Thursday, November 10, 2022

Review - "Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield" by Earl Hess

[Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield by Earl J. Hess (Louisiana State University Press, 2022). Hardcover, photos, drawings, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxii,317/418. ISBN:978-0-8071-7800-3. $50]

The existing body of book-length Civil War artillery literature is relatively small and largely comprised of military hardware inventories and guides. Classics of that category include Warren Ripley's Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War; Hazlett, Olmstead, and Parks's Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War; and The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast, and Naval Cannon by Olmstead, Stark, and Tucker. Those equipment-based reference works remain useful and important, but a wider encompassing study of the organization, officering, crewing, deployment, battlefield operation, and effectiveness of Civil War infantry and cavalry's primary support arm has long evaded interested readers. Thankfully, prolific military historian Earl Hess has elected to step into the breach, his Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield representing the first attempt at conveying a comprehensive interpretation of the topic in a single volume.

In the context of organization, training, technology, and use on the battlefield, the opening sections of Hess's book trace antebellum development of American artillery within established European tradition. The association was not one of linear, hand in hand progress, with Hess noting that the United States lagged behind European counterparts for large parts of the nineteenth century before hurriedly catching up in the period immediately preceding the conflict between North and South. Indeed, the American Civil War would be the first widespread and thorough testing ground of rifled artillery of all calibers. However, with the newly reunited postwar United States quickly returning to its traditionally tiny standing army and impecunious military budgeting, more revolutionary artillery developments (ex. in recoil mechanisms that permitted rapid fire artillery without re-aiming, powerful bursting charges that greatly increased shell fragment dispersal, and more) would primarily be the domain of European armies. According to Hess, it would be the WW2-era before the United States returned to artillery's developmental forefront.

The word "comprehensive" is often too liberally applied to works that aspire to such status, but the overall breadth and depth of Hess's book fully lives up to that advertised promise. Its chapters, well balanced between description and analysis, delve into a wide range of topics, including military hardware (concentrating on the war's three most modern and celebrated smoothbore and rifled pieces, the 12-lb. Napoleon, 10-lb. Parrott, and 3-inch Ordnance Rifle), battery formations and evolutions, leadership, training, crew lifestyle and duties, the firing process, fuzes, projectiles, logistics, layers of higher organization (i.e. artillery battalions and brigades), and appreciation of artillery horses and horse care. Artillery's operational roles on the Civil War battlefield (defensive, offensive, and counterbattery fire) are evaluated, and brief but cogent assessments of how field artillery fared against infantry, cavalry, and field fortifications are provided. Photographs and period manual illustrations assist reader visualization of equipment and formations, while numerous tables organize data in support of various arguments raised in the text. As the book's title suggests, naval weaponry and the big siege guns both lie outside the scope of Hess's examination.

One finds parallels between this book and Hess's prior examination of the impact of rifled muskets on the Civil War battlefield. Hess's research leads him to regard both Civil War shoulder arms and artillery as incremental rather than revolutionary improvements upon Napoleonic-era weaponry. A general lack of user skill and training in range estimation was a critical factor underpinning Hess's argument that rifle-armed battle lines did not realize their full potential in the area of long-range firing with accuracy. Yet Hess does assert in this study that "most gunners could estimate distance visually with consistent accuracy" (pg. 101). The source or sources behind this alleged discrepancy between infantryman and artilleryman is not directly explained, though the author does mention that the artillery, the Civil War armed service's most technical arm, had access to both higher quality recruits and greater leave to replace underperforming unit members. Perhaps artillerymen also had more training in range estimation, more opportunities for target practice, and gained more from field experience due to being better able to see the results of their shots on target.

It was widely recognized at the time that artillery fire needed to be concentrated if it was to operate at peak effectiveness. Controversy over the matter chiefly centered around disagreements over how that concentration of fire was best achieved. A major theme of this book is Hess's dispute with those who have proposed that artillery reorganization into larger formations was a major driving force behind tactical concentration of fire. Confining his evaluation to large battles fought by the main opposing armies in the eastern and western theaters, Hess divides the wartime evolution of artillery organization into two main periods: early-war dispersal (when batteries were individually assigned to brigades and divisions) and mid to late-war concentration (when corps batteries were consolidated in Confederate artillery battalions and Union artillery brigades). In the book, Hess claims that not only was the massing of guns on the Civil War battlefield never perfected by either side but such events occurred during the concentration period with no more frequency than they did during the earlier dispersal phase. He supports those claims with a selective sampling of battles spanning both intervals.

