon struck terror into soldiers more than artillery.  The military service record of nearly every Union Civil War soldier involved exposure to cannon.

The Civil War artillery branch was a complex organization.  In addition to the guns, artillerymen required a varied supply of ammunition and hundreds of pieces of equipment.  Horses, by the thousands, were required to move the guns impedimenta.  Old army Records recently digitized and indexed several detailed returns of artillery men and equipment lost and ammunition expended in the Army of the Potomac.  The following summarizes some of the data tabulated for the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863).

Complex Plan Foiled by a Bold Response

The winter of 1862-63, following yet another unsuccessful Union attempt to capture Richmond, found the Army of Northern Virginia, under General Robert E. Lee, well entrenched at Fredericksburg, Virginia.  In the spring of 1863, Major General Joseph Hooker, newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, devised a bold plan to circumvent the Confederate defenses at Fredericksburg and capture Richmond.

Hooker’s plan was complex.  He sent about 10,000 cavalrymen on a raid towards Richmond in an attempt to sever Lee’s communications.  Simultaneously, Hooker deployed his infantry, supported by artillery, to spring a classic pincer movement.  Part of his forces attacked Fredericksburg from the east.  Meanwhile, Hooker and the rest of his command crossed the Rappahannock River swinging west and behind Lee’s troops.

By May 30, Hooker was in position behind Lee, beginning the Battle of Chancellorsville.  Hooker had the upper hand.  However, Lee made the bold and risky move to divide his smaller force to counter both Union wings at once.  Lee’s move, executed brilliantly by his number one subaltern, General Stonewall Jackson, stymied Hooker’s plan.  Over the next seven days the shaken Union commander struggled to regain the momentum only to lose ground.  The slugfest finally came to an end on May 6 when the Army of the Potomac crossed to the north side of the Rappahannock in yet another aborted attempt to capture the Confederate capitol.

Union artillery units were in the middle of fighting and suffered steep losses, both in equipment and personnel.  This article will not delve into the specifics of the battle.  Those wishing to read a detailed account of the battle should consult John Bigelow, Jr.’s The Campaign of Chancellorsville: A Strategic and Tactical Study.

Representative of Civil War Artillery (Light to Heavy Guns)
Photo of restored Union artillery piece 12-pound smoothbore gun (Napoleon).
12-pound smoothbore gun (Napoleon).

The Army of the Potomac artillery included 57 batteries assigned to seven army corps (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 11th, and 12th).  Eleven additional batteries comprised the artillery reserve.  Regular army and volunteers from Connecticut, New York, Ohio, Maine, and other states manned the guns (the Union order of battle at Chancellorsville is available through the National Park Service).

The Army of the Potomac artillery at Chancellorsville included a wide range of light and heavy guns, both smoothbore and rifled.  The smoothbore workhorse was the bronze Light 12-pounder, known as the Napoleon.  Light rifled guns included the 3-Inch Ordnance (3-inch Rifled), and 10-pound Parrott.  Heavier cannon included the 20-pound Parrott and the 4.5-inch Ordnance Rifle.

Photo of restored Union artillery piece 4.5-inch Ordnance Rifle..
4.5-inch Ordnance Rifle.

Each gun fired a fired a variety of ammunition.  Each type had a specific purpose:

Shot or solid shot
Destroy opposing artillery carriages and support vehicles.  Antipersonnel capabilities by rolling or ricocheting off the ground or objects

Shell 
Heavy walls of the projectile explode dispersing shrapnel to personnel and equipment. Fused versions could detonate on time (aerial burst) or percussion (impact with the ground or object)

Spherical Case
Antipersonnel.  Filled with lead or iron balls that disperse on detonation.

Canister
Antipersonnel.  Filled with lead or iron balls that disperse on detonation much like a shotgun blast.  Typically used at short range.

Rifled ammunition had various designs and configurations.  At Chancellorsville, common designs included Schenkl and Hotchkiss.

