Today, indirect firing–shooting at an unseen target–is an integral part of warfare. During the Gulf War, Tomahawk missiles were launched from ships at targets hundreds of miles away. Out in the desert, banks of artillery pointing skyward fired at an unseen enemy, using the combined aid of satellites and computers. But during the Civil War, manning artillery was a good deal more art than science. With a solid cannonball it was fairly simple–just aim and fire. But when using an exploding shell, the gunner had to estimate the distance and time of trajectory and cut the fuse accordingly. There was a chart on the inside of the limber chest that he could use as a guide, but still, with no way to precisely measure the distance, all he could do was make an educated guess.
A Civil War gunner avoided firing explosive shells over his own troops if at all possible, because he never knew exactly when a shell would explode. Quality control in those days was not the best. Generally speaking, fuses produced in the North were more reliable than those made in the South.
For the most part, Civil War cannons were muzzleloaders, and being part of a gun crew was extremely dangerous. Out in the open, men and horses were sitting ducks for sharpshooters. A full crew consisted of a gunner, who directed fire, and seven artillerymen. The cannon and limber were drawn by four to six horses. Deployed for battle, the limber and horses were placed 6 yards behind the cannon; 11 yards farther back was the caisson, drawn by another four to six horses. All in all, that was a lot of targets bunched up in a small area.
Whenever possible, experienced gunners sought to use the terrain to lessen the danger. Since ground is never absolutely flat, they looked for a rise or swell. The gun was placed so that the cannonball would just clear the ridge of the swell. All that was visible to the enemy was the cannon barrel and the tops of the wheels. A cannon that was not tied down would recoil several feet upon firing. If the slope was great enough, the piece would then be out of the enemy’s sight, enabling the crew to reload with a greater degree of safety than would otherwise be possible. Although the cannon had existed for hundreds of years, this was as close to indirect firing as anyone had ever come. On May 19, 1863, however, an 18-year-old Confederate sergeant would change all that.
Milton Wylie Humphreys was born at Anthony’s Creek in Greenbrier County, Va. (now West Virginia), on September 14, 1844. Humphreys was something of a prodigy. As the boy approached school age, his father started teaching him the alphabet. Andrew Humphreys quickly discovered that his son not only knew the alphabet but also could read. His explanation was that he wanted to know what was written in the newspapers. Teachers soon discovered that Humphreys’ long suit was mathematics, or ‘figgers,’ as he called them. While still in grade school, using the face of a rock formation near his home as a chalk board, he solved complex math equations. At the age of 13, Humphreys entered Mercer Academy in Charleston, where he pursued college-level studies.
In 1860, he entered Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Va., and was at the head of his class when the Civil War broke out in April 1861. Humphreys wanted to join immediately, but his age held him back until March 27, 1862, when he enlisted in Bryan’s Battery of the 13th Virginia Light Artillery. It was immediately apparent that Humphreys possessed three innate qualities that made him an outstanding gunner: exceptional eyesight, with an extraordinary degree of depth perception; an engineering inventiveness; and unshakable courage under fire.
Federal troops had gained a foothold in western Virginia early in the war. This area, which would become the new state of West Virginia on June 20, 1863, was important to both sides. The North needed the railroads that ran across the northern counties as a link between Washington, D.C., and the West. Homes and factories in the North needed coal from the rich reserves of the area. For the South, the region was a crucial source of salt and food.
In 1862, a plan was drawn up by the South to invade the western counties, destroy the railroads and recapture the salt-rich Kanawha Valley. By early 1863, that plan had been partially abandoned. Instead, during May, Brig. Gens. William E. Jones and John D. Imboden conducted a series of raids attempting to destroy the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and round up as many horses and supplies as possible. Coincident with the raids, a small infantry force mounted a diversionary attack to draw Union troops away from Jones and Imboden.
Bryan’s Battery had spent the winter of 1862–63 at Thorn Spring near Dublin, Va. After necessary repairs were completed to the buildings in which they were living, the soldiers settled into the boring routine of camp life while they waited for spring. The only military maneuver they engaged in (other than twice daily drills) was a march to Dublin on January 11 to attack an expected enemy force that did not show up. Humphreys noted in his diary, ‘We stood around in the snow all day and returned to camp late.’ Fearing an attack on nearby Saltville, they left Thorn Spring on April 16, 1863, and camped on the north fork of Holston River.
