Start My Family Tree Welcome to Geni, home of the world's largest family tree.
Join Geni to explore your genealogy and family history in the World's Largest Family Tree.

Union Heavy Artillery (US Civil War)

« Back to Projects Dashboard

Project Tags

view all


The Big Guns - Civil War Heavy Artillery

During the Civil War, artillery was classified as heavy or light depending on the maneuverability and size of the guns. Light or field artillery pieces were moved by small teams of horses and were used by armies in the field for both offensive and defensive operations. Heavy artillery was used primarily in fixed fortifications for defending cities or in siege operations against such forts.

In the Union Army, the heavy artillery units tended to stay together as regiments and saw very little action, living relatively safe and comfortable lives in the forts around Washington. Late in the war, however, when there was less of a threat to the capital, Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant pulled the “Heavies” out of the forts and used them as infantry during the campaign to capture Petersburg and Richmond. Prior to the Civil War, two versions of the Seacoast Gun were standard armament for the forts that protected the nation’s seaports. The guns were classified by the weight of their solid shot. The 32 Pounder version had a 6.4 inch bore, used 8 pounds of gunpowder, and the barrel (tube) weighed 7,200 pounds. The 42 Pounder had a 7 inch bore, used 10.5 pounds of powder and weighed 8,500 pounds. The barrels were about 10 feet long, made of iron, and usually mounted on wooden carriages. The smoothbore Seacoast Guns could shoot over one mile at a five degree elevation. Drawing from 1862 U.S. Army Ordnance Manual showing side and top views of a Seacoast Gun mounted on a wooden barbette carriage. 32 Pounder in a Washington Fort Columbiads were iron smoothbore artillery pieces that could fire shot and shell at a high angle of elevation using a heavy powder charge. Like the Seacoast Guns, they were usually used in fortifications along rivers and in defense of ports. The first Columbiads, 50 Pounders, were used in the War of 1812.

By the 1840s they were being made in larger versions and slowly replacing the Seacoast Guns. They were usually described by their bore diameter. The 8 inch version fired a 65 pound solid shot, used 10 pounds of gunpowder, and the barrel weighed 9,200 pounds. The 10 inch version fired a 128 pound solid shot, and the barrel weighed 15,000 pounds. In casting these big barrels, they were cooled from the outside and this often led to a weakness that could cause bursting when the gun was fired. Thomas Rodman (right), of the U.S. Ordnance Department, developed a new casting procedure that cooled them from the inside and made them stronger and less susceptible to cracking. He also improved the gunpowder used in the cannons. In a test between the old method and Rodman’s method of casting, the old version burst after 73 firings but the improved version never burst and it was fired over 1,500 times. Rodman’s process was so successful that the new version of the Columbiad was generally called a Rodman Gun.

During the Civil War, the Rodman Guns were produced in 8, 10, 12, 13, and 15 inch models. Two were even made with a 20 inch bore. By comparison, it should be noted that World War II battleships mounted 16 inch guns. 15 Inch Columbiad/Rodman Gun The 15 inch Rodman Gun weighed over 50,000 pounds and fired solid shot of 425 pounds and exploding shells of 300 pounds. At 6 degrees of elevation it could shoot over one mile and at 28 degrees it could shoot almost three miles. The Confederates continued to produce their Columbiads by the old method and experimented with banding for strength and rifling for distance, but they were inferior to the improved Union models.

Drawing from 1862 U.S. Army Ordnance Manual showing side and top views of a Rodman Gun mounted on an iron barbette carriage. The same type of carriage was used for the Parrott Rifles.

Rifling of artillery was one of the great innovations in warfare during the Civil War. Robert Parrott (right) is best known for his 10 and 20 Pounder Rifles used by the field artillery but larger Parrott Rifles were produced in 100 Pounder (6.4 inch), 200 Pounder (8 inch) and 300 Pounder (10 inch) sizes. The barrels weighed 9,700, 16,300, and 26,500 pounds. All of Parrott’s pieces are recognizable by the thick reinforcing band at the breech of the cannon. 100 Pounder Parrott Rifles

These big guns were susceptible to bursting, usually at the muzzle, when shells exploded prematurely. Even so, the longer range and penetrating power, especially of mason forts and ironclad ships, made them desirable to both the Union Army and Navy. These big rifled guns were capable of shooting over four miles. A Civil War era mortar was a short artillery tube designed to be fired at a high degree of elevation (45 degrees), using a relatively small powder charge. The chamber of a mortar was specially designed to concentrate the charge in a small area so the projectile could receive as much of the propelling explosion as possible. Mortar projectiles usually exploded while still high in the air and rained fragments down on fortifications and enemy soldiers. Siege and Seacoast Mortars were made in 8, 10 and 13 inch models. The 13 inch version’s tube was 53 inches long, weighed 17,000 pounds and could fire a 200 pound shell over two miles. Big mortars saw service during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 and the Siege of Petersburg 1864-65. They also saw service on special mortar boats in the Mississippi River. 13 Inch Mortar during the Siege of Petersburg Pennsylvania provided six regiments for artillery service during the Civil War. The 1st Regiment of Pennsylvania Artillery was assigned to serve as light artillery but five other regiments were designated as heavy artillery. The 2nd Pennsylvania Artillery (112th Pennsylvania Volunteers) served as heavy artillery at Fort Delaware and in the defenses of Washington from 1862 to 1864. In May, the regiment was assigned to the Army of the James and fought at Cold Harbor and the Siege of Petersburg as infantry. After the end of hostilities, the regiment was distributed by companies throughout southern Virginia on provost guard duty and was finally mustered out in January 1866.

The 3nd Pennsylvania Artillery (152nd Pennsylvania Volunteers) batteries were dispersed and served as heavy artillery in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Besides heavy artillery duty, some units were assigned to field artillery, gunboats, guarding Confederate prisoners and other duties. Officers of the 3rd Pennsylvania Artillery posing at Fort Monroe. Service in the fixed forts was relatively easy, with little action, comfortable barracks, and regular meals. These officers even had the opportunity to obtain and wear the full dress uniform, complete with hat feathers and gold bullion epaulettes.

The 4th Pennsylvania Artillery (189th Pennsylvania Volunteers) was actually a temporary unit formed in the spring of 1864, when the “heavies” were pulled from the forts to serve as infantry. The men came from the 2nd Pennsylvania Artillery that had over 2,000 men, twice the normal number for a regiment. The unit was also known as the 2nd Pennsylvania Provisional Heavy Artillery. It fought in the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg, suffering heavy losses at Cold Harbor and the Crater. In August 1864, the men were returned to their original unit.

The 5th Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery (204th Pennsylvania Volunteers) was raised in the summer of 1864 and assigned to the forts defending Washington. Briefly, they served as infantry guarding the Manassas Gap Railroad and engaged Mosby’s Rangers. The regiment returned to the Washington forts and ended their service with little action.

The 6th Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery (212th Pennsylvania Volunteers) was raised in the fall of 1864 and assigned to the forts defending Washington. They were assigned to guard the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in Virginia and later returned to the Washington forts and also ended their service with little action.