EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was first published in the January-March 1999 issue of INSCOM Journal, quarterly magazine of the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, Va.
In the summer of 1996, Vint Hill Farms Station in Virginia was preparing to close after more than half a century of operations. Relics, such as the Civil War-era cannons that represented Vint Hill's ties to the historic area, were relocated to other Army bases.
One cannon found a home at the entrance to Headquarters, INSCOM.
At first glance, it may seem out of place alongside the more recent military equipment. The cannon, designated the Model 1857 Gun Howitzer by the U.S. Army but more popularly known as the 12-pdr., or Napoleon. [Artillery historian Wayne Stark says the proper designation of the gun is 12 pdr. bronze field gun Model of 1857 (Napoleon), as the U.S. generally copied the Napoleon but never officially called it a gun howitzer. The intent was for it to serve as a howitzer and gun.]
It joins a Russian BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle and a T-72 tank captured from the Iraqis during Desert Storm. While these modern battlefield pieces represent INSCOM's support to today's warfighter, the cannon serves as a reminder of INSCOM's long tradition of service.
The Napoleon is a link between INSCOM and Vint Hill Farms Station, a post that became part of INSCOM's roots in 1942.
As the U.S. entered World War II, the War Department sought out land for the construction of the East Coast Monitoring Station. The government bought the farm land near Warrenton, Va., and in June 1942 personnel from the 2nd Signal Service Battalion began operations at Vint Hill Farms Station (VHFS).
The 2nd Signal Service Battalion was assigned to the Army Security Agency (ASA), the predecessor organization to INSCOM, on Nov. 20, 1945. Under the ASA, one organization controlled all the Army's signal intelligence and communications security resources. Vint Hill Farms Station (VHFS) became the first ASA field station.
The cannon holds special meaning to former personnel of VHFS as a symbol of its organizational roots — and of local history. One of the images most people recall from VHFS is the Napoleon positioned in front of the Officers Club. This large, red brick mansion was built by Andrew Low, who purchased the farm in 1860. It first served as the bachelor officers' quarters and then as the officers' mess for the 2nd Signal Service battalion.
The first major engagement of the Civil War, commonly known as the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas), occurred only 11 miles from VHFS, on July 21, 1861. From Aug. 28-30, 1862, the Second Battle of Bull Run (or Second Manassas), was fought on the same battlefield. Many monuments have been erected around VHFS to the historical events that took place in the vicinity.
Throughout the war, the Confederacy used captured Napoleons and manufactured 630 of their own version of the cannon. The main difference between the two was that the Federal Napoleon had a flared muzzle and the Confederate version had a straight muzzle.
Vint Hill's cannon, a smoothbore made of cast bronze, was part of a lot accepted by Capt. Thomas Jefferson Rodman for U.S. Army service on Dec. 6, 1862. Most of the cannons now belong to the Park Service; few belong to the Army.
The Napoleon at Vint Hill (serial number 160) was manufactured in 1862 by Revere Copper Company in Boston, Mass. All Napoleon barrels, or tubes, were individually weighed; this cannon's tube weight is 1,253 pounds. This makes it one of the heaviest of those still in existence.
Sgt. Maj. Richard R. Schaus, assigned to INSCOM's Deputy Chief of Staff, Logistics office, knew of the cannon at Vint Hill and first became concerned about it when VHFS was designated to close. As a Civil War historian, Schaus knew the historic and intrinsic value of the cannon and of the need to ensure its security. He coordinated with the INSCOM history office and the museum at VHFS and presented a proposal to the chief of staff to request transfer of the cannon to INSCOM.
The Center of Military History, which is the custodian for all Army artifacts, granted approval to place the Napoleon at HQ, INSCOM. The cannon was delivered to INSCOM on June 18, 1996, and immediately generated much interest, discussion and speculation on subjects ranging from its origin to its utilization.
The Napoleon at war
The Army had only five Napoleons at the start of the Civil War. By the end of the war, 1,131 Napoleons had been produced for the Army and another 630 for individual states. About half of these still exist today.
