It was akin to shooting fish in a barrel. The Hoosiers of the 45th Illinois were pinned down in a crater that June 25, 1862, the result of a Union mine used in an attempt to blow up a section of the Rebel works at Vicksburg. The Federal attack had faltered in the reeking pit, and the Confederates had taken the opportunity to hurl ad hoc hand grenades, modified artillery shells, down up the helpless Yankees. A Union officer reported that “the enemy…with their hand-grenades render it difficult for our working parties to remain in the crater at all. The wounds inflicted by those missiles are frightful.”
While artillery shells were pressed into service during that incident, there were several varieties of Civil War grenades made specifically for their purpose. Some had an almost cartoonish appearance, with fins for aerodynamics and plungers for detonating. Others looked like deadly bocce balls. But though the grenades used by the Blue and the Gray were far from perfect—some were as dangerous to the thrower as they were to the intended target—a variety of improvised and purpose-built grenades were hurled and used in combat in numerous battles.
Grenades had been used in battle for hundreds of years before the Civil War, and were well known to the military men of the 1860s. In his 1861 Military Dictionary, Colonel Henry Lee Scott described a grenade as “small shell about 2-inches in diameter, which, being set on fire by means of a short fuze and cast among the enemy’s troops causes great damage by its explosion.” For troops attacking fortifications, Scott recommended the use of “blindages,” a French term for armored shields, as protection from grenades.
Colonel Scott suggested that forts be amply supplied with grenades, and the weapons often were staples of garrison armament. At Fort Sumter hand grenades were distributed at critical points during the 1861 siege, including the room over the gateway, to use against a storming party. Captain John G. Foster reported that he had made “complete arrangements for using shells and grenades over the parapet.” The Confederate bombardment exploded some of the grenade piles.
By 1862, grenades were being used in land warfare. In May, the commander of the 37th Ohio Infantry claimed his men were attacked by Confederates armed with grenades, and Colonel George H. Gordon of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry reported that grenades thrown by civilians from houses in Winchester, Va., killed and wounded his soldiers as they retreated through the town that same month. In April Confederate Brig. Gen. Daniel H. Hill requested that a supply of grenades be sent to his men defending the Virginia Peninsula.
Hand grenades were frequently used during the summer of 1863 at the twin sieges of Port Hudson and Vicksburg. Following the 1862 capture of New Orleans, Rebels fortified Port Hudson, situated atop an 80-foot bluff on a bend in the Mississippi River and surrounded by deep ravines, in a desperate attempt to keep the river open between northern Louisiana and Vicksburg as an avenue to the trans-Mississippi Confederacy. In May 1863, Maj. Gen. General Nathaniel Banks’ army of more than 30,000 men moved north from New Orleans to attack Port Hudson, which, although well fortified, was garrisoned by only around 6,800 Confederates under Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner. Banks’ goal was to overrun Port Hudson and proceed up the river to join forces with Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s force besieging Vicksburg. On May 27, Banks launched an all-out assault on the miles of earthworks surrounding Port Hudson. It failed miserably.
In preparation for a second attack, Banks ordered 500 hand grenades from Admiral David G. Farragut, requesting that they “be accompanied, if you please, by an officer who can explain to our men their proper management.” The U.S. Navy seems to have been the place to go for grenades on the Mississippi, because ships were routinely issued a generous supply to repel potential boarders. In April 1862, Colonel Charles Ellett requested nine cases of “parapet hand-grenades, such as would be most convenient for throwing over a bulwark, to clear the bows of the steamer in case of boarding” for his fleet of ramming ships. In February 1863, Acting Rear Adm. David D. Porter advised one of his captains to “keep your pilot-house well supplied with hand-grenades, &c., in case the enemy should get on your upper decks.”
The naval grenades were issued to Banks’ troops in time for his next attack, which took place on June 14. Special ad hoc grenadier units were created, including one of five companies from the 4th Massachusetts and 110th New York Infantry and another of 100 men from the 28th Connecticut Infantry. The grenadiers were ordered to sling their muskets, closely follow the skirmish line up to the enemy parapets, toss their grenades and continue the fight as skirmishers.
Banks’ second attack proved to be another disaster, and Port Hudson would hold out until the fall of Vicksburg made the post untenable. During the second ill-fated Yankee attack, most of the grenadiers did not get close enough to the enemy to use their hand grenades. Those who did had some of their grenades thrown back at them. That fact, along with the special training requested by Banks, suggests they may have been issued the hand grenades invented in 1861 by William F. Ketchum. Ketchum’s grenade featured a cast iron cylinder filled with gunpowder and tapered on both ends, with one end fitted with a plunger and percussion cap to facilitate detonation on impact. A dowel with four pasteboard arrowlike vanes was inserted in the opposite end to aid with the grenade’s flight. Sometimes Ketchum grenades would not strike a hard enough object to detonate, allowing them to be tossed back.
At Vicksburg the hand grenade shoe was initially on the other foot, and Confederate defenders used them to repel General Grant’s attempt to take the town by storm on May 22. According to Confederate Maj. Gen. John H. Forney, “hand grenades were used at each point with good effect” against the Union attack. The “grenades” the Rebels used, however, were not purpose-built hand grenades like those the Union Navy supplied to their forces at Port Hudson, but 6- and 12-pound artillery rounds with short fuses that were tossed or rolled onto the attackers. Colonel Ashbell Smith of the 2nd Texas Infantry reported that “to clear the outside ditch, spherical case were used as hand-grenades,” and these were the most common Vicksburg Rebel grenades, although one source states that the Confederates also used glass bottle grenades like those employed by the Russians in the Crimean War.
