The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 15: May 2011


For want of this precaution so many Men lose their Arms:" Official, Semi-Official and Unofficial American Artillery Texts, 1775-1815 Part 9

By Donald E. Graves

The First Official Artillery Manuals, 1810-1812

The work of Jonathan Williams, Tadeuz Kosciuszko, Louis de Tousard and William Duane were well known to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, who took an interest in artillery matters. Early in his term of office, which lasted from 1801 to 1809, Dearborn began casting American field artillery in iron as opposed to brass (as bronze was generally known at that time), the traditional metal for this type of ordnance. The secretary's choice of iron was prompted by the scarcity and expense of copper and tin, the major components of brass, in the United States in contrast to contrast to plentiful supplies of good quality iron ore. From 1801 to 1836, although some brass tubes were cast, most American field artillery was iron. Using De Scheel's Treatise as a reference work, Dearborn gradually introduced Gribeauval pattern field carriages, with some modifications, into American service and experimented with the creation of horse artillery. At this time the United States did not adopt the Gribeauval system of unit organization nor the French system of calibres as it would have been prohibitively expensive to switch calibres given the large number of both British caliber tubes and shot in the U.S. inventory. By the time his term in office ended in March 1809 Dearborn had accomplished much useful work for the artillery arm. In that year, deteriorating relations with Britain led to an increase in the size of the regular army, which doubled the number of artillery regiments and increased the number of authorized companies from 24 to 34.[20]

Tension with Britain also led to a concern about the preparedness of the state militias– regarded by the Republican party as the backbone of the nation's military establishment–for war and this leads to the question of which texts the militia artillery were using for training. The answer is that, with the exception of Massachusetts and New York, none of the states or territories in existence at this time had authorized artillery texts or manuals. New York generally seems to have used William Stevens's Pocket Companion, written by a native of the state and widely available at least up to the War of 1812. In Massachusetts, militia gunners were directed to follow the practices laid down in A Short Compendium of the Duty of Artillerists first published in 1800 and the work of Major Amasa Smith of the state militia.[21] Massachusetts furnished each officer of the militia artillery with a copy of this primer but one later recalled that it was "not acceptable" to most of them and not much used.[22] The gunners of Massachusetts therefore "pursued the practice laid down by whatever books we could by accident procure" and some companies drilled "by one author, and some by another, and not a few, having no author to go by, drill from their own inventions."[23]

In 1810 a Congressional committee looked into ways of improving the training of the militia. One of the results was the publication by the Senate in December 1810 of a small manual entitled Compendious Exercise for the Garrison and Field Ordnance, as Practised in the United States.[24] This 30-page pamphlet contained drills on the new seacoast carriage designed by the Marquis de Montalembert, which were just coming into service, and the exercise of 4 and 6-pdr. field pieces and additional comments on the use of the prolonge. The anonymous author or compiler seems to have used Tousard (or his French originals) for garrison and field artillery drill, and added excerpts from Jonathan Williams's translation of Montalembert on the new carriage and Kosciuzko for the manoeuvres of a company of field artillery. The whole was topped off with some useful safety and behaviour hints for gun detachments:

"The gunner of the right, who tends the vent, should be a careful man. From his inattention or want of skill, a premature discharge often happens; a waste of ammunition is not the only evil; the men are rendered insecure, particularly No. 1 and 2 [stationed at the muzzle of the gun]; and if the piece bursts, the lives of all who surround it are greatly endangered ..."

"The officers should preserve, even in the most trying moments, an air of coolness and tranquillity; and endeavour, both by word and deed, to encourage the timid, and to repress the ardour of the violent."

