The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 13: June 2010



"For want of this precaution so many Men lose their Arms:" Official, Semi-Official and Unofficial American Artillery Texts, 1775-1815 Part 5

By Donald E. Graves

Publication of this multi-part series, which traces American artillery literature from the late 17th century to 1815,began in Issue 1 (January 2006) of "The War of 1812 Magazine." This issue contained the first two parts and the third part appeared in Issue 2 (February 2006). There then followed a long hiatus until the appearance of the fourth part in Issue 8 (February 2008). Six parts yet remain to come and the remaining articles will appear in the next three issues of the magazine.

Theory versus Practice: The American Artillery, 1779-1799

It is now time to come back at long last to Henry Knox and his Continental Artillery. We have seen that, in the last decades of the 18th century, American gunners had a choice of following either the Royal Artillery, which tended to eschew publication and emphasize practical instruction over theory, or the French artillery which, while not downgrading practical instruction, stressed theory and detailed regulation disseminated by publication.

During the Revolutionary War there was never any doubt in Henry Knox's mind -- he preferred the British way to all others. In Birkheimer's words, Knox "considered the English artillery to be the best in the world" and, when advising the Continental Congress to create a training institution similar to that of Woolwich, commented that "we were safe so long as we followed the example of the English in this and all other particulars touching the management of the artillery arm."[1] This predilection was natural enough as the Royal Artillery was the European service with which Knox and his officers were most familiar. They had adopted the British system of 3, 6, 9, 12 and 18-pdr. calibers as opposed to the French system of 4, 8, 12 and 16-pdr. calibers, much British equipment, and not a few of the men had come from the British service and, finally, the Continental artillery relied on John Muller's Treatise for the construction of their carriages and vehicles. Finally, the Royal Regiment of Artillery was their opponent and it set the standard which they had to meet or excel in battle.[2] 

The French influence was much less strong. According to Birkheimer, the du Coudray affair had so disgusted American artillery officers "with anything that had a semblance of it" as they "felt that they had been compelled to show that they could take care of themselves, not with the assistance, but in spite of the French artillery officers."[3] Henry Knox was willing to use the variety of French ordnance shipped to America (if his British calibre ammunition would fit it) but much of it was obsolescent and he found the système Vallière 4-pdr. guns so heavy that he ordered them recast as 3 and 6-pdrs. Some système Gribeauval pieces were supplied to the Continental artillery but Knox employed them "as though they had come from Turkey, or elsewhere, in happy ignorance of the fact that they belonged to and were the exponents of a system designed to become famous."[4] So unaware was Knox, America's foremost gunner, of the advances made by Gribeauval that when the commander of the artillery in Rochambeau's army presented him with a manuscript copy of the Gribeauval gun drill, he did not bother to have it translated but continued to rely on drills that his gunners had worked out for themselves. These home grown drills seem to have been rather variable -- as one of Knox's officers later recalled, "there not being any in particular adopted, but every officer teaching the men he exercises, according to the traditional idea he forms of this part of the duty, as an artillerist."[5]

The British influence in American artillery circles continued after the Revolutionary War came to a successful conclusion for the Americans and the French in 1783. Along with the remainder of the Continental Army Knox's artillery corps was disbanded and, although there were small regular artillery units -- in one permutation or another -- in service for the next decade or so they acted more often as infantry rather than gunners as no need was seen for a large regular establishment in the republic. Very few publications appeared in years that immediately followed the war and with one exception they were of little importance. Eleazar Oswald of New York brought out a 23-page pamphlet of Cursory Observations Relative to the Mounting of Cannons in 1785. Militia artillery in Bristol and Charleston published their regulations in 1794 and 1799 respectively and Amasa Smith, a Massachusetts militia officer, produced A Short Compendium, of the Duty of Artillerists with 56 pages intended for the militia gunners in Worcester in 1799. John Campbell, "late adjutant in the British 73rd Regiment of Foot," contributed The Complete Soldier's Pocket Companion, a 52-page primer that contained "the field and great gun exercises" in 1798 and in that same year, Charles Smith, a New York militia officer, proposed publishing the Saxon artillery officer Johann Tielke's Instructions for Officers who wish to become Field Engineers. The exception to this literature appeared in 1797 when William Stevens published his System for the Discipline of the Artillery of the United States of America, or, the Young Artillerist's Pocket Companion —the first attempt by an American national to provide a comprehensive artillery treatise for his countrymen.

Stevens was a native New Yorker who served as a captain in Lamb's Artillery Regiment during the Revolutionary War. Originally he intended that his Pocket Companion would consist of three volumes: the first dealing with the formation and training of an artillery company and the service of field artillery; the second would cover garrison, siege and naval ordnance while the third would be concerned with laboratory work or the manufacture of ammunition. In the event Stevens only managed to bring out the first volume and even then it was five years late in appearing. Much of the book is concerned with organization and infantry training for artillery companies and regiments with a manual of arms and foot drill drawn directly from Steuben's Regulations. There is a section on the construction of field artillery weapons and carriages with plates attributed to the engraver Charles Rollins that appear to be copied directly from Muller's Treatise. There is also considerable material described as being the practice of the former Continental Artillery and, in fact, the Pocket Companion is really a concise compendium of what was used in that service. It is interesting to note that in the lengthy section dealing with field artillery drill, Stevens includes an English translation of the French Gribeauval drill presented to Henry Knox in 1780 but also complains that it was "with the greatest difficulty that I could procure a translation of the exercise, on account of translators, in general, being unacquainted with the technical terms used in the artillery."[6] Stevens was no admirer of the French drill which to him, "will not admit of that celerity in performing the exercise, as that practised by the English and American artilleries."[7]

All in all, the Pocket Companion contained much useful information for the militia, if not the regular, artillery and its long life (it was being used in some states as late as 1824) warrants it being classified as the second semi-official American artillery text to appear. Taken together, Stevens's Pocket Companion and John Muller's Treatise represent the high point of British influence in American artillery circles. Things would change radically in the next few years.


[1].  Birkheimer, William E, Historical Sketch of the Organization, Administration, Materiel and Tactics of the Artillery, United States Army (Washington, 1884), 225.

[2].  Birkheimer, Historical Sketch, 224-225.

[3].  Birkheimer, Historical Sketch, 225.

[4].  Birkheimer, Historical Sketch, 225.

[5].  Stevens, William, A System for the Discipline of the Artillery of the United States, or, the Young Artillerist's Pocket Companion (New York, 1797), 1.6>

[6].  Stevens, Pocket Companion, 81.

[7]. Stevens, Pocket Companion, 81.



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