Tuesday, May 28, 2019

McClellan's Guns of Position: Part 3

This post is Part 3 in a series. Click the hyperlinks to visit Part 1 and Part 2.

     Before posting modern images of the viewpoint of McClellan's guns of position, it would be best to examine those guns' impact on the Battle of Antietam from the Army of the Potomac's perspective. Part 2 discussed the guns' fields of fire and range on the Antietam battlefield before sharing quotes from the Confederate perspective of the damaging fire George B. McClellan's guns of position provided. Let's now discuss the Federals' perspective of that same damaging fire.
     Most, but not all, of McClellan's heavy guns constituted the Army of the Potomac's Artillery Reserve under the command of Lt. Col. William Hays. During the Maryland Campaign, that organization consisted of 27 commissioned officers and 716 enlisted men present for duty. Their armament comprised a total of 34 guns in seven batteries.(1)
Lt. Col. William Hays commanded the Army
of the Potomac's Artillery Reserve
     After deploying the guns of position on the elevation east of Antietam Creek, the gunners went to work picking their targets across the stream. Thanks to their positioning, the gunners were "afforded an ample opportunity to test the efficiency of these heavy field pieces," according to Capt. Elijah Taft.(2) Indeed, the guns of position posted on the Ecker Ridge were presented with an abundance of targets and used their location on the battlefield to their advantage. Francis Palfrey, an Antietam veteran and later author on the battle, wrote of the view from the positions of the artillery on the Ecker Ridge: "Standing among those guns, one could look down upon nearly the whole field of the coming battle, while the view was perhaps more complete from the high ground on the left of the road, where some of the Fifth Corps batteries were placed. From this point one could look to the right through the open space between the 'East and West Woods.'" He continued: "The conformation of the ground was such that these central Federal batteries could sweep almost the whole extent of the hostile front. Some of them had a direct fire through the space between the East and West Woods, and others of them could enfilade the refused left wing of the Confederate army."(3) Experienced artillerist Henry Hunt echoed Palfrey's assessment when he reported of the guns of position that "[t]heir field of fire was extensive, and they were usefully employed all day."(4)

