“We Bury Our Dead” – The Effects of Civil War Artillery
Nothing could be heard but the infernal din of their discharge, and nothing seen through the smoke but a great ascension of dust from the smitten soil. When all was over, the spectacle was too dreadful to describe. The Confederates were still there—all of them it seemed—some almost under the muzzles of the guns. But not a man of all those brave fellows was on his feet, and so thickly were all covered with dust that they looked as if they had been reclothed in yellow. “We bury our dead,” said a gunner grimly. – Ambrose Bierce describing the Battle of Chickamauga
While the number of casualties from artillery fire during the Civil War was relatively light compared to those who received gunshot wounds (12 percent vs. 88 percent), the effects of artillery were often immediately fatal to those suffering them. Indeed, many artillery casualties were never recorded, as there was hardly anything left of the bodies on the field.
The Civil War saw a great number of technical innovations for weaponry, and the artillery was no exception. The introduction of rifled barrels allowed bullet-shaped projectiles to travel further and more accurately than the previously used cannon balls. While a smoothbore Napoleon cannon could hit a barn at just under a mile, a rifled Parrott gun firing from the same distance could hit the barn door. Cannons were still “line of sight” weapons—that is, the gunner had to be able to see the target to shoot at it—but they could inflict damage on buildings and troops at longer distances than before—usually up to two miles away.
Almost all Civil War cannons were muzzle-loading weapons, firing from one to two and a half pounds of black powder, and utilizing a variety of different projectiles. Each of the projectiles was designed to inflict a certain type of damage on its target.
The first type of ammunition used was a solid iron projectile—rifled guns used cylindrical “bolts” while smoothbore guns used round “balls.” This was often used to destroy buildings or other cannons, but it could be used against infantry. Gunners would often try to fire the cannon balls so that they would hit the ground and bounce into the ranks of oncoming troops. During the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, Lt. M.J. Graham of the 9th New York, Whiting’s Battery, observed incoming rounds:
I watched solid shot—round shot—strike with what sounded like an innocent thud in front of the guns, bounding over battery and park, fly through treetops, cutting some of them off so suddenly that it seemed to me they lingered for an instant undecided which way to fall. These round shot did not appear to be in a hurry. They came along slowly and deliberately, apparently, and there appeared no horror in them until they hit something.
Despite appearances, solid shot did indeed cause serious damage to anything or anyone that it hit.
Pvt. John H. Worsham of the 21st Virginia Infantry described in his diary seeing the effects of a solid shot that descended into a line of men:
I heard a thud on my right, as if one had been struck with a heavy fist. Looking around, I saw a man at my side standing erect, with his head off, a stream of blood spurting a foot or more from his neck. As I turned farther around, I saw three others lying on the ground, all killed by this cannon shot. The man standing was a captain . . . and his brains and blood bespattered the face and clothing of one in my company. This was the second time I saw four men killed by one shot. Each time the shot struck as it was descending—the first man had his head taken off, the next was shot through the breast, the next through the stomach, and the fourth had all his bowels torn out.
Famously, Major General Dan Sickles lost his leg to a solid shot at the battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. Sickles was mounted on his horse when he was struck by a 12-pound solid cannon ball, which fractured his leg. The leg had to be amputated, and the general donated it to the Army Medical Museum (the National Museum of Health and Medicine today), where he would go to visit it after the war.
The second type of ammunition used was shell, which consisted of a hollowed out solid shot filled with gunpowder. A fuse would be placed in the top of the round and would be lit when the round was fired from the cannon. The fuse was timed to explode while the shell was in mid-air—sending large chunks of iron, known as shrapnel, down upon its target. The effects could be devastating, as described by Pvt. Alfred Bellard in his memoirs – “the shell went through the breast of one man, cut the lower part of the body off another and took the hand off from the third after which it ploughed its way in the ground . . .”
It was not just infantry that came under attack by bursting shell rounds. Artillerists could also be the target. Edward A. Moore of the Rockbridge Artillery, CSA was bringing his gun into position on the battlefield at Kernstown, Virginia when:
. . . a shell struck the off-wheel horse of my gun and burst. The horse was torn to pieces, and the pieces thrown in every direction. The saddle-horse was also horribly mangled, the driver’s leg was cut off, as was also the foot of a man who was walking alongside. Both men died that night. A white horse working in the lead looked more like a bay after the catastrophe.
One of William Waugh’s comrades in the 5th Massachusetts Light Artillery was also unlucky enough to get caught in a shell burst:
. . . a shell came from the rebels . . . and burst about ten feet from us. A piece of it hit him on the hip and took a piece out of him, as big as a saucer. He went up into the air like a bird; was afterwards picked up and carried to the rear.
