Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Military technology--old and new--on Morris Island

A carronade on a land based mount.

The fighting on Morris Island in July 1863 saw the collision of military technology that was hopelessly out-of-date and the most cutting edge. Among the more obsolete weapons employed in the American Civil War was the carronade. The carronade was a short-barreled smooth-bore cannon designed to throw hollow iron cannon balls at low velocity over a short range. The hollow iron balls had a greater exterior surface, and before the advent of explosive shells, carronades were among the most destructive of naval weapons, and were known colloquially as "smashers." After the introduction of explosive shells, carronades were hopelessly obsolete.

The handful that survived in 1861 were in storage, and the Confederacy captured a supply of these weapons at Gosport Navy Yard. In a world of rifled guns that fired explosive shells, the carronade was useless as a naval weapon. Lacking other weapons, the Confederacy re-purposed its captured carronades as short-ranged anti-personnel weapons for the defense of fortifications. Useless against ships in the 1860's, carronades could still be used like giant shotguns to spray charges of canister against attacking troops. On the night of July 18, 1863, the Confederate fortification Battery Wagner mounted four of these weapons--three 32-pounders and one 42-pounder--and they helped to turn the beach in front of the fort into a killing ground.

A Billinghurst Requa Battery gun.
On the Union side at Morris Island was a weapon on the cutting edge of military technology. The Billinghurst Requa Battery gun was an early attempt at something like a machine gun. It consisted of twenty-five 58. caliber rifle barrels mounted side by side in a frame. The weapon was fed by strips of twenty-five 58. caliber rifle cartridges designed to be fired by a single percussion cap. Served by a small crew, the Billinghurst Requa Battery could achieve a rate of fire of 175 rounds a minute, placing it on a par with early machine guns. The Billinghurst Requa Battery would not play a significant role in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, but it would be used to protect the advancing siege lines that would eventually force the surrender of Battery Wagner.

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