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Artillery at Fort Washita

“…during the three years that the battery was at Fort Washita the time was entirely devoted to garrison duty and drill.”
James Reilly, Company M, 2nd Artillery.

Artillery Evolution

The U.S. Army developed cannons and artillery equipment rapidly during the decades of the 1840s and 1850s. In the early 19th century, cannons were heavy, practically immobile, and often not very effective on the battlefield. The need evolved for more mobile weapons and new tactics. Mobile or horse drawn artillery units came into service prior to the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848, and their value turned the tide in many of the war’s battles. However, during the 1850s, artillery branches languished until the start of the Civil War in 1861.

Artillery on the Frontier

In the 1840s and 1850s, most of the U.S. Army’s artillery units were stationed in seacoast fortresses guarding harbors and cities. At frontier military posts, before the Civil War, cannons were manned by infantry soldiers or Dragoons (mounted troops), trained in the use of artillery. From 1853 to 1857, the artillery contingent at Fort Washita consisted of Batteries (Companies) M and C of the 2nd and 3rd U.S. Artillery Regiments, respectively. Aside from routine garrison duty, they were to provide instruction to enlisted men and officers in the use of horse drawn, light artillery.

Artillery was not usually taken on frontier campaigns and rarely used against American Indians. The flame, smoke, and thunder from a cannon struck fear into the native warriors. While in garrison, cannons were used primarily as salute and ceremonial guns. A blank was fired in the morning and evening when the garrison’s flag was raised and lowered. Blanks were fired to salute high-ranking officers or to celebrate national holidays or events.

“…up in the morning at six o’clock and go to the stable, and we feed and curry two horses a piece and water them and return to quarters and have breakfast half past seven. Go to drill at nine and drill one hour and at three in the evening the same. At four we go to the stables again, feed, water, and curry.”
John R. Whaley, Company M, 2nd Artillery, Fort Washita, C.N., 1855.

Notable Artillery Officers at Fort Washita

Henry Hunt

Captain Henry J. Hunt, 2nd U.S. Artillery, was ordered to Fort Washita in 1853 with Battery M to instruct officers and men in the drill and tactics of field artillery. He was cited for bravery during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Later, he helped write the manual used by the U.S. Army’s artillery branch. During the Civil War, Hunt became a Brigadier General of Volunteers and Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac, Union Army.

Braxton Bragg

Captain Braxton Bragg, commanding Battery C, 3rd Artillery, arrived at Fort Washita in 1854, also to instruct. He was commended for “gallant and distinguished conduct” at the Battle of Buena Vista, Mexico, during the Mexican-American War. Bragg resigned from the Army in 1855, to protest the dismounting of the horse artillery of which he was a part. During the Civil War, he served the Confederacy and rose to command the Confederate’s Army of Tennessee. 

The Battery

A battery was an artillery unit consisting of two or three sections of two guns each. Mounted artillery, officers and sergeants on horseback, accompanied infantry units. Horse artillery, all men mounted, served with the cavalry. Seven or eight cannoneers served a gun. Twenty-five to thirty men kept a single gun combat ready. Most batteries had an artificer (blacksmith who repaired the wagons and wheels), a farrier (who kept the horses shod), a musician (bugler), and a guidon (flag) bearer. A quartermaster sergeant issued supplies, clothing, and ammunition. During battle he was most often in charge of guarding the baggage train.

Cannons at Fort Washita

Fort Washita’s artillery pieces had smooth bore barrels mounted on a carriage consisting of two wheels and a trail piece. The types of cannon were the little, 12 pounder Mountain Howitzer, the larger 12 pounder howitzer field gun the M1841, and the 6 pounder field gun. During the Civil War, Confederate troops occupied the fort having similar types of cannons.

The Model 1841, 12 pounder Mountain Howitzer saw much use on the frontier because of its light weight and mobility. It could be broken down and packed on three mules or pulled by one or two horses. From 1846-1848, it served with American forces in the Mexican-American War.

The 12 pounder howitzer gun was similar to the mountain howitzer but having a longer barrel, greater range, and larger carriage. It was designed to shoot a large caliber projectile in a high trajectory.

The Model 1841, 6 pounder field gun was the mainstay of the light field or mounted artillery. It was used with great effect during the Mexican-American War and later during the American Civil War.

Artillery Ammunition

Solid Shot

Smooth bore cannon fired cast-iron solid shot, the familiar spherical cannonball. Used to disrupt massed infantry formations and for battering down fortifications. It was of little use on the frontier against mounted Indians in guerilla warfare.

Shell

Shells were hollow, thick-walled, round, iron projectiles filled with a bursting charge of black powder. A shell used a time fuse set to ignite the bursting charge after a pre-determined time of flight to the target. The wall fragmented into smaller pieces to produce deadly shrapnel.

Spherical Case Shot

Also called shrapnel shell, case shot contained small lead balls in the interior of a thin-walled, round, iron projectile. The balls within were embedded in a charge of sulfur or coal-tar. Designed to explode in the air, it also used a time fuse set to detonate above or among an enemy force.

Canister

Canister was a tinned-iron can full of iron or lead balls packed in sawdust. Like a giant shotgun blast, canister was essentially short-range, anti-personnel ammunition that inflicted carnage at close range.

Cartridge

Each projectile type was “fixed ammunition” indicating that metal straps fastened or fixed the projectile to a sabot (wooden spacer) between it and a powder bag. Each type was packed in the ammunition chest with a color-coded paper label for easy identification.

Friction Primer

The friction primer was the initial ignition source for firing the cannon. A small brass tube containing sulphuret of antimony and chlorate of potassia was attached to a longer brass tube filled with explosive black powder. A rope lanyard was hooked to the small tube. The longer tube was placed in the vent hole at the back of the cannon barrel. When the lanyard was pulled the friction ignited a small explosion that ignited the larger powder charge within the barrel.

Limbers and Caissons

A limber was a two-wheeled cart with a framework for holding an ammunition chest. Limbers pulled cannons and the caissons that transported ammunition in the field. The trail of the gun carriage was hooked to the limber axle to pull the cannon. A caisson was a larger framed limber holding two ammunition chests and a spare wheel. It was connected to a larger two-wheeled cart to form a caisson.