Gettysburg Comic Book

A few days ago, I found and ordered on Amazon, the comic book: “Epic Battles of the Civil War – Volume 4: Gettysburg“. I’d seen this particular comic come up (somewhat jokingly) in conversation among some of Gettysburg’s heavy hitters, and I just had to check it out. The book was the result of a collaboration back in the late 1990s between the Historical Souvenir Company and Marvel Comics, so there’s an expectation that it would be well-produced. Sadly, it’s a bit of a jumbled mess.

Marvel Comics' Gettysburg issue.
Marvel Comics’ Gettysburg issue.

The 48-page book starts off with an overview of the campaign – it doesn’t get to the first day of the battle until page 12 – and when it does, it does a pretty poor job of conveying the flow of the battle. It’s just panel after panel of guys in dialogue. Sometimes they discuss battle plans or results, other times the panels are telling a human interest story, but through short chunks of dialogue that aren’t well-explained. I know the Battle of Gettysburg pretty well, and I have trouble following what’s going on. There are 2 maps in the entire book, and neither one has any troop positions laid out on it. Maps are critical to understanding the flow of any battle, and aren’t comic books supposed to be for visual people?

The hastily-inserted human interest stories – things like Jennie Wade’s death, or Sarah Broadhead’s “mess of beans” – not only break up the flow of the battle, they make the whole thing read more like a collection of facts than an actual story.

And it gets worse when there are things that are suspect in those “facts”. For one thing, the book continues to perpetuate what Garry Adelman calls, The Myth of Little Round Top – we’re told in General Warren’s voice that it was “the key to the Union’s entire position”. General Sickles is portrayed – as is the popular myth – as being cool, calm, and collected after having his leg blown off. The somewhat questionable story of Lt. Bayard Wilkeson cutting off his own leg with a pocketknife is presented as fact. General Heth is shown expressing his desire to General Hill to go into Gettysburg looking for shoes – a story that he almost definitely made up later to make himself look better. And while it gets points for mentioning the oft-overlooked fight at the East Cavalry Battlefield, it completely misses the point of that struggle (it wasn’t because Stuart was supposed to secure the Confederate left – he was trying to attack the Union rear).

There are other things that are visually wrong. In the frame showing the leg story, General Sickles and his aide – both Union officers – are shown in grey coats. During the late-night council of war on July 2, one of Meade’s generals is shown wearing 3 stars (a rank which not only hadn’t been issued to ANY general at that point, but would have obviously out-ranked Meade himself). There is a woman wearing a 12-star flag with 13 stripes (starting and ending with white ones) on her blouse. Come on.

My favorite “typo” in the book comes during the description of the argument about whether to attack the Union position on Culp’s and Cemetery Hills that happens between Confederate Lt. General Richard Ewell, and Confederate Major General Isaac TRIMBLE:

General TRIMBLE loses the argument with General Ewell.
General “Trible” loses the argument with General Ewell.

I’ll admit: at first, I thought this was a mistake. I only knew of General TRIMBLE being present at the battle, but it turns out that I was wrong. After a little research on the Internet, I found out that there was a Confederate General Trible (even though his name is correctly spelled “Tribble”):

The only known image of General Trible (sorry - "Tribble").
The only known image of General Trible (sorry – “Tribble”).

This is the junction where my Civil War nerd side starts to collide with my Star Trek nerd side. I deeply apologize that you had to witness that.

Seriously though, all of these seemingly little things come together to make the comic historically hazardous for the casual reader who knows very little about the battle. Something like this could be a great introduction for people who “don’t like history”, but instead it reinforces many misconceptions and muddies the telling of the story.

The only thing that keeps me from completely dismissing it is that, much like the old Gettysburg movie has for my generation, maybe there are a few people out there who would casually pick this comic up and have it spark an interest in the battle that propels them to learn more. I won’t hold my breath, though.

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.

The Battle of Middleburg

150 years ago today, the cavalry skirmishes on the road to Gettysburg continued with the Battle of Middleburg.

