History of My Office, Part II: Nike Missile Site BA-43

In my last entry, I explored the history of the plot of land where the office I work in is located. Today, we’re going to start looking at how some of the buildings on our campus came to be. But first, because I’m a fort nerd, let’s take a look at a little bit of the history of the defenses of Baltimore.

Probably the fort that immediately springs to everyone’s mind when you talk about Baltimore is Fort McHenry – focal point of the Battle of Baltimore. Located on Whetstone Point, it was completed in 1800, and was thought at that time to be placed so that it could effectively defend Baltimore from naval attack, and clearly it did in September of 1814.

As weapon technology improved and population expanded, it was decided that the defensive line would have to be moved farther out from the city in order to provide sufficient protection. This led to the construction of an artificial island off Sparrows Point that would become Fort Carroll. Even though it was never fully completed as designed (and it was never tested by an enemy) it served for a number of decades in the middle of the 19th century.

The grand march of technology continued on. By 1886, it was known that the coastal defenses of the United States were obsolete once again. New techniques involving smaller but more numerous gun emplacements, combined with naval mine fields became the preferred approach during the Endicott Period. Baltimore’s defenses were upgraded to this new system right around the turn of the 20th century. Fort Carroll was overhauled, and new installations – Fort Armistead, Fort Howard, and Fort Smallwood (just up the road from our campus) – were constructed. All of these were abandoned as defensive measures by the 1920s because of the arrival of another technological advance: military aircraft.

At first, this new threat was countered with the installation of several anti-aircraft gun batteries at strategic points around town, but when jets – and soon thereafter supersonic jets – came on the scene, it became clear that gun crews wouldn’t be able to shoot the new faster planes down. The Army began researching a different approach, leading to the creation of the world’s first operational surface-to-air missile: the Nike Ajax.


All through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, over 200 Nike sites were established in the U.S. to protect targets of military, government, or industrial value.

The system consisted of a few elements.

The missiles themselves were 38 feet long, with a two-stage rocket motor: the first being a solid fuel booster that would get the weapon off the ground and on the way to its top speed of over twice the speed of sound. Once fully airborne, the booster would drop off and a second sustainer engine would propel the missile to its target up to 30 miles away, delivering three powerful, high-explosive fragmentation warheads.

A ground tracking and control station (called Integrated Fire Control, or IFC) used three separate radars: one to search for incoming targets and determine whether they were friend or foe, one to lock-on to and track the intended target aircraft, and one to lock-on to and track the missile. With the locations of both the weapon and the target known, a ground-based computer (usually located in a semi-portable trailer) would calculate an intercept course and send guidance signals to the in-flight missile by radio. Once the missile was close enough, the detonation signal would be sent, sending flaming shrapnel ripping through the sky toward its target.

A diagram of how the Nike Ajax radar tracking and guidance system worked.
A diagram of how the Nike Ajax radar tracking and guidance system worked.


It is also important to note that the whole idea was that bombers wouldn’t ever make it to our shores (which of course they never did). If everything went according to plan, any incoming threat would be intercepted by Air Force or Navy fighters somewhere over the Atlantic. These Army missile installations only existed to be a last resort in case anything slipped through.

I wonder a bit about what it must have been like to serve on one of these bases. They’re very small, and the work is highly technical. I get a picture in my mind of a group of nerdy guys – what with all the computers, radars, and radios involved – sitting around waiting for doomsday to show up at the door. One of the most interesting things I’ve come across is a few of the recruiting materials for the Nike program. They really play up the idea that you can join the Army and serve in the U.S. near a big city (as opposed to, say, a jungle in southeast Asia). You can go to football games, and meet girls!

A Nike Recruiting Brochure from 1973. Sadly the program ended in 1974.
A Nike Recruiting Brochure from 1973. Sadly the program ended in 1974.


It must have been stressful for the local folks, too. I can imagine that having a missile base move in to your literal backyard would be quite unnerving. Community members had lots of concerns about housing for soldiers, danger from the missiles themselves (the potential for accidents, for example), where exactly these first-stage solid rocket boosters would be landing after they drop off, and even the possibility of their neighborhoods becoming targets of attackers or saboteurs. Luckily, the Army had answers for all of these concerns, and assured the locals that having a Nike site move in next door is really no more dangerous than having a gas station around the corner.

Meanwhile, the soldiers dressed like this for the missile fueling procedure:

The missile fueling procedure. Safety first!
The missile fueling procedure. Safety first!

Baltimore was included in the list of protected areas because of its manufacturing centers, port facilities, and proximity to Washington – in fact the Baltimore / Washington area was treated in many respects as one combined zone since the cities are so close together. Anne Arundel County hosted three installations: W-26 outside Annapolis near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, W-25 near Davidsonville (both part of the Washington defenses), and our own BA-43 at Jacobsville (which was protecting Baltimore).

