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The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 1: January 2006



"For want of this precaution ... many Men lose their Arms"
Official, Semi-Official and Unofficial American Artillery Texts, 1775-1815

[Artillery] officers should preserve, even in the most trying moments an air of coolness and tranquillity; and endeavor, both by word and deed, to encourage the timid, and to repress the ardor of the violent.
Exercise for Garrison and Field Ordnance, New York, 1812

The Man who serves the Vent must be very careful to observe whether any Tubes stick in the Vent, and the Instant he sees a Tube stick he must acquaint the Man who loads by saying "Don't Load: and "A Tube sticks in the Vent." For want of this precaution it is that so many Men lose their arms by Quick Firing.
"Directions Concerning Light Six-Pounder Battalion Guns," 1776

The system of tactics in use in our service are those of the French; not that opinion is settled among our officers on this point; some preferring the English. In favor of the French, it may be said, that there is really more affinity between the military aptitude of the American and French soldier, than between that of the former and the English; and that the French systems are the results of a broader platform of experience, submitted to the careful analysis of a body of officers, who, for science and skill combined, stand unrivalled; whereas the English owes more to individual than to general talent.
Dennis Hart Mahan, Out-Post, 1847

"The whole world goes clippity-clop, clippity-clop except the French who go cloppity-clip, cloppity-clip."
Anonymous (but brilliant)

1. Introduction

William Edward Birkheimer was a good soldier. He got some practical experience of military life as a private in the 4th Iowa Cavalry in 1864-1865 before entering the United States Military Academy in 1866. He graduated 19th in his class in 1870, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 3rd Artillery Regiment and began the long, dreary shuffle around small military posts while waiting for promotion. It took Birkheimer nine years to make first lieutenant, a further seven to become an acting captain, and it was not until 1898 that he attained the exalted rank of substantive captain. When war broke out with Spain, promotion came more swiftly. After a brief spell as a colonel in the volunteer infantry, in 1901 Birkheimer was promoted major in the regular artillery and won the Congressional Medal of Honour at San Miguel de Mayma on Luzon Island in the Philippines for "charging and routing with 12 men 300 of the enemy."[1]

For our purposes, it is fortunate that Birkheimer was not only a good soldier, he was also a diligent student of the history of his chosen arm of service, an interest that culminated in his 1884 book, Historical Sketch of the U.S. Artillery.[2] Thoroughly researched and carefully reasoned, Birkheimer's Sketch has stood the test of time well and remains a most useful source for the beginning of the American artillery arm although its somewhat convoluted organization renders it difficult to consult. The author shares Birkheimer's interest in the early history of the American artillery arm and the following study examines the artillery texts in use in the United States from the colonial period to 1815. This study is not a history of American artillery that time but a descriptive survey of the relevant literature and it was undertaken to provide a companion piece to a similar examination of American infantry texts published some years ago.[3]

Surveying artillery literature is a difficult task it is numerous, diverse, and during the period under examination, not clearly regulated by authority. It is also very technical and any perusal of artillery service in the smoothbore period must of necessity touch on such subjects as carriage design and construction, metallurgy, chemistry, ballistics and military tactics. All these subjects will receive some mention in the following study but the emphasis will always be on the broad picture, not the fine details, and the reader interested in particulars is directed to the actual published works cited in the text and the notes. Although the following survey will include garrison, siege and sea coast artillery texts as well as some military engineering works (which often included sections on artillery), the main emphasis will be on field artillery, the most numerous and important part of the artillery arm. Finally, as American gunners were influenced by foreign publications, this examination must of necessity include a discussion of the source literature of the British and French artillery arms during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Before commencing, some definitions are in order. I define official artillery texts as those written for, translated for, or subsidized by the U.S. War Department (or its predecessors) and specified for the use of the American artillery, regular or militia. Semi-official texts are those encouraged, and directly or indirectly subsidized, by the War Department which, although not officially specified for the use of American gunners, were popular reference works. The distinction between official and semi-official texts is not a clear one but, nonetheless, three titles of the former category and six of the latter will be examined below.[4] Not surprisingly, the category of unofficial texts is vast as it encompasses all the literature, both American and foreign, that an intelligent and well-read artillery officer serving between 1775 and 1815 might have possessed, or consulted, during the course of his professional career.

Having got all that out of the way, we are now ready to begin.

2. Early Days: American Artillery Literature to 1779


[1]. Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (2 vols., Washington, 1903), vol I, 220.

[2]. William E. Birkheimer, Historical Sketch of the Organization, Administration, Materiel and Tactics of the Artillery, United States Army, (Washington, 1884).

[3]. See the author's articles, "Dry Books of Tactics: US Infantry Manuals of the War of 1812 and After," Military Collector & Historian, vol 38, No. 2 and No. 4, and "'Dry Books of Tactics' Re-Read: An Additional Note on U.S. Infantry Manuals of the War of 1812," Military Collector & Historian, vol. 39, No. 2. These should be read in conjuncton with my article, "From Steuben to Scott. The Adoption of French Infantry Tactics by the U.S. Army, 1807-1816," Acta of the International Commission on Military History, No. 13, Helsinki, 1988, published 1991.

[4]. The three official works are: Henri Othon de Scheel, A Treatise of Artillery; Containing A New System or The Alterations Made in the French Artillery, since 1765, Translated from the French of M. De Scheel, (2 vols., Philadelphia, 1800); Compendious Exercise for the Garrison and Field Ordnance as practised in the United States (Washington, 1810); and Exercise for Garrison and Field Ordnance Together with Manoeuvres of Horse Artillery ... (New York, 1812).

The six semi-official works are: John Muller, A Treatise of Artillery ... (London, 1757 and many subsequent editions); William Stevens, A System for the Discipline of the Artillery of the United States, or, the Young Artillerist's Pocket Companion (New York, 1787); Manoeuvres of Horse Artillery, by General Kosciusko. Written at Paris in the Year 1800 ... (New York, 1808); Louis Tousard, American Artillerist's Companion ... (Philadelphia, 1809 and 1813); William Duane, American Military Library; or; Compendium of the Modern Tactics ... (2 vols, Philadelphia, 1810); and Ralph Adye, The Pocket Gunner and Bombardier (Philadelphia, 1802).


[ War of 1812 Magazine Issue 1 ]