Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Captain of the Coehorn Battery


On June 17, 1864, Confederate sharpshooters killed the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s first Coehorn mortar battery. At the time, the Confederates considered it a minor victory over a treacherous new adversary, one that threatened to make life in the trenches around Petersburg a veritable hell. For the Army of the Potomac, the death of the Coehorn battery commander signaled a terrible first sacrifice, but one that resulted from the addition of a powerful new tool—a weapon with immeasurable importance that ultimately helped the Army of the Potomac dislocate the rebels from their underground burrows.

This is tale is about the death of Captain D. K. Smith Jones, Captain of the Coehorn mortars.

This is the captain of the Coehorn mortars, Capt. D. K. S. Jones.

But first: what was a Coehorn mortar?

In short, a Coehorn was a lightweight, portable artillery tube. We might rightly consider it as the predecessor to the 60-mm mortar used by soldiers in modern times. The Coehorn made its first appearance back in 1673. A Dutch engineer, Menno van Coehorn, developed the concept as a means of dealing with prolonged siege operations—a troublesome problem for most European commanders. High walls and Vaubanian bastions made it difficult for besieging armies to capture towns quickly. Menno Coehorn believed that vertical trajectory weapons might offer an answer. Thus, he developed the mortar that bore his name. The Coehorn mortar’s first combat occurred during the Siege of Kaiserswerth in 1702, and following that, Coehorns became a mainstay of European siege operations for the next 100 years. In the nineteenth century, Coehorns existed in various sizes. For U.S. forces during the Civil War, they generally operated at twelve or twenty-four pounds. The twenty-four pound version could fire a 17-inch shell up to 1,200 yards. When fully loaded, a Coehorn mortar mounted on its carriage weighed 313 pounds.

Typically, a four-man squad carried a single Coehorn into its firing position. Then, a team of gunners loaded the shell into the tube, which was fixed at a 45-degree angle. The size of the powder charge determined the range and height of the round. When the shell was fired, it shot high into the air, nearly vertical, moving in a slow arc, and witnesses marveled at how the naked eye could see the fuse fizzing away as the shell careened toward its target. When the shell finally landed and exploded, it produced a monstrous fireball, an explosion much larger than standard light artillery rounds. Coehorn batteries possessed a major advantage in that the gunners did not need to reposition each gun after firing it. The Coehorns sat on flat wooden carriages. The concussion caused the Coehorns to buck, but they didn’t roll backwards because they did not possess any wheels.

This is a rare image of Model 1841 Coehorn mortars, the kind used by Battery D, 4th New York Heavy Artillery. They are seen in park with tompions affixed.

From 1861 to 1864, the Army of the Potomac had no use for Coehorns because they army did not normally engage in prolonged siege operations. (The one exception was Yorktown; there, the army employed 13-inch seacoast mortars, but the smaller Coehorns remained back at the arsenal.) The flat trajectory of light artillery batteries—and their easy evacuation through the limbering up process—made wheel-mounted guns preferable for combat situations.

However, all that changed in 1864 when the Army of the Potomac found itself embroiled in the Overland Campaign, which created a sprawling web of earthworks across Spotsylvania and Hanover Counties.

The first Coehorns—eight of them—joined the Army of the Potomac at the commencement of the Overland Campaign. They were attached to Battery F, 15th New York Heavy Artillery. During the Battle of the Mule Shoe Salient, the 15th New York fired its Coehorns at the rebel-occupied Bloody Angle. Sadly, it was not a marvelous debut. Many of the rounds overshot their targets and some shells even landed among the lines of prone Union infantry on the west side of the Angle. Apparently, Coehorn mortars required very exacting sighting methods. With such a high-angle trajectory, any miscalculation could send an errant mortar shell spiraling far away from its intended target.

This sketch by Alfred Waud depicts the Coehorn mortars in action during the Overland Campaign.

