Though artillery units had a less pronounced role in the Civil War, they were significant forces to be reckoned with in some battles.
Two subdivisions of the artillery service were field artillery and heavy artillery.
Field artillery could only fight in one formation, unlimbered—a standard, six-gun battery deployed across an 82-yard front, with each gun about 15 yards apart. Six yards to the rear of each gun, a team of six horses remained attached to the limber, and 11 yards behind that, stood a team of four horses pulling each caisson—the support vehicles—one per gun. Although a few “artillery charges” occurred during the war, artillery almost always fought defensively, supporting infantry and cavalry lines or holding vital terrain features.
Artillery could fire a number of weapons:
- Solid shot—iron balls or bolts that could travel several miles;
- Spherical case—an exploding shell designed to burst at chest level; or
- Canister—a shrapnel charge that scattered 20 or 30 large iron balls in a cone-shaped blast from the muzzle of the gun.
Although primarily a defensive unit, field artillery’s mobility and its wide assortment of ammunition made it a versatile branch of service.
Heavy artillery, a subdivision of the artillery service, played a less pronounced role in the Civil War. Hundreds of massive guns and mortars—some of them capable of firing shells as heavy as 200 pounds—remained affixed to permanent mounts inside seacoast fortifications or city garrisons. These mammoth cannons protected vital supply centers or deterred naval bombardments.
Relatively few major battles occurred where heavy artillery ordnance played a decisive role. However, heavy artillerymen frequently armed themselves as infantry and saw serious combat during the later months of the war, especially during the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns.
Information for this section was contributed by Timothy Orr, The Pennsylvania State University.
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- Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2001).
- Earl J. Hess, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (University of Kansas Press, 2008).
- Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (University Alabama Press, 1984).