Wednesday, April 27, 2016

That's News to Me! An Armstrong Gun on CSS Virginia?

By Elijah Palmer & Joseph Miechle
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educators

A short time ago, while researching a different project, a colleague ran into an interesting vignette which mentioned CSS Virginia several days after the Battle of Hampton Roads. Our interest was piqued by an assertion made within the March 12, 1862 Richmond Dispatch article seen below:

"The Virginia, it is intimated, while up here, has changed her forward and aft pivot guns for two of the celebrated Armstrong guns, which lately found their way into this vicinity."

This statement quickly raised many questions. But first, what was so special about Armstrong guns to make them "celebrated?" Early Armstrong cannon from the mid-1850s were a unique British design that was breech-loading. As was popular technology at the time, there were bands on the breech to reinforce the cannon when it fired, as sometimes the guns burst (as happened onboard USS Princeton in 1843). These guns had an advantage over muzzle loading, smooth-bore cannon as they had a higher rate of fire, greater accuracy, and longer range. By the time of the Civil War, there were naval variants of the Armstrong guns, as can be seen on HMS Warrior. Clearly these cannon were seen as advanced technology, most likely due to the aforementioned advantages.

We knew that the Confederates could have been well aware of Armstrong guns, but the real question was whether it was even possible for the South to have acquired them. Could some of these new cannon have made their way through the blockade to Norfolk? Could these guns have done more damage to the Monitor in a future fight? And if this article were true, why had we not heard of this before? If it was not true, was this an honest mistake or was it propaganda building on the events of the Battle of Hampton Roads? To add to our uncertainty was a report from one of the postwar salvage operations of the wreck of CSS Virginia which mentioned a "large Confederate banded rifled gun."
Could this have been an Armstrong? Or was it a Brooke gun? From The Daily Journal (Wilmington, NC), June 23, 1867. Special thanks to Dr. Anna Holloway for providing this article. 
 Any new guns would have had to come through the blockade, which was an unlikely possibility.  Was there a chance that any Armstrong cannon were at Gosport Navy Yard when it was captured? An examination of the list of guns captured and their disposition quickly put that theory to rest. Strike one! If somehow they had made it through the blockade and been put on the Confederate ironclad, it would not have made much of a difference in a future fight against USS Monitor. Tests from the time showed that, owing to the relatively small gunpowder charge necessary, the Armstrong shell could not penetrate much iron. This would have been especially true of the Monitor's turret, which was protected by 8-inch-thick iron plating. Strike two! But this knowledge was likely not widespread at the time, so reports of the "celebrated Armstrong guns" would have still carried weight.

So could the newspaper report have been an honest mistake? CSS Virginia did replace damaged cannons after the battle, but it seems to be a stretch that someone could have mistaken these guns for the other. While a later triple-banded variant of the Brooke rifle might be confused at first glance, the rounder edges of the Armstrong seem to be quite unique and the Brooke gun was not produced until months after the article. Adding to this doubt was the fact that no Armstrong guns should have been available for purchase. The inventor of the Brooke gun, John Mercer Brooke (also one of the designers of CSS Virginia) wrote in a July 1862 letter that the Confederates did not have any breech-loading guns (alluding to the Armstrong). He continued that "their manufacture is confined to the government shops of England." Strike three! 
An illustration of a single banded Brooke rifle.
A double-banded Brooke rifle mounted on fortifications. (Photo by Joseph Miechle)
Judging from the inspirational language in the rest of the paragraph from the Richmond Dispatch, it appears likely that this was a propaganda piece. Considering that the Armstrong gun was only manufactured in Great Britain, could this have been a trick to show Northern (& Southern) readers that the Confederacy had British support? Indeed, as a New York Times article discussed after the fall of Fort Fisher in January 1865, there were questions about how a large Armstrong cannon was in Confederate possession when the "English Government claims the exclusive right to use [them]."** While the Times writer went on to lay the blame directly on Armstrong himself, he also said that an investigation was needed to fully lay the matter to rest. If there were still questions near the end of the war, how much more so before the Emancipation Proclamation or the Union victories in July 1863? At the very least, the guns were known as new technology, so any Southern reader would likely be excited, while a Northern reader would possibly be dismayed.

In the end, our research put a quick death to some tantalizing possibilities. While perhaps we did not make any significant new discoveries to add to the historiography, we did come away from the experience both more knowledgeable and perhaps a bit wiser. Sometimes the fun of researching history is all about the hunt.

* Letter from John M. Brooke to Stephen Mallory, July 16, 1862, in Ironclads and Big Guns of the Confederacy: The Journal and Letters of John M. Brooke, ed. George M. Brooke, Jr. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), 102.
**"Armstrong Gun at Fort Fisher." New York Times, January 29, 1865.

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