The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 14: October 2010


For want of this precaution so many Men lose their Arms:" Official, Semi-Official and Unofficial American Artillery Texts, 1775-1815 Part 7

By Donald E. Graves

The United States Military Philosophical Society and Kosciuszko's Manoeuvres, 1802-1808

De Scheel's Treatise became one of the first artillery texts used by the cadets at the infant academy at West Point, the other being the work of the faculty member, Jared Mansfield, whose Essays, Mathematical and Physical, contained a chapter on elementary gunnery and ballistics.[1] On the subject of fortification Jonathan Williams was able to provide his own translation of parts of a French technical work, Elements of Fortification and, in 1805, the academy library also contained a copy of Vauban's classic Traité de fortification.[2] Williams, who was an ardent admirer of all things French, particularly French military theory, bemoaned the fact that few of his cadets had any familiarity with the French language and remedied this lack by making study of that tongue -- with its sinister irregular verbs lurking around syntactical corners to trip the unwary -- compulsory. More positively, he continued to translate, as time permitted, portions of French military works -- a thankless task.

Some of these translations were published under the auspices of the United States Military Philosophical Society, an organization Williams created four months after his arrival at West Point. Modelled after the U.S. Philosophical Society, he intended that this new entity would collect and disseminate military knowledge and act as a lobby group for the support of the infant military academy. He proved tireless in his efforts to obtain powerful patrons and by 1809 the society contained on its rolls the names of no less than five men who had, or would, serve as president of the republic, two who served as secretary of war, the governors of five states and four territories, 13 of the 16 engineer officers in the army, 28 naval officers, 9 marine officers (led by the colonel commandant) as well as 250 other military and civilian members.[3]

The society met infrequently but minutes of some of its sessions have survived and, from time to time, its activities are of interest to this survey. In 1806, Williams presented the transcript of his translation of a portion of Montalembert's La Fortification perpendiculaire, which contained plans for a new construction of sea batteries and an improved coast artillery carriage.[4] In 1808 Lieutenant John R. Fenwick, a marine corps officer with a strong interest in ordnance, presented his translation of parts of "some reflections on the present system of horse artillery translated from D'Urtubie and an essay on the subject contained in a memoir to the 1st Consul of France."[5] Horse artillery was the topic of the hour because at the same meeting Williams informed the members that he was in possession of a complete treatise on the subject compiled by a foreign officer who had been prominent in the Continental army -- Andrew Thaddeus Kosciuszko.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko (1746-1817) was a Pole trained as an engineer officer in France who came to American in 1776 to serve as a volunteer with Washington's army. He rose to the rank of colonel of engineers before returning to Europe where, in the 1790s, he became the leader of an unsuccessful attempt to liberate his country from foreign occupation. Kosciuszko was living as a refugee in Paris in 1800 when the American ambassador to France, W.R. Davies, asked him to compile "a description of the manoeuvres of horse artillery as practised by the French armies." Davies had been interested in this subject for some time but had been unable to procure any reliable information about it as the French government had not permitted any publications about it, "from motives of policy sufficiently evident." The French reluctance to divulge information on horse artillery -- which differed from ordinary foot artillery as its gunners were mounted, either on horses or vehicles -- is understandable as it was a relatively recent innovation on the battlefield.[6]

Although some commentators state that is invention belonged to the Russian army, this assertion is vigorously denied by many German authors who insist that the first true horse artillery resulted from the genius of Frederick the Great. Always concerned with increasing the mobility of his gunner and their weapons, Frederick ordered the formation of the first horse artillery in the Prussian army, equipped with 6-pdr. guns, in April 1759. It took some time but, eventually, most of the major European armies formed their own horse artillery units. In 1808, a regiment of "light" or horse artillery was added to the regular United States army but only one company, commanded by Captain George Peters, was actually organized as true horse artillery. It made an impressive display of it s mobility when it moved in a remarkably short period of time from New Orleans to Baltimore, completing most of the journey on land. Having proven its utility, Peters's company was promptly dismounted to save funds. By the time that Davies made his request to Kosciuszko, however, horse artillery was part of most major armies and regarded as the elite branch of the field artillery.[7]

Although it is unclear just how much expertise Kosciuszko actually had on the subject, he got to work on compiling a treatise on the manoeuvres of horse artillery. In a short time he had completed a manuscript laying out the organization of a horse artillery company (or battery) and the details of the thirty basic manoeuvres it should be able to undertake. Davies took this manuscript back to the United States and in the spring of 1808, presented it to Jonathan Williams and authorized its publication by the Military Philosophical Society. Williams translated the work, drafted plates to illustrate the manoeuvres and obtained the promise of the War Department and the states of New York (where Governor Daniel D. Tompkins proposed to raise militia horse artillery companies) and Virginia to purchase copies to offset the society's costs. The completed work appeared in late 1808 as Manoeuvres of Horse Artillery, by General Kosciuszko.[8] The War Department purchased fifty copies for the military academy and two hundred for general distribution throughout the army, thus making Manoeuvres of Horse Artillery the third semi-official American artillery text in our survey.

End Notes

[1]         Jared Mansfield, Essays, Mathematical and Physical, William W. Norse, New Haven, Connecticut, 1802.

[2]         Stephen Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country. A History of West Point,  Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1966, 26

[3]         Sidney Forman, "The United States Military Philosophical Society, 1802-1813," William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 2 (July 1945), 273-285.

[4]         Forman, "United States Military Philosophical Society," 277.       

[5]         Forman, "United States Military Philosophical Society," 278.

[6]         Letter of W.R. Davie, 15 April 1808, in Thaddeus Kosciusko, Manoeuvres of Horse Artillery, by General Kosciuszko. Written at Paris in the Year 1800, New York, Campbell and Mitchell, 1808, 5.-7.

[7]         Harry Larter, "Material of the First American Light Artillery," Military Collector and Historian, vol 4 (1952), 53-63.

[8]         Thaddeus Kosciusko, Manoeuvres of Horse Artillery, by General Kosciuszko. Written at Paris in the Year 1800,, at the request of General Wm. R. Davied, Then Envoy from the United States to France. Translated with Notes and Descriptive Plates, by Jonathan Williams, Col. Comdt. of the Corps of Engineers, and President of the U.S. Military Philosophical Society. Published at the Direction of the Society. The American edition was brought out by Campbell and Mitchell of New York in 1808 and a British edition was brought out the following year by Thomas Egerton of London.



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