     The usefulness of the guns in McClellan's battle plan is evident from multiple sources. With their incredible field of view and fire, the guns of position could support most Federal infantry attacks on the west side of the creek. While some Confederate batteries did return fire against the heavy Union pieces, it never amounted to the Federal cannoneers abandoning their positions on the Ecker Ridge. Indeed, these guns were able to provide overhead support to the Army of the Potomac's infantry assaults beginning on September 16.
     While often thought of as a quiet day along Antietam Creek, Taft's New York battery fired 179 rounds of ammunition across the Antietam on September 16, just 18 rounds less than what they fired on September 17, the day of the battle.(5) During one artillery duel on September 16, the guns of position became involved "and in an hour they changed the whole complexion of things in front. Two batteries of the enemy were speedily silenced, and a large number of men were seen to fall."(6) The guns supported Hooker's movement across the creek on the afternoon of September 16 and "rendered efficient service" in the fight for the Sunken Road "by pouring in upon their massed forces a constant stream of 20-pound shells."(7) When not directly supporting friendly infantry, the guns of position fired on enemy batteries "to draw their fire from our infantry."(8) Based on archaeological evidence in the North Woods and Mumma Orchard, it seems likely that the guns of position directed most of their fire supporting the Federal infantry north of Sharpsburg throughout the operations along Antietam Creek.(9) Additionally, a post-battle visitor to the Roulette house near the Sunken Road noted that "a 32-pound shell had lodged in the attic."(10) If the eyewitness is correct about the size of the shell, the only guns firing such a projectile was Capt. Charles Kusserow's New York battery.
Taft's Battery position at Gettysburg marked by 20-lb.
Parrott rifles
     The guns of position fired so efficiently, effectively, and often that they drained their supply of ammunition by the conclusion of the action on September 17. In two days on September 16 and 17, Taft's Battery fired 376 rounds of ammunition.(11) Each battery of 20-lb. Parrotts carried approximately 100 rounds per gun, meaning that Taft's gunners had just 24 rounds among the four guns by the end of the battle. Kusserow's 32-lb. howitzers had just 60 rounds per gun for their six-gun battery.(12) Unfortunately for the Federal army, there was some additional ammunition on hand in the ordnance train but not nearly enough to keep the guns sufficiently supplied to support additional infantry attacks in the days immediately after September 17. Lt. Samuel Benjamin's four 20-lb. Parrotts replenished their ammunition chests before becoming engaged on the morning of September 17 "but only received 40 rounds, being all that there was on the train" said Benjamin.(13) More ammunition for the guns of position was sent from Washington but it would not arrive and be distributed until after the Army of Northern Virginia vacated its positions around Sharpsburg. In his second report of the campaign, McClellan listed the lack of ammunition in his "heaviest and most efficient batteries" as one of his reasons for not renewing battle on September 18.(14)
This Frank Schell sketch in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper shows two 20-lb. Parrotts of Simmonds' Battery in action
during the September 14, 1862 Battle of South Mountain
     Despite their effectiveness and overlooked importance in the Battle of Antietam, the guns of position were not prone to escaping casualties. On September 16, Maj. Albert Arndt, commander of the 1st Battalion, New York Light Artillery, fell mortally wounded. Other desultory casualties occurred. Neither were the guns immune to faults. During the artillery dueling the day before the battle, two of the 20-lb. Parrotts burst, one in Capt. Robert Langner's battery and the other in Lt. Alfred von Kleiser's command.(15) Benjamin's Parrotts likewise suffered a few missteps when, from the result of their constant firing, "two guns became unserviceable from the vent-pieces wearing out."(16)
     Overall, McClellan's guns of position are a crucial piece of the puzzle to understanding the Battle of Antietam. Their view of the battlefield allowed them to play an active role--from afar--in nearly every sector of the Antietam battlefield. The cover they provided for the Army of the Potomac's infantry no doubt influenced McClellan's battle plan and their subsequent lack of ammunition likewise impacted the commanding general's mindset on September 18.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this series, which will be a photo essay of some modern views from the Ecker Ridge and other locations utilized by the guns of position.

1. Artillery Reserve Consolidated Morning Reports, September 1862, Entry 876, Records of the U.S. Army Continental Commands, RG 393, Part 2, NARA.
2. “Historical Sketch, by Capt. Elijah D. Taft,” New York at Gettysburg, vol. 3 (Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, 1902), 1296-1298.
3. Palfrey, The Antietam and Fredericksburg, 61.
4. OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 206.
5. "Remarks for the Month of September 1862," 5th Independent Battery, New York Artillery Morning Reports, Book Records of Volunteer Union Organizations, RG 94, NARA.
6. "Events Preceding the Battle," New York Times, September 22, 1862.
7. "Battle of Antietam Creek," New York Times, September 20, 1862.
8. OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 436.
9. Jeffrey Harbison, "'Double the Cannister and Give 'Em Hell,'" in Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War, ed. Clarence R. Geier and Stephen R. Potter (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000), 356-58.
10. Waterbury American (CT), October 10, 1862, "Connecticut-State of" Folder, Antietam National Battlefield.
11. "Remarks for the Month of September 1862," 5th Independent Battery, New York Artillery Morning Reports, Book Records of Volunteer Union Organizations, RG 94, NARA.
12. "Mixed Batteries and Mixed Ammunition," To the Sound of the Guns, https://markerhunter.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/mixed-batteries-ammunition/.
13. OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 436.
14. Ibid., 66.
15. Artillery Reserve Consolidated Morning Reports, September 1862, Entry 876, Records of the U.S. Army Continental Commands, RG 393, Part 2, NARA.
16. OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 437.

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