On May 3, Bryan’s Battery moved north to Princeton. The march over rough ground took three days. While crossing Clinch Mountain, the men caught a rattlesnake, defanged it and kept it as a pet. They remained at Princeton until May 16, when they were ordered to move toward Fayetteville, the county seat of Fayette County, and attack the Federal fortification there as a diversion.
The small force under Colonel John McCausland consisted of the 36th Virginia Infantry, six companies of the 60th Virginia Infantry, a company of cavalry and four pieces of Bryan’s Battery–two 3-inch rifled cannons and two 12-pounder howitzers. They averaged 15 miles per day, engaging in minor skirmishing as they neared the fort. On the morning of May 19, two miles from Fayetteville, they encountered a small force of Union cavalry. Bryan’s guns opened fire and drove them into the woods. One casualty was Humphreys’ favorite gun, ‘Maggie,’ which jumped out of its brass trunnion bands and broke a front sight.
The Confederates arrived at a cleared plateau approximately a mile and a half in front of the fort. Humphreys gave the following account of the battle in his book, Military Operations in Fayette County, West Virginia. ‘The infantry went down into the woods toward the works,’ he wrote. ‘The road to Raleigh (now Beckley, West Va.) after running in a straight line nearly three-fourths of a mile from Fayetteville, turns square to the left, and ascends to a small cleared plateau with a hill on the right. On this ridge were posted Bryan’s third and fourth. The second piece (mine) was posted on the plateau at the end of a straight opening which had been cut in the woods and ran directly toward the Federal Fort.
‘My piece opened first and was immediately answered, and my third or fourth round cutting away the Yankee colors, they shelled us so vigorously and accurately with several guns that we were compelled to move to a place nearby where we could not be seen for the timber in front of us and the smoke behind us rising from the woods beyond the road which were on fire.’
This was a perfect opportunity for Humphreys to try his theory of indirect fire. He knew that the fort was approximately a mile away. From experience, he knew the range of his cannon. By using trigonometry, he calculated how far he would have to elevate the muzzle of his piece to shoot over the stand of black pines in front of him and drop a shell into the vicinity of the fort. The distance from the gun to the fort formed the base of a triangle; the trajectory of the shell was the hypotenuse. Once the shell expended its momentum, it would drop to earth.
Humphreys placed a man on a nearby hill to direct his fire, which he kept up the rest of the day and well into the following day. Under orders to fire slowly, due to a shortage of ammunition, he fired only 65 shots. The Union commander, Colonel Carr B. White, sent an armed patrol out on the 20th to locate the cannon, whereupon the Rebels prudently withdrew.
Union losses were light–two killed, seven wounded and nine missing. There is no record of Confederate casualties. Much of the damage sustained was to the landscape around the fort and, no doubt, to the Union soldiers’ nerves. They had no idea where the shells were coming from.
In a modest explanation of what he had done, Humphreys wrote: ‘The term ‘indirect fire’ is firing upon a point or place (A) from a point (B) which is not visible to people at (A). It is necessary, of course, that the trajectory or path of the projectile should pass above the top of the ‘mask’ or intervening object. At Fayetteville, May 19 and 20, 1863, the writer used a grove as a mask, but at Winchester, Va., Sept. 19, 1864, he successfully used a low hill. I claim no credit for the ‘invention'; the thing is so obvious. In fact, if I invented it, I did not do it at Fayetteville, but in my day-dreams when I was about 8 years old.’
After the war, Humphreys returned to Washington College to finish his education. In 1869, he graduated with a master’s degree in ancient languages. From 1872 to 1874 he studied in Europe, earning a doctorate from the University of Leipzig. Upon returning to the United States, he taught at Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas. In 1887, he accepted a professorship at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he remained until his retirement in 1912. Although he lived a life that had brought many honors, titles and degrees, Humphreys once wrote, ‘I became known as the ‘First Gunner of Bryan’s Battery,’ a title in which I take more pride in than any other ever bestowed upon me.’
Humphreys died in 1928 and was buried in the chapel at the University of Virginia. His brilliant innovation — indirect firing — lives on.
This article was written by Ben Crookshanks and originally appeared in America’s Civil War magazine.
For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!