There had been a small skirmish in Middleburg 2 days before, but now a more sizable force from both armies formed near the town. Once again, the result was a measured Union victory, in that the Confederates were eventually driven from the field (even though the Union forces took heavier losses). The southerners left in order to move farther west and strengthen their own screen against the Union cavalry; preventing them from encountering the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia.

There’s one more minor battle coming before the Union cavalry finally gives up and decides to move on to the north.

Mini-Federalist #29 – Concerning the Militia

This is a continuation of a series of posts that are intended to be shorter, more understandable versions of the Federalist Papers. This post deals with Federalist #29, the original text of which can be read here:

Originally published January 9, 1788 by “Publius” – who was in this case, Alexander Hamilton.

Control of the militia is clearly a natural part of providing for the common defense, and protecting peace at home.

It doesn’t take a military genius to realize that having a well-trained and uniform militia is a good thing. A militia with this kind of experience is best equipped to help if an emergency arises, and that type of consistent training can only be provided by the national government. That’s why Congress is given this power under the proposed Constitution (leaving the selection of the officers and the implementation of the national standard training to the States).

Even though this arrangement makes a lot of sense, the opponents of the Constitution have still attacked it. Think about it – if the militia is our best national defense, it should be under the control of the government that is responsible for the national defense. And shouldn’t the government’s control of the militia ease the temptation to create a dangerous standing army? Without some force to use in providing for the common defense, the Federal government may resort to using standing armies more often. Isn’t the most effective defense against a standing army, the removal of the need for one?

In order to make the militia powers look bad, there are those who argue that the proposed Constitution doesn’t allow for the executive to call for the citizens to help enforce the laws. They imply that the use of military force is his only legal option. Of course, we know that they’re talking out of both sides of their mouths. You can’t simultaneously claim that the Federal government is too powerful, but that it is powerless to even call for the citizens’ help. Of course we know that the Federal government has all powers necessary and proper to carry out its responsibilities. It’s completely clear that the power to call forth the citizens is part of that. It’s nonsense to assume that just because the Federal government can use the military, that it is the only option available to it. What kind of people make this argument?

Those people have even gone so far as to suggest to us that the militia is to be feared. They suggest that special units (comprised of the young and impressionable) could be formed for nefarious purposes. Of course, we don’t know what the actual regulations will be on the militia. Let me tell you what I would want if we ratified the Constitution:

Keeping the whole population organized in a militia is a huge task. It takes more than a couple days to really master the skills you need to be successful in the military – we’d need almost constant drilling for everyone. If the people themselves don’t outright object to that inconvenience, our State budgets surely will. All we could really do is make sure the people have proper weapons and equipment, and maybe get them together once or twice a year.

What seems like a better idea is to have a small core of people that will be more highly-trained. This militia can serve in an emergency (maybe well enough that we wouldn’t need an army) and can act as a check against the power of an army if one is ever needed. This is probably our best available option.

I arrive at a very different conclusion than the opponents of the Constitution, even though we’re talking about the same document. I see safeguards where they imagine danger. But we do have to keep in mind, none of us really knows how the militia will actually be regulated.

The whole idea that the militia could be a threat to liberty is so insane that I don’t really know how to respond. Is it just some kind of rhetorical exercise? A kind of trick to get people against the proposed Constitution? Or the product of a fanatical mind? If we can’t even trust our friends and neighbors, we’re in serious trouble. What possible danger can exist from the people in our own community, living and struggling side-by-side with us? If the States are the only ones who can appoint the militia’s officers, what do we have to fear from Federal control of the militia? That fact alone should be enough to allay any fears – the States will always hold the upper hand.

When you look at what these opponents of the Constitution write, their objections read like a trashy novel; full of lies and so many made-up boogiemen.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the examples they bring up about the militia. They assert that men will be sent all over the country, and even used as mercenaries to pay off foreign creditors. At the same time, we are told there will be a massive army destroying our liberties, we’re also going to have militia men sent hundreds of miles from their homes to threaten the people of other States. Do they really think we’ll believe this stuff?

