Fortress Vicksburg? Part II
By Morgan Gates
In the long history of warfare on this planet, it seems there were long stretches of time when the technology or warfare was somewhat stagnant, then there is some new invention or breakthrough –or new application of an existing technology—that will change the whole face of the game. The Battle of Agincourt, in 1415, when English longbowman first rained their heavy armor piercing arrows on French Knights was a notable example. This epic battle ended the centuries long rule of the armored horseman on the battlefields of Europe. As we mentioned in our last installment the application of artillery as siege weapons largely ended the day of the castle as well. In the American Civil War, however, there was not one new technological innovation, but several that were coming on to the battlefield for the first time (on a widescale at least). Let’s discuss two… Steam and Rifling!
Steam power was not exactly new. The ancient Greeks were the first to build a primitive steam engine almost two thousand years ago, but they never used it to accomplish anything practical. The first steam engine with a practical application was in the late 1600’s, when large stationary engines drew floodwaters from deep coal mines. In the early 1800’s, Robert Fulton successfully applied a steam engines to riverboats and a few years thereafter steam trains came online in America and steamships plied the oceans. The Civil War was not the first war to see “any” use of steam but it was the first to see it in widespread use by both sides. Steam was revolutionizing transportation on the land, the seas, and the rivers, but it was the steam powered riverboat that had the most effect on Fortress Vicksburg.
It was with the power of the wind that man had ruled the waves for centuries, but sailing on rivers had always been problematic. The narrow width and strong directional currents in rivers made sails much less useful on inland rivers than they were on the high seas and coastal waterways. Flatboats powered by the current and keelboats powered by muscle had been the only effective way to travel the Mississippi before Steam. The Navies of the world – primarily concerned with “blue water” warfare- had never given much thought to what we would today call “brown water” conflict. The naval academies taught that one gun on land would be equal to three on the water! Which made Fortress Vicksburg even more formidable than it already seemed. But steam threw all the old rules out the window and the Civil War was where these rules were being rewritten.
Powerful steam engines meant vessels could maneuver under their own power and carry heavy loads of men and materials up and down stream relatively quickly –AND—they could carry heavy artillery –AND-- armor – AND – they could maneuver independently of the wind, making them harder to track, and therefore, be hit by land based artillery! The decades of river commerce along Mississippi the had perfected the technology of shallow water ship design. So, during the Civil War, Fortress Vicksburg faced a fleet such as had never before been seen in the history of the world. Self-propelled, shallow water, iron armored, gunboats mounting the most powerful guns in history to that date! Steam power also allowed Grant’s army to be quickly resupplied from far upriver, with food, reinforcements, ammunition, and artillery.
The second technological innovation that was changing the rules of war was rifled artillery. The artillery that laid low the medieval castles were heavy bronze or iron tubes throwing a spherical projectile of stone or iron at a modest velocity. The ranges were rather short and accuracy poor, but when your target was a castle, less than one hundred yards away, neither of these short comings mattered much. Exploding shells came into the inventory in the early 1800’s, making the smooth bores more versatile. Just about the time the Civil War began, the rifled cannon was developed.
Rifling was simply a spiral groove cut into the interior wall of the cannon tube. That imparted a rotation to the projectile that stabilized it in flight. To better take advantage of this, the projectiles were redesigned into a more aerodynamic “bullet shape”. The tighter tolerances required by rifled tubes also increased velocity. Suddenly the game changes again. Distances that were considered “safe” by the defenders were now “in range” and walls that were “thick enough” were woefully inadequate!
So now that we know what had changed let’s look at what fortress Vicksburg really was and how well it dealt with these new technologies………………Next time!
Image: Fort from The Good the Bad and the Ugly