Could two batteries of 4.5-inch rifles have prevented Pickett’s Charge?
As the Army of the Potomac moved north toward Gettysburg late in June 1863, trying to track down the Army of Northern Virginia, the men of Batteries B and M, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, assigned to the 2nd Artillery Brigade of the artillery reserve, struggled to move the 12 heaviest guns in the formation, 4.5-inch siege rifles. The huge cannons were actually designed for static siege work, not as field artillery, and the gunners were having trouble keeping pace.
For the so-called “Heavies,” this was a familiar predicament, since they had first taken those guns into the field during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Although the 4.5-inch rifles were present at the Siege of Yorktown, they likely weren’t fired in combat. The guns saw action at Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill, but their main hour of glory was at Fredericksburg in December 1862, when Batteries B and M fired 357 rounds at Confederate positions across the Rappahannock. The batteries remained with the Army of the Potomac through the winter and covered Federal river crossings at Second Fredericksburg in May 1863.
The 4.5-inch guns first joined the U.S. Army’s arsenal at the start of the war. Prewar experiments had demonstrated the power of rifled cannons for siege work, particularly in breaching masonry forts. In 1860 the Ordnance Department completed the design of a heavy rifle for this purpose. Pittsburgh’s Fort Pitt Foundry produced 113 of the guns. Deliveries began in December 1861 and ended in 1866.
This new cannon took advantage of the technology of the day in both external form and metal composition. It featured the smooth “ordnance shape.” Its barrel was plain and streamlined to ease stress upon firing. The only right angles in the entire form were the muzzle face and trunnions. From the exterior, the 4.5-inch rifle resembled its cousin, the wrought iron 3-inch ordnance rifle, but instead was made of cast iron.
When the Army of the Potomac began marching in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee during his second invasion of the North, the two Connecticut batteries again moved at the formation’s rear. On June 30, the batteries reached Westminster, Md. Had the massive cannons been ordered to join the main body of the army, they would probably have arrived on the battlefield sometime on July 2. But Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, complained that the guns would be difficult to handle and of little use on the rocky, hilly ground at Gettysburg. Based on that recommendation, the 4.5-inch rifles remained with the Federal supply trains at Westminster instead of moving on to Gettysburg.
It’s interesting to envision what could have happened if the rifles had been placed on Cemetery Ridge, where they might have played havoc with the Confederate artillery supporting Pickett’s Charge. Perhaps they could have kept the charge from taking place. But that’s pure speculation.
After Gettysburg, the Connecticut batteries proceeded to Williamsport to support the Federal pursuit of Lee’s army. In November, Battery M conducted a rapid movement to Kelly’s Ford, as part of the opening of the Mine Run Campaign. Batteries L and M remained with the Army until April 1864. But at the start of the Overland Campaign, the big guns returned to D.C. During the Siege of Petersburg, they performed the demolition work they had been designed for.
Today these behemoths remain little more than a footnote to history. They’ve fallen behind in memory just as they did on so many grueling marches.
Craig Swain, who writes from Leesburg, Va., is an avid student of Civil War artillery. Check out his blog: To the Sound of the Guns, at markerhunter.wordpress.com.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.