Think about it: if the government can raise an army to use against the people, why would they need the militia for that purpose? Even if they tried to use the militia – to send them far from home, and force them to fight against their countrymen – isn’t it more likely that the militia will turn their fight against that corrupt government instead? Would such a government ever stand a chance if they tried to use the militia like this? It would only raise the alarm among the people. So, is it more likely that the opponents of the Constitution who are raising these objections have actual concerns, or that they’re just trying to foment hate of the Constitution? Even if a tyrant came to power eventually, they wouldn’t be this stupid.

Naturally, if there’s a crisis of some kind, the militia from one State may come to the aid of its neighbor. This happened a lot during the Revolution, and it’s one of the reasons we have a Union in the first place. If the Federal government controls this process, it’s far more likely that help will be there when it’s needed (and before it’s too late).

The Battle of Aldie

As the armies moved north through Virginia as part of what would become the Gettysburg Campaign, General Alfred Pleasonton continued to deploy his cavalry to the west in search of the main body of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of one of the times they stumbled onto Confederate cavalry – this time under General Munford – the Battle of Aldie.

While a relatively minor engagement, it had some interesting consequences. For one, the Confederates abandoned the field after the fighting, moving back toward the west and the mountains to provide a more effective screen. They’d be pushed back even further over the next few days. This “loss” served to bolster the confidence of the Union cavalry after their good showing at the Battle of Brandy Station about a week earlier.

Captain George Armstrong Custer leads the charge at the Battle of Aldie.
Captain George Armstrong Custer leads the charge at the Battle of Aldie.

This battle also sparked the rise of one of the most famous cavalry commanders in American history: George Armstrong Custer. Custer was serving on Pleasonton’s staff as a Captain and was able to convince his commander to allow him to take part in the attack on this day. As the 1st Maine cavalry charged forward, the regiment’s commander fell dead and Custer took the lead in his place.

This act of bravery (combined with the fact that he was already a favorite of Pleasonton – the overall Union cavalry commander) led to Custer’s promotion to Brigadier General before the end of the month. As the youngest General in the Union army, he would lead a brigade of Michigan cavalrymen at Hanover and Hunterstown on his way to the East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg.

Of course, he’s most famous for being killed 13 years later with the rest of his command at Little Bighorn. But if not for his part at Aldie, he may never have become more than a mere staff officer.

Civil War Artillery: Bronze 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. Today, I want to explain how to identify some of the different types of bronze cannons, using familiar examples from the collection at Gettysburg.

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

Model 1857 12-pounder Field Gun (The “Napoleon”)

Overview: The most common type of bronze gun during the Civil War was the Model 1857 12-pounder Field Gun, commonly known as the “Napoleon” since this was an American copy of a French design that was popular with the famous general. There were 244 (though not all made from the US pattern) of these present at the Battle of Gettysburg.

While still a seemingly old-fashioned smoothbore, these weapons represented an innovative design, and were officially referred to as Gun-Howitzers, as they could operate effectively firing at either low (like guns) or high (like howitzers) angles. The “12-pounder” aspect of its name refers to the weight of the solid-shot projectile it would have fired. While a rifled weapon is more accurate at long range, the Napoleon’s large, smooth bore (4.62 inches in diameter) made it very well suited to fire canister rounds, making it absolutely deadly against troops at close range.


Front View of the Model 1857 12-pounder.
Front View of the Model 1857 12-pounder.
Rear view of the Model 1857 12-pounder.
Rear View of the Model 1857 12-pounder.

How to Identify: The most obvious clue from a distance is the color, of course.  Since the Napoleons are bronze, they will be greenish in color. The shape of the gun is smooth. There are no ornamental beads running around the tube like you see on the older 6-pounders. The tube is tapered from the breech down to the muzzle, which is flared out. The breech of the gun is relatively flat on the back, with a flattened area on the bottom of the tube where the gun rests on the elevating screw. Napoleons generally have markings on the front of the muzzle, and a “US” acceptance mark on the top of the barrel between the trunnions. There may also be markings on the breech, and the ends of the trunnions, as well as a foundry serial number on one of the rimbases.

