One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 9, Number 3
March 2001

One of the moving and eloquent descriptions of the men of the Army of Northern Virginia is that written by Union Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. This noble man, himself wounded six times and still in pain from the bullet that had almost killed him before Petersburg accepted the surrender of the remnants of General Lee’s proud army at Appomattox. Three days after the formal surrender, General John B. Gordon led about twenty thousand Confederate infantrymen toward the Union lines for the last time, not to do battle but to stack their arms and surrender their battle flags. Chamberlain watched this last Confederate advance with frank admiration:

On they come, with the old swinging route step and swaying battle flags. In the van, the proud Confederate ensign. . . . Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood; men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death . . . could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, walking memories that bound us together as no other bond; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a union so tested and assured?

Another commentary about the Confederate foot soldier was given by Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill. In his report on the 1862 Peninsula campaign and the South’s pyrrhic victory, the acerbic and blunt spoken Hill wrote: The battle, with all its melancholy results, proved however, that the Confederate infantry and Federal artillery, side by side on the same field, need fear no foe on earth.

These are just two of many observations attesting to the valor and quality of the Confederate infantry. Unfortunately for the South, their compatriots in the artillery never gained the admiration and respect that was accorded to the lowly foot soldiers and more glamorous cavalry in their army. There were, of course, exceptionally able officers in Southern batteries and battalions such as the dashing and bold William Poague, Joseph Latimer, William Pegram, John Pelham, Thomas Hill Carter, and others. The principal shortage of artillery leadership and talent, however, was above the battalion level. Aside from Edward Porter Alexander, and a handful of others such as Reuben Lindsay Walker, the Confederates were limited in qualified high-ranking artillery commanders. Perhaps Lee’s greatest liability in artillery leadership was his chief of artillery William Nelson Pendleton. Although possessing some ability in administrative matters, Pendleton was described by General G. Moxley Sorrel as “a well-meaning man without qualities for the high post he claimed—Chief of Artillery for the Army of Northern Virginia.”

Much of the criticism of Pendleton originated from the debacle suffered by the Confederate artillery at Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862. For various reasons (not all of which were his fault), Pendleton failed to employ any of his 18 batteries assigned to the Artillery Reserve. As a consequence the massed Union batteries on Malvern Hill were able to overwhelm the outnumbered, outgunned, and poorly coordinated Confederate assault with devastating results to the attackers.

A major reason for the superiority of the Federal artillery, especially early in the war, was the leadership provided by General Henry Jackson Hunt who became chief of artillery for the Army of the Potomac. A graduate of West Point in 1839, Hunt had compiled a distinguished record during the Mexican War, and had been one of three officers who revised the army’s system of light artillery tactics in 1860. At Malvern Hill and in later battles, Hunt demonstrated the value of good organization utilizing massed and coordinated artillery fire. To be fair, however, and in contrast to his opponents, Hunt was blessed with superior firepower in both quantity and quality of cannon and ammunition. In addition, the Federal artillery started the war with a cadre of battery commanders having extensive artillery experience at both West Point and in field exercises. In contrast, most of the Confederate battery commanders were citizen soldiers who had been lawyers, students, and farmers before the war. Captain James Carrington, of the Charlottesville Artillery, for example, had received his guns only a few weeks before the battle of Malvern Hill and in his words “hardly knew how to load a cannon.”

The artillery corps of both armies suffered from 3 major deficiencies at the beginning of the war: organization, tactics, and armament. Prior to Malvern Hill most batteries (consisting of 4 to 6 guns) acted as independent units and were assigned to regiments or brigades of infantry. In addition, both armies maintained a substantial number of batteries in a reserve. By mid-1862 the Confederates began to group the artillery into battalions of 4 to 6 batteries each, and put about five battalions into each corps of 3 divisions. One battalion would usually march with each division of infantry with the other two battalions being in reserve. All the corps artillery was commanded by a chief of artillery who could deploy the batteries wherever the need was greatest.

As to tactics, as early as Malvern Hill Henry Hunt recognized the value of massed and concentrated firepower as his sixty guns simply overwhelmed the isolated and uncoordinated Confederate batteries. Conversely, Lee’s army failed to take advantage of its advantageous positions for converging and enfilading fire at Gaines’s Mill, Malvern Hill, and Gettysburg.

A fundamental weakness of Civil War artillery on both sides, however, was the relatively ineffectiveness of artillery fire on the offensive. Perhaps the most classic example of this was the Confederate bombardment at Gettysburg that failed to break Hancock’s infantry or silence the Union batteries on Cemetery Ridge. Similarly, the massive artillery assaults in the trenches of World War I rarely achieved the anticipated breakthrough of the enemy’s line. Bob Krick in his book Conquering the Valley points out that Civil War cannon “. . . dealt more in sound and fury than in absolute devastation. The noise and terrifying rounds wounded people when they hit them, but the lack of high-explosive powder and of extensive fragmentation resulted in less damage than seemed likely.” Even Porter Alexander acknowledged that the “. . . promiscuous fire of bombardments seldom accomplishes any result.” One estimate is that only about 10 percent of Civil War casualties resulted from artillery fire. The infantry decided almost every Civil War engagement. Not surprisingly, the lowly foot soldier in all wars has borne the brunt of the fighting and casualties.

The most effective use of Civil War artillery was on the defensive, especially when canister was used at short ranges. When the cannon fired loads of canister at infantry at a range of a few hundred yards, the effect was devastating. These giant “shotgune” blasts normally tore great gaps in the ranks of charging foot soldiers. Fredericksburg, Sharpsburg, Malvern Hill, and Gettysburg are just a few examples that demonstrate the extreme carnage caused by defensive artillery fire.

The valor of the Confederate artilleryman has never been questioned. He excelled in many circumstances, but most objective observers conclude that the Federal artillery corps proved superior in a majority of the important battles. Some of the causes for the deficiencies in the Confederate artillery can be summarized as follows:

1. Quality and quantity of armament and ammunition. Most of their best guns were captured Union pieces, especially the rifled cannon. The agrarian South never achieved the ability to manufacture guns and ammunition to the standards of the industrial North. There are many instances of Confederate shells failing to explode or exploding prematurely. A good example of the latter problem occurred at Gettysburg on July 3 during the bombardment preceding the attack on Cemetery Ridge.

2. Shortage of horses. According to the guidelines, six horses were supposed to pull a cannon and its attached limber and caisson. As the war progressed, the norm became four horses in Confederate batteries.

3. Heterogeneity of armament. A four-gun battery might have four different types of cannon. This not only greatly complicated supply problems, but frequently resulted in not having the most effective cannon available where needed.

While it is true that artillery sometimes made a lot of noise without seriously affecting the outcome of many battles, Jennings Cropper Wise, the historian of the artillery corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, defended the artillerymen as follows: The effectiveness of artillery is not to be measured by the losses it inflicts. Any such test is entirely erroneous. Not only do the guns exert a tremendous moral effect in support of the infantry, and adverse to the enemy. . . . They often actually preclude heavy damage from the enemy by preventing him from essaying an assault against the position the guns occupy.