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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two young adult children who I love very much. I currently volunteer at Antietam and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. Since 2013 I have been conducting in depth research on the regular artillery companies of the Union Army and their leaders. I hope to turn this into a book on this subject in the future. My perspective comes from a 28-year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Creation of the Artillery Reserve in the Army of the Potomac

This begins a series of posts (hopefully) that trace the history of the Artillery Reserve of the Army of the Potomac.  This article covers the initial organization of this command until its arrival on the Peninsula in April 1862.

When George McClellan arrived in Washington in July 1861 and assumed command of the forces that eventually became the Army of the Potomac, he decided to retain William Barry as his Chief of Artillery. Barry had served in that capacity under Irwin McDowell.  Barry’s credentials were impeccable despite his flawed orders that resulted in the destruction of Ricketts Light Company I, First Artillery and Charles Griffins Battery D, Fifth Artillery at Bull Run.   He graduated from West Point in 1838, a year ahead of Henry Hunt.  Both served together in the 2nd Artillery.   Barry had the distinction of serving in the very first light artillery company of the U.S. Army, Samuel Ringgolds Battery C, 3rd US Army.  He went to Mexico but became sick and returned to the United States without seeing any action.  Barry commanded Light Company A, 2nd Artillery after Hunt left it and like Hunt was on the panel that revised the Army’s artillery tactics. Barry’s role would be as the administrative head of the artillery in the Army of the Potomac.  And in that role he gave good service.  Barry’s guiding principals for the administration of the artillery in the Army of the Potomac are well known and I wont go into them here.  Needless to say, they outlived him and by the end of the war had spread to all of the Union armies in the field. 

Henry Hunt was appointed to command the Artillery Reserve.  This was the number two artillery job in the Army of the Potomac.  Unlike Barry whose job was administrative, Henry Hunt actually held a tactical command of artillery units’ lead by artillery officers.  In European armies, this would have been called an artillery division and it would have rated a general officers star.  The Reserve had its own staff, a subordinate command structure of brigades, and an ammunition train.

The mission of the artillery reserve was to augment the fires of the batteries assigned to the infantry divisions. Its guns could be quickly deployed to a threatened sector or could be used to mass fires for a planned attack.  The Reserve also had a logistics mission.  It stocked additional supplies of ammunition that could be distributed to batteries throughout the Army.  Finally it was intended that batteries assigned to the infantry divisions worn down in combat could be refitted in the Reserve.  Assignment to the Reserve was considered an honor. 

Officers of the Horse Artillery Brigade at Fair Oaks Va. 1862
At first the Reserve only contained regular army artillery units.   It was initially organized in two artillery brigades with 8 regular artillery companies.  The first brigade consisted of Horse Artillery and was commanded by William Hays, Hunt’s old friend and wartime colleague. Hay’s was born in Richmond Virginia the son of a prominent lawyer.  He graduated from West Point in 1840, one year behind Hunt.  He served with Hunt in James Duncan’s Light Company A, 2nd Artillery in Mexico.  He fought in all the major actions, was wounded and twice brevetted for gallantry. Like George Thomas, John Gibbon, and John Buford who were also from southern states, Hays had to declare his loyalty to the Union.  Hunt’s second brigade was field artillery.  George Getty commanded this brigade.  Getty was born in Washington DC the son of a Treasury Department auditor. He was a West Point classmate of Hays. Getty was from the 4th Artillery and like Hays and Hunt served with great distinction in Mexico.  Getty spent the 1850s fighting the Seminoles in Florida and on the western frontier.

Hunt’s principal staff officer was Lieutenant Edward Warner.  Warner graduated from West Point in 1857. He was a classmate of Porter Alexander the noted Confederate artillerist at Gettysburg.  The young Pennsylvanian was commissioned in the 3rd Artillery. When the war began, Warner was serving on the West Coast when the war began.  In October 1861 McClellan ordered much of the 3rd Artillery in California to come to the Army of the Potomac, Warner as Regimental Quartermaster was largely responsible for the successful transportation of the regiment from California to Panama and then from there to New York.  Hunt was impressed with the young Pennsylvanian’s abilities and made him his assistant adjutant general. 

Thru the fall of 1861 and into the next spring, Hunt worked hard outfitting and drilling his batteries. Together with his leadership team and a number of young talented battery commanders Hunt built up the Artillery Reserve into a formidable combat force.  His family situation was secure.  Mary and their son Conway living not far away in Washington and his two older children lived in New York with their aunt.  Unburdened of family worries Hunt continued to refine his own thoughts on artillery organization and tactics. 

Later on a battalion of heavier artillery was added to the Reserve.  It was mustered into the Army as the 1st New York Artillery Battalion. Four companies were organized.  Three were issued 20-pound Parrott guns and one had 32-pound howitzers.  The battalion was organized around a group of German artillerists who served in the army of the Grand Duchy of Baden.  Their first commander was Lieutenant Colonel Andreas Breckel.  In 1849, Breckel led the artillery in Franz Sigel’s forces during the unsuccessful insurrection against the Prussians.

In March 1862, the Army of the Potomac began the great movement of to the Peninsula.  Hunt’s Artillery Reserve fell under the command of Fitz-John Porter, the officer who had been instrumental in extricating Union artillery from Texas just a year earlier.  Initially his light artillery saw little action though the officers and men assisted in constructing the siege lines around Williamsburg.

Hunt was always extremely careful to preserve his precious artillery horses.  You couldn't’ just hitch up any old nag to an artillery limber and expect the horse to work as a part of the team.  Therefore it was critical to take good care of the horses and not overload them.  Every good artilleryman took care of his horses first before he attended to his own needs.  Hunt absolutely forbid cannoneers from riding on the limbers, or piling up their knapsacks on them.  Worn out horses would do the artillery little good if they were suddenly needed to maneuver quickly in battle.  Despite frequent edicts to this effect, Hunt discovered that cannoneers of his German artillery units were riding on the limbers and caissons as the horses were trying to negotiate very treacherous roads.  Hunt immediately ordered the relief of Colonel Brickel and his replacement by Major Albert Arndt.  When the bewildered German asked why he had been relieved, Hunt replied by letter:                         

“In reply to your note … desiring to know the cause of your arrest, I have to state that it was for the neglect of my repeated instructions in nearly all of your Batteries in the night march of the 6th [of May]. During nearly all the night the cannoneers were mounted notwithstanding the badness of the roads overloading the [horses], and defeating the movement of the Reserve.” [1]

Colonel Brickel resigned his commission one week later.  Henry Hunt didn’t mess around!

In a future post, we will cover the actions of the Artillery Reserve in the battles on the Peninsula.

[1] National Archives Record Group 393 Part 1, Entry 4011 Issuances Received by the Chief of Artillery page 72

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