Exceptions: Gettysburg has a few Napolens in the collection that were rifled. There were 6 of these produced, and so far as anyone knows, these were experimental weapons. They can be easily identified at a distance – while they are shaped like regular Napoleons, they have a fin-shaped front sight on the muzzle as you see on the example below:

Experimental Rifled Napolean. Note the front sight at the top. Photo by John Dolan.
Experimental Rifled Napoleon. Note the front sight at the top. Photo by John Dolan.

Fakes: There are a few – about 15 – “False Napoleons” at Gettysburg (and maybe on some other fields, too). Since Napoleons are in short supply, and they share a similar shape, these are actually Model 1841 6-pounders that were modified in the post-war years to look like Napoleons so that they could be placed in battlefield displays. If you look closely, you’ll see marks on the barrel near the muzzle where the astragal was removed, as well as in front of the trunnions where the lip has been smoothed down, and on the breech where the base ring was shaved-down. These guns have also had the first 6 inches or so of their bore increased in diameter to the 12-pound size – the rest remains the 6-pound gage – so that they look right from a distance. This is the easiest clue to know that you’re dealing with a “False Napoleon”. See the section below on the Model 1841 6-pounder to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

The Confederate “Napoleon”

Overview: This is the Confederate copy of the smoothbore US Model 1857 12-pounder design. Because of a lack of resources (both in material and manufacturing capability) these are generally pretty stripped-down copies. There isn’t a muzzle flare on these, for example.


Front View of the Confederate "Napolean".
Front View of the Confederate “Napoleon”.
Rear View of the Confederate "Napolean".
Rear View of the Confederate “Napoleon”.

How to Identify: These are about the same size as a US Napoleon, but there is no flare at the muzzle – that’s the main visual difference. The tube still has a taper from the breech to the muzzle. Since the Confederacy had some difficulty acquiring a supply of copper (especially as the war went on) some of their guns have a dingy gray-ish appearance rather than the bright green you normally see on an old bronze gun. This was due to lead or other metals being mixed-in in place of copper in the bronze (though not in the example above, it appears). Like their US counterparts, these will have markings on the muzzle, breech, or trunnions.

Exceptions: There is at least 1 Confederate Napoleon at Gettysburg that was manufactured by Quinby and Robinson. This particular gun has a very simple, flat astragal around the muzzle. There may be other slight variants.

Fakes: None that I know of.


Overview: Not terribly popular for field use (there were only 33 of all types present at the Battle of Gettysburg), these weapons were designed to lob munitions over fortification walls at a high angle. They have short, very cylindrical barrels. Gettysburg has both the 12-pounder and 24-pounder varieties in their collection.


Front View of a Howitzer.
Front View of a Howitzer.
Rear View of a Howitzer.
Rear View of a Howitzer.

How to Identify: The short, cylindrical barrel is your best indication – you just have to learn to eyeball it. As you can best tell from the “front” photo above, there is no taper to the barrel – that’s your best clue. You’ll also note that the howitzer above has an astragal, a slightly thicker reinforce beginning just before the trunnions, and a raised base ring.

Exceptions: In the collection at Gettysburg, there are 2 Austrian-made 24-pounder Howitzers, currently located near the Mississippi Monument. These are easily identifiable by the large handles on top of the barrel at the trunnions.

Fakes: None that I know of.

Model 1841 6-pounder Guns

Overview: By the time of the Civil War, the 6-pounder gun was basically a pea-shooter. It was not powerful enough to really be considered serviceable in light of the advancement in weapons like the Model 1857 “Napoleon” 12-pounder, or the newer iron rifled guns. The Confederacy couldn’t always be so choosy though, and they had 1 of these guns in service at the Battle of Gettysburg.


6-pounder Gun diagram. From the 1864 US Army Field Artillery Tactics manual.
Model 1841 6-pounder Gun diagram. From the 1864 US Army Field Artillery Tactics manual.