Our Jacobsville site came to be as the army was searching for “tactically suitable new base sites” around Baltimore, according to a January 5, 1955 article in the Baltimore Sun. By December, construction was underway on the facility that would one day become our offices.

A 1966 aerial view of our complex.
A 1966 aerial view of our complex.

The site seems quite large, but was only around 36 acres in total. Nike installations actually consisted of three sites: the IFC site, the Administration site, and the Launcher site. In the case of BA-43, the IFC and Administration sites were combined on one plot. The important thing was that the IFC and Launcher sites had to be separated by at least 1,000 yards because otherwise the missile-tracking radar wouldn’t be able to keep up with following the supersonic weapons as they launched vertically.

At this point, I should note that the grounds I’m describing here are school system property, and that they are treated as a secure facility – complete with fences, cameras, and various alarms. Please be respectful of those boundaries and don’t trespass.

Let’s have a closer look at each area. First the IFC / Admin:

The IFC / Admin area of BA-43. - <i>Annotations by the author</i>
The IFC / Admin area of BA-43. – Annotations by the author

Among the elements of the site that have remained relatively undisturbed are the concrete pads that the battery’s computer and radar trailers would have sat on:

The “brains” of the base used to rest here. – Photo by the author

On to the Launcher area:

The Launcher area of BA-43. - <i>Annotations by the author</i>
The Launcher area of BA-43. – Annotations by the author

Time has brought significant changes to both of BA-43’s sites. I’ll be detailing some of the reasoning behind that in a future post, but for now just know that these are very out-dated photos.

Unit Insignia of the 36th AA Battalion; The first to serve at BA-43.
Unit Insignia of the 36th AA Battalion; The first to serve at BA-43.

BA-43 was initially manned by the U.S. Army, Battery C of the 36th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion from 1956 through September of 1958. A Captain, serving as the battery commander, would be the ranking officer on-site, with the full headquarters for the battalion – responsible for the Baltimore / Washington defense area – located at Fort Meade.

Unit Insignia of the 562nd ADA Regiment
Unit Insignia of the 562nd ADA Regiment.

In September of 1958 things changed in the way that the Army wanted to categorize these types of units. In the resulting re-organization, BA-43’s garrison became known as Battery C of the 1st Battalion of the 562nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment. I think this change was due to bringing more sites online, and that a battalion-sized unit may not have been able to support the number of soldiers that were now in place in some of the larger defense areas like New York, Los Angeles, or Baltimore / Washington.

Unit Insignia of the 70th ADA, Maryland National Guard; The Last Unit Stationed at BA-43
Unit Insignia of the 70th ADA, Maryland National Guard; The Last Unit Stationed at BA-43.

This arrangement remained in-place for BA-43 until 1960. The Army had started converting some of the bases to use the larger, faster, more powerful Nike Hercules missile (which sometimes even carried a nuclear payload). BA-43 didn’t make the switch to the new weapon. Instead, the Army decided to turn over the sites using the older style Nike Ajax to local National Guard units. This was done to save on some costs, as guardsmen could commute to the base and pack a lunch (removing much of the need for barracks and mess facilities). In March of 1960, BA-43 was turned over to Battery A of the 1st Battalion of the 70th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, Maryland National Guard. This unit would be in control of the site until it was shut down in December of 1962.

I’m pleased to report that the weapons of BA-43 never had to be used against an enemy. As the 1970s approached, the threat from Soviet bombers became superseded by the threat from Soviet ICBMs, and while an attempt was made to create an anti-ICBM Nike missile (the Zeus), it was ultimately decided to end the Nike program in 1974.

I started this post with a brief overview of the history of Baltimore’s defenses because I think that here we have a great illustration of the incredible progression of technological advancement in the 20th century. Fort Smallwood – just at the tip of the peninsula – was completed in 1905, and was thought at that time to be positioned to provide an adequate defense of Baltimore. By 1927, it was abandoned because it was made obsolete by new technology. Thirty years later, the land just 2 miles south of Fort Smallwood – the place where BA-43 was constructed – was only useful defensively as a last resort. Within 6 years, that purpose was even made obsolete. It’s a remarkable pace of change.

In the next post in the series, we’ll find out what became of BA-43 once the Army had abandoned the site. For now though, I’ll end this post with another video. This one is from an Army-produced film highlighting some aspects of life at the Nike site near Upper Marlboro, MD. It’s a pretty interesting piece:

Here are some useful sources that I consulted for general information in putting together this post:

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield

On Wednesday afternoon, I was lucky enough to be in the Leesburg, VA area on a day trip with my family, and had some time to check out a field I’d never been to: Ball’s Bluff.