All sound advice, of course, but the publication of the Compendious Exercise, the first official drill manual for either the American regular or militia artillery, did not necessarily mean it was adopted as there was no accompanying legislation requiring its use by the states. In fact, it did not see wide scale use and militia gunners continued on for nearly two more decades in a happy state of blissful ignorance.[25]

The regular artillery was next to receive attention. From time to time attempts had been made to put the tactics of that arm on a more formal basis. During the "Quasi-War" with France in 1798-1800 Secretary of War James McHenry and Inspector-General Alexander Hamilton possessed "a system of exercises for the artillery compiled" in manuscript form but it was apparently destroyed in a fire at the War Department in November 1800.[26] William Birkhimer claims that in 1808 the senior general of the army, Brigadier General James Wilkinson, had a "modern system of movements and manoeuvres for infantry, artillery and cavalry" translated from the French but they "disappeared" possibly because of the changeover in the War Department in 1809 when Dearborn was replaced by William Eustis.[27] Actually, this material did not go astray. Wilkinson sent the translations–which concerned just about every other topic than artillery–to the War Department in the spring of 1812.[28] In the autumn of 1811, Birkhimer informs us, a board of officers which included Brigadier-General Peter Gansevoort, Colonel Jonathan Williams and others submitted a series of recommendations to Secretary of War William Eustis to improve the military establishment of the United States. As far as the artillery was concerned, the board recommended

“First, the adoption of uniform system of tactics; reviving the office and powers of inspector of artillery; third, the appointment of an artillery board, upon which should rest responsibility for determining models, proportions, and metal of cannon of all kinds, in order that system should be established in that department, [i.e. the artillery] where, at the time, nothing was definitely determined in regard to these important matters."[29]

It was only inl late 1811, when the United States began to actively prepare for war with Great Britain that steps were taken to compile this "uniform system of tactics." The actual initiative seems to have come from Colonel Henry Burbeck, commanding the Regiment of Artillerists. A veteran of Knox's Continental Artillery with more than three decades of service, Burbeck was serving as the acting chief of ordnance and was interested in all artillery matters including weapon and carriage design and manufacture. Knowing that the government was actively contemplating increasing the size of the artillery arm in the event of war, Burbeck directed Major Amos Stoddard of his regiment to "correct" Kosciuzko's Manoeuvres by editing out the superfluous passages and ensuring that the remainder of the text was in accordance with actual practice in the service.[30]

Stoddard was a good choice for this important duty. A native of Connecticut and a 14-year veteran of the regular artillery, he was a member of the United States Military Philosophical Society and a literary man, having written a history of Louisiana.[31] It did not take him long to revise Kosciuzko but Stoddard wanted to go further. In February 1812 he suggested to Secretary Eustis that, if "the simple exercise" or gun drill "prefixed to these manoeuvres, the system would not, in my opinion, be susceptible of much improvement."[32] Eustis approved of this suggestion and Stoddard moved quickly, adding gun drills for both field and garrison ordnance and some other material, purchased the copyright for Kosciuszko from the Military Philosophical Society for $200.00 and sent everything to the printer in May 1812, paying the costs out of his own pocket to save time. Stoddard was on his way to the northwest frontier in July when the result of his labour was published as Exercises for the Field and Garrison Ordnance.[33] On 1 August 1812, about six weeks after the United States declared war on Great Britain, the War Department directed that Stoddard's work be "ordered for the government of the several Corps of Artillery" in U.S. service and that such "alterations & improvements as experience may suggest will be reported to the several commanding officers of Regiments & by them to the Department of War."[34]

Stoddard's Exercises was the first official manual of drill and tactics for the United States artillery and remained in use until well after the War of 1812. Despite the fact that it was printed in substantial quantities, it is rarely seen today as many copies did not survive active service while much of the government's stock was apparently destroyed when the building in Washington in which they were stored was burned by the British in 1814.

The Exercises consisted of two parts: established drills for field and garrison ordnance; and an abbreviation of Kosciuszko's Manoeuvres–as well as some additional material including a description of Montalembert's seacoast carriage. The gun drills were an expansion of those contained in the Compendious Exercise (including a drill for a field howitzer) and much of the contents of Stoddard's manual are so similar to the earlier manual that it leads to the belief that he was either the author of that work or the drills contained in both manuals were established practice in the regular artillery. In any case these drills are definitely French in origin.[35] They are taken from a number of sources: the Gribeauval drills for field artillery contained in the Encyclopédie of 1777; William Stevens's translation of the French drill contained in his Pocket Companion and, above all, the numerous drills reproduced by Tousard in his Artillerist's Companion, all having been amended to what seems to have been American practice in 1812. The origin of the material on Montalembert is easy to divine as it is taken from Jonathan Williams's translation of the relevant section of that author's La Fortification perpendiculaire. Like the anonymous compiler of the Compendious Exercise, Stoddard also added useful hints for gunners (again arousing suspicion that he may have been the author of the earlier work). For our purposes, he also added some comments on training gunners:

