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Unlike their 20th-Century counterparts, Civil War commanders did not have the benefit of aerial reconnaissance, aside from manned balloons. Neither was it simply a matter of sauntering up to the enemy’s works in order to discern their true nature; the advent of rifled musketry and long-range artillery had seen to that. Then again, even if troops suspected that “Quaker guns” were present in an enemy’s lines, they could be pretty well assured that these would have been interspersed with the very real and quite lethal variety. Of course, the challenge for any would-be attacker would have been in telling the two apart.

At times, to keep the enemy guessing, the fake artillery would be randomly switched with the genuine pieces. For dramatic purposes, the latter would then be fired during a subsequent gunnery practice. In effect, any officer who considered assailing an enemy’s line on a hunch that it might contain Quaker guns would have had some appreciation for that memorable quote from one of our modern-day heroes of the silver screen: “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?” Few, if any, ever felt sufficiently blessed.

The use of Quaker guns was by no means confined to the American Civil War. In fact, they had been put to effective use on at least two occasions during the American Revolution. Neither did they lose their appeal after 1865; combatants resorted to this type of subterfuge in a number of later struggles, including World Wars I and II. Even today, with the aid of high-resolution photoreconnaissance and satellite surveillance, military men are still being fooled by the likes of old water pipes disguised as anti-aircraft guns. That being the case, perhaps we could afford to be more forgiving of those who fell prey to this “old joke” during the Civil War.


Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.