“6-pdr. rifled gun”

The McComas battery, Company B of the Wise Artillery, put three guns in action at Sawyer’s Lane: two smoothbore bronze 6-pounders and a rifled gun. Their fourth gun, another 6-pounder, guarded the bridges crossing the Turner Cut of the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Pasquotank River. Two of the guns stood astride the county road leading from the court house at Jonesboro to South Mills, commanding the approach followed by the Federal forces for over a mile. The third stood to the right of these two in Sawyer’s Lane, fifty yards west of its intersection with the county road.

The battery’s three bronze smoothbore 6-pounders saw action in what is now West Virginia in 1861. They were the old hands of the battery. The newcomer, an iron rifled six-pounder, joined the battery shortly after the McComas battery’s arrival in Norfolk in late January 1862, just in time to be sent southward to the defense of Roanoke Island. Due to transportation issues, the battery, sporting six guns, ended up in Elizabeth City instead and was there during the Battle of Elizabeth City. Two 6-pounder bronze guns were subsequently split off as a section under Company D of the Wise Artillery, later  forming the core of the Goochland-Turner Battery.

The iron rifled gun arrived in the battery sans caisson, so she lacked the normal compliment of three ammunition boxes that the 6-pounders boasted. Her gun crew came to know her affectionately as “Old Kate” even though she was the youngest gun in the battery. Colonel Henningsen, commander of the Wise Artillery’s four companies, described her as an “iron 6-pounder” when she was added. Six-pounder indeed!

No run-of-the-mill six-pounder, “Old Kate” was rifled, giving her more range and accuracy than the older smoothbores. No mention of her bore appears in the records, but the evidence points to her being a 3-inch rifled cannon and, since she was already in service in January of 1862, she probably had twelve rifling bands. Three-inch rifled guns of later manufacture used six or seven bands.

How do we know she had a 3-inch bore? She left evidence behind: a 3-inch Archer bolt and a 2.9-inch Read-pattern Parrott shell, both recovered from the section of the battlefield that was wooded at the time of the battle. Contemporary maps in New York City newspapers labeled this area as “woods heavily shelled.” A third piece of ordinance probably fired by “Old Kate” passed through four walls in the Earl Meiggs house, used as Reno’s headquarters during the battle and a hospital afterwards. This conical piece of ordinance disappeared from its display case in front of the Dream House on Old Swamp Road sometime in the 1980s or 1990s. Also, David A. French, commander of the battery after McComas’ death at South Mills, ordered 140 rounds of “3-inch shell” and charges on a requisition on 10 June 1862, indicating the battery had a 3-inch gun.

Was she a 3-inch ordinance rifle? A Parrott gun? Or a 6-pounder casting drilled with a 3-inch bore? 3-inch ordinance rifles were not readily available in January 1862 and 10-pounder Parrott rifles still had a 2.91-inch bore, too small to have fired the Archer bolt. Tredegar Foundry in Richmond started turning out 6-pounder castings drilled with a 3-inch bore in 1861. Colonel Josiah Gorgas, Chief of Ordinance of the Confederate States, wrote to Tredegar on 26 December 1861: “All 6-pounder guns are to be bored and rifled 3-inch.” Given the transportation connections of the day, this seems the most likely scenario.

Up close and personal

“After leaving the cornfield and had just entered the woods a cannon ball came directly for me and as we all had dodged about 40 or 50 while in the cornfield; I dodged that one and it passed over my back within 2 inches of me and struck Dick Martin who did not go down as I did. I was No. 1 Dick No. 2.  He marched at my right side and as he went down the ball struck on the back of and near the top of his right shoulder knocking him over on his right side. Bruising him considerable and at first stunning him some little. Had it hit him square it would have killed, no doubt of it at all. In an hour’s time Dick was with us again all right excepting his left arm hung listlessly by his side.”

Sergeant Thomas Parker shared this story in a letter written April 27, 1862. Parker became Captain of Co. I, 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers, later in the war.

 

And now for the rest of the story…

In the post “Artillery Duel“, the following story appeared:

The Confederates fired a number of ricochet shots down the road, one of which bounded over General Reno. According to Private Edwin R. W. Seckel, “a shell struck my marker flag and cut off about a foot off the end and  was about 5 or 6 in. from taking off my right leg….”  Seckel belonged to Co. A, 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers, and was part of the advance guard.

