Meet the 'Napoleon Gun': The Artillery Piece That Saved the Union

12-pound Napoleon cannon during a living history demonstration. National Park Service photo.
February 12, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: American Civil WarNapoleon12-PounderArtilleryRifled

Meet the 'Napoleon Gun': The Artillery Piece That Saved the Union

She served honorably at Gettysburg.

By the beginning of the third year of the war, Hunt had effective control of no fewer than 346 cannons in the Army of the Potomac. Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign coincided with a move to alter the ratio of Napoleons to rifles in the Army of the Potomac, a ratio that since the early days of the war had meant rifle dominance by a wide margin. By March 1864, rifled cannons still outnumbered the smoothbore gun-howitzer that Hunt preferred, but only by a small margin: 154 rifles against 120 Napoleons. The Confederates used Napoleons in great numbers during the war as well. In fact, after the heavy fighting in 1862, General Robert E. Lee recommended that the many obsolete 6-pounders and older Model 1841 12-pounders be melted down and recast into Napoleons.

Hubert Dilger’s Napoleons at the Battle of Second Bull Run

The employment and versatility of the Napoleon gun-howitzer can be illustrated by examining the operations of one Federal battery and its audacious commander. At the beginning of the war, Hubert Dilger, known to his associates as “Leatherbreeches” because of his unorthodox leg wear, was appointed to command Battery I, 1st Ohio Light Artillery. A recent German emigrant and professional soldier, Dilger had learned his trade as an officer in the horse artillery of the Grand Duchy of Baden.

Dilger’s battery first made a name for itself at the Battle of Second Bull Run in late August 1862, where its six Napoleons covered the withdrawal of the Federal army on the third day of the battle and forced the Confederates to keep their distance. By Chancellorsville, nine months later, Dilger had transformed his unit into the best of five batteries in the XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Formed on the right flank of the Federal army, the corps stood directly in the path of Stonewall Jackson’s famed flank attack on the late afternoon of May 2, 1863. The battery was forced to withdraw when the Confederates threatened to envelop its flanks. One gun was lost to the enemy when three horses were shot down in a snarl of tangled harness and traces. For more than 30 minutes, Dilger single-handedly held up the Confederate advance, continuing to direct fire until his horse was hit and fell on him, injuring his leg. Dilger limped painfully until his orderly galloped up, heaved the captain onto his horse, and made good thier escape.

The Napoleon Gun at Gettysburg

After its service at Chancellorsville, Dilger’s battery marched north in June with the 3rd Division, XI Corps, to what would prove to be its best day of the war. The gunners arrived at the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, around 10 am on July 1, the first day of the battle. I Corps was already in action west of the town, and XI Corps was ordered to bolster its right flank and advance toward Oak Hill. Dilger committed one section under Lieutenant Clark Scripture to a position west of the Carlisle Road just north of town, while the rest of the battery remained behind with the corps reserve on Cemetery Hill.

As enemy pressure mounted, the remaining guns drove through town between columns of Federal infantry and came into play to support the infantry skirmishers. The sections were then compelled to begin counterbattery fire against a Confederate four-gun battery at a range of 1,400 yards. During the heavy artillery duel, the Confederates were reenforced to eight pieces. Dilger was finally able to silence this battery after disabling five of their carriages and driving off the remainder. In this action, the Confederates sustained two killed, two mortally wounded, 26 other wounded, and lost 17 horses to Dilger’s accurate fire.

Shortly thereafter, another Confederate rifled battery opened fire, but Dilger had been re-enforced by Lieutenant William Wheeler’s 3-inch rifles of the 13th Battery, New York Light Artillery. Dilger took command of both batteries and was able to neutralize the Rebel guns.

Dilger quickly redeployed Wiedman’s section of Napoleons about 600 yards to the east of the Carlisle Road to get a better angle of fire on the Confederate guns. He then limbered up his remaining four guns, moving them forward about 400 yards into a green wheat field. The movement was effected under the covering fire of Wheeler’s guns. Wheeler was delayed in moving forward while Battery I came under heavy counterbattery fire from Oak Hill, and from Confederate Lt. Col. Hilary Jones’s artillery battalion east of Rock Creek, which delivered converging fire from two directions. The combat was so intense that Dilger had to employ three caissons to bring forward fresh ammunition. Even so, he almost ran out of ammunition twice.

Dilger switched to canister to protect the 45th New York Volunteers on the forward skirmish line who were coming under intense Confederate infantry pressure. Then it was Wheeler’s turn. Following Dilger’s route, the 13th New York battery galloped into the wheat field and unlimbered 50 yards to Dilger’s right. The two batteries commenced an effective fire just as Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s II Corps divisions pounded down the Carlisle and Harrisburg roads, headed straight for the flank and rear of XI Corps. Shells continued to land in the wheat field, putting one of Dilger’s guns out of action, and both batteries continued to take significant casualties.

A Fighting Retreat to Cemetery Hill

Once XI Corps began to pull back to Cemetery Hill south of town, Dilger and Wheeler began to leap-frog back to cover their own and the infantry’s withdrawal. At the edge of town, Dilger selected one of his own Napoleon sections, and one 3-inch rifled gun section from Wheeler’s, and then sent the remaining guns back to Cemetery Hill. With these four remaining guns, Dilger opened a furious covering fire for the retreating infantry. When the last of the Federal units finally passed his position, Dilger waved Wheeler’s two 3-inch guns off the field; he considered these rifled guns useless at the point-blank range that now existed. His two smoothbore Napoleons were thus the last of the XI Corps five artillery batteries to leave the field.

After a few more rounds of canister from his two Napoleons, Dilger limbered the guns and galloped back into the streets of town. Unlimbering near the town square, he remained long enough to clear the streets with canister and allow the retreating infantry a few more precious minutes to escape. Dilger found the southbound streets choked with hurrying troop columns, artillery, ambulances, and stragglers, so he swung his column of two guns to the left at the next intersection and galloped completely around the town, finally rejoining the rest of his battery on Cemetery Hill.

Taking stock of his losses, Dilger counted 14 casualties, 24 horses disabled, and one gun out of action. The artillery fight on the first day at Gettysburg legitimatized the Model 1857 gun-howitzer for all time by demonstrating just what a capable commander and brave artillerymen could do with a well-designed piece of ordnance under a variety of difficult battlefield conditions.

This article by Gustav Person first appeared at the Warfare History Network.

Image: 12-pound Napoleon cannon during a living history demonstration. National Park Service photo.