Despite the weapon’s lackluster first appearance, the Army of the Potomac’s Chief of Artillery, Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, admired the premise. Coehorns were portable and if placed in the right hands, they might weaken impressive defenses built by Lee’s army. Even after the failure of the Coehorns at Spotsylvania, Hunt ordered twenty-two additional Coehorns shipped to the army. By the end of the Overland Campaign, the Army of the Potomac had forty on hand.

The first battery of Coehorns remained attached to the 15th New York Heavy Artillery until May 30. Many of the Army of the Potomac’s professionally-trained artillery officers did not want the 15th handling these unique weapons. The 15th New York Heavy Artillery was a German-speaking regiment and it lacked a sufficient number officers who understood English, which displeased the xenophobic West Pointers. Also, some of the infantry officers believed the 15th New York would be better suited if the entire regiment were armed as infantry. As a consequence, the commander of the 2nd Corps artillery brigade, Colonel John C. Tidball, insisted that the Coehorns go to an English-speaking unit with extensive garrison experience. General Hunt agreed. Thus, he transferred the Coehorns to Battery D, 4th New York Heavy Artillery, a regiment that had been in service since December 1861.

This photograph depicts the officers of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery in garrison at Fort Corcoran. Captain Jones is hard to spot. He's thirteenth from the left.

Here's a close-up of Captain Jones. Only a portion of his face is visible.

On May 30, the 4th New York received its new weapons and deployed them against the Army of the Potomac’s immediate threat, the Confederate positions near Totopotomoy Creek. Specifically, Battery D was stationed near Edwin Shelton’s brick mansion, “Rural Plains.” (This house is still in existence, part of Totopotomoy Creek Battlefield Park.) A sixteen-year-old soldier in the 11th New York Light Artillery, Private Frank Wilkeson, recalled the scene. Wilkeson marveled at the sight of the Coehorn battery’s commander, Captain Jones. Wilkeson spoke to him, and Jones gladly offered his time to instruct the youngster on mortar tactics. Wilkeson later wrote:


One day during this protracted Cold Harbor fight, a battery of Cohorn mortars was placed in position in the ravine behind us. The captain of this battery was a tall, handsome, sweet-voiced man. He spent a large portion of his time in our earthworks, watching the fire of his mortars. He would jump on a gun and look over the works, or he would look out through the embrasures. Boy-like, I talked to him. I would have talked to a field-marshal if I had met one. He told me many things relative to mortar practice, and I, in turn, showed him how to get a fair look at the Confederate lines without exposing himself to the fire of the sharpshooters, most of whom we had “marked down.” He playfully accused me of being afraid, and insisted that at six hundred yards a sharpshooter could not hit a man. But I had seen too many men killed in our battery to believe that. So he continued to jump on guns and to poke his head into embrasures.


This image depicts Pvt. Frank Wilkeson of the 11th New York Light Artillery. (This is how he looked later in the war, after he received a commission as second lieutenant.) Wilkeson's father served as a war correspondent for the New York Times. Also, his aunt was feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Private Wilkeson concluded that the Coehorn mortars were an innovative weapon, and he gladly watched as the shells eviscerated the Confederates in front of the Shelton mansion. Those Confederates belonged to Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division. One of them, Captain T. C. Morton of the 26th Virginia Battalion, recalled the harm the Coehorn mortars did to his command. He wrote:

