The Mechanical Fuze and the Advance
of Artillery in the Civil War
By Edward B. McCaul Jr.
(November 2010 Civil War News)
Illustrated, photographs, appendices, notes, bibliography, index, 217 pp., 2010, McFarland, www.mcfarlandpub.com, $35, softcover.
In books about Civil War combat, the use of artillery often is overlooked or given short shrift. The reader more or less takes it for granted that a projectile has exited a gun and exploded on target. Very little thought is given to why the explosion occurs or what takes place to produce such an effect.
A large variety of Civil War ordnance needed fuze (fuse)-equipped projectiles, and these projectiles had to function properly to achieve maximum effect. This work covers the development of Civil War artillery and the fuzes necessary to produce positive results with shell and case on the battlefield.
An introduction on pre-Civil War artillery, projectiles and fuzes provides a good look at the early use of solid shot, case, canister and grape and their functions with a gun, mortar or howitzer.
Reliable gunpowder was necessary for a successful fuze and its projectile. A chapter describes various gunpowders. It contains four tables covering prewar and Civil War types of gunpowder the army and navy used, as well as Civil War heavy gun fuze composition.
Author Edward B. McCaul explains the ingredients used to manufacture gunpowder and the dangers involved in the manufacturing process. The loading of explosive material was conducted in laboratories, which were a separate part of government arsenals.
Safety issues were never totally solved, and horrendous accidents occurred throughout the Civil War.
Several types of fuzes existed prior to the Civil War. The first army fuze, which appeared in an 1841 ordnance manual, was a fixed wooden composition fuze. The army and navy had problems with this device. Later work was done with paper fuzes, and a number of experiments were carried out before the war.
Problems with case shot were finally solved with the introduction of the Bormann Fuze, which saw its first American tests in 1852. The Bormann Fuze is well known to Civil War collectors. McCaul gives a very good description of how it works. A drawing of the fuze shows both top and side views.
The author also describes additional prewar work, such as the use of percussion fuzes on rifled projectiles.
The Civil War saw both sides use smooth-bore and rifled artillery. An excellent chapter discusses the advantages and disadvantages of both types of ordnance and their effectiveness against cavalry and infantry.
Rifled guns created a more deadly effect on the battlefield. An interesting table shows the percent of smooth-bore and rifled artillery in the Army of the Potomac in 1862 and 1864 and Sherman’s armies in 1864. An additional table compares ammunition expended by smooth-bore and rifled artillery in the Armies of the Cumberland, Tennessee and Ohio.
The Civil War involved not only battles between armies but was also fought by the manufacturing interests of North and South. The author describes the industrial output by both sides and explains why the South was at a disadvantage in the area of ordnance from the beginning.
After an extensive chapter on artillery during the Civil War, there are two chapters on the new fuzes and fuze/projectile inventors Benjamin B. Hotchkiss, Robert P. Parrott and John P. Schenkl. These chapters contain excellent drawings and photos of
The fuzes developed by these men and a drawing of the Tice concussion fuze, which is one of the most dangerous fuzes encountered by relic hunters today.
There are also tables on the Schenkl and Hotchkiss fuze patents. Four appendices provide discussions and lists of fuze patents, British fuze-related patents, biographies of men connected with American artillery weapon systems development, and most of the prewar armories, arsenals, navy yards, foundries and small arms manufacturers.
This is an excellent publication that is equally attractive to collectors, general Civil War readers, those interested in technology, museum personnel and anyone who wants to learn more about Civil War ordnance.
Reviewer: Dale E. Biever
Dale E. Biever received his M.Ed. in American history from Kutztown University. He is past vice president for administration and former member of the Board of Governors of the Company of Military Historians. A retired educator, he was registrar at the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia.