The Guns of Gettysburg — Eight Things You Didn’t Know About Artillery at the Civil War’s Most Famous Battle

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A Union artillery battery at Gettysburg.

A Union artillery battery at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Rowan Technology, the studio behind the ever-expanding West Point History of Warfare series of digital apps returns to with this fascinating and interactive look at the role artillery played in the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg.

1. Last November, President Obama made headlines for presenting a posthumous Medal of Honor to a gunner who fought and died at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Brevet Major Alonzo Cushing, 22, was killed in action during the three-day clash while commanding a battery in the Union defence against Pickett’s Charge, the famous assault on the Yankee centre. Gored by shrapnel, the Wisconsin native refused to leave his post as 15,000 Rebels advanced on the Federal line. He fought on while literally holding his insides in with a spare hand until he received a fatal wound to the head.

2. The largest concentrated artillery attack in history up to that point was the Confederate barrage on Union positions in preparation for Pickett’s Charge. The two-hour bombardment featured approximately 170 Confederate guns pouring fire onto Northern troops defending Cemetery Ridge.


3. During the Confederate bombardment, Army of the Potomac artillery chief Henry Hunt slowed his guns’ response in order to conserve ammunition for the Rebel infantry assault he was sure would follow. This sudden slackening of fire, combined with limited visibility on the battlefield, convinced Southern commanders that their withering barrage had knocked out most of the Yankee batteries. As Confederate troops moved forward to smash through the Northern defences, Hunt’s artillery opened up, shredding the Southern advance.

The ubiquitous 12-pound "Napoleon Gun". (Image source: WikiCommons)

The ubiquitous 12-pounder “Napoleon Gun”. (Image source: WikiCommons)

4. The story of Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson is another example of valour on the battlefield at Gettysburg. The 19-year-old commander of a Union artillery battery was severely wounded in the leg and brought to a nearby aid station. With Confederate infantry surging forward, the surgeons abandoned their patients, leaving the teenaged lieutenant to tend to his own wounds. Wilkenson ultimately attempted to amputate his own leg. As the young officer lay dying, he is said to have given the injured men around him water from his own canteen.

5. Late on the second day of the battle, Captain John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts Battery withdrew under severe pressure from advancing Confederate forces at Trostle Farm. In order to stall for infantry support, they employed a tactic called “retiring by prolonge”, which involved using their guns’ natural four-yard recoil to gradually fall back, while steadily reloading and firing. The 9th successfully employed this method while withdrawing more than 400 yards.

A casualty of Civil War artillery. Not a pretty picture. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A casualty of Civil War artillery. Not a pretty picture. (Image source: WikiCommons)

6. Union and Confederate armies both used one particularly dangerous artillery technique known as “overhead supporting fire” during the war. Union gunners became adept at this practice, which entailed firing over the heads of their own advancing forces in order to weaken static enemy defenses prior to an assault. The Confederate army also used overhead supporting fire, but with disastrous results. At Little Round Top, the 5th Texas Infantry suffered casualties from their own cannon fire due to incorrectly sighted guns.


7. On Oak Hill, the Confederates wielded powerful breech-loading artillery pieces called Whitworth rifles, which added at least a mile of range to their barrages. It provided a critical advantage over the Union’s ordinary Napoleon guns.

A Confederate battery.

A Confederate battery.

8. At all levels of command, Civil War generals, especially the Confederates, regularly mismanaged artillery. Perhaps no greater sign of this was Brigadier General William Pendleton’s elevation to command the Army of Northern Virginia’s artillery on the basis of his friendship with Robert E. Lee, rather than any demonstrated competence. It is telling that the bombardment of July 3, one of the most critical actions of the entire battle, was not directed by Pendleton, but rather by his more able subordinate, Colonel E. Porter Alexander.

For even more digital content, check out Rowan Technologys interactive app The West Point History of the Civil War, part of the companys West Point History of Warfare series. 

9 comments for “The Guns of Gettysburg — Eight Things You Didn’t Know About Artillery at the Civil War’s Most Famous Battle

  1. 8 June, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    Point number 5 is incorrectly attributed to the order “Retreat by Prolong”. They are actually descending the order “Retreat by Recoil.”

    “Reatreat by Prolong” is where each of the gun crews unwind and attach the Prolong rope from the trail of the cannon to the cannon lunet ring and drag it off the field of battle by hand with all cannoneers pulling on the rope… Or the rope could be attached to the limber and pulled by horse for short distance.

  2. 8 June, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    My Grand Father was there at Cemetery Ridge Battery A company G N.Y. Light Artillery
    under command of Capt Nelson Ames……………

  3. John Dynia
    8 June, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    Cushing was a Lieutenant, not a Major, it seems that maybe you folks need to do a little more studying of the subject.

  4. 8 June, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    While he was a 1st Lt. of Regulars He was breveted to a Major then a Lt. Col. of Vols. Sooooo technically through the war he could have been addressed as Major. His grave maker was inscribed as a Lt. Col. and his pension would have been as such.

  5. David Nixon
    8 June, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    I recall learning in the Army Command & Staff course that the Confederates had very little explosive shot left and had to use solid shot. This led to less desirable “softening” of the Union position. Lee was informed of this but insisted that Pickett’s assault go forward despite this deficiency. Is that your understanding as well?

    • 8 June, 2015 at 11:05 pm

      I don’t recall that specifically, but I do remember reading that the Confederate artillery was short of ammunition by the the third day of battle.

  6. David Hast
    15 July, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    David Hast I have heard that in the last day of the battle (July 3) that at Pickets charge, the union cannon at the stone wall was using double canister shot. Is that true?

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