Before this shelling of our position commenced, [Private] John Ford had been placed on the advanced picket line and his position happened to be in a sandy bottom near the creek, where he had sheltered himself behind an uprooted tree. He could be plainly seen by many of the men, crouching low in the sand. In the midst of the cannonading a large mortar shell without exploding, fell in the sand a few feet from him, the fuse still smoking and spitting and an explosion momentarily imminent. John took in the situation at a glance, and doubtless arguing that if he jumped up to run, the shell might explode before he got out of reach and tear him to pieces, and that the safest thing for him to do was to get down into the ground, commenced at once to work down into the sand with hands, legs and head. My attention was attracted by the men hollering, “Scratch [Run!] John! Scratch! She’s a-going off!” and looking in the direction where I had last seen him, I witnessed an amusing spectacle. Never was a man more dead in earnest. The sand all around him was in commotion, and in the few seconds that the fizzing fuse gave him, he burrowed like a great gopher till nothing but the top of his hump could be seen as the loose sand settled around it. I held my breath expecting the next second to see the poor fellow blown to atoms. Then the explosion came with a tremendous jar that shook the ground and sent a hundred pieces of iron singing through the air. We all kept our eyes fixed upon the spot as the smoke and dust slowly lifted, when the first sight that came to view was the head of Ford, happily, still on his shoulders, and as he realized that he was all right, he looked back at us and sang out “Who-eeh” as cheerily as if he had treed a coon instead of been face to face with death a second before. An answering cheer and a laugh went up from the boys on the line, and the incident was the next minute forgotten.

But not all incidents were so comical. Captain Morton also remembered a more gruesome incident from his regiment’s first encounter with the Coehorns:

I do not know what our loss was in this artillery fight, [I] only recollect that two men in my own company were killed. One of them while lying down was struck on the back by a large piece of descending shell and cut in two, poor fellow. The other had gone to the rear a mile with a detail to cook and was on his way back to the line with a camp-kettle full of corn-bread and beef on his arm when the cannonading commenced. He ran towards the breastworks for protection, while the hungry men in the trenches watched his race through the ploughing shot and shell, almost as solicitous for the safety of their breakfast, perhaps, as for that of their comrade. Just before the poor fellow reached us, however, a shell exploded directly in front of him, and when the smoke cleared away the bloody fragments of the man and the scattered contents of the camp-kettle lay mingled together on the ground before our eyes. It is said that from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh, but on this occasion speech came from the emptiness of one poor soldier’s stomach, when looking upon the ghastly wreck before us, he exclaimed: “Lor’, boys, just look, Joe Flint is all mixed up with our breakfast, and it ain’t fit for nothing!” Such want of sentiment, or feeling if you like, sounds strange and heartless to us now, but in those times of courage and every-day suffering, the hungry soldier’s remark, finding an echo in the empty stomachs of his fellows, did not seem so much out of place.

In their second encounter with the Coehorns, the Confederates did not like what they saw.

After leaving the battlefield at Cold Harbor, the Army of the Potomac drifted south. It crossed the James River and moved against Petersburg from the east. As soon as the Army of the Potomac’s infantry made contact with the Dimmock Line—the long string of redans that encircled Petersburg—Battery D was again called to the front. On June 17, it was posted north of the William Shands house in support of two divisions of 2nd Corps and 9th Corps that attempted (unsuccessfully) to penetrate Confederate earthworks at Hare House Hill. The mortars plied their work of death, weakening the rebel position. Eventually, word got passed to a Confederate brigade commander, Colonel Matt Ransom, whose unit was directly opposite the Coehorns. Ransom had to silence the battery. Ransom selected his ten best marksmen and sent them to the parapet with specific instructions to kill the Coehorn gunners.

This illustration depicts the Coehorn Battery at work. Likely, it is based upon the Waud sketch shown above. Note that it depicts Captain Jones standing at right.

During the assault, Captain Jones noticed the increased volume of enemy sharpshooter fire and gave orders declaring that no one in Battery D could show his head above the breastworks. Apparently, Jones had taken young Wilkeson’s advice to heart—at least so far as his gunners were concerned.

Sadly, Jones did not apply the same orders to himself; he routinely peeked his head over the parapet to get a good look at where the mortar rounds fell. (Later on, one of Jones’s lieutenants surmised that Jones had poor eyesight. He lingered too long at the parapet because he needed to wait until the slow-burning fuse triggered the explosion of the shell in order to see where the shell had hit.)