The Napoleon quickly became a favorite weapon of the light artillery in both the Federal and the Confederate armies. Being a smoothbore, it was most effective at short ranges. By the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), 142 of the 360 artillery pieces in the Union Army of the Potomac, and 107 of 272 artillery pieces in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, were Napoleons.
The core of the artillery batteries in the Union Army were Regular Army. An artillery battery in the U.S. Army consisted of six guns, commanded by a captain, with a complement of 80-100 men. A gun crew had eight men, each assigned a specific job when firing the piece. The "chief of the piece" was a sergeant. In addition to the officers and gun crews, there were drivers, horse holders and men with other specialized jobs.
The battery was divided into three sections, with two pieces in a section, each under the command of a lieutenant. As the war went on, the number of men in a battery declined as a result of combat losses and disease. Many Regular Army batteries were manned by more volunteers from infantry regiments than by regulars.
For transportation, the Napoleon was attached to a limber and pulled by a six-horse team. The limber was a two-wheeled vehicle carrying an ammunition chest, which held the piece's basic load. In action, the limber was positioned close behind the cannon to allow for quick movement.
Each cannon also had a caisson — a two-wheeled vehicle carrying two ammo chests and an extra wheel. The caisson, pulled by six horses, supplied ammunition to the limber.
In the Civil War, light artillery such as the Napoleon engaged visible targets at what, by modern standards, was very close range. Because of this, Napoleon crews fought their guns at, or in front of, the infantry line. Infantry units were often assigned to support (protect) artillery batteries.
The Napoleon had no recoil mechanism, so when the piece was fired it would roll back and have to be repositioned and resighted after every round. An experienced crew could fire two aimed shots a minute.
Four types of ammunition were fired by the Napoleon:
•Solid shot was a solid ball of iron weighing 12 pounds, for use against emplacements and enemy artillery — but skilled Napoleon gunners could ricochet solid shot into cavalry or infantry formations.
• Shellwas a hollow iron ball filled with a powder charge. Shells were exploded by a fuse, set to a specific time and ignited by the explosion of the powder charge that propelled the round out the barrel. It was used against both personnel and materiel, such as enemy artillery.
•Case shotwas a hollow iron ball, thinner than shell, containing a powder charge and a number of small lead or iron balls. Case shot was also exploded by a fuse set to a specific time. When the round exploded, it would scatter the balls and case fragments at the target. Case shot was used mainly against personnel.
•Canisterconsisted of a tinned iron cylinder, which looks like a coffee can, containing 27 1-1/2-inch diameter iron balls packed in sawdust. Upon discharge, the tin cylinder would disintegrate and the balls fanned out from the muzzle. The effect was like firing a giant shotgun. Canister was used against infantry at ranges under 500 yards. Double and even triple charges (one powder bag with two or three canister cylinders) were used in emergencies. The effect of a battery of Napoleons firing canister into an infantry line of battle could be devastating — canister fire at point blank range helped break up Pickett's charge at Gettysburg.
A new home
Placing the cannon at the entrance to HQ INSCOM was a choice made by the then-Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, the history office and the then-Chief of Staff. No formal dedication ceremony was held, but rather an observance in spirit, as military and civilian personnel offered suggestions for its display and volunteered to make needed repairs. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough cannon to go around, so only a few got to take part in preserving this historic relic.
Some of the metal work is original, but the original wood has long since decayed. A concrete base was constructed, and a support added under the gun carriage/tube to take the weight off the wheels.
The people responsible for transferring the cannon from Vint Hill to HQ, INSCOM demonstrated an appreciation of the organization's roots. They ensured that this piece of INSCOM's history will not be lost.
The symbols of the past honor those who have gone before and who passed on a responsibility - and a legacy - to new generations.
(History office researchers are hopeful that, since Vint Hill began to host the annual ASA picnic in 1955, someone might have photograph placing the cannon on Vint Hill prior to 1961. Anyone with knowledge of Vint Hill's Napoleon is urged to contact the public affairs office at HQ, INSCOM by calling (703) 706-1327.)