Deadly Force

Cannoneers of the Confederate Washington Artillery

Undaunted Valor- A Dedication to Duty

"Artillery Duel"- Washington Artillery cannoneers in action

(click on image to become part of crew & receive orders to fire cannon!)

 The Washington Artillery’s reputation of valor, honor, and deadly accuracy during the War Between the States soon spread though the North and South. It was not a disgrace to fall to the mercy of their deadly fire. Its name was written in numerous newspapers and given laurels in many battle reports. A good example of this fame was documented following the battle of Drewry’s Bluff when a Yankee prisoner, Captain Belger, asked as he passed the artillery unit, “What battery was that, that I was fighting?” One of its members responded, “First Company, Washington Artillery.” The Captain’s expression then changed, and he replied, “Damn that Washington Artillery! I have been looking for it for three years and have found it at last.”

 The art of muzzle-loading artillery reached its lethal zenith during the Civil War. Its use as support during an infantry attack, or repulsion of a frontal enemy attack could serve as a great “equalizer.” Private Stephenson of 5th Company bragged about his unit’s cannons. “Our guns were 12 pound brass Napoleons, smooth bore, but accounted the best gun for all round field service then made. They fired solid shot, shell, grape and canister, and were accurate at a mile. We would not have exchanged them for Parrot [sic] Rifles, or any other style of guns. They were beautiful, perfectly plain, tapering gracefully from muzzle to “reinforce” or “butt,” without rings, ridges, or ornaments of any kind. We are proud of them and felt towards them almost as if they were human, although for that matter our attachment suffered the pangs of all attachments in this world, viz: of short life and separation.”  

 However, Confederate artillery units’ accuracy, including the Washington Artillery, was severely limited by the Confederacy’s poorly manufactured ordinance. This limitation was keenly observed early in the war by then Lieutenant T. L. Rosser of Second Company in his battle report after Manassas. “The inefficiency of the case and shell projectiles furnished me for service of the rifled guns was again exemplified in this engagement, not one of them exploding. The “Boarman” fuze [sic], with which the spherical case and shell for the howitzer were served, showed, in their manufacture, great deficiency.  There was no uniformity whatever in their burning. Some cut for five seconds did not burn, in many cases. Two others cut at two, burnt as long as four or five seconds.” 

 The Washington Artillery, like all other Civil War artillery units, fought with muzzle-loading cannon. The cannon were either smooth bored or rifled, the latter having greater accuracy. (Only one breech-loader, the Whitworth from England, was used by the Confederates with success. However, this type of gun, though very accurate and dependable, was used on a limited basis due to availability and cost.)

 To fire a “muzzle-loader” a bag of black powder was inserted into the muzzle, which was followed by the shot, either solid or shell. Both were rammed down. Then a metal “pick” was thrust into the rear of the barrel through the “vent,” ripping a hole into the bag of powder. A “friction primer” was then inserted into the top of the vent and attached to a long string with handle called a “lanyard.” The lanyard was pulled, its friction causing an explosion within the primer and sending the fiery charge down into the larger bag lying in the rear of the barrel. The explosion of this powder bag inside the cannon propelled the shot out forward through the muzzle. The barrel was then cleared of debris with the “worm” and swabbed with the “sponge.” The process was repeated over and over with deadly precision. A good crew could fire three times a minute. In a fierce battle the safety steps of “worming” and “sponging” were often skipped with occasional deadly accidents to the operating crew.

 Artillery drill, though boring, was needed. As cannoneers were injured or killed during battle, substitutions were required to the various positions. All men needed to know how to perform the duties of all cannon positions. Endurance was required as witnessed by Frank Labrano of First Company at the Battle of Sharpsburg September 17,1862. “Fighting commenced at daylight. We went in at 7 AM and continued fighting until dark. Our Compy. [sic] repulsed 3 charges of the enemy besides fighting 40 pieces of artillery. On the 4th charge we gave out of ammunition we went after more, and came back. We held our ground. The loss of the 1st, 2nd, & 3rd Cos. amounted to 39 killed & wounded. I [had] rammed 253 shots in succession.”  