How to Identify: While physically smaller than the Model 1857 12-pounder Napoleon, they share a similar shape. Where the Napoleon is smoothly tapered from breech to muzzle, the Model 1841 6-pounder has a thicker reinforce that drops off sharply to the chase just in front of the trunnions, as you can see above. There is also a raised base ring, and an astragal near the muzzle. These elements give the guns a “fancier” look than the Model 1857.

Exceptions: There are 16 of the Model 1841 6-pounders on display at Gettysburg, but only 1 that is still in original condition. It is located along South Condeferate Ave., across from the Texas Monument. The other 15 have been converted to the “False Napoleon” design that I talked about above for battlefield display purposes.

Fakes: Since these weren’t in heavy use during the Civil War and there is plenty of supply, there’s been no need for fakes.

James Rifles

Overview: Another rare weapon (there were only 4 at the Battle of Gettysburg), the James was a relatively unsuccessful rifled bronze gun patterned on the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle design. Since bronze is a soft metal, it had a tough time holding rifling – repeated firings would wear the grooves down. Unlike the experimental rifled Napoleons, these guns were designed from the outset to be rifled. They fired a slightly heavier 14-pound round.


Front View of a James Rifle.
Front View of a James Rifle.
Rear View of a James Rifle.
Rear View of a James Rifle.
The Breech and Cascable Knob on a James Rifle.
The Breech and Cascable Knob on a James Rifle.

How to Identify: As I explained above, this weapon is a bronze copy of the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle pattern, so it looks like a green 3-inch Rifle in its shape. It has a nice smooth taper down to the muzzle, and that fin-shaped front sight that the rifled Napoleons have. The 2 that are on the field at Gettysburg are along Hancock Ave., south of the Pennsylvania Monument.

Exceptions: As far as I know, there aren’t any variations on the James pattern, although there was a Confederate copy of this design.

Fakes: None that I know of.

In the next installment, we’ll look at some of the iron weapons on display at Gettysburg, and how to tell them apart.

Civil War Artillery: Ammunition

Before we get into more details about the weapons themselves, let’s look at the types of rounds they would have fired, and what they’d have been used for. Understanding these is critical to interpreting official reports from the battles, and getting a sense for what soldiers in the Civil War faced when they were in combat.

There are 5 main types of Civil War ordnance:


A type of long-range ammunition, this is what people commonly think of as a “cannon ball”. In a smoothbore weapon, this type would be round, and probably called a “ball”; while in a rifled weapon, it would be more conical or “bullet”-shaped, and would normally be referred to as a “bolt”.

12-lb Solid-shot from a Napolean.
12-lb Solid-shot from a Napoleon. (Image from my recent trip)

As the name implies, this is a solid hunk of metal (usually iron) that is fired out of the cannon. It was used primarily against buildings or soft fortifications, but could also be fired into trees, turning them into deadly flying splinters, or heavy falling logs for anti-personnel purposes. Fired at a low angle against lines of troops in open fields, solid-shot would tend to bounce through the waves of men, taking them out 2 or 3 at a time as it did. This had more of a psychological impact than a physically-destructive one.

In some cases (like during J.E.B. Stuart’s bombardment of Carlisle) these rounds would be placed in a fire or furnace right before being loaded into a cannon so that they would become red hot. In this way, when fired against wooden buildings, the structures would likely catch on fire.


Another long-range munition, the shell is just that – a hollowed-out ball (for a smoothbore) or “bullet” (for a rifled gun) that contains some form of explosive (in the Civil War, that was gunpowder). The idea was to create a flying bomb that would detonate and spray shrapnel and fire in all directions. This was especially deadly against enemy artillery and munitions.

There were two mechanisms used to detonate the rounds: the newly-invented percussion fuse, or a more traditional timing fuse. These were screwed into the shell at the time of firing, so the cannoneer could select how his fire was going to behave each time.

The percussion fuse was designed to explode on impact. The jolt of the gun being fired armed the round, and then as soon as it struck something – the ground, a building, a tree – it would detonate. Since this was a relatively new technology, and the south didn’t have very good manufacturing facilities, their percussion fuses had a very high failure rate. Many Confederate rounds equipped with this type of fuse failed to detonate.