The battle itself was a fairly small action as Civil War battles go, but is more significant because of who was there and what happened to them. One of the men killed was Col. (and Senator) Edward D. Baker – the only U.S. Senator to be killed in combat – and his death prompted his friends in Congress to take a heavier interest in the war effort, leading directly to the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

The park that encompasses the battlefield (well, most of it anyway) is owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority, and is well-maintained. There is also heavy volunteer involvement, with free tours being run on the weekend during the warmer months, and plentiful maps and brochures available at the parking lot. You can tell that the local Civil War nerds take great pride in this place. It is small, but very well marked with monuments and waysides. There is a network of trails leading visitors through the phases of the battle and key terrain features. It’s really nice.

Among the commemorative features are representations of the three artillery pieces that the Union army brought to the field from across the river. Two of those three are reproductions, but there is an actual Mountain Howitzer there as well – I had never seen one in person and was pretty excited about it.

An actual Ames Manufacturing Co. Mountain Howitzer on the field at Ball’s Bluff.
The specs are as follows:

The muzzle markings on the Mountain Howitzer at Ball’s Bluff.
So clearly this weapon could not have been present for the actual battle in the fall of 1861, but it was nice to see it stand-in. Hazlett’s Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War has this serial number listed as being owned by Kennesaw Mountain NBP in Georgia, so I assume it is here on loan. Very nice of the National Park Service to do that if that’s the case.

If you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit. The hiking trails are nice, and if you’re at all interested in the history, you can’t beat actually being on the field. I can tell you that I’d be pretty uncomfortable with my back against that bluff and a few regiments of Confederates bearing down on me!

Notes on Pickett’s Charge

Today I realized that I have yet to post anything on the blog during this calendar year, and it’s already August! Sometimes, our hobbies need to take a backseat to real life, I suppose.

Back in May, I took my annual trip to Gettysburg for my church’s men’s retreat. Once again, it was my pleasure to lead a tour of the battlefield for many of the other men in attendance. Rather than an overview of the entire battle, this year I decided to focus on the most well-known portion of the battle: the climactic Confederate assault known as Pickett’s Charge.

At least, it seems well-known. There are so many little stories that come together to form the larger story. My research in preparation for the tour led me to explore the impact of the Bliss Farm action on the charge and I’ve come to believe that this often overlooked “small unit action” had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the attack. But I plan to post more about that later.

For now, let me share some of the notes that I took during the early stages of my research. These things jumped out at me as interesting details that contributed to the overall story:

1) Longstreet and A.P. Hill Didn’t Get Along.

Earlier in the war, following the Seven Days Battles, a Richmond newspaper published a particularly glowing account of A.P. Hill‘s combat prowess at the Battle of Frayser’s Farm. This really offended Longstreet who felt that he (and his other men, I suppose) had fought just as hard as Hill in the same action. So Longstreet contacted a rival newspaper and convinced them to publish a rebuttal downplaying Hill’s role.

The conflict remained unresolved, however. Longstreet continued to hold the grudge against Hill – even going so far as to have him arrested for the relatively minor offense of not turning in an after-action report in a timely fashion a few months later. General Lee had to personally step in when Hill took the step of challenging his commander to a duel.

As Longstreet’s character notes in The Movie, of the three divisions involved in “Pickett’s Charge”, only Pickett’s belonged to Longstreet’s Corps. The other two belonged to A.P. Hill’s Corps. If Hill wasn’t going to lead the attack, you’d think that he would at least have a part in planning and implementing it. But there is no evidence of any coordination (or even communication) between Hill and Longstreet on July 3, 1863. Was this the continuation of the year-old tension between these two men? What if the upper levels of the Confederate command hadn’t been consumed by such petty differences?

2) John Gibbon Had Interesting Connections

Brig. General John Gibbon, commanding the 2nd Division of the Union II Corps at Gettysburg (even taking over command of the Corps at one point during the battle) was born in Philadelphia, but spent much of this childhood in Charlotte, NC where his father worked for the U.S. Mint and owned slaves. His wife, Fannie, was a Baltimore girl, adding to his local interest for me.

While much has been said of the close relationship between Generals Hancock and Armistead, and how tragic their meeting in battle was, they were certainly not the only men who shared such a story. General Gibbon was facing down his own family: J. Johnston Pettigrew, commanding one of the “other” Confederate divisions in the attack, was his cousin.

3) The Copse of Trees Was Quite Different

The famous target of the attack – the Copse of Trees – is not the same today as it was in the summer of 1863. For one thing, the trees themselves were much smaller; described as not being much more than 2″ in diameter.

The grove was also larger. Despite the impression left by the modern fenced-in area, the trees actually extended farther to the west – almost to the stone wall. Members of the 69th PA were able to shelter in those trees during the repulse.

4) The Effects of the Barrage Were Different

By and large, the Confederate artillery barrage caused tremendous damage and casualties among the Union artillery. The infantry units were virtually unscathed during the run-up to the assault.

