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The American Civil War Big Guns
The American Civil War was a war full of new fighting techniques, extraordinary generals, innovations and a war that almost literarily divided the United States into two nations. It was a war that ended ancient warfare and started modern warfare with many innovations that modernized artillery and weaponry. The first railroad gun, a cannon mounted on a flatbed railroad car, was first used in the Civil War during the Siege of Petersburg in Virginia on June 29, 1862. The gun was called the “Dictator”. This was the first of many big guns used during the Civil War. This idea of putting big guns on railroad cars was later resurrected by Hitler during World War II with even larger guns.
There were at least five other big guns called “Siege Guns” used during critical sieges in the war. The Union and Confederate armies realized that if they wanted to get the upper hand in the war they needed to make bigger cannons to force their opposing sides into submission. However, these big guns could do a lot of damage and not always just to the enemy.
A Little About The Big Guns
These guns were big and were about the size of the ones used on the battleships during World War II. Three developers developed the guns; Thomas Rodman, John Dahlgren and Robert Parrot and these powerful weapons often carried their names. They were the most massive and heaviest guns used during the war, weighing more than 116,000 pounds (58 tons). A typical field artillery piece could be moved from place to place with a team consisted of six horses. A siege gun required a team of 10 horses to move it in position.
It took a lot to use one of these guns. Projectiles for the biggest guns weighed as much as 1000 pounds so a mechanical device was used to hoist the projectiles into position to load them into the guns. It took an experienced crew of seven men at least 10 minutes to get the gun ready, then aim and finally fire and then repeat this process again for the next shot.
Despite their destructive results against the enemy, these guns came with one serious risk while being use. The guns often exploded on the artillery crew with deadly consequences during firing. This was a very unpredictable occurrence; some of the guns exploded on the very first shot and other went several rounds or more and then exploded. Many of these guns had very limited use during the war but they did change the course of the war in some cases. For starters, the first shots in the war were fired at Fort Sumter at 4:30 on April 12, 1861 from the big guns situated at Fort Johnson on James Island near Charleston, South Carolina. The guns were located about mile and half from Fort Sumter. Major Robert Anderson was force to surrender Fort Sumter to the Confederates without any casualties except one dead horse and would not get it back until almost exactly four years later on April 14, 1865.
The Five Famous Big Guns
There were five big guns that stood out during the Civil War where some of these guns didn’t even fire a shot. They had colorful names such as “Swamp Angel”, “Lincoln Gun”, “Whistling Dick”, “Monster Rodman”, and “Lady Polk”.
The Swamp Angel was a 16,500-pound (8 ton) parrot gun with an eight-inch bore (size of projectile was approximately 8-inches in diameter). In 1863 outside of Charleston, South Carolina, a team of 450 men dragged this siege gun through the swampy area of Morris Island located four and half miles south of Charleston. The gun was mounted on a makeshift battery or platform. The Union soldiers managed to get off 35 rounds of incendiary hollow shells before the gun exploded on the 36th round. Despite its size, the firing of the gun on the city only managed to force the evacuation of the southern end of the city. There were only a few casualties. Today you can see this gun at Cadwallader Park in Trenton, New Jersey.
The Lincoln Gun was once called the biggest gun in the world at the time. It weighed a whopping 49,000 pounds (about 25 tons). It was a Rodman 15-inch smoothbore. That means its projectile was about 15 inches in diameter. The projectiles weighed 425 pounds and were solid spheres. The gun was located in Virginia at Fort Monroe to protect Hampton Roads where the famous “Battle of the Ironclads” between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia took place on May 8-9, 1862.
The Confederate used a siege gun during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 nicknamed the “Whistling Dick” because the projectiles fired from the gun emitted a whistling sound while airborne. It was an 18-inch smoothbore gun and was credited for sinking the USS Cincinnati, a Union gun ship, during the siege. The gun mysteriously disappeared after the fall of Vicksburg. Legend has it that the Confederate crew moved the gun from Wyman Hill on July 3, 1863 and dumped it into the Mississippi River where to this day the gun has not been found. Some historians believe the gun is buried in a loess cave on or near Wyman Hill.
The Monster Rodman was the biggest of the big guns during the Civil War. Two of these guns were made during the Civil War and one after the war. This gun weighed in at an incredible 116,500 pounds (about 58 tons) and had a 20-inch smoothbore. For comparison an Abram battle tank weighs 60 tons. A 20-inch solid shot lobbed by one of these guns weighed 1,080 pounds and a spherical shell weighed 700 pounds. The maximum range of this gun was determined during testing to hit a target 4.5 miles away with one of these shots. One of the guns were eventually positioned at Fort Hamilton, New York but was never used in combat during the war.
The Lady Polk was a 20-inch Dahlgren gun used during the Battle of Belmont on November 7, 1861. It was named in honor of General Leonidas Polk’s wife, Frances. The gun weighed about 16,000 pounds (8 tons) and could lob a projectile weighing 128 pounds. This gun was different from the other big guns because its projectiles were pointed and left the gun with a spin, which made this gun more accurate and also the spin increased the range of the projectile. The Confederates were able to get 128 rounds off against the Union soldiers across the Mississippi River forcing them to retreat. The battle ended with one round still in the gun. Unfortunately four days later during a demonstration for the general ten of the thirteen men around the gun were killed and the general was knocked unconscious after the gun exploded. The explosion occurred because the round left in the gun four days ago could not exit the gun because the bore of the gun had shrunken in size after cooling down after the battle.
Despite the limited use of these guns during the war the idea of using big guns in warfare did not end after the American Civil War. This eventually led to the development of the big guns seen today on battleships. These battleships ultimately change the tide of the war with their big guns at the Battle of Midway during World War II for the United States against Japan. This important historical event set the U.S. on the path to end World War II with an even more destructive weapon, the atomic bomb.
© 2011 Melvin Porter