Now for the rest of the story. Captain Linn of the 51st Pennsylvania related this:

“Morris had scarcely passed when a gun fired behind the smoke, a round ball, a six-pounder, struck in the middle of the road, ricocheted over the General’s head, bounding away into the field on our left. Then one struck in our midst, hitting the marker’s staff mid-way, toppling him into the ditch at the roadside. He came out of it dripping, holding the flag in one hand and the ferule in the other, with a dazed foolish expression in his face.

And that’s the rest of the story.

Curtis Flanders

Curtis Flankers was the first member of the 6th New Hampshire killed during the war. He marched in the No. 2 position in the front rank. No. 2 in the rear rank, directly behind Flanders,  reported:

“I saw the ball strike in the sand ahead of us and fell flat on the ground, but he stood and took the ball, and as he fell, came down over me.”

The McComas Battery gunners seem to have fired many ricochet shots. They fired a number down the road to start the fight and fired many more more as the 51st Pennsylvania crossed the open field during their flanking move. Apparently there were no spherical explosive shells in the 6-pdr. limber chests, so the two bronze 6-pdrs. made do with solid shot. Flanders was the first (and only) man killed by solid spherical shot in the battle.

Hosea Towne also wrote a description of Flanders’ dead in a letter home:

“They fired a 6-pdr. at the colors which took effect mortally wounding C. Flanders of Co. I. The shot struck him in the thigh near the body. He died that night.”

George E. Upton’s letter to his wife echoes the one written by Hosea Towne:

“When our Colors came in sight of them, they aimed their cannon upon us, and for a few minutes the way the ball, shell, and grape-shot came was not slow. One shell hit a man in the thigh not but a few feet from me, giving him a mortal wound – name Curtis Flanders.”

Upton’s letter clears up one question: Why was Martin Van Buren Davis listed as missing? Upton relates:

“We had one man in our Co. give out, and he was put upstairs in the hospital and went to sleep. Owing to our coming away in such a hurry he was forgotten, and so we suppose he is now a prisoner. His name is M. V. B. Davis.”

It appears Davis returned to the ships with the group Rev. Conway of the 9th NY gathered up the day after the battle. He is listed in the regimental history as “gained from missing,” meaning he showed up later.

The McComas battery

I became interested in the Giles Artillery (aka McComas’ Battery or French’s Battery) because they were part of the Battle of South Mills, fought near my hometown. Researching their early history in what is now West Virginia, I found they were issued four bronze 6-pdrs. and at a later date two 12-pdr. howitzers, making a total of six guns in the battery. Captain William W. McComas commanded this battery (Company B, Wise Legion Artillery) until he was killed at South Mills, NC, on 19 April 1864.
When Wise was sent eastward to Richmond and then was ordered to defend Roanoke Island, McComas only had four brass cannons with him; two (supposedly the 12-pdr. howitzers) had been left with General Floyd back in the mountains. Yet, when Colonel Henningsen arrived in Norfolk, he reported having five cannons and five caissons belonging to the McComas battery.
A sixth gun was added to the battery while it was still in Norfolk, reportedly an iron 6-pounder. Henningsen was unable to get this battery to Roanoke Island before the island was captured on 8 February 1862. Henningsen was at Canal Bridge on the Coinjock Cut of the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal awaiting transportation across the sounds when Roanoke Island was surrendered.
Henningsen left for Elizabeth City, where he arrived before night on the 9th. The battery was present for the Battle of Elizabeth City, a naval battle, on April 10th but fired no shots. After retreating westward into Perquimans county, the battery followed the desert road through to South Mills, where they joined up with Colonel Ambrose R. Wright’s 3rd Georgia regiment. After maneuvering around in Pasquotank, Camden, and Currituck Counties, the battery finally went into camp (with the rest of the Wise Legion not captured at Roanoke Island) at Great Bridge, Virginia.
Ordered back to South Mills, the McComas battery remained in the vicinity of Elizabeth City in expectation of a Federal movement to destroy the locks at South Mills. The Union troops landed below Elizabeth City on the Camden side of the river at a landing called Chantilly and marched up the opposite side of the river from where the McComas Battery and seven companies of the 3rd Georgia were posted. These units retreated back to the South Mills area, joining the three companies already there.
When the battle was fought, one gun was left to guard Canal Bridge, the approach from Elizabeth City. Three were placed on the county road that led to the Camden Court House near where Sawyer’s Lane intersected it. Two guns were placed in the narrow roadbed; the third was placed fifty yards to the right on Sawyer’s Lane. Two houses with their outbuildings were burned to provide a better firing area. The firing field was about one mile long and 300 yards wide on each side of the county road.
Three Confederate artillery projectiles have been found on the battlefield to date: one 3-inch Archer bolt, one 2.9-inch Read-Parrott shell, and one described as being conical, not a spherical cannonball. Unfortunately, that piece of history seems to have disappeared prior to 2000 so it cannot be positively identified.
McComas died from a Minnie ball wound near the heart during the battle. Lt. David A. French took command of the battery. In his battle report to General Huger, French reported he had three 6-pdrs. and one rifled gun. All three of the Confederate projectiles recovered thus far were ammunition for a rifled gun. Apparently the gun was an iron 3-inch rifle. Where did it come from?
After the battle, 140 3-inch explosive shells and charges were requisitioned and received by Lt. French. He definitely had a gun in his battery that fired 3-inch ammunition. Was the iron gun received in Norfolk misidentified by Henningsen? What about that fifth gun he reported arriving on the train, complete with caisson?
Two guns were separated from the McComas battery between the Battle of Elizabeth City and South Mills, but I haven’t located the order that brought this about yet. If they were bronze 6-pdrs., everything matches up. But, by late 1864, French was ordering fixed 6-pdr. and fixed 12-pdr. howitzer ammunition. Where did the 3-inch rifle disappear to?

