Tuesday, February 12, 2019

McClellan's Guns of Position: Part 1

     When George McClellan reached the eastern banks of the Antietam Creek on the afternoon of September 15, 1862, one of his first orders was issued in person to his Chief of Artillery, Brig. Gen. Henry Hunt. He told Hunt near sundown "to select places for our guns of position."(1) These guns had a large role to play in the upcoming fight and in McClellan's battle plan.
     A few months ago, I had the pleasure of being able to walk the ground where many of these guns were positioned on September 17 on a ridge owned at the time of the battle by the Ecker family. The wartime Ecker house still stands. This prominent ridge, what I will refer to as the Ecker Ridge, stands prominently along Antietam Creek's east bank and has a commanding view of much of the Antietam battlefield. It is easy to see why it was prized by McClellan and Hunt and why the guns posted there were so effective.
     Since it was such a rare treat to visit, I took plenty of pictures, trying to capture the Federal artillerists' views as best as I could. But before posting those, in what will be Part 4 of this series, I first wanted to take a closer look at these guns of position.
Most of the guns of position can be seen overlooking Antietam Creek on the Ecker Farm Ridge in this map of the Antietam Battlefield Board.

     The guns of position on September 17 consisted of 42 "heavy, long range guns," as Ezra Carman described them.(2) At the start of the day, those batteries were the following (3):

North of Boonsboro Turnpike (20 guns)
Battery A, 1st Battalion NY Light Artillery, Lt. Bernhard Wever--4 20-lb. Parrott rifles
Battery C, 1st Battalion NY Light Artillery, Capt. Robert Langner--4 20-lb. Parrott rifles
Battery D, 1st Battalion NY Light Artillery, Capt. Charles Kusserow--6 32-lb. howitzers
Battery D, 5th US Artillery, Lt. Charles Hazlett--4 10-lb. Parrott rifles, 2 12-lb. Napoleons

South of Boonsboro Turnpike (22 guns)
5th Battery, NY Light Artillery, Capt. Elijah Taft--4 20-lb. Parrott rifles
Battery B, 1st Battalion NY Light Artillery, Lt. Alfred von Kleiser--4 20-lb. Parrott rifles
Battery I, 5th US Artillery, Capt. Stephen Weed--4 3-in. Ordnance rifles
Independent Battery D, PA Light Artillery, Capt. George Durell--6 10-lb. Parrott rifles
Battery E, 2nd US Artillery, Lt. Samuel Benjamin--4 20-lb. Parrott rifles

All but two of the batteries, Durell's and Benjamin's, were part of the Fifth Corps or the army's Artillery Reserve. The 3-in. Ordnance rifles, the 10-lb. Parrott rifles and the larger 20-lb. Parrott rifles were the guns that really packed a punch on any enemy force unlucky enough to be seen within the range of the guns. On the Ecker Ridge north and south of the road, the Federals had 4 3-in. Ordnance rifles, 10 10-lb. Parrott rifles, and 20 20-lb. Parrott rifles. Both the Union and Confederate armies carried 3-in. Ordnance rifles and 10-lb. Parrott rifles with them, so it's the 20-lb. guns that I want to focus on.
There are no 20-lb. Parrott rifles on the Antietam battlefield today but this representation of Taft's Battery, present at Antietam, along the Baltimore Pike at Gettysburg gives one a good sense of the size of these guns.
     Despite their impressive size and reach, 20-lb. Parrott rifles were not as common in the Civil War as one might think. They were, of course, more expensive to make. The Army of the Potomac's artillery chief Henry Hunt apparently had a dislike for them, as well. At the close of 1862, Hunt called the gun's performance "very unsatisfactory, from the imperfection of the projectiles, which...are nearly as dangerous to our own troops as to the enemy, if the former are in advance of our lines."(4) George McClellan agreed with Hunt's assessment of the poor ammunition for these guns. He wrote from the Peninsula, "The Parrott ammunition heretofore furnished the 20-pounder Parrott guns sent to this army has proved unsatisfactory. The enemy thus far fire better than we can. The Schenkl ammunition we have had has, however, done well, and I consider it of the highest importance that a large quantity of that kind be sent here immediately."(5) Hunt's and McClellan's distaste for the twenty pounders stemmed from more than just the ammunition though. During the Battle of Antietam, Hunt claimed two 20-pounders "were disabled by the bursting of the gun near the muzzle."(6)
     For all of the problems of the 20-lb. Parrott rifles, they had their benefits, too. At Antietam, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had few guns that could outshoot McClellan's guns of position. The Army of the Potomac's long arm thus was almost universally longer than their adversaries. By most accounts, the gunners of these heavier pieces served their guns well and provided a constant problem for Confederate infantry and artillery commanders on September 17. These artillerists learned the intricacies of their pieces and put them to deadly effect. While not speaking of Antietam, one Ohioan who fired 20-lb. Parrotts remembered that from one mile away, his gun crew could "hit a target made of poles and green paper...on the fourth try."(7)
     On September 16 and 17, Lee's Confederates would have to get used to hearing from these guns of position. From the perspective of one Federal, this is the sound they would have heard: "The sound of a parrott gun on being fired is similar to the crack of a rifle. It is keener and shakes the ground more than a brass piece of large caliber," he wrote. "The sound of a 20 lb Parrott shell is deep, between a buzz and a groan."(8) That buzz and groan became all too familiar to the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia during the operations along Antietam Creek.
 
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Notes:
1. OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 206.
2. Carman, The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, vol. 2, "Antietam," 355-56.
3. Armaments for each battery were found in Johnson and Anderson, Artillery Hell, 74-75, 77.
4. Cole, Civil War Artillery at Gettysburg, 94.
5. OR, vol. 11, pt. 3, 237.
6. Cole, Civil War Artillery at Gettysburg, 94.
7. Coco, A Concise Guide to the Artillery at Gettysburg, 8.
8. Ibid., back cover.

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