Only one European monarch of note paid studious attention, and that was the Emperor of France, Louis Napoleon, who avidly consumed every scrap of information that reached his desk, and actually took steps to implement, within his own armed forces, a number of American innovations that seemed sensible.
This curious fact brings to mind one of the most-repeated of clichés about the American Civil War: that its ghastly casualties were often the result of the pitting of "Napoleonic" tactics against "industrial age" firepower. Like most such clichés, this one contains an element of truth, but it is also a gross over-simplification, based partly on a simple misunderstanding of nomenclature! The most common artillery piece in both armies was the 12-pounder bronze "Napoleon", but the Napoleon for whom it was named was NOT Bonaparte, but his then-ruling descendent, who standardized the French artillery around that design long after Bonaparte's death. Professional officers in the small American regular army were not, by and large, ignorant of the advances in their profession. The official military publications of all nations were readily available in the West Piint Library, and cadets interested in keeping up with the latest concepts and technology could easily do so. But knowing that times had changed and knowing how battlefield tactics would have to change accordingly are two very different things. Until a major war was fought with modern weapons, no one could do more than speculate on what their effect would be; the early ACW battles were, it is true, fought using tactics little changed from those of Waterloo, but that was not due to blinkered reactionary thinking or a lack of initiative; it was simply that both officers and men had trained with manuals that were no longer congruent with changed realities. Once the bloody inadequacy of 1815 formations and maneuvers became apparent, most commanders tried their best to come up with less sanguine solutions to tactical problems. But offensive technology had lagged far behind defensive countermeasures throughout the entire Civil War, and few of the new techniques did more than marginally reduce the losses sustained in a massive infantry assault.
An illustration of an infantry drill, from Hardee's Book of Tactics, the standard instruction text at both West Point and V.M.I. Why the author chose to depict American infantry dressed in obsolete French uniforms remains a mystery.
So many of the better commanders on both sides were West Point men, that their failures to solve problems no field commanders had even encountered before must perforce be linked to the training they received as cadets. Aside from various forms of close-order drill, and the theoretical study of campaigns by Napoleon, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and a few other celebrity commanders, the cadets actually studied very little in the way of practical tactics. The curriculum was heavy on mathematics, topoghraphical sketching, engineering, and the sort of battlefield movements we today would call "grand tactical", but virtually no classroom time was given to discussions of the new weapons' technology that was about to revolutionize land warfare forever. The assumption still held sway that a successful commander was the one who could maneuver his men close enough to deliver a shattering charge with cold steel; close-range artillery might help open the way - that, of course, was one of Bonaparte's favorite tactics - but little attention was paid to the fact that some of the new rifles being tested in Europe could cut down an artillery battery, or at least hit the horses towing its guns, at a range of 800 yards, not the 100 or so yards considered optimal for the Brown Bess smoothbore musket, a weapon that could certainly put a man down, with its massive lead ball, but only if it managed to hit him. As one British ordnance expert acidly remarked, when asked to write a paper about the advantages of rifles over smoothbores: "Our current infantry musket is reliably lethal only out to the distance at which a strong man may hurl a rock."
Pre-war Improvements to Artillery
It was all well and good to plan a "softening up" bombardment before launching an attack against a well-entrenched enemy position, but while the existing artillery was theoretically capable of doing that job, the ammunition available to fire in it simply didn't have the required lethality. Up until the mid-16th Century, there were only two types of artillery, each designed according to the two most prevalent means of doing damage to your target. And there were only two ways to do that: 1) fire a solid projectile directly into the target (say, a column of enemy infantry on the march) with as much velocity as the safety of your gun crews permitted, and, 2) drop a heavy projectile directly on top of your target, enlisting the force of gravity to multiply its effect.
Given the state of metallurgical science in the mid-18th Century, there were rather severe limits to the amount of propellant (gunpowder) you could pack into the firing end of any given type of cannon. While more explosive gas provided higher muzzle velocities (which in turn equaled greater range, accuracy, and destructive impact), gunners pushed the specified limits at their weapons only at their own peril. One ounce too much of powder, and the firing chamber could blow up in the gun crew's faces, with horrific results. Another, much safer, method of increasing the range of your side's artillery involved designing guns with extra-long barrels (so the propellant gases had a few additional micro-seconds to build up greater "push" against the cannonball). The official rule-of-thumb, for Britain's Royal Artillery at least, was that maximum efficiency could be attained when the gun barrel was 12X to 24X longer than the width of its projectiles. Obviously a 6-pounder "Grasshopper" didn't require nearly as much of a fuss as a barely mobile 32-pounder.