Across the valley, the Confederate infantry sheltering in the tree line took a pounding from the Union counter-fire. The Confederate artillery positions hardly took any damage (though their ordinance replenishment operations ran into major problems).

5) Overall Communication / Coordination Was Horrible

While the morning was spent planning the attack, it seems like the details didn’t make it into the hands of the commanders on the ground who were to actually bring the assault into action. Pettigrew seemingly never got the order to step off. He saw Pickett’s troops moving forward and decided on his own that it must be time to go.

Even worse, his left-most brigades, under Joseph Davis, and John Brockenbrough, even missed out on Pettigrew’s order to begin. It took them at least another five minutes to get their units on the march. An already long-shot attack started with disjointed, un-coordinated lines from the very beginning.

6) There Were Lots of Medals of Honor

To date, 25 Medals of Honor have been given to Union troops and officers for actions during Pickett’s Charge (the most recent just last year on November 6, 2014).

While there were most definitely many acts of valor committed that day, the original requirements for the Medal of Honor were not what they are today. The US military had no other combat decorations, so any act that was felt to be deserving of recognition  warranted a Medal of Honor, so there were more given than modern readers may think are deserved. For example, more than half – 15 of the 25 – Medals of Honor were given for actions surrounding the capture or mere collection of a dropped Confederate flag.

In addition, it was very rare for the Medal of Honor to be given posthumously back then. Only about 3% of the 1,522 given for actions during the Civil War were given to men who were dead at the time of the award. With that, many obviously deserving acts went unrecognized – part of the reason that so many of us are relieved that 1LT Cushing finally got his due, even if it was over 151 years too late.

1LT Alonzo H. Cushing

I don’t think there’s any story more fitting for Veteran’s Day 2014 than that of First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing. Last week, President Obama finally bestowed upon 1LT Cushing the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Angle during Pickett’s Charge, 151 years, 4 months, and 3 days earlier. It is the longest wait for a Medal of Honor in history, and required a special act of Congress to make it happen. I’d like to try to explain in this post why this honor is so well-deserved.

1LT Alonzo H. Cushing.
1LT Alonzo H. Cushing. Photo from Wikipedia.

Cushing was born in Delafield, WI, January 19, 1841. When he was just 6 years old, his father died, prompting his mother to move him and his siblings to Fredonia, NY to be closer to other members of the Cushing family. In 1857, he began his military career at the United States Military Academy, but he was not able to finish all his studies because of the outbreak of the Civil War in April of 1861 (in those days, West Point had a 5-year curriculum). That year, the senior class was graduated early (in order to provide a core group of young officers to the newly-expanding army) and the juniors were given accelerated military training, graduating in June of 1861. These dual classes of 1861 have caused numerous headaches for Civil War historians ever since. Cushing was part of that second, June 1861 graduating class.

He was given a commission in the artillery, and by all accounts, was a fantastic “up-and-coming” artillery officer. He was given honorary promotions (called “brevets“) on three separate occasions, eventually ending up with a brevet rank of Lt. Colonel. The problem with the artillery is that it was a fairly small branch in terms of personnel, so there were not a lot of opportunities for actual advancement. At the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, there were 120 generals present between the two armies. Only two of those generals (one on each side) was an artillery general. The place for people who wanted to get promoted was the infantry. So as good as he was, Cushing was stuck as a lowly lieutenant.

By the time of the Chancellorsville campaign in May of 1863, Cushing had been given a command of his own – Battery A of the 4th US Artillery – consisting of six 3-inch Ordnance Rifles. He remained in command of the unit during the Gettysburg campaign, and it was during that time that he was given the brevet promotion to Lt. Colonel by Maj. General Hancock on July 1, 1863 – not on July 3 as is widely assumed. We’re not sure exactly what he did to earn that honor, but obviously it was impressive enough to warrant the praise of a corps commander. The best guess is that he helped coordinate the defense of the Cemetery Hill / Culp’s Hill line that evening.

Of course the action that he is famous for (and that led to his Medal of Honor) occurred on July 3, 1863 during the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg, best known as Pickett’s Charge.

Prior to Pickett’s infantry assault, a massive artillery barrage was planned by the Confederates with the goal of softening the Union defenses at a specific point where there was a small copse of trees. All the Confederate guns concentrated their fire on that easily-recognized target. Cushing’s Battery A, 4th US Artillery was positioned right at that spot and as a result, took a pounding for several hours that morning. By the end of the day, the unit had lost 1/3 of it’s men.

Cushing himself was wounded by a shell fragment that blew through his right shoulder. Despite the painful wound, he refused to leave his post to get medical attention. It wasn’t long before another piece of shrapnel tore across his abdomen and groin, and the young 1LT was said to have been holding his own intestines in with his hand. At that point, he must have known that there was nothing that the medicine of the day could do for him – he was probably going to die from that wound.