                                     “With his last breath whispering into Slocomb’s ear, ‘Captain, haven’t I done my duty?’                                                    

                W. W. “Billy” Sewell killed at Dallas, Georgia May 28, 1862       

 The men of the Washington Artillery often witnessed scenes too gruesome to recount. However, many tried; probably to show the horrors of war, probably to document the tribulations of their fellow comrades. Either way, these accounts, though graphic, served their purpose well. They often had a common theme. When called upon to give that dreaded last full measure, a soldier’s final thoughts were often of religion, loved ones or dedication to duty- sometimes giving oral last wills and testaments. No wonder why the men often found themselves in song; if they hadn’t, they might have all gone insane.

House at Mayre's Heights, Fredericksburg near where WA was entrenched

 Mayre’s Heights, Fredericksburg, Va., December 13, 1863

 During the hottest time of this engagement the Twenty-fifth North Carolina volunteers reached the hill where Captain Miller’s Third Company of Washington Artillery guns were planted and poured volleys into the lines of the advancing enemy; then, dashing down the hill to the sunken road, stood shoulder to shoulder with [Major Robert] Cobb’s brave Georgians. In passing through Miller’s guns, their fallen bodies had to be dragged from our muzzles before they could be fired. Corporal [Francis Dunbar] Ruggles had picked up a blanket which one of them had dropped in Squire’s redoubt, saying, ‘Boys, this will be a good thing to have tonight.’ A few moments afterward with his sleeves rolled up and his youthful figure all aglow with the excitement, holding his sponge-staff in his hand ready to ram the cartridge home, he threw up his hands and fell backward, killed. … When the gallant Ruggles is killed, [W.F.] Perry springs forward and seizes the sponge-staff as it falls from poor Ruggles’ hands, but in an instant he is disabled by a shot through the arm which drops helplessly to his side. [J.E.] Rodd, who has been holding vent has his elbow shattered. [C.A.] Everett takes his place and he also goes down disabled. He is laid in the corner of the redoubt with Ruggles’ lifeless body, but fearless to the last, calls to the boys to let him do something; ‘cut fuse if nothing else.’ Now [C.A.] Falconer, who was passing back of the gun, is shot behind the ear, and falls a corpse. Poor Ruggles- he used the blanket that night, but as a burial shroud.

                                                         Henry Baker, First Company, WA

His Legacy

This cdv shows Charles A. Falconer, Jr. with “Aunt Mary,” his servant.

Charles’ father died performing his duty at Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1863.


Dallas, Georgia, May 27, 1864

  T’ was here, at Dallas, that Tom B. Winston was killed. An awful shriek rang out into the air! Shall I ever forget it? It pierced high above the dreadful din. ‘Oh-h-h Christ Almighty!’ That is what the voice said. Voice of anguish in tones that froze the blood. It was Tom Winston. His legs were torn off just below the waist. As we went on fighting, a hasty backward glance saw him borne away on a stretcher, his face and mangled form covered, a shapeless, shrouded heap. Not dead, but fatally hit. He died that night. One of the saddest deaths at Jonesboro was Louie Vincent. Not over seventeen- a short, thick set, fair haired boy from New York. Gentle, good natured, faithful for duty. Our works were in a miserable state … We were exposed enough as it was, and men were being hit. … The ceaseless din of firing went on all about us- the ping, pang, thud, and hiss of the sharpshooters’ bullets. It was a desperate plight. Something must be done. … Louie sprang up, spade in hand. I do not think he had thrown but one spade full of dirt, when he was struck. … ‘I am killed,’ he cried. [Felix] Arroyo laid him gently down on his side in the trench, the blood gushing in torrents from the mouth. Only one word more, escaped his lips, ‘Mother!’ That mother, alas, was far away and could not help. May it not have been that the very best help a mother can give her boy, she had already given, in prayer and instruction and loving Christian example, laying him at Jesus’ feet, I cannot say.                          

                                                Philip Stephenson, Fifth Company, WA

Felix Arroyo

who comforted the young dying Tom Winston.

