The History of Army Field Artillery

The history of field artillery can be traced through the Bible all the way back to 800 BC, when siege machines were used against the walls of Jerusalem.  The term artillery was first used during the Medieval Ages to describe any item that was too heavy to throw, requiring a mechanical device to project it.  The word cannon had its beginnings during the Renaissance, and was used to refer to one type of artillery. Although its beginning was crude, the use of artillery was the beginning of a new era in warfare, with field artillery firmly rooted at its center.

The first cannon was brought by Columbus to the New World in 1492, but was not a mainstay of American soldiers until the Revolutionary War. The first recorded use of cannon fire in North America was in 1565 in a naval skirmish between the French and the Spanish. The use of artillery firepower grew moderately during the French and Indian War, or the Seven Years War, when the French and British armies battled for control of the Colonies. The British and the French were adept at using such fire power, and fortified their ranks heavily in preparation for battle against each other prior to the Revolutionary War. This war, sometimes known as the War for Independence, also solidly introduced the American Militia to field artillery operations.

history of army field artilleryField artillery was officially born on November 17, 1775 when Henry Knox, the Father of American Artillery, was appointed Chief of the Continental Artillery. Knox was intensely interested in the military from an early age, reading everything about the subject that he could get his hands on.  At the age of 18, he joined an artillery company in Boston called “The Train.” On April 19, 1775, Knox voluntarily joined rebel forces against British oppression, and his expertise in military art and engineering was used for planning and building fortifications. On June 17, 1775, the Continental Congress appointed George Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. At the time, an elderly Colonel Richard Gridley was in command of the meager artillery that consisting of 21 nine-pounders that were confiscated from the British on Manhattan Island in August of that same year. General Washington, impressed by Knox’s courage, initiative, loyalty and creative problem-solving skills, moved quickly to have him replace Gridley, and sent him to Fort Ticonderoga to round up 38 additional cannons taken from the British when the Green Mountain Boys captured the fort.  Colonel Knox now had an artillery of 59 cannon.  Let’s take a brief look at the highlights of the history of our Army Field Artillery since then.

  • The War of 1812—Although it was primarily a naval confrontation, there were several significant ground engagements.  On July 5, 1814, the American artillery supported General Winfield Scott at the Battle of Chippewa and dueled the British Royal Artillery. They proved to be faster and more accurate, and secured victory. Later that same month, the American artillery again squared off with the British, this time in the Battle of Bundy’s Lane near Niagara Falls, but victory was elusive this time, with neither side gaining in their objective.  Later, the British burned Washington DC, but were unable to capture Baltimore, thanks once again to the American artillery. The artillery outfought and defeated British forces once again in New Orleans, this time supporting General Andrew Jackson in defending the Crescent City.
  • 1824—The first service school, the Artillery School of Practice, was instituted at Fortress Monroe, Virginia.
  • The Mexican War—The American artillery was vital in several key battles, namely, the Battle of Palo Alto, the Battle of Monterey, and the Battle of Buena Vista. The American artillery outranged the Mexican artillery, and this advantage, along with superb skill and tactical planning, secured American victory in each confrontation.
  • The Civil War—Artillery learned two hard lessons. First, the onset of the use of shoulder arms provided infantrymen with better and more accurate range.  Second, rifled cannons were ineffective unless they directly hit their target. In spite of this, the artillery was the deciding factor in several key battles—the Battle of Shiloh, the Battle at Malvern Hill, the first and second battles at Bull Run, the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Chancellorsville, and the Battle of Gettysburg.  Of particular note are the battles fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Stonewall Jackson’s division soundly defeated Union forces, largely because the commander of the Union army, General Joe Hooker, although a former artilleryman himself, bungled his attack by mismanaging his artillery and soundly demonstrated the importance of solid management of an artillery unit.  In Gettysburg, General George Meade, unlike Hooker, understood the value of artillery and knew how to effectively deploy his firepower. He wisely handed control over to his skilled artillery commander, General Hunt, who proved victorious.
  • Post-Civil War—Finances were not available for investment in the artillery from 1900 until 1916. On January 9, 1902, however, the 29th Field Artillery Battery was stationed at Fort Sill, ultimately to become the central artillery training facility in the country. The Artillery Reorganization Act of 1907 established field artillery as a separate branch from the coastal artillery, and the artillery school at Fortress Monroe eliminated all courses pertaining to coastal artillery. In 1911, the School of Fire for Field Artillery was established at Fort Sill under the command of Captain Dan T. Moore.
  • World War I—Artillery was the deadliest force on the battlefield. Allied support, namely the French, supplied the majority of the weapons American artillery fought with. A wide variety of techniques and technology developed during World War I, and tactical planning improved. The artillery discovered the value of preparation fires, and the chemical shell was introduced. In addition, massive artillery barrages were introduced, and aerial observation increased artillery effectiveness.
  • World War II—American artillery saw significant advances during this era. Just prior to America’s involvement in World War II, vehicles replaced horses for transport.  German use of armor in blitzkrieg tactics led to the development of the 76-mm, the 90-mm antitank weapons.  Eventually, 240-mm howitzer appeared. Self-propelled pieces increased the mobility of the artillery, and the introduction of the variable time fuze significantly increased the artillery’s effectiveness.  On July 10, 1941, the Artillery Officer Candidate School was established at Fort Sill, Oklahoma as the premiere artillery training center. The original 13-week program was lengthened to 17 weeks; however, in 1946, the training center was decommissioned.
  • The Korean War—The country’s impending involvement in Korea prompted President Harry S. Truman to reactivate the artillery training facility at Fort Sill, and the course was lengthened to 23 weeks.
  • The Vietnam War—American artillery involvement in Vietnam faced new challenges. The nature of the conflict itself, along with unfamiliar terrain, required new tactics and operational techniques. The helicopter arrived on the scene, giving the troops and equipment new mobility. The weapon of choice was the 105-mit howitzer that was used in World War II and Korea, modified to accommodate several carriages, the lightweight low profile carriage for airborne units, the standard carriage for infantry, and the self-propelled carriage for mechanized unites.

Since the Vietnam Era, American artillery has seen dramatic change. Technological advances in communications and weaponry improved every area of Field Artillery, including range, accuracy and lethality. Computerized command, control and communication systems such as the tactical fire direction system (TACFIRE), which was later replaced by the Advanced Field Artillery Digital Data System (AFATDS), afforded superb control of the battlefield. The fire support vehicle (FSV) was also implemented, first with the M113, upgraded later with the Bradley tracked fighting vehicle and the Stryker armored vehicle. The introduction of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the 1980’s further enhanced field artillery capabilities.

Improvements in technology also brought more precision and longer range, providing new capabilities such as hitting moving targets with relative ease. Lessons from Vietnam increased the use of the attack helicopter because of its