At the battle of Second Bull Run (Manassas) in August of 1862, 2nd Lt. James Stewart of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, had an unusual experience with an incoming round of shell:
[Stewart] flinched and his mount lunged as a shell burst overhead. [He] turned to see his horse’s flowing tail, neatly severed, lying in the dust. The horse survived this humiliating wound and during a later review elicited the corny remark from Mr. Lincoln that this horse reminded him of a “tale.”
The third type of ammunition was called case shot, which was a shell filled with solid iron balls. This was also a fused round, and when it exploded, the target would be showered with not only shrapnel, but also the deadly contents. This was especially effective when the round went off over the heads of long lines of advancing infantry. Many soldier accounts often mis-identify this type of round as “grape shot” or “grape,” which was a type of ammunition used more often by Naval gunners.
John Beatty, a veteran of the battle of Murfreesboro on January 5, 1863, described what happened to a comrade who was hit by case shot – “Young Winnegard, of the 3rd, has one foot off and both legs pierced by grape at the thighs.”
An artillerist observed the walls of a house that had been struck by three rounds of case shot and commented – “Being an artilleryman, and therefore to be exposed to missiles of that kind, I concluded that my chances for surviving the war were extremely slim.”
The last type of ammunition used was mainly fired from smoothbore cannon at close range (under 200 yards). Canister was a large tin can that was filled with twenty-seven 1 ½” diameter iron balls packed in sawdust. When the round was discharged, the outside canister disintegrated, and the iron balls flew out in a “V” pattern—turning the cannon into a giant shotgun. This was the preferred round for use against charging infantry. If the enemy got too close, double rounds of canister could be loaded in the guns.
At Fox’s Gap, during the battle of South Mountain on September 14, 1862, Brigadier General Jacob Cox of the Union 9th Corps came under Confederate artillery fire – “their canister shot made long furrows in the sod with a noise like the cutting of a melon rind.”
Confederate General William B. Bate led his battalion into a deadly canister fire at the battle of Chickamauga:
The Confederates could see in the fading daylight the black outline of cannon barrels trained on them from across the field. Then came the brilliant orange flashes, followed by the report of twenty guns simultaneously, and the field was blanketed in smoke and blood. Bate’s horse was torn to pieces by canister . . . Men fell at the rate of nearly one every second.
The close-range fighting at the battle of Franklin in November 1864 dictated the heavy use of canister by artillery on both sides. Historian Thomas Cartwright described the carnage:
They said that two sounds could be heard, first the roar of the cannon and then the crushing and snapping of Confederate bones so close to the guns. A drummer boy from Missouri, a 15-year- old Confederate, ran up to one of the cannons and stuffed the mouth of one of the cannons with a split rail from a cedar fence. It’s said they fired the gun and the drummer boy exploded like a ripe tomato in a puff of pink mist . . .
Canister was the round most feared by the infantry, but all types of rounds could inflict terrible damage on humans, animals, and property alike. Artillery was just one of the horrors faced by soldiers on the battlefield, and those that lived through it had no doubt of its terrible effects. As William Waugh, of the 5th Massachusetts Light Artillery wrote:
The screaming and bursting of shells, canister and shrapnel as they tore through the struggling masses of humanity, the death screams of wounded animals, the groans of their human companions, wounded and dying . . . a perfect Hell on earth, never, perhaps to be equaled . . . nor ever to be forgotten in a man’s lifetime.
About the Author
Tracey McIntire earned her BA in English at Rivier College in Nashua, N.H. She is Director of Communications at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and an active Civil War living historian, where she portrays a woman soldier in various guises. She is also an interpretive volunteer at Antietam National Battlefield and a Historical Interpreter at South Mountain State Battlefield, where she serves on their artillery detachments.
 Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, Volume 3, p. 696
 Moore, Edward A. The Story of a Cannoneer Under Stonewall Jackson, 1907, p. 31
 Naisawald, L. VanLoan, Grape & Canister, The Story of Field Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865, p. 112
 Beatty, John. The Citizen Soldier or, Memoirs of a Volunteer, 1879, p. 211
 Moore, Edward A. The Story of a Cannoneer Under Stonewall Jackson, 1907, p. 49
 Cozzens, Peter. This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga, 1992, pp. 256-257
 Jilton, Ned. “Hawking Boys: Fighting and dying at the bloody Battle of Franklin,” Times-News, July 14, 2021
 Waugh, Archibald William. 5th Massachusetts Light Artillery Co. E, unpublished memoirsTags: Artillery, Civil War Medicine, wounds Posted in: Battlefield Medicine