Cushing as depicted in the Gettysburg Cyclorama. Note his left hand clutching his abdomen. 
Cushing in the Gettysburg Cyclorama. Note his left hand clutching his abdomen. Painting from Wikipedia.

In the face of all of this, he stayed with his guns – vowing to fight it out or die trying. As he lost more and more blood, he became too weak to effectively give orders in the chaotic noise of the battle, or even to stand on his own. His First Sergeant, Frederick Fuger (who would earn his own Medal of Honor that day) held him up and relayed his orders to the men. As the Confederates approached the stone wall at the Angle, Cushing ordered that his last two working guns be moved forward to the wall. As he was giving the order to fire a double load of canister at the Confederates, a bullet entered his open mouth and went out the back of his head, killing him instantly. He was just 22 years old.

Obviously, 1LT Cushing performed his duties with great bravery and devotion at Gettysburg, and other men around him – including Sgt. Fuger and the infantry commander at the Angle, Brig. General Alexander Webb – were given Medals of Honor for their part in the defense of Cemetery Ridge that day. So why has Cushing been left out in the cold for over a century and a half? There are two main reasons for this, I think.

At the outset, officers were not eligible to receive the Medal of Honor. Although this was quickly changed, not many officers were given the award early on. Just as one example, the first Medals of Honor for actions at Gettysburg were awarded in 1864 – before the war was even over – but the first officer from the battle to receive the honor wasn’t until 1869 (with most of those coming much later in the 1890s).

Second – and this is quite shocking to us today – the Medal of Honor was generally not given posthumously in the early days. Odd as it sounds, if Cushing had survived the battle, he had a much better chance of immediate recognition.

Combined with the fact that as a young, fresh-out-of West Point officer, he had not been married, and had no children. So by the time that Medals of Honor for Civil War officers had become more common, there was no one left to fight for him. His story faded into the background, known mostly just to Gettysburg buffs and tour guides.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Margaret Zerwekh, a local historian from Delafield, WI, who started a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress over 40 years ago, 1LT Cushing has, at long last, been given recognition commensurate with his service.

The full text of 1LT Alonzo Cushing’s official Medal of Honor citation is below:

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3rd, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing, United States Army.

First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing distinguished himself by acts of bravery above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an artillery commander in Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 3rd, 1863 during the American Civil War.  

That morning, Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee began cannonading First Lieutenant Cushing’s position on Cemetery Ridge. Using field glasses, First Lieutenant Cushing directed fire for his own artillery battery. He refused to leave the battlefield after being struck in the shoulder by a shell fragment. As he continued to direct fire, he was struck again — this time suffering grievous damage to his abdomen.

Still refusing to abandon his command, he boldly stood tall in the face of Major General George E. Pickett’s charge and continued to direct devastating fire into oncoming forces. As the Confederate forces closed in, First Lieutenant Cushing was struck in the mouth by an enemy bullet and fell dead beside his gun.

His gallant stand and fearless leadership inflicted severe casualties upon Confederate forces and opened wide gaps in their lines, directly impacting the Union force’s ability to repel Pickett’s charge. First Lieutenant Cushing’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his own life are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac, and the United States Army.

James Rigby

Captain James H. Rigby
Captain James H. Rigby

Continuing in Loudon Park National Cemetery, we come to the grave of our first Civil War artillerist: Capt. James H. Rigby.

Capt. Rigby commanded Battery A of the 1st MD Light Artillery. At Gettysburg, Rigby’s battery was part of the Fourth Volunteer Brigade in the Artillery Reserve, and his six 3-inch Ordnance Rifles were posted on Powers’ Hill, firing in support of the Union operations on nearby Culp’s Hill on July 2 and 3.

This was not exactly a front-line posting, and the unit’s casualty figures reflect that. The battery brought 106 men to Gettysburg, and did not report any losses in the action.

Over the last few years, Powers’ Hill has been cleared to return the ground to the look it had in 1863, and some new property has been acquired in that area by the park, but I still don’t think most visitors are aware of the monuments up there. The hill is not included on the auto tour route – not even as a drive-by – so for now, the contributions of these men will go largely unknown by the general public.

Capt. Rigby’s grave is located in the southern part of the cemetery, under a large, old tree. It’s easily recognizable from a distance:

Location of James H. Rigby's gravesite.
Location of James H. Rigby’s gravesite. Map by Apple Maps.
James H. Rigby's Monument.
James H. Rigby’s Monument. Photo by the author.
The Front of James H. Rigby's Monument.
The Front of James H. Rigby’s Monument. Photo by the author.
The Rear of James H. Rigby's Monument.
The Rear of James H. Rigby’s Monument. Photo by the author.