The traditional means of delivering high-angle parabolic fire was, of course, the mortar. Since high velocity was not critical, mortars tended to be short and stubby, and affixed to solid but immobile pedestal mounts, usually, at a 45-degree tilt. Fine-tuning the elevation and air-burst height of their shells was attained by trimming or lengthening the fuse, an inexact science to say the least but one that experienced gunners could in time master to an amazing degree of predictable accuracy.
The explosive shell was invented centuries before it was perfected, however, and although conventional field artillery was perfectly capable of firing shells as well as round shot it was seldom tasked to do so. If the iron shell casing was too thin, it would disintegrate inside the barrel; if it was too thick, it would either not burst at all (usually from burying itself so deep into the ground as to extinguish its fuse), or would do so with insufficient force to harm anyone not in its immediate vicinity. To compensate for this technological problem, gunners had to do the best they could with reduced charges of propellant that yielded a muzzle velocity of only 700 f.p.s.
Advances in metallurgy eventually solved this problem and led to the invention of a new form of field artillery, the howitzer; which was designed especially for the firing of shells. The first recorded use of howitzers in combat occurred the Wars of the Austrian Succession (1740 - 1748) and the new weapon proved its value almost immediately.
At first glance, the howitzer looked like an ordinary field gun. Upon closer examination, however, you could see the differences. Since the howitzer's projectiles caused their damaged through explosive power rather than the kinetic energy of solid shot's smashing impact, the larger the shell's diameter, the greater the damage it could inflict. And since range was accomplished by modifying the gun's elevation to change the parabolic arc of its shells' trajectory, there was no need to boost velocity with heavier charges of powder. Howitzers therefore tended to have a larger bore and a shorter barrel than guns of comparable caliber.
Design drawing for a prototype machine gun, printed in Scientific American in 1841. I could not find an explanation about how this contraption was supposed to work, but the flimsy and baroque-looking sketch does not inspire confidence; in any case, if one was ever built, there is no record of its being tested.
When trying to visualize a Civil War bombardment by shell-firing artillery, the reader should not be influenced by Hollywood's exaggerated images. Shell bursts were rather small explosions - more smoke than flame - and their detonations were more like the sharp "POP!" of a cherry bomb than the deep grating roar of a 20th-Century shell-burst. Nor did the burst itself produce anything like the hailstorm of fragments thrown out by a modern round, A shell fired by a 12-pounder, for instance, typically split into 10 - 15 fragments, some of which might be hurled up to 300 yards away. Although shells fired accurately and in quantity could tear up a mass of cavalry or a column of marching infantry, the lethality and damage of each individual shell was wildly random. If a large fragment struck you with its flat surface, you'd suffer nothing more than a nasty bruise; that same fragment, striking you with its jagged edge, might shatter your hip, severe your arm, or eviscerate you.
While explosive shells were equally useful against personnel and wooden structures occupied by the enemy (despite their relatively small bursting charges, sooner or later a shell was going to ignite something flammable!) there were also two truly brutal types of ammunition available solely for use against human targets.
The earliest type to be adopted was canister. Each round consisted of small lead or iron pellets, suspended in sawdust, the whole enclosed by an ordinary tin can. With an effective range of just 300 yards, canister was usually reserved for a desperate last-ditch defense against masses of attacking enemy infantry. When a canister round was fired, friction and explosive effects caused both the tin can and the sawdust packing to disintegrate as the projectile sped down the barrel. All that emerged, still holding to its original compact shape, was the payload of small, spherical missiles. After a very brief interval (one second or two), the balls began to spread out, sometimes striking each other with sufficient force to sub-divide into three or four smaller "bullets". Depending largely on range, the payload would strike the advancing enemy infantry in a dispersed but still lethal radius, like a gigantic shotgun blast. A single well-aimed canister round could sweep twenty men from the field, usually inflicting hideous wounds on those it did not kill outright.
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