"Most men, especially recruits, at the commencement of an action, are extremely agitated. Hence they fire with precipitation; and the consequence is, that their fire does little or no execution. This is an evil of serious magnitude, and the best way to avoid it, is to strictly attend to the following particulars:

1.         The officers should daily exercise the men, till they habitually acquire a superior address in the management of the pieces, according to the plan of exercise established by the government. If officers presume to alter the exercise as their whim or caprice may dictate, inevitable confusion will be the consequence; particularly when men are changed from one company, garrison or regiment, to another ...  

4.         The pieces should be fired slowly at first, and the conduct of the men so regulated, as to restore to them their presence of mind. No sooner are first impressions conquered, than the men assume a tranquil and intrepid countenance in the heat of an engagement, and perform their duty with alacrity.[36]

Major Amos Stoddard's Exercises for the Field and Garrison Ordnance appeared just in time for, shortly before it came off the press, the United States declared war on Great Britain.    

End Notes

[20]. The Regiment of Artillerists, which had been authorized in April 1802 was to have five battalions each of four companies or twenty companies in total but it never reached this strength in peacetime. In April 1808 the Regiment of Light Artillery was authorized to consist of ten companies.

[21]. Amasa Smith, A Short Compendium of the Duty of Artillerists; Shewing the Method of Exercise with Light Fieldpieces; Of Ascertaining the True Line of Direction and Elevation, Corresponding with the Bore of a Gun ... Also, Operations of Experimental Gunnery, Isaiah Thomas, Worcester, 1800.

[22]. American State Papers: Military Affairs (hereafter ADSPMA), vol. 3 (Washington, 1832), 447, Asa Howland to Secretary of War James Barbour, 12 October 1826.

[23]. ASPMA, vol. 3 (Washington, 1832), 430, William Murphy to Secretary of War James Barbour, 12 October 1826.

[24]. Compendious Exercise for the Garrison and Field ordnance as practised in the United States. Roger C. Weightman, Washington, 1810. This manual was printed "on motion by Mr. Leib, on the subject of improving the discipline of the militia of the U.S."

[25]. For information on the state of training of the state militia in the decades immediately following the War of 1812, see ASPMA, vol. 3 (Washington, 1832), 330, Report of the Board of Officers on the Organization of the Militia. This report is a very good source on the various manuals in service with the different states.

[26]. Birheimer, Historical Sketch, 300.

[27]. Birkheimer, Historical Sketch, 300.

[28]. RG 107, Micro 221, reel 44, Wilkinson to Secretary of War Eustis, 25 April 1812.

[29]. Birkhimer, Historical Sketch, 167.

[30]. USNA, RG 107, Micro 221, Reel 48, Stoddard to Eustis, 14 February 1812.

[31]. Amos Stoddard, Sketches, Historical and Descriptive, of Louisiana, Matthew Carey, Philadelphia, 1812.

[32]. USNA Record Group 107, Micro 221, Reel 48, Stoddard to Eustis, 14 February 1812. The emphasis is in the original.

[33]. Exercise for Garrison and Field Ordnance Together with Manoeuvres of Horse Artillery As Altered From the Manual of General Kosciuszko and Adapted to the Service of the United States By An Officer in the United States Artillery. Pelsue and Gould, New York, 1812. Stoddard's name was not affixed to this manual although his correspondence with Secretary of War Eustis is positive proof that he compiled it.

[34]. USNA, RG 107 Micro 6, Reel 6, War Department Order, 1 August 1812.

[35]. It is a fairly easy to establish the difference between French and British drills because the former contains many more words of command and the ventsman in French practice, stands on the right of the breech, not on the left as was the practice in the Royal Artillery.

[36]. Exercise for Garrison and Field Ordnance, 58-59.

© Copyright 1995-2010, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.