As the sharpshooter fire increased, Jones took a seat atop an ammunition box and began conversing with his chief of ammunition, Corporal H. Page Burnell. Suddenly, a brigade from the 9th Corps—Col. Jacob P. Gould’s—came running back in retreat over the works in front of the Coehorn battery, its attack having failed. In haste, Captain Jones arose from his seat and said, “Corporal, hand me a fifteen and a half second fuse, I am going to give them a shell!”

Over in the Confederate works, Colonel Ransom cautioned his men. He noticed how the Union captain of the Coehorns always poked his head above the works right after he issued a command. Ransom told his sharpshooters that as soon as they heard the Union commander shout, they must fire on that spot!

Colonel Matthew W. Ransom commanded the North Carolina brigade that took credit for killing Captain Jones. After the war, he was elected as a U.S. Senator and became President Pro Tempore of the Senate for three days in 1895.

Apparently, the words, “I am going to give them a shell!” sounded like orders to Ransom’s sharpshooters, because all of them fired. One of those ten bullets found its mark.

As Corporal Burnell recollected, “As he [Jones] uttered the words a bullet struck him in the left temple and came out by his right ear. He dropped, quivered a minute, perhaps, and all was over.”

As Burnell grasped his dead commander, Private John H. Mead arrived on the scene. Mead had gone to the rear along with another man in search of ammunition, and together, they found Captain Jones dead near the ammunition box. Soon, First Lieutenant Abram G. Bradt arrived and took charge. He ordered four men to gather up Captain Jones’s remains and bury them. One of the men that Bradt selected was Private Sylvester Simpson. (Presumably, Burnell, Mead, and the unnamed man with Mead were the other three.) Together, they unrolled a blanket and placed Jones’s body onto it. With that, they carried the corpse to the rear.

As it happened, the four-man detail passed by Private Wilkeson of the 11th New York battery, the young soldier who had shadowed Captain Jones eighteen days earlier. Wilkeson remembered the scene:

One day I went to the spring after water. While walking back I met four men carrying a body in a blanket. “Who is that?” I asked. “The captain of the mortars,” was the reply. Stopping, they uncovered his head for me. I saw where the ball had struck him in the eye, and saw the great hole in the back of his head where it had passed out.

Private Simpson and his four companions buried Captain Jones in a garden, probably somewhere on the Shands property. A few days later, Lieutenant Bradt made arrangements to have Jones’s body exhumed and shipped back to Saratoga, New York, to its permanent burial site.

In the larger story of the Civil War, Captain Jones’s death is a minor footnote. However, we might pause and reflect upon the legacy that he and the men of Battery D left upon the larger arc of U.S. military history. The shelling of May 30 and June 17 were not the last time that the U.S. Army used Coehorn mortars. Mortars of all sizes saw extensive use in the Eastern Theater after the Coehorns arrived in 1864. Famously, the Army of the Potomac deployed a giant, 13-inch mortar known as the Dictator. Beyond that, mortars stayed in the army for the next 150 years. Infantry mortars have been an integral part of the Great War, World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, and the War on Terror. (Rare is the day I see a book about the War in Afghanistan that does not mention them.) 

“Stovepipe Boys” of the modern era might do well to remember the name of Captain D. K. Smith Jones, their Civil War counterpart.

This image depicts the Dictator, the Army of the Potomac's famous siege mortar near Petersburg. Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt and Col. John C. Tidball--two of the biggest champions of the Coehorn mortars--can be seen standing closest to the camera.

Too often we remember the weapon and not the soldiers who pioneered them. Weapons are, after all, only what humans make them. Jones, the captain of the Coehorn mortars, made them something to be feared.

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan aim their M224 60-mm mortar at the enemy. In a way, the Army of the Potomac's Coehorn battery has left a lasting legacy upon U.S. Army.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece. Jones's coehorns were used to great effect at Cold Harbor. Barlow pushed them to front lines following the June 3rd assault and one can still sees the remains of the works constructed to protect the mortars and other field pieces on private property in this sector.