The Artillery at Gettysburg

[Note: This will eventually be stored as a separate page for reference purposes.]

There were numerous explosions at various arsenals during the war, and even one after the war ended.  They occurred both in the North [Barthelow Manufacturing in Philadelphia, PA, in March of 1862; Allegheny Arsenal, Pittsburg, PA in November 1862] and the South [Confederate Arsenal in Jackson, MS, in November of 1862; Washington Arsenal in Richmond, in March 1863].

Apparently, outside of killing dozens of young women and girls working in these arsenals and disrupting manufacturing, these explosions did not affect the problems with the fuses in the field that both sides encountered.

Washington Arsenal Explosion

According to Bradley M. Gottfried, in the forward to George Newton’s Silent Sentinels: A Reference Guide to the Artillery at Gettysburg, the Confederates had a whole host of problems and not just at Gettysburg.

“There were several other reasons why Northern Artillery enjoyed a distinct advantage on the field at Gettysburg.  Two were simply quantity and quality: Meade’s Army of the Potomac had more cannon, and they were in better quality [overall] than those that accompanied Lee’s army into Pennsylvania.  Northern batteries usually contained six guns of similar type.  Confederate batteries typically contained four guns, usually of varying types.  To his credit [W. N.] Pendleton wanted to emulate the enemy’s system, but was stymied because he did not have enough artillery to increase each battery from four to six guns of similar type.  Batteries containing mixed gun types posed significant problems because each battery required several different types of ammunition.  Also, in the heat of battle, the wrong fixed ammunition was rammed down a cannon’s barrel, rendering the gun temporarily useless.  This occurred several times at Gettysburg.

“Another pair of advantages Federal artillerymen enjoyed over their Southern counterparts at Gettysburg was the quality and quantity of their fixed [artillery] ammunition.  Simply put, Federal gunners had access to superior ammunition in much higher quantities.  The Confederates at Gettysburg had 20% less ammunition per gun than the Federals.  By the end of the Battle, the Army of the Potomac still had enough ammunition on hand to re-fight the entire battle two additional times, while the Army of Northern Virginia had enough for perhaps one more day of combat.  The relative scarcity of ammunition also limited target practice, so the general effectiveness of Confederate artillerymen tended to be inferior to their Northern counterparts.  The quality of the ammunition was also a major issue.  According to one Confederate artillery officer, only 20% of his fuses functioned properly.  Although this statement might be exaggerated, serves to illustrate that the effectiveness of Confederate artillery was hindered by the quality of its fuses, which caused shells to explode too early, too late, or not at all.”

Newton, George W.  Silent Sentinels: A Reference Guide to the Artillery at Gettysburg.  Savas Beattie LLC, New York.  2005.  ISBN 1-932714-14-6

According to E. Porter Alexander, quoted in Philip Cole’s Civil War Artillery at Gettysburg, the Confederate adopted the Bormann fuse, a mechanical fuse, in 1861 and immediately began having problems.  “Careful tests being made of it, it was found that fully four fifths of the shell exploded prematurely, and very many of them in the gun…Repeated attempts were made to improve the manufacture, but they accomplished nothing, and until after the Battle of Chancellorsville the Bormann fuse continued in use, and premature explosions of shell were so frequent that the artillery could only be used over the heads of the infantry with such danger and demoralization to the latter that it was seldom attempted.  Ernest requests were made of the Ordnance Department to substitute for the Bormann fuse, the common paper fuses, to be cut to the required length and fixed on the field, as being not only more economical and more certain, but as allowing, what is often very desirable, a greater range than five seconds, which is the limit of the Bormann fuse.  These requests, occurring from our own guns among the infantry in front during the Battle of Fredericksburg were at length successful in accomplishing the substitution.  The ammunition already on hand, however, had to be used up, and its imperfections affected the fire even as late as Gettysburg.  The paper fuse was found to answer much better, and no further complaints of ammunition came from the smoothbores.”

Cole, Philip M.  Civil War Artillery at Gettysburg.  Da Capo Press/Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA.  2002.  ISBN 0-306-81145-6

I will note here that examining these books in a somewhat more than cursory manner led me to discover the following:

The Union guns had the same problem with the Bormann fuses, and could not use those guns to fire over the heads of infantry.

About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
This entry was posted in Battle Decsions, Battle Segments, Description, General, Tactics. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Artillery at Gettysburg

  1. Sharron Bortz says:

    Why doe no web site tell me how many cannons were used at the battle of gettysburg?

  2. wgdavis says:

    Sharron Bortz asks why no website can tell her how many cannons were used at Gettysburg. Well, we cannot answer that specific question, but here is what we can answer.

    According to the book “Silent Sentinels: The Field Artillery at Gettysburg” [by George W. Newton. Savas Beatie, New York 2005. ISBN 1-932714-14-6], there were a combined total of 653 guns brought to Gettysburg [372 Union, 281 Confederate] but we believe slightly less than half were put to use in the Battle. Those that were put to use were obviously set to support the infantry, and the cavalry in the case of the “horse artillery.” Most of the rest were either held in reserve, with a few unable to be used but present to supply parts to repair other guns, and some unknown number that were pulled from the reserve to replace damaged, destroyed, or captured guns during the battle.