A variety of factors were at play, but, as Hess argues, the most significant explanation was that infantry generals retained tactical control of their command's support arm and jealously guarded that prerogative when it came to deploying the new artillery battalions and brigades. As Hess explains, it made sense that artillery, as a support arm, would need to be under the central control of the officer most responsible for that sector of the battlefield. However, infantry officers and experienced artillery officers frequently clashed over where and how the batteries under their charge should be best used. Thus, individual understanding (or lack of understanding) among infantry generals regarding the proper deployment of artillery along with differing levels of willingness to delegate authority over gun placements were far more responsible than intrinsic organization when it came to factors affecting tactical-level artillery concentration. Hess's overall argument makes sense and rings true, but really driving the point home (and better convincing skeptics) requires a more systematic and thorough presentation of the evidence. Upon arriving at a measurable definition of what one would consider a tactical-level concentration of artillery, it would be fairly straightforward (though time consuming) to track such events over all the major eastern and western theater battles given how thoroughly those contests have been dealt with in modern narrative microhistories and map studies. Outside factors affecting concentration such as terrain and other environmental conditions also have to be taken into account when evaluating those results.

What seems beyond dispute is that the concentration of batteries into higher-level formations did promote demonstrably better administrative maintenance and oversight, appreciably increasing the efficiency of component batteries (though infantry staff were apparently still responsible for supply arrangements). It is interesting to contemplate what further efficiencies might have been achieved had Union artillery general Henry Hunt's repeatedly blocked bids for reform (which included a national artillery bureau and increased autonomy for artillery officers within army orders of battle) been more successful, though Hess is surely correct that Hunt's postwar estimates of squandered performance levels were considerably exaggerated.

Fuzes are another area in which Hess breaks from convention, including the views of acknowledged authorities such as Edward McCaul (the author of 2010's The Mechanical Fuze and the Advance of Artillery in the Civil War). Due to wide variances in manufacturing technologies, systems, and equipment, along with munitions worker skill, user proficiency, materials quality, and other factors, it's perhaps advisable not to generalize too strongly on the topic of inherent fuze reliability, but popular wisdom nevertheless suggests that U.S. fuzes were considerably more reliable than those of Confederate manufacture. Yet Hess, reasoning through a host of first-hand accounts written by artillery officers and extrapolating from artillery reports, alternatively concludes that fuzes, even the more celebrated design types, were far from reliable in either army. That limitation, combined with a relatively tame bursting charge, rendered long-range shell fire and case shot much less effective than the general literature has suggested. Though experienced readers, upon digesting Hess's compelling analysis, might still hesitate to approve of such general pronouncements regarding fuze reliability, the strength of the evidence provided in the book does materially complicate our understanding of a complex issue full of variables.

This book amply fills a gap long overdue to be filled. Much like Hess himself has expanded the modern scope of Civil War military history publishing through deeply researched examinations of a wide range of interconnected topics (ex. his recent studies of the impact of rifled muskets on the battlefield, army logistical transport, field fortifications, the intersection of supply and strategy, and infantry tactics), one might hope that other scholars and talented artillery enthusiasts might be prompted to create their own original works through engagement with the many expansible facets of this authoritative survey. Critics might quibble with the stridency of some of Hess's challenges to long-held assumptions, but it is always the case that the arguments presented in Civil War Field Artillery are backed by a considerable body of evidence requiring strong reflection. Both reinforcing and reshaping existing interpretations of Union and Confederate artillery, this thought-provoking study is required reading for anyone wishing to gain a broad and nuanced understanding of the role and performance of the long arm on the Civil War battlefield.


  1. Thank you, Drew, for this much anticipated and comprehensive review. Earl Hess deserves much credit for the breadth and scope of his many good works, despite the occasional sharp elbow he deploys. Just curious - does Hess notice any appreciable difference in the use of artillery by either side in the western theater versus the eastern theater?

    1. IIRC (some parts of the book are not fresh in my mind anymore), it was something he looked into but didn't find differences significant enough to draw any general conclusions.

  2. Drew: As always (and as reliably expected), a thorough and insightful review. I concur with your evaluation of this as required reading in the form of a wide-ranging and comprehensive survey of Civil War field artillery. As you suggest, some of Hess's conclusions may be somewhat more definitive than the evidence actually warrants. For example, he correctly notes that what he defines as "concentration" did not actually result in a greater or more effective use of "higher level" artillery tactics in 1864-65. He then, however, rejects the assessment of credentialed authorities that a major factor in this result was the lack of suitable terrain for such tactics during the Overland and Atlanta campaigns. His challenge to that assessment is much less convincing. In addition, as may be inevitable when an author takes on a highly technical area such as this, there are the occasional "factoids" that are jarring to those with specialized knowledge, such as references to "Rodman" field guns.

  3. Thanks for this review, Drew. Hess is incredibly proficient in complex topic areas. Might have to get this one.


When commenting, PLEASE SIGN YOUR NAME. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be deleted. Thank you.