Monday, May 16, 2011

Napoleons: The Artillerists Favorite Weapon

As these cannons sit silently at strategic places on America’s Civil War Battlefields they provide a link for the modern tourist with events of the past.   If one is lucky enough to observe one being fired by reenactors they get a semblance of what it might have been like on the battlefield as the gun belches flame, smoke, shot and shell and deafen the ears for a moment. In my estimation however it is impossible to comprehend what it must have been like to face a battery of four or six of these workhorses of the civil war as they were loaded and fired with double canister as rapidly as the cannoneers could service the guns. 

The cannon I am referring to is officially named the Model 1857 Light 12 Pounder Gun Howitzer.  It is more often just identified as a “Napoleon” which is the nickname given to the gun after its adoption and manufacture by the US War Department starting in 1857.

The bronze 12 pounder smoothbore guns were developed in France in 1856 while Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s (a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte)  headed the French government.  The United States observed the guns in action in France and obtained a license to manufacture them. The first tube was cast by Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts in December 1856.   Prior to the start of the civil war in April 1861 only 8 Napoleons had been cast, all by Ames.

After hostilities commenced the US government ramped up the production of Napoleons.  Ultimately there would be 5 foundries, four of which were in Massachusetts that would cast the 1,156 cannons delivered to the government during the war.  Revere Copper Company of Boston, Mass., was the largest supplier delivering 461 guns before wars end. 

The muzzle of a Napoleon manufactured by Revere Copper Company

Revere Copper Company cannons are easily identified by the markings on the muzzle of the gun.  As shown in the above photograph the muzzle at 12 o clock is stamped Revere Copper Company.  I have also seen some with only the company initials.  The weight of the tube is stamped at 3 o clock, in this case 1213 lbs.  The date of manufacture (1862) follows as you proceed clockwise around the muzzle.  Next are the inspectors initials, in this case T. J. R., for Thomas J. Rodman.  The Serial # of the gun is the last mark on the muzzle, as shown No. 53.  (Note all federal Napoleons have similar markings on the muzzle.)  

The  muzzle of a Napoleon manufactured by  Henry N Hooper & Co., of Boston, Mass.  

The muzzle of a Napoleon manufactured by Ames Manufacturing Company.  

Napoleons made for the US government all had a 4.62 inch diameter bore.  As per "Artillery Hell:  The Employment of Artillery at Antietam", "With a propellant charge of 2.5 pounds of black powder the Napoleon could fire a 12.30 lb. solid shot to a range of 1,619 yds, (4,857 ft, or 0.92 miles) at five degrees elevation.   The muzzle velocity was 1,485 f.p.s. (feet per second)."  The guns also fired shell, spherical case and canister which was deadly at close range against masses of troops in close formation.      

The confederacy also produced Napoleons designed after the Union model.  By wars end 501 cannons had been delivered with the largest producer J. R. Anderson & Company (Tredegar Iron Works)  of Richmond, Va.

 Confederate Napoleon manufactured by the Macon Arsenal in Macon, Georgia.  This gun is near the Eternal Peace Memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park.  

Muzzle of the Napoleon cast at the Macon Arsenal.  The words "Macon Arsenal" at 12 o'clock are visible but difficult to read.  

Living historians at Antietam National Battlefield firing a reproduction Napoleon, April 2011.  

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