The timing fuse was used much more commonly. This consisted of a selectable paper fuse that would be ignited by the blast of firing the weapon, and explode after a few seconds. The idea was to time it so the ordnance would explode over top of other cannons, ammunition wagons, or troops so that the shrapnel would rain down on them.


A cut-away illustration of case-shot. (Image from Wikipedia)
A cut-away illustration of case-shot. (Image from Wikipedia)

Very similar to shell, this is a hollowed-out round that contained not only gunpowder, but small iron or lead balls, too. This was shell’s anti-personnel cousin. All the same information about fuse types and their purposes that I talked about for shell also applies to case-shot.

This type of munition was very commonly used (and with great effect) during the Civil War, and you’ll see it mentioned in official battle reports from both artillery and infantry commanders frequently. In some of those reports (especially when referencing rounds from smoothbore weapons) this round may be referred to as “spherical case“.

When used with timed fuses, the round could be configured (by cutting the paper fuse extremely short) so that it exploded just before it left the barrel. This method could be used in place of canister in a last resort, low-ammunition situation. Because of the dangers associated with knowingly setting off an explosion that could very easily end up just a few feet in front of your own men, this was not the preferred use.


This was the really nasty, short-range, anti-personnel stuff. Basically, it’s a large tin can (like an over-sized soup can) filled with saw dust and dozens of lead or iron balls. When fired, the can would shred immediately, creating additional shrapnel. Canister rounds effectively made a cannon into a giant shotgun.

A disassembled canister round. (image from Wikipedia)
A disassembled canister round. (Image from Wikipedia)

As you can well imagine, this was brutally deadly against the types of line-of-battle formations that were used during the Civil War. It certainly gives you an appreciation for what the men in Pickett’s Charge must have been thinking, knowing that they were walking into this type of ordnance.


Grape-shot. (image from Wikipedia).
Grape-shot. (Image from Wikipedia).

Less commonly-used by the time of the Civil War, this was the precursor to the more effective anti-personnel rounds (like case-shot and canister) that came later. In battle reports, this type may simply be referred to as “grape” – a name that comes from its visual similarity to a bunch of grapes hanging on a vine.

There were several variations of this type of munition, but generally the round consisted of medium-sized iron balls, arranged on plates with a rod holding them together. The whole thing was then placed in a canvas sack. When fired, the round would split apart with the bottom plate pressing forward, sending the balls spreading out through the air toward the enemy.

You can see how the less-bulky and awkward case-shots and canisters would be much better than the heavy, overly-complicated grape-shot. Once troops began using trenches and other breastworks that couldn’t be effectively hit from straight on, case-shot (which could be exploded from above and had a much longer range) became the favored anti-personnel round.

So that’s the general overview of Civil War ordnance types. We’ll start examining how to identify the different models of field pieces used during the war in the next installment of the series.

Brandy Station’s 150th

150 years ago this Sunday, June 9, the Gettysburg Campaign started in earnest when shots were fired at the Battle of Brandy Station – the largest cavalry engagement to ever take place in the western hemisphere.

Almost 20,000 horse soldiers (and some Union infantry) clashed in the fields along the Orange and Alexandria railroad, south of the Rappahannock river. While casualties were relatively light as Civil War battles go (less than 1,500 between the two armies), and the engagement basically ended in a draw – with both sides returning to their original positions – it signaled the rise of the Federal cavalry, which up to this point had been easily whipped over and over by the southern forces under J.E.B. Stuart. This role reversal continued all the way up to Gettysburg.

It’s an exciting time of year for Civil War buffs, and with this year being the sesquicentennial, it’s even more so! Stay tuned for more posts as we follow the armies north.

Mini-Federalist #28 – The Same Subject Continued: The Idea of Restraining the Legislative Authority in Regard to the Common Defense Considered

This is a continuation of a series of posts that are intended to be shorter, more understandable versions of the Federalist Papers. This post deals with Federalist #28, the original text of which can be read here:

Originally published December 26, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, Alexander Hamilton.