The 5th Company had two Arroyos in the unit at the time of the battle of Fredericksburg, Charles and Felix.


 Then there were always thoughts of disgrace and how one might act in battle. Confederate units, as Union, were often composed of friends, relatives, or fellow partisans. This gave cohesion to the unit and reduced chances of cowardice among its members.

 How great a misfortune a soldier considers it to be, to be disgraced in battle, and what dejection and downcast looks settle upon his face where the reputation of his regiment has in any degree been tarnished…A company or regiment that once showed signs of weakness, makes its own soldiers ten times more distrustful of each other’s valor in the next engagement, and unless the demoralization has been cured, and confidence restored, is a source of danger rather than of strength to an army, and will inevitably damn the reputation of any good men who happen to be connected with it.   

                                                     Napier Bartlett, Third Company, WA


Pine Mountain, Georgia, June 14, 1864-

One such example was “a Frenchman of 5th Company named Barrail [sic, Pvt. A. Barriel]. He was a Parisan [sic], proscribed by Louis Napoleon for the part he had taken in the last uprising against him. His body was covered with scars; it is said received in France. He was of middle age and stature, stout and soldierly, of stern countenance and temper, taciturn, unsociable but faithful, fearless, reliable, a valuable man. … Yet this man became a coward. Comrades noticed it, but nothing was said. The change in him grew as dangers multiplied, until, at Dallas, he showed manifest fear and a comrade had to take his place at the gun. He then, at the first opportunity, crept back to the caissons in a sheltered spot. …Our officers were indulgent and let him alone. … He was never seen at the front, where the guns were. The man was completely cowed.

When the shades of evening closed in around us that day on Pine Mountain, and the enemy’s ‘dogs of war’ were finally muzzled, the usual inquiry ran along the line, ‘Is anybody hurt?’ No one at the guns. But word comes from the rear, that one is killed there. And behold that one is Barrail! Back in that sheltered little depression, almost like a cave where the wagons and caissons were parked, Death searched him out and found him – leaning over a fire, frying pan in hand, preparing his supper. One of the last shells burst in his face and scattered his brains amid his supper in the pan! Death seemed to send the whisper it his heart beforehand, ‘I am coming.’

                                                Philip Stephenson, Fifth Company, WA


Peach Tree Creek at the edge of Atlanta, July 20, 1864

Oscar Legare, age 17, but full developed, a magnificent specimen of a man, 6 feet or more, was corporal of piece 3. As fearless a spirit as ever lived. He chafed at our defeat and at our silence under the enemy’s fire. Springing to his gun, he called his men to action. He was just in the act of sighting the gun, stooping behind the reinforce, when a parrott shell struck the gun at the swell or reinforce, disabled it, exploded and emptied itself and its contents full into the face, head, and upper body of Oscar. … torn to pieces from the waist up. We found long strips of flesh high up on the trees behind them.

                                                Philip Stephenson, Fifth Company, WA

 Arthur Fremantle, British observer of the war, recalled viewing the dedication of one of the Southern artillerists of General Polk’s corps,

“I myself remember a fine-looking man who had both his hands blown off at the wrists by unskilful [sic] artillery-practice in one of the early battles. A currycomb and brush were fitted into his stumps, and he was engaged in grooming artillery horses with considerable skill. This man was called a hostler; and as the war drags on, the number of these handless hostlers will increase.”

 It must have been a constant mental battle to see fallen comrades, dead, wounded and dying, along the roadside. Often the question was asked, “Why him and not me?” Such was the case of Napier Bartlett who documented his thoughts while passing fellow Confederates at Gettysburg prior to his participation there the following day.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1863

 It was not a particularly pleasant business any way to be worn out with marching and then to be forced to mediate upon your chances for the morrow’s battle. Especially as I can remember was the case at Gettysburg, when the dead and dying of the two days preceding fights are lying on every side of you. You are compelled to witness every stage of the death- from the unhappy victim trembling with the last shiver of dissolution, to that of the corpse who sits upright with staring eyes, or whose stiffened arm seems to point you yourself the road to perdition on the morrow.