The Winans Steam Gun

After gaining control of the junction and bridge at Relay, Brig. General Butler got word that a new experimental weapon was being moved out of Baltimore – probably by horses along the old National Road (today known as Frederick Road, MD 144) – toward Harper’s Ferry with the plan of selling it to the Confederacy. This weapon was the Winans Steam Gun.

The Winans Steam Gun in the hands of Union troops. Engraving from Wikipedia.
The Winans Steam Gun in the hands of Union troops. Engraving from Wikipedia.

This was a steam-powered, self-propelled cannon that was capable of a very high rate of fire. No gunpowder was used – the balls were “fired” by the centrifugal force generated by a steam turbine. People who had seen it demonstrated in Baltimore prior to the war thought that it had great potential as a weapon against infantry and artillery. One observer wrote this in the Baltimore News after seeing a test firing:

Against a brick wall about a foot thick, heavy timbers, each a foot thick, were piled up. When finally placed ready for the test, there was about three feet of wood and one foot of brick ready to receive the discharge of the gun. The gun was some 30 or 40 feet away from the target. At a given signal an awful uproar was begun. In less than a minute the gun had been stopped. In that short time the heavy timbers had either been smashed or thrown into the air. Every one of us was convinced that the discharge would have mowed down a whole regiment.

Clearly, it would be a bad thing if this technology fell into enemy hands. On May 11, 1861, Butler halted the noon train from Baltimore to Ellicott’s Mills (present day Ellicott City) to commandeer it. As many as 500 men from the 6th MA, as well as 2 of Cook’s guns were quickly loaded on the train in the hopes of intercepting the experimental weapon.

The gun was in fact traveling along the Frederick Road in a mule-drawn wagon. Its smugglers were trying to disguise it as a piece of farming equipment in an attempt to avoid suspicion.

Butler’s efforts paid off. The Union troop train arrived just in time to stop the contraband in its tracks somewhere between Illchester and Ellicott’s Mills and the smugglers (including the gun’s probable inventor, Charles S. Dickinson) hardly put up a struggle. Four of them were immediately arrested. The weapon and prisoners were brought back to Relay.

The Union forces at Relay were very interested in testing-out their new capture, but found the results to be much less than what they expected. Aside from the issues they saw of how to keep the weapon properly fueled and loaded with ammunition in the midst of a battle situation, the performance of the gun was just pitiful. Rounds seemed to dribble out of the barrel haphazardly. It was hard to imagine this as a purported super weapon.

What these men did not know was that there was a second wagon traveling with the gun, and several of the important parts of the gun had been removed and placed in the other wagon prior to departing Baltimore. When the gun itself was captured, the second wagon escaped. The steam gun was useless to the Union forces, but in that, it also left the impression that the technology itself was flawed and further attempts to develop the weapon went nowhere.

Of course no one knew it at the time, but this was the most excitement that the area would see during the war. The B&O was too important not to be defended, and troops would rotate through this post until the end of the war, but the feared attacks never came.

In the next post, we’ll finally bring it back to Peter Thorn.

Securing Relay

In the last post, we looked at the Baltimore Riot that took place early in the war. To Union forces in 1861, Baltimore was hostile territory.

Not wanting a repeat of the experience that the 6th MA had, the next group of troops coming in from the north stopped at Perryville, MD and boarded boats. They were heading to Annapolis – using the Chesapeake Bay to route around the potentially-troublesome city of Baltimore.

These men were from the 8th MA, under the command of Brig. General Benjamin Butler. His orders were to open up the route into Washington, D.C. from the north so that troops and supplies could continue to flow.

Butler landed his men at the Naval Academy on April 21, 1861, and began the work of repairing the sabotaged railroads – first, the line leading from Annapolis to the Washington branch of the B&O at Annapolis Junction, and then the Washington branch itself. Once those lines were secured, Butler turned his attention to the north, taking possession of Relay – a very small town in the Patapsco river valley – on May 5, 1861 with the 6th MA, the 8th NY Militia, and Major Cook’s battery of Boston Light Artillery.

Relay was especially important because it is the northernmost point on the Washington branch of the B&O. It’s where the line began, and where it met with the main line from Baltimore to points west in the Ohio valley. And – most importantly – at the time of the Civil War, this was the ONLY railroad going into Washington, D.C.

The Thomas Viaduct. Engraving from Wikipedia.
The Thomas Viaduct. Engraving from Wikipedia.

In order for the Washington branch to be built in the first place, a bridge had to be constructed to cross the Patapsco river. That bridge is the Thomas Viaduct – named for the first President of the B&O railroad – and it remains the longest stone-arch bridge on a curve in the world, still carrying trains on their way to the capital to this day.

This bridge and the junction next to it were of extreme strategic importance to the Union cause. The army HAD to control this place, and being just 7 miles from Baltimore, it was facing real threats.

The Bouquet Battery: Two of Cook's guns overlooking the Thomas Viaduct from the Howard County side.
The Bouquet Battery: Two of Cook’s guns overlooking the Thomas Viaduct from the Howard County side.