It’s a puppy!

A soldier in Co. I, 6th New Hampshire, stole a puppy while he was in Camden for the Battle of South Mills. In his own words:

It was on the march to the battle-ground of Camden that I got the puppy which grew to be a large blood-hound. We stopped at a farm-house to rest and get water, and there I saw under the house the mother and three pups. One of the latter I caught, but how to carry him was a puzzle. I had on a pair of boots which I wore from home; these I took off, and tying the straps at the top put the puppy into one boot, and throwing the pair over my shoulders went thus into battle, and came out safe, puppy and all.”

If anyone’s Camden ancestor lost a blood-hound puppy on 19 April 1862, we have a lead on the thief! Company I, 6th New Hampshire. Last seen climbing aboard a steamer at Chantilly with a pair of boots thrown across his shoulder.

 

 

Skulkers

Thomas H. Parker of the 51st Pennsylvania wrote of “skulkers” within the regiment at the Battle of South Mills:

During the battle some ten or twelve of those cowardly “shysters” had taken refuge in the rear of the building which was afterwards used as a hospital, until a couple of solid shot passed through the house, admonishing them that danger lurked there also. Had their unmanly conduct as cowards ended by “shysting,” to use an army phrase, it would not have entailed such a stigma on their chicken hearted characters; but after the hospital was fairly established, those things, under the pretext of assisting to dress the wounds of the sufferers, stole whatever liquors and simulants the surgeons had with them to assist in the discharge of their field duties. Let me in all candor ask what punishment would be sufficient for such scoundrels?

Parker goes on to relate:

Some of these men belong to highly respectable families, and for their families’ sake I shall forbear making their names public, as I do not want the innocent to have to share in the disgrace of such unworthy wretches. But, thank heavens! the worse of the above party are, at this writing (Jan. 17th, 1866) in prison, complying with the sentences of a court martial held at Blain’s Cross Roads, in East Tennessee, (about the time the 51st re-enlisted in 1864,) which was convened by order of Col. Hartranft, who was then in command of the 2nd Division, 9th Army Corps.

A search of the muster-out rolls of the 51st PA reveals fourteen men that were reported absent in arrest, absent by sentence of Court-martial, or absent in Albany jail by sentences of General Court-martial. Six of the fourteen were from Company F, spread out for a quarter off a mile to the right as skirmishers.

The field hospitals were established in buildings on the east side of the battlefield, providing convenient cover for anyone wishing to avoid active combat. One surgeon complained that the Confederates were targeting the hospital with their artillery fire, but there is a possibility they were firing at the skulkers instead. One shot hit the building they were hiding behind and the ground around the hospital was plowed up by projectiles.

The men “skulking” around the hospital on the 19th were placed in the guard-house upon their arrival in New Bern. On Tuesday, April 29th, the prisoners at the guard-house were “released from further punishment, where they had been incarcerated for their cowardice at Camden. Their release was only conditional, on their promise of going into the next battle like true soldiers.” They were never court-martialed for their actions.