    Newton’s book is filled with detail, charts, and lists that identify, battery by battery, how many guns, who commanded, and what type of guns were in the battery. Just about any question relating to artillery at Gettysburg can be found in this book. We have found it to be a handy, invaluable, and essential part of our Civil War book collection.

    We would recommend that Ms. Bortz find a copy of Newton’s Book, either to purchase or on loan from a library. It can be purchased through Amazon for [15] new from $21.67 and [7] used from $13.22 at the following link:
    copy and paste the above link into your browser’s address [URL] window.

  3. Charles Haag says:

    email question has any one ran across the name of the on the ground officer who ordered batterys fired at Gettysburg on the Confederate aide.. they over shot the union lines alot those 3 days. i dont mean a corps officer it could be Jr Officer like a CAPT or sections of field pieces lined up as direction of fire to the union lines.

    • wgdavis says:

      I think the man you are looking for is Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, 3rd in his class of 1857 at West Point. Alexander was the commander of Longstreet’s Corps’ Artillery at Gettysburg.

      On July 2, at the opening of the artillery barrage that preceded the Infantry attack by the Confederate right [Longstreet’s two divisions under McLaws and Hood], Alexander was stunned by the accuracy and rate of fire put out by the Union artillery in counter-battery fire.

      Later, during the assault on Little Round Top, one witness, Tillie Pierce Alleman, reports overshot of Little Round Top by CSA Artillery, but little mention is made of this anywhere else.

      On July 3rd, Alexander was in charge of the entire Confederate Artillery [minus what was under Ewell’s command out at Culp’s and East Cemetery Hills]. Well over 100 guns were massed east of Seminary Ridge, some well advanced toward the Emmitsburg Road. During this barrage, which was to prepare the way for the Pickett-Pettigrew Assault, much of the shot flew over the crest of Cemetery Ridge. The front line of the Union troops there were posted behind the low stone wall on the west slope of Cemetery Ridge and not much shot was aimed at them.

      After an initial counter-battery exchange that saw one Union caisson explode, Brigadier General Henry Hunt, commanding the Union Artillery ordered his batteries to slacken and then cease firing and fall back to the east side of Cemetery Ridge one at a time, in a staggered fashion, which led the Confederates to believe they had destroyed the bulk of the Union artillery on Cemetery Ridge. After that, most of the Confederate shot went over the crest of the ridge.

      With the exception of the destroyed caisson, some horses, and the corner of the porch roof of the Widow Lydia Leister’s tiny farm house, those 100+ Confederate guns did little damage.

      I think they would have been better served knocking holes in the fences between Seminary and Cemetery Ridge so the Infantry did not have to climb over them; and to pound that low stone wall behind which was the Union Infantry line. In all, the Union Artillery certainly out-performed the Confederate Artillery at Gettysburg, and by a wide margin. Interior lines of communication, better fuses, supply advantage, terrain advantage, and the innovation of Hunt to make use of ambulances going to the front line for wounded to carry shot and shell to the batteries made the difference.

      But, then, I think Days Two and Three were enormous blunders by Lee, especially Day Three.

      I recommend “Silent Sentinels: The Field Artillery at Gettysburg” [by George W. Newton. Savas Beatie, New York 2005. ISBN 1-932714-14-6] as one of the best books available on the Artillery at Gettysburg. See the previous comment for a link to the book at


  4. Hi, I have an identification question. Recently I walked the path at the “Point of Woods” near the Virginia Memorial, and out at the end of that path, in the “middle” of Pickett’s Charge, are two Napoleons and two Parrotts. What battery was this? There’s a fence in between the cannon, I can’t find anything out about this particular battery!

    • wgdavis says:

      Out of town and away from my library but here is what I did find with the help of a terrific website:

      I went through all the Confederate Batteries and only four candidates survived the “two Napoleons and two Parrotts” parameters.

      From South Carolina:
      The Palmetto Artillery, Garden’s Battery, but they were on the south end of Alexander’s line and engaged in bombarding Farnsworth’s Charge late in the day.

      From Virginia:
      Rowan’s Battery from Henry’s Battalion, also on the south end of the line and also engaged in the Farnsworth action.

      Fredericksburg Artillery, Marye’s Battery, Pegram’s Battalion was probably too far north on the line.

      Richmond Fayette Artillery, Macon’s Battery, Dearing’s Battalion, a bit south to be the one, but a strong candidate.

      My candidate has 4 Napoleons:

      Blount’s Battery, Dearing’s Battalion, with its marker removed for restoration. Here is the direct link to their page:

      If not Blount’s, it must be Macon’s Battery.

      All other Confederate Batteries that closely matched the parameters, were dismissed due to location [Ewell’s Corps at Culp’s Hill, Stuart’s Horse Artillery, etc.], or simply the wrong mix of guns.

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