Book Review: Civil War Field Artillery: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield


by Earl J. Hess

Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2023. Pp. xxiv, 396. Illus., tables, diagr., notes, biblio., index. $50.00. ISBN: 0807178004

A Detail Look at Field Artillery in the Civil War

Nationally renowned Civil War Historian, Prof. Earl Hess (Lincoln Memorial), has again demonstrated his noteworthy analysis in his new book, Civil War Field Artillery. Dr. Hess is a professor of history at Lincoln Memorial University. He published a plethora of Civil War books including but not limited to Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign, Civil War Supply and Strategy, Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation, and Braxton Bragg. If Hess’s background does not quantify the importance of this new piece of scholarship, then his use of quantitative and qualitative analysis alone is enough to justify his conclusion. In his new work, Hess stipulates that the world development of Civil War field artillery was just a “small-step forward.” (p. xii). Much like his previous work, Hess found that warfare during the Civil War was much more like the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century than modern war of the 20th century.

Earl Hess wanted to know what made Civil War field artillery so effective, and what prevented it from becoming even more efficient as the war transpired. (p. i) In order to answer these questions, Hess organized his work into a series of quantitative and qualitative surveys. He purposefully analyzed the effectiveness of specific batteries in both offensive and defensive engagements. Much of these surveys are made up of primary source accounts of soldiers and artillery officers. He further broke down the types of guns and their reliability on the battlefield. Clearly some soldiers preferred some types of guns over others while the horses pulling these guns were equally significant to the success of Civil War field artillery. There is a mix of new and old military history within the book. Many surveys go over the battle while other sections the book cover the economic and social forces impacting Civil War artillery.

Hess begins the book by conceding that the Civil War saw a great transition in the various types of artillery. Rifled guns dominated the Civil War landscape over their smoothbore counterparts, while steel was now an option over bronze and iron cannons used in previous wars. Americans quickly learned about the effectiveness of these pieces on the battlefield. (p. 34) Hess employed many charts throughout the beginning of the book analyzing the weight, distance of projectiles, and tube of artillery pieces. Much like his book on infantry tactics, he outlines military manuals dealing with the footing of field artillery. He found that the soldiers did not have to train more than the cavalry or infantry. He also thought the artillery handbooks gave a “good starting point” to artillery officers, but they also needed hands-on experience. Their training was vastly different than either the infantry or cavalry arm of the army. (p. 62) This training did not spark innovative tactics or hardware. There was a working method and material that artillerists could rely on without developing new equipment or ideas. (p. 91) The Civil War was on the cusp of new artillery pieces and projectiles, but despite having the most rifled pieces of artillery, it did not translate to much change on that conflict's battlefields.

Furthermore, Hess indicates that the effectiveness of Civil War artillery comes down to interpretation as artillery had mixed success in offensive operations. To be successful, they needed to be put in a position close to the frontline. Batteries were better suited for the defense and impacting enemy morale. (p. 314) However, none of these ideas were relatively new or drastically different from the Napoleonic Wars. Hess goes beyond other studies by addressing the improvements of artillery over time. Following the Civil War, Prussia and Austria made drastic changes that aided their artillery such as the Prussian’s reliance on steel breech-loading rifles that improved their training. Artillery in the United States was slower to develop than in Europe. (p. 397) Hess characterizes and analyzes the changes made during the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and World War II. These changes did not come from any ideas or improvements made during the Civil War; he clearly makes the case that they occurred in a post-Civil War era. Nonetheless, Hess does not take away from the artillerists hard-work or accomplishments. He acknowledged their role in making the artillery more effective throughout the American Civil War; they had to figure out ways to compensate for the drastic change in field fortifications and the highly technical nature of artillery service. It demanded professionalism and above all else, mathematics. (p. 292) These men came from different backgrounds and had vastly different experiences than the cavalry and infantry. Many of them came from skilled trades and large cities. This was largely due to the complex nature of Civil War artillery. (p. 204)

Artillerists learned on and off the battlefield how to make the guns more effective. At times they dealt with limited support from their superiors. The compiled surveys best articulate these themes and research. The mix of quantitative and qualitative data only add to Hess’s expanding work on Civil War history and suggests openness to the possibility of further work on how it changed during the post-Civil War era. Finally, Hess’s groundbreaking effort only adds to the historiography of the Civil War and how it is placed within the boundaries of 19th century warfare.


Our Reviewer: Nathan Provost is a doctoral candidate under the supervision of Dr. Steven Woodworth at Liberty University. His dissertation covers the Battle of Cold Harbor and analyzes its outcome and memory. He is a member of the Savas Beatie “ Emerging Civil War” group. His previous work includes “A Comprehensive View of the Overland Campaign: Part I,” “A Comprehensive View of the Overland Campaign, Part II: The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse ,” A Comprehensive View of the Overland Campaign, Part III: The Center of Gravity Lies at Ox Ford,” “A Comprehensive View of the Overland campaign Part IV: Forgotten Victories,” “Lee’s Last Great Field Victory: A Reassessment of Cold Harbor,” “Continuous Contact: Grant’s Tactical Doctrine in the Eastern Theater,” “Ulysses S. Grant: Clausewitz’s Military Genius,” “If Grant Goes East,” “In Defense of Sheridan,” and is currently working on “A Bulldog’s Grip: Grant’s Second Offensive” and “A Stupendous Failure: Grant’s Third Offensive”. He previously reviewed The Cavalry at Appomattox.




Note: Civil War Field Artillery is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Nathan Provost   

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