An Artillery Drill in Kentucky

In October 1861, Union forces moved south from Louisville to occupy points along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad and set up a series of camps where the newly raised Union troops gathered and embarked on learning the school of the soldier. One of those early camps was Camp Nevin located in Hardin Co., Kentucky near present day Glendale. Eventually roughly 15,000 soldiers were based at this sprawling camp. Edwin Smith of the 49th Ohio described Camp Nevin as “a high, rolling plantation belonging to a good Union man. [David Nevin was an avowed and rabid secessionist.] There is a church in close proximity on our right which has been converted into a hospital, and a dwelling house in our front now used as a restaurant for the officers. To the south and in front of our encampment winds a long beautiful stream called the Nolin. This together with several large springs along its banks supplies the brigade with plenty of pure wholesome water. As far as the eye can reach, you can see the white tents and glittering arms of the different regiments,” Smith wrote.[1]

Camp Nevin, Kentucky in the fall of 1861 as depicted in Harper's Weekly. 

Among the troops at Camp Nevin was Captain Charles C. Cotter’s Battery A of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery. The battery, predominately raised in Cleveland, mustered into service September 25, 1861 and was the first artillery battery to report at Louisville. Cotter’s battery marched to Camp Nevin on October 22, 1861 and was assigned to Brigadier General Alexander M. McCook’s brigade which consisted of the 15th Ohio, 49th Ohio, 32nd Indiana, and 39th Indiana regiments, and now Cotter’s battery. These four regiments would serve together through much of the war and the battery remained assigned to the brigade until the army-wide reorganization of artillery after the battle of Stones River.

These were all green troops: some of the men had served in the 90-day service, a few were veterans of the Mexican War, and some like Colonel August Willich of the 32nd Indiana, were veterans of wars in Europe. While the infantry focused on the manual of arms, company drill, and battalion drill, the artillery also had their own learning curve to tackle. Today’s post features a letter from a gunner in Battery A of the 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery regarding the first time they battery had target practice in November 1861.[2]
Unidentified Union artilleryman in shell jacket and kepi
Library of Congress

          A week ago yesterday we fired our first shot. The chief of artillery took us out to fire at a target. The experiments were not very satisfactory as the powder we used was not as good as it should have been. The next day we went again and took better powder. Three of our guns fired 20 shots, solid and shell, four of which hit the target. The distance was about three-quarters of a mile and the size of the target was about 12 feet square. General McCook was present and seemed highly pleased with the result of the experiments. He said if we would do as well as that in an engagements, he would take care of the rest of the battle.

           The projectiles used are the James and Hotchkiss shot and shell. It is said they will do good execution at a three-mile range. The shells are arranged with a percussion cylinder inside of them so that when they come in contact with anything to check their motion suddenly, the cylinder is thrown forward against a screw in the forward end of the shell with force enough to explode the percussion which communicates with powder inside the shell.
Hotchkiss Shell courtesy of the Horse Soldier

On Friday last a review was had of all the artillery in camp. There are two six-gun batteries in camp besides ours. General Rousseau has in his brigade two 12-pdr mountain howitzers, two rifled Parrott guns, and two smooth 6-pdr brass pieces. General Negley’s Pennsylvania brigade has a battery of smooth pieces. All these guns and their caissons (with the exception of the howitzers) were on drill at once. The guns and caissons were drawn by six horses each making an aggregate of 192 for the 32 carriages. When in single column, allowing for 14 yards to a carriage, we have a train one-quarter of a mile in length. Mounted men for each battery are as follows: captain, four lieutenants, orderly, quartermaster sergeant, and six sergeants. There are 15 men to each pieces including the six drivers.
James Shell

The routine of a gunner is to keep his gun clean and in action to range and sight it. I think with a little practice that I can do some good shooting as the sights used are on the same principle as globe sights on any rifle. You know that I used to be a tolerable good shot with a rifle and if the guns we have always shoot as well as they did the other day, I will be satisfied. It is a grand sight to see the balls go bowling through the air. At an elevation of three degrees, I should think that they attain the height of 200 feet above the line of sight upon the object fired at. You can see them perfectly plain; one shot that we fired passed through three trees and then went hopping along some ways on the ground. One of the boys found it and brought it back to camp.

It is getting quite sickly here. There is scarcely a day but one or more funeral processions pass our quarters. The sickness is said to be caused in a great degree by using water from a spring. The surgeon of the 49th Ohio obtained from three pails full of water one pint of oil, enough if administered in doses, to kill half the regiment.

Camp Nevin became a breeding ground for disease and the sad funeral processions continued to be a common experience. Another Ohioan described a military funeral from this time period in this letter to the Western Reserve Chronicle.

          “Yesterday we buried one of the member of the 1st Kentucky Regiment with military honors. A funeral in camp is very solemn. The deceased was a private, and therefore was only entitled to a corporal’s guard to do the honors. Members of the companies wishing to partake in the ceremony fell in immediately after this guard, then followed the non-commissioned officers according to rank, then commissioned officers, then staff officers. We marched in solemn silence to appropriate music, gradually ascending a hill covered with beautiful trees until we arrived at the summit. Here the grave had been made in one of nature’s loveliest spots. The place commands a view of the Elk and Kanawha Rivers as well as the village of Charleston.”
Unidentified Union artilleryman (Library of Congress)

“On arriving at the grave, we listened to the Episcopal burial service after which the coffin was lowered and three volleys (24 guns) fired. The procession was again formed, this time with the officers in front, and we marched back to camp in quick time. Our march to and from the place of burial presented a striking contrast. In the first, due solemnity was observed- in the latter, the laugh and jest went through the ranks. Everyone, at the instant the coffin was lowered, seemed to forget the nature of the occasion. The deceased had no kin present to take part in this last ceremony. No mother, brother, or sister to soothe and comfort him in his last trying hour; rough hands wiped the death damp from his brow. Amongst the crowd of soldiers at the grave, I noticed a female. She was on horseback and it seemed to me from the smiles visible on her countenance that she came more from curiosity than from charity. To me it looked like a cold mockery of death.”[3]

[1] Letter from Private Edwin S. Smith, Co. D, 49th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Wyandot Pioneer, October 25, 1861, pg. 3
[2]  "Army Correspondence," Unknown soldier of Battery A, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery, Cleveland Morning Leader, November 21, 1861, pg. 3
[3] Letter from First Lieutenant George L. Wood, 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Western Reserve Chronicle, September 18, 1861


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