Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Regiment of Light Artillery-- The Stealth Bomber of the 1812 American Army


One of those things that has always fascinated me about the US Army in the War of 1812 is how they sought to replicate the modern, blitzkrieg armies of Napoleonic organizations and tactics. The new 1812 and 1813 drill manuals, for instance, emphasized quick columns of attack and rapid evolutions in the face of still British-style lines, in contrast to the linear tactics prescribed by the Prussian-influenced Von Stueben manual (ironically, the Stueben manual was a heavy influence on the French officers who wrote the 1792 regulations, which in turn were copied by American military enthusiasts Alexander Smyth and William Duane).

Napoleonic tactics, I should emphasize, did not rely on either lines or columns. They were linear tactics in motion. What made the French Army the toughest in the world back then was that its officers had mastered the art of moving quickly, concentrating a decisive amount of forces at the critical point and delivering a gut punch-- or sucker punch-- to the enemy before they knew they were even in a fight to the death.

To support the kind of rapid advances that the new, highly mobile infantry tactics required, the French Army created a light artillery arm whose soldiers were entirely mounted and armed like cavalrymen (as the Foot Artillery marched on foot and was armed as infantry with muskets). Interestingly, the Republic drew recruits for the new Light Artillery Regiments from the grenadier companies of the infantry: tall men with lots of swagger, but who hardly knew how to ride. As the Baron Marbot wrote:
The Horse-Artillery had been formed at the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars of volunteers from the grenadier companies, and the opportunity had been taken to get rid of some of the more disorderly soldiers from the regiments. 'The Gallopers' were therefore renowned for their courage and for their love of a quarrel no less.

The United States Congress, thrilled at the decisive effects of mobile firepower in Europe, and under the influence of French-American artillery experts like Louis de Tousard,  authorized its own Regiment of Light Artillery in 1808. The Regiment was to be composed of ten companies (the basic tactical artillery unit was a company--the term battery was not yet used nor were they designated in any way besides by the Captains' name). As a artillery unit, they enjoyed seniority second only to the Light Dragoons: being mounted, they were considered more senior to the older Regiment of Artillery.

One important difference between the French Horse Artillery and the American Light Artillery was the caliber of their weapons. Galloper guns during the period were typically lighter pieces, like 3- or 4-pounder guns. Tousard recommended equipping the American horse artillery with more powerful cannon: 8- or 12-pounders normally considered heavy field artillery. His ideas would eventually be put into action during the Mexican and American Civil Wars when heavy caliber gun-howitzers like the 12-pounder Napoleon became available.

Despite the creation of the regiment, only one company, Captain George Peter's, was mounted and that only equipped with one section of two 6-pounders. Artillery was the most expensive arm; cavalry was quite pricey too, and the combination of the two meant that Congress and the War Department were building something akin to the modern stealth bomber: a hugely expensive weapons system during a time of peace. So the other nine companies of horse artillery remained unmounted and unequipped as they were meant to be, and scattered around the US. Captain Peters and his men were sent off to New Orleans, to join General James Wilkinson's camp of misery (long story). Nor was the story over yet.

Despite not being fully equipped, the cost of feeding Peter's horses was still hurting the War Department. General Wilkinson wrote to the Secretary of War in 1809:
The charges for forage and other articles are such  if admitted must soon devour appropriations.Horses for the Artillery cannot be maintained at such an expense, they must either be sent to some part of the country where they can be maintained at one-fourth the present Expense, or they must be sold. . . . Imagine for a moment the whole regiment of Light Artillery on this scale of expense—Consider the prejudice against the Army in general which an inspection of such charges by members of the Government is calculated to impress on their minds.

So what mounts the regiment possessed were sold, and Peter and other company officers had to pay for their mounts' forage out of their own pockets. This was at New Orleans, where every year hundreds of flat boats were arriving from up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers laden with farm produce. It should have been a buyer's market for fodder! Captain Peter resigned. When the War of 1812 began, no single unit of the Light Artillery were mounted. The company at Fort Wayne, Indiana Territory, for example, was armed and fought as infantry until it's men were merged with the two 2nd (Foot) Artillery companies in Ohio.

During the war, there was an effort to get more of the Light Artillery companies mounted and properly equipped, but in the broken, unsettled terrain of Upper Canada there was little opportunity to employ this "stealth bomber" weapon as it was intended.