Massive Civil War siege weapons could do a whole lot of damage—and not always just to the enemy.
When Fort Sumter fell in April 1861, most of the Union’s 4,000 pieces of artillery were outdated garrison or coastal defense guns, like the Columbiad smoothbores that first saw service in the War of 1812. The awe-inspiring cannon had such a hold on the public imagination that Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon featured a giant Columbiad that could fire a manned projectile into space.
The Columbiad and other guns developed by Thomas Rodman, John Dahlgren and Robert Parrott accounted for most of the heavy artillery used during the Civil War. Guns were usually named according to the diameter of the barrel bore (8-inch, 10-inch, 15- inch) or the weight of the projectile fired (12-pounder, 100-pounder). No matter how they were identified, the big guns could pulverize forts, ships, cities or, sometimes, the crew whose job it was to keep them firing under the most difficult conditions.
The nature of Civil War fighting demanded more portable weapons, and howitzers and other small field pieces played a more significant role in the war than the iron behemoths described here.
The big guns were the heaviest of all Civil War weaponry, weighing well over 10,000 pounds. While a typical field artillery piece could be moved by a team of six horses, a siege gun like the 15-inch Columbiad required 10.
Better late than never
An 8-inch Civil War Columbiad is fired daily at Fort Delaware State Park, a former Union prison camp. The fort mounted 152 artillery pieces, but they saw no action.
Hard to hoist
Projectiles for the biggest guns weighed 300 pounds or more, requiring a mechanical device to load the weapon.
Big guns were most effective in attacking or defending coastal forts. They were sometimes mounted on board ships, as was the case with the distinctive bottle-shaped Dahlgren gun.
Ready, aim, fire
Artillery manuals laid out a carefully choreographed command sequence to position each of the seven cannoneers needed to efficiently handle a 10-inch siege gun. But even an experienced crew needed up to 10 minutes to swab, load and reposition a gun between rounds.
The 16,000-pound Parrott couldn’t answer the prayers of Union troops outside Charleston, S.C., in 1863. A team of 450 men dragged the siege gun through the marshes of Morris Island, 41/2 miles from the city, and mounted it on a makeshift battery. The Angel burst on firing its 36th round.
Harper’s Weekly called the 15-inch Rodman smoothbore “the biggest gun in the world” when it was debuted at Fort Monroe, Va., on March 30, 1861. Weighing 49,000 pounds and able to handle 425- pound solid shot, the Lincoln Gun protected Hampton Roads when the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia clashed in the Battle of the Ironclads.
The Confederate siege gun credited with sinking the USS Cincinnati during the long battle for Vicksburg in 1863 disappeared from history shortly after the city fell. Legend has it that a Confederate crew dumped the gun in the Mississippi River, where it has yet to be found. The gun was originally a smoothbore that had been inexpertly rifled, possibly the source of the odd “whistling” sound made as its projectiles flew overhead.
A 20-inch smoothbore that weighed 116,000 pounds and fired 1,000- pound solid shot was hauled by custom-built rail car from Fort Pitt, where it was cast, to its defensive position at Fort Hamilton, N.Y. It was tested but never fired in combat.
The 16,000-pound gun, named for Confederate General Leonidas Polk’s wife, Frances, successfully fired its 128-pound rounds across the Mississippi River during the 1861 Battle of Belmont. It exploded four days later during a demonstration for the general. Ten men were “blown to atoms,” according to a witness.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.