Aug 24

The Union Navy's Stubby Gun

Monday, August 24, 2015 9:00 AM

By

By Spencer C. Tucker

Adapted from “Armaments and Innovations,” Naval History, April 2014

 

Early in the Civil War, specially built boats mounting 13-inch mortars were active on the upper Mississippi. But numerous problems with the raft-like craft led their commander to report that their "services have not been near equal to their cost." (Battles and Leaders of the Civil War)

Early in the Civil War, specially built boats mounting 13-inch mortars were active on the upper Mississippi. But numerous problems with the raft-like craft led their commander to report that their “services have not been near equal to their cost.” (Battles and Leaders of the Civil War)

The 13-inch Civil War sea mortar was a formidable weapon. But the use of this type of gun was not new; since the 17th century, high-trajectory mortar fire from special vessels known as bombs or bomb ketches had been used for shore bombardment. Heavy ordnance was more easily moved about on ships than on land, and the large sea mortars were mounted on strong beds turned on vertical pivots. Their explosive shells, fired at high angle, easily cleared the walls of forts to strike the targets within.

The 13-inch weapon weighed 17,250 pounds and rested on a 4,500-pound bed, or carriage. With a 20-pound charge of powder and the mortar at a 41-degree elevation, it could hurl a 204-pound shell loaded with 7 pounds of powder more than 2¼ miles. At that distance the shell was in flight for 30 seconds. The range could be adjusted by altering the powder charge or changing the mortar’s elevation.

Union Major General John C. Frémont, commander of the Western Department, ordered the first Civil War mortar boats on 24 August 1861. Thirty-eight in number, they specifically were designed to engage Confederate river batteries. Designated by numbers rather than names, the 60-by-25-foot boats were in fact little more than rafts and of such low freeboard that the first two feet of their six-foot sloping sides were caulked to keep out water when the mortars were fired. The sides were slanted inward at the top and plated with half-inch-thick iron to protect against small-arms fire. The boats, which leaked badly, were moved about by tugs and proved so unwieldy that false bows and sterns had to be added to make them more maneuverable.

An overhead view of a 13-inch sea mortar depicts the weapon while being trained. The four "eccentric bars" are pinned down, allowing the raised "circle" to rotate, and the train tackles are in place. (Ordnance Instructions for the United States Navy, 1866)

An overhead view of a 13-inch sea mortar depicts the weapon while being trained. The four “eccentric bars” are pinned down, allowing the raised “circle” to rotate, and the train tackles are in place. (Ordnance Instructions for the United States Navy, 1866)

A 13-man crew, including a first and second captain, manned the mortar. To train the weapon, the platform, or “circle,” on which it was mounted was turned. Crewmen using curved “eccentric bars” inserted into cams along the circle’s edge first lifted the platform onto its rollers and pinned the bars in place. Others then used train tackles to turn the circle. When the mortar was properly positioned, the bars would be unpinned and the circle lowered. Because of the intense noise and reverberations inside the boat when the mortar was fired, after charging the weapon the crew would retire through iron side hatches to the open stern deck. The first captain would then fire the mortar by quickly pulling on a long lanyard whose opposite end was attached to a friction primer inserted in the weapon’s vent.

The first mortar boats were not ready in time for the Union victories in the battles of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, but they joined Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s squadron on the upper Mississippi in March and participated in the Battle of Island No. 10 later that month. They also took part in other actions, including the shelling of Vicksburg during the 18 May to 4 July 1863 Union siege of that Confederate bastion.

Foote had hoped they could reduce the Confederate positions along the Mississippi so that his gunboats could run past Island No. 10 to New Madrid, Missouri. He arrived above the island in mid-March with 7 gunboats and 10 mortar boats. No. 12 launched the first shell against Island No. 10 at 1440 on 16 March. Fired at their extreme range, the mortar shells could reach the batteries on the island, the Confederates’ floating battery, and the five Rebel batteries on the Tennessee side of the river. But because the mortars were firing diagonally across Phillips Point, the gun crews could not see their targets, and the only immediate effect of the shelling was to drive some of the defenders from their positions. That day the mortars fired nearly 300 shells.

The next day the bombardment’s lack of effectiveness was revealed when the Confederate shore batteries easily turned back an attack by Foote’s gunboats. Subsequent shelling had little effect. Sixty miles downriver, a seven-week mortar bombardment of Fort Pillow yielded the same poor results.

 

To read the this article in its entirety, go to: http://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2014-03/armaments-and-innovations-union-navy%E2%80%99s-stubby-gun займ

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