“Their ammunition was soon exhausted…”

Artillery from three corps and the artillery reserve reported the amount of ammunition fired during the 6-day engagement.  The four units reported expending 15,491 rounds of various types.

Summary of artillery ammunition fired by the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

The fury of the battle is exemplified by the amount of ammunition expended by Battery A, Massachusetts Light Artillery (composed of six 12-pound Napoleon’s).  On May 3rd, the unit took up position to the left of Bowling Green Road.  Two of the guns “were engaged in driving back small bodies of the enemy’s infantry” while the remaining four guns of the battery fired at Confederate guns about 1,300 yards away.  In a few hours, the battery fired 299 solid shot rounds, 253 case shot rounds, 85 shells, and 48 rounds of canister; 685 total rounds!  Amazingly, most of the canister was fired within 75 yards of the battery demonstrating how close and intense the fighting was at times.

On May 6th, Battery B, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery moved north of the Rappahannock River and covered the Union retreat.  In just one hour, the battery’s four 3-Inch Ordnance Rifles, unleashed 73 rounds (10 Hotchkiss timed fuse, 12 Schenkl percussion shell, and 51 Hotchkiss case shot).

Artillery Impedimenta

Government property of all types and sizes was required to transport and service artillery guns.  Mobility was crucial and mobility meant horsepower.  Union artillery lost 438 horses, including 371 animals killed outright (a previous article discussed the monetary cost of purchasing horses).  That essentially rendered 24 guns, or 4 batteries, immobile.  In addition, hundreds of other items, ranging from axes to water buckets, formed an artillerist’s outfit.  The Battle of Chancellorsville was especially costly for government equipment.  According to a detailed inventory of losses incurred by Army of the Potomac artillery units lost nearly 5,000 items in the 7-day engagement.  Topping the list was horse-related equipment (nose bags, brushes, curry combs, and whips).

This photo, taken about 17 years after the battle, clearly shows the scars caused by artillery in May 1863.
The Human Cost

The loss of guns, horses, and equipment obviously paled in significance to loss and injury of artillerymen.  Chancellorsville was especially detrimental to the Army of the Potomac artillery personnel.  Fifty-six men were killed (6 officers and 50 enlisted men).

Those killed included First Lieutenant Frederic Dorries, Battery L, 1st Ohio Light Artillery.  The 36-year old German native and former Stove Merchant died on May 3rd.  An artillery shell, presumably fired from a Confederate gun, broke both of Dorries’ hips and penetrated his chest.  He died instantly leaving behind a wife.  Six enlisted men from the 5th Maine Battery, including Corporal Benjamin F. Grover and Privates Timothy Sullivan and James P. Holt.

In addition to the dead, over 280 artillerymen sustained wounds during the Battle of Chancellorsville.  Injuries ranged from scrapes and bruises to severed limbs.  Three privates from the 5th Maine Battery, for example, suffered the latter:  Charles M. Kimball lost an arm, Edward A. Stuart a leg, and William N. Nason a hand.

Descriptions of battles often focus primarily on the main commanders and tactics.  Lost in these studies are the roles of the subalterns and enlisted men.  Thanks to Old Army recordkeeping, we can expand upon the roles of 19th century U.S. soldiers in key events and tie those experiences to the equipment, minute episodes, and comrades that complete a military service record.

Sources

Unpublished Sources (Old Army Records)
Approved Pension Application File for Charlotte Erth Dorries, Widow of Frederic Dorries (RG 15)
Consolidated Return of Losses and Ammunition Expended by the Army of the Potomac Artillery at Chancellorsville

Published Sources 
The Campaign of Chancellorsville: A Strategic and Tactical Study (Bigelow, Jr., 1910)
Dear Friends at Home:  The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Sergeant Charles T. Bowen, Twelfth United States Infantry, 1861-1864 (Cassedy, 2001).
Letter to the Members of the 5th Maine Battery Association (Stevens, 1890)

Government Documents
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.  Series 1, Volume 25 (1889)

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