Butler placed his guns and deployed his 2,000 troops along the tracks in the area to ensure that no more sabotage could take place. All trains out of Baltimore were stopped and inspected to see if they were carrying men or materiel destined for the Confederacy, but this policy didn’t last long. At the request of the owners of the B&O, Butler agreed to back down somewhat and only perform random searches.

There will be one more exciting incident along the B&O, though. A tip about a secret Confederate weapon will cause some of Butler’s men to leave Relay to find and capture some potentially-threatening cargo.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 1:00pm – The Grand Barrage

In preparation for the infantry assault against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, General Lee ordered a massive artillery barrage. It would be the largest of the war.

Nearly 150 guns from all three Confederate corps would participate. With any luck, the concentrated fire of all these weapons would damage the Union guns and cause the infantry to flee in panic. It would have to be perfectly executed, as the Confederates had little ammunition to spare.

Lee gave Longstreet overall command of the attack, and he assigned the artillery portion to Col. E. Porter Alexander, the I Corps artillery chief. Alexander was a brilliant up-and-comer in the Army of Northern Virginia, and had the ability to look at situations very objectively. Before the day was out, he’d be placed in a very awkward situation.

150 years ago right now, the firing commenced. It didn’t take long for the Union guns to respond. With both sides blasting away, the area around Gettysburg became a loud, smokey mess – so loud in fact that the barrage was heard as far away as Washington, DC and Pittsburgh, PA. It was impossible to see what the enemy was doing through all of that, and whether your own fire was having an effect.

Despite this fog of war, it also didn’t take long for the Brig. General Henry Hunt – Chief of Artillery for the Army of the Potomac (and the man who literally wrote the book on artillery before the war) – to recognize that this wasn’t merely an artillerist’s duel. This was the clear prelude to an infantry assault. The Rebels would charge across those fields as soon as they thought they’d inflicted enough damage – Hunt was sure of it. He ran around to each of his battery commanders and told them to slow down. The infantry commanders were furious – the artillery should be returning fire vigorously!

There was a method to Hunt’s seeming madness. Not only would slowing down conserve ammunition for the coming infantry attack, it would lull the Confederates into thinking that there was a steadily decreasing number of guns firing back at them – perhaps they were damaging the Union defenses!

After an hour and a half of this, the Confederates were running low on ordnance, and were taking too much damage from the Union return fire. The Rebel artillery was going to be forced to stop soon.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 12:30pm – Confederate Cavalry in the East

While the fighting resumed on Culp’s Hill early in the morning, General Lee came up with his strategy for the day’s action.

Originally, he wanted to repeat the attacks on the left and right from yesterday, hoping that more ground could be gained this time. Lt. General Longstreet convinced him that the Union left was well-situated on the ridges south of town. Lee changed his strategy – he would launch an attack that would become famous against the center of the Union line, and his cavalry would have a part to play this time.

The Confederate artillery would break up the Union defenses, the infantry would push the Yankees off Cemetery Ridge, and the cavalry would be waiting to mop up the remains.

J.E.B. Stuart was to go around the Union right, probing for the rear of the enemy. Once he found it, he should signal General Lee to let him know that the cavalry was in position.

150 years ago right now, four cannons fired off on Cress Ridge near the Rummel Farm – one blast in each compass direction. This was the signal. Unfortunately for Maj. General Stuart, his commander wasn’t the only person to hear it.

Civil War Artillery: Iron Guns

One of the things that I’ve become more interested in over the years is artillery – especially the artillery that was used during the Civil War. I started a series a few months ago to explain some of the basics of these weapons – it is best to see that article first to get familiar with the “anatomy” of the guns. Last time, we looked at some examples of bronze guns from the period. Today, I want to explain how to identify some of the different types of iron cannons, using familiar examples from the collection at Gettysburg.

There are a few main types of iron guns that we’ll be looking at today:

Parrott Rifle

Overview: Designed by Robert Parker Parrott at the West Point Foundry, this weapon was popular in the US arsenal because it was relatively cheap to make. The main part of the gun tube was made from cast iron, and the thicker reinforce around the breech was made from wrought iron. Unfortunately, metalworking technology wasn’t what it is today, and the foundries of the period had trouble fitting the two metals together. Sometimes a gap or bubble would form under the reinforce, and after repeated use, the cannon might burst at that seam. This was more of a perception problem than a real one, but the reputation stuck nonetheless.


Front View of the Parrott Rifle.
Front View of the Parrott Rifle.
Rear View of the Parrott Rifle.
Rear View of the Parrott Rifle.

How to Identify: Look for black guns with a thick band around the reinforce. They’re very unique-looking. Actual pieces will have markings on the muzzle, and an “R.P.P” (for Robert Parker Parrott) and “W.P.F” (for West Point Foundry) on the end of the trunnions. There are both 10-pounder and 20-pounder versions at Gettysburg, with the 20-pounders (like the one pictured above) obviously being somewhat larger. Some of the earlier 10-pounders have a slight muzzle flare. There are plenty of fake Parrotts on the field, too.

Exceptions: Not all the guns of this design were made at the West Point Foundry. There were Confederate copies made at Tredegar and other facilities, and once you’ve seen one, you can tell that they are definitely of a lesser quality. There are a couple Confederate “Parrotts” on the field at Gettysburg right below the Longstreet Tower.

Fakes: As I said above, there are plenty of fakes when it comes to Parrotts. These can be hard to spot from a distance, though. Of course, any gun without any discernible markings on the muzzle, trunnions, or breech is suspect. The best long-distance indication that I’ve found is a horizontal casting seam running the length of the gun. Real cannons aren’t cast in halves like this:

A Fake "Parrott". Note the casting seam running down the length.
A Fake “Parrott”. Note the casting seam running down the length.

I also noticed on this particular example that the muzzle swell is quite severe. It’s got a short length and a wide diameter. Real Parrott muzzle swells are more gradual.

Model 1861 3-inch Ordnance Rifle

Overview: An advanced weapon for the time, this was a very strong and light gun made entirely from wrought iron. These technologically-advanced weapons were made by “P.I.Co.” or the Phoenix Iron Company, headquarted just northwest of Valley Forge, PA.


Front View of a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.
Front View of a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.
Rear View of a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.
Rear View of a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.
The Cascable and Knob on a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.
The Cascable and Knob on a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.
Another Cascable, this time with a rear sight.
Another Cascable, this time with a rear sight.

How to Identify: Being iron weapons, the guns on display are all painted black. The 3-inch Ordnance Rifle has a very sleek shape, with a smooth taper going from breech to muzzle. This is the same shape we talked about for the 14-pounder James Rifle in the previous post. It’s obviously pretty easy to tell the difference between this and the Parrott, as there’s no reinforcing band.

Exceptions: Every 3-inch Ordnance Rifle I’ve seen is the same design. Gettysburg does have at least 1 that was made in 1866, so we know for a fact that it was never actually used in battle. There were Confederate copies, too, but I don’t think that Gettysburg has any out on the field.

Fakes: Just like the fake Parrotts, fake 3-inch Ordnance Rifles lack muzzle, trunnion, and breech markings and will also have a casting seam running the length of the barrel. Spotting them from a distance is even easier though, as they have a totally different, much pointier shape at the back. Just look at this cascable and compare it to the real one above (also – see the casting seam?):

The Cascable and Knob on a fake 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.
The Cascable and Knob on a fake 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.
Whitworth Rifle

Overview: My favorite guns on the field at Gettysburg, these are totally unique British-made weapons. The Confederates had 2 of these at the Battle of Gettysburg, and there are 2 on the field today (though probably not the actual ones that were used in 1863) placed near where they were for the battle – on Oak Hill right behind the Eternal Light Peace Memorial.

The Whitworth design was so advanced, it was actually ahead of its time. The most obvious thing about it is that it’s a breechloader like modern cannons. The gun had a maximum range of almost 6 miles, but this wasn’t as useful as it sounds. In an age when you’re only going to fire at what you can see, any range more than a mile is pretty much wasted. In the case of the Whitworth, the extra range was used for counter-battery work – these were used to pick off enemy cannons outside of the enemy’s range, and they were deadly accurate when used like this.

All of this technology wasn’t without problems of course: the breech didn’t seal properly all the time causing gases to leak out, weakening the force of the explosion. The hinge that opened the breech would seize up frequently if not properly maintained, forcing the gun to be used as a muzzleloader instead. The barrel wasn’t rifled in the traditional sense, but was instead a very severely twisted hexagonal tube. This required very specialized ammunition, which was another problem – especially for the blockaded and agrarian Confederacy. That severe twist also exerted so much torque when the weapon was fired, that the wooden wheels frequently broke off of the gun carriages.


Front View of the Whitworth Rifle.
Front View of the Whitworth Rifle.
Rear View of the Whitworth Rifle.
Rear View of the Whitworth Rifle.

How to Identify: A very cylindrical weapon, the initial indicator on these is the ring around the barrel at the trunnions. Viewed from the rear, the obvious feature is the opening breech. There are two knobs on the breech for cranking the back open, and a giant hinge on the right side.

Exceptions: I’ve only ever seen the 2 that are at Gettysburg. So far as I know, they all share the same design. One of the ones that Gettysburg has does have a field modification, though. There is a guard on the back of the breech to keep the friction primer from popping out when the weapon was fired. That was not part of the original design.

Fakes: I’ve never encountered any fake Whitworths, though I’ve seen people build their own re-creations of the weapon from old plans.