As the Vicksburg siege developed and Union forces pushed their trenches and saps forward and dug mines under the city’s defenses, the Rebel use of artillery shells as improvised grenades increased. The men of the 55th Illinois countered the enemy tactic of rolling grenades over the parapet by blocking them with a board held up by bayonets at the edge of the Union trench. It worked, and only one shell hurt any of those in the ditch, bursting against one soldier and killing him.
The Confederates soon improved their grenade techniques, however, organizing artillerymen whose guns were disabled or otherwise unusable into a specialized “hand-grenade and thunder-barrel corps.” The grenadiers proved very effective in repelling Union forays.
In an attempt to counter these tactics, the Federals created their own grenadier corps, initially turning to the Navy for genuine hand grenades that were supposedly more portable and easier to pitch than artillery shells. One report, however, cited that “naval hand-grenades…from their peculiar form could not be thrown any considerable distance.”
The statement, coupled with the source of the grenades, indicates that the naval grenades in question were probably Ketchums, especially since the unexploded remains of some have been found by archeologists and relic hunters in the Vicksburg lines. Despite problems with those weapons, designated Yankee grenadiers, including Private William Lazarus of the 1st U.S. Infantry, assumed the job of bomb tossing. It was dangerous work, and Lazarus was killed after throwing only 20 grenades.
Confederate grenades were no more able to save Vicksburg than Yankee ones were able to capture Port Hudson, and the city capitulated on July 4, 1863. Improvised shell-grenades, however, continued to be widely used in other defensive situations by Rebel troops throughout the war, including at Chattanooga and during the Atlanta campaign and the siege of Mobile and, along with turpentine “fireballs” in the Confederate defense of Morris Island and Fort Sumter in 1863. Federals rolled grenades on Southerners trapped in a ditch outside Knoxville’s Fort Sanders in November 1863.
Aside from the Naval grenades used by Union troops along the Mississippi, primary source references to specific purpose-built hand grenades are relatively rare. One intriguing November 1864 intelligence report on the Rebel defense of the ruins of Fort Sumter relates that Confederates stationed there were issued “hand-grenades of the improved pattern” when on night guard duty. These grenades were most likely some of the 1,100 grenades shipped to Charleston from Augusta Arsenal in the fourth quarter of 1863. The body of the “improved pattern” grenade was a Ketchumlike double tapered cylinder fitted with a “sensitive tube” percussion-type detonator. Like the Ketchum, it was attached to a “guide stick” fitted with paper fins wrapped in protective cloth that was removed immediately before throwing. The Augusta Arsenal made almost 13,000 of these grenades during the last 11⁄2 years of the conflict.
It may have been these “improved” grenades that Rebel artillery chief Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton speculated on using in an offensive mode at Petersburg in June 1864. According to Pendleton, “hand-grenades might do important service in driving off the enemy as we approach his breast-works.” He went on to ask: Have we any made? If so, of what pattern, weight, &c., and how are they put up for transportation? If none are on hand would it not be well to have some prepared very soon?” Yankees were apparently using grenades in the Richmond-Petersburg lines as well, and a month later Rebel Brig. Gen. Archibald Gracie reported that “the enemy attempted to throw hand-grenades…which fell fifteen yards short.”
In addition to the traditional lit fuse, Ketchum-style and improvised shell hand grenades, several other types of Union grenades were designed during the war, although they seem to have been used little, if at all. One was the Hanes “Excelsior” grenade, an 1862 invention of Kentuckian W. W. Hanes. The Excelsior was composed of two spheres, one set inside the other. The operator armed the grenade by unscrewing the exterior sphere, exposing the gunpowder-filled nipple-studded interior one, capping the nipples, and reassembling the weapon. A cushion between the nipples and exterior sphere was supposed to prevent the Hanes grenade from detonating unless it was forcibly thrown against a hard object, but the inherent danger of handling it seems to have limited its actual military use.
Some Hanes grenades apparently got into civilian hands, however, since a device that appears to have been an Excelsior grenade was mentioned during a September 1864 treason trial in Indianapolis of alleged Southern-sympathizing saboteurs of the Knights of the Golden Circle. According to a witness, one of the participants in the failed conspiracy “unscrewed the hand grenade and showed me the nipples on the inner shell.” The grenade was supposed to be used in conjunction with “Greek fire,” a highly flammable liquid mixture, to destroy government property.
The Adams grenade, an advanced and innovative time-fuse device developed by John S. Adams in January 1865, was also patented. It was similar in design to those the French were experimenting with at the time and a true precursor of the modern hand grenade. The Adams was spherical in shape and armed when a strap looped around the thrower’s wrist set off a friction primer that ignited a five-second fuse as the grenade left his hand. There is little information available on the extent to which Adams grenades were actually used, but some apparently made it to the field.
A rusted example was discovered by Colin Dreyden, an 11-year-old boy playing in a crawl space under an old house in Beaufort, S.C., in May 2007. The grenade, which weighed 6 pounds, was removed by U.S. Marine Corps demolition experts, who hoped to disarm and restore it for subsequent display. It proved to be inert, preventing the possibility of a Civil War hand grenade claiming one last casualty.
Joseph G. Bilby is a contributing writer to ACW. His latest book, Small Arms at Gettysburg, is scheduled for a fall 2007 release.
This article by Joseph G. Bilby was originally published in the November 2007 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!