It’s always possible that governments will have to use force. We know this from world history as well as our own experience. It’s totally natural that there will be revolts from time to time. No government can avoid that and rely only on the rule of law.

In such a case, all the government can do is resort to force. Now, of course the response must be proportional – if only a small rebellion is underway, then only a small force should oppose it – but some force is still needed. Any rebellion would eventually threaten everyone if not stopped in time, so it is within the power of the Federal government to step in if needed.

If an insurrection overtakes an entire State, the militia may not be enough – troops may need to be raised. Some States (like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania) have already considered this in specific cases. Since the Federal government faces the same threats as the States, shouldn’t it have the same power to counter them? I don’t know how anyone that is pro-Union can think it would be bad for the Union to defend itself.

Even for people that favor the plan of 3 or 4 confederacies, wouldn’t the same problem exist for those confederacies as for our proposed Federal government? You have to admit that this same objection would apply just as much to that scenario. Even if we remain as 13 individual, separate States, a time may come when the militia just isn’t enough to keep the peace.

Setting aside all other arguments, isn’t it really enough of an answer to say that in our plan, the power to raise troops is under the direct control of Congress, which is under the control of the people. This is really the best security for individual rights that can be had.

Even if Congress goes out of control, the people can resort to defending themselves with their own weapons. It may sound counter-intuitive, but this would be easier to do against the Federal government than against a State. For one thing, there are not enough organized subdivisions within one State to provide for effective raising of troops. It would be every man for himself. The tyrannical forces in government would be able to take them down piecemeal – perhaps even using the legal system to do it. It would be extremely difficult for any kind of citizen resistance.

The larger the scope of the government, the harder it will be for tyrannical elements to take it over (especially if the people are aware of and protective of their rights). A larger group of citizens would also be more effective against such a government. The other advantage of our particular arrangement will be that the States will always want to defend their power from Federal encroachments (and vice versa). That will serve as a natural defense against tyranny, and if the people throw their weight on one side or the other, they will tip the balance of power. The people hold the deciding vote at all times.

But the State governments will be able to see these problems coming – the people won’t need to be involved too often. There will be smart, engaged people running the States, and if the Federal government becomes tyrannical, they can take action to stop it (at the very least, they can raise the alarm and coordinate actions with other States).

The sheer size of our country will also be a bulwark against a tyrannical military power. Think of how much trouble the British had maintaining military control here. Even if one part of the country is quelled, the others can come to its rescue.

And remember, of course, that we have to be able to pay for an army. With the state of our economy, we won’t be able to afford a huge military force for quite some time. Even if the Federal government gets richer, so will the States and the people. Will there ever be a time that the freedom of the people can be overpowered in this way? I doubt it. Anyone who thinks this is a serious threat obviously isn’t thinking clearly.

Another Old Brochure

A few days ago, I posted about some old books I found among my grandpa’s things. One of those was a Ft. McHenry Visitor’s Brochure from the 1940s. It’s a really special artifact to me.

This was cool because I’m something of a collector of NPS brochures. Though I don’t have very many old ones, I always pick up a brochure when I go to a park. They always have some general overview historical information on them, and usually a map of the park with a driving tour. I have one from every park I’ve been to.

Cover of the 1961 Gettysburg NMP Brochure.
Cover of the 1961 Gettysburg NMP Brochure.

Some time ago though, I got a very special brochure: a Gettysburg one from 1961. I’m not even sure where I got it from – it may have been tucked inside a used book that I bought.

Either way, I’ve scanned it in so that we can all share in the fun.

I’m noticing something about these older brochures that I’m really liking, too – there’s TONS of text. The newer brochures focus on providing big maps and color graphics (usually photos of the people or artifacts associated with the park). It feels like the older ones were there to teach you something, not appeal to your senses. Maybe there’s something to that.

Just take a look at this one compared to what the NPS gives out at Gettysburg today. Talk about night and day, huh?

Anyway, the PDF of the 1961 brochure is here. Enjoy, fellow historical brochure fans!