                                                     Napier Bartlett, Third Company, WA                                                                                

 Thomas E. Williams was one of those members of the Washington Artillery wounded during the July 3rd Gettysburg artillery duel. He recovered from his wounds in time to take part in the defense of Petersburg, Virginia in 1864. By then he was a seasoned veteran and knew about the hazards of warfare, both emotionally and physically. On February 13, 1864 this single, poor, and humble soldier wrote this emotional last will and testament while awaiting his fate in the trenches of that town.

Thomas E. Williams

Eternal and Ever Blessed God,

I desire to present myself before you with the deepest humiliation of soul. … I come acknowledging myself to have a great offending weight upon my breast and say with the humble proclamation ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’ … This day do I, with the utmost solemnity, surrender myself to thee. I denounce all former evils that have dominated over me. I consecrate to thee all that I am & all that I have: the faculties of my mind, the members of my body, my worldly possessions, my time, and my influence over others, to be all used entirely for thy glory. … And when the hour of death comes, may I remember thy Covenant, well ordered in all things and sure, as my Salvation, though every hope and desire is perishing. …

                                           Amen, T. E. Williams Petersburg, Virginia 

 Williams’ will was not needed at Petersburg. He survived the siege and went on to fight during the battalion’s retreat to Appomattox. His devotion to his company and the Southern cause led him to refuse surrender with General Lee’s troops there and fled with many of his fellow members “into the mountains.” He finally surrendered and was paroled almost a month later in Charlotte, North Carolina on May 5, 1865.

 Like the stress placed on Thomas Williams at Petersburg, the toll of war mounted upon the minds of many a soldier. But not all had the fortitude to continue fighting and killing. The following letter was written by John M. Colby, who served in both the Louisiana Confederate navy as a member of the Crescent Artillery Company A and the Confederate army as a member of New Orleans’ Crescent Regiment, to his distant aunt living in the north. Colby, a relative of several Washington Artillery members, was “burned out” with war and returned home to New Orleans to take the oath of allegiance to the United States.

                                                                        New Orleans, October 11, 1863

My Dear Aunt,

I have been in the Army and Navy of the Confederacy, have been taken prisoner twice and finally come home a sadder, if not a wiser man. I was married here in 1856 at the age of 19, lost my only dear child in 58 and wife in 60. Thrown upon the world with such early dissapointment [sic] and with no attachments it was no wonder that I should throw all my energies into a cause that has caused the death of many a better, better man than myself. The horror of Civil Warfare experienced in two short years have brought me over to the Peace Society and God grants the time is not far distant when this unholy, unnatural war will be finished. I have three cousins in the famous Washington Artillery and much of my schoolmates and associates are either in the rebel service, killed, or like myself, tired of soldiering. You, who have at home amid plenty, know not the horrors of this war. I hope … that peace is not far off and our great country is once more restored to dignity and Union for “United We Stand” against the whole world; for this nation is now like France was under Napolean [sic], as a nation of soldiers, not citizens.

 Despite these differences of opinion between Confederate soldiers about the need for the continuation of war, members of the Washington Artillery, like many other Confederate soldiers, managed to maintain their sense of dignity and honor, despite their surrounding world of destruction and horror. Henry Baker may have reflected the thoughts of many Confederate veterans after the war when he said, “I try to forget all the horrible acts of cruelty inflicted upon the Southern people at that time. Yet, I never felt any resentment against the Union soldiers; they, like myself, were fighting for a principle that was dear to their hearts, they to preserve the Union, and we to protect our homes and the rights guaranteed us by the Constitution.” He remembered one such episode that proved his point. “Our battery was changing its position one day during a hot skirmish. I darted through a piece of woods and ran upon a desperately wounded Yankee soldier. He was startled when he saw me, and begged me not to kill him. I took off my canteen of water and handed it to him. ‘Do you suppose.’ I said, ‘that the Confederate soldiers kill their wounded enemy?’”                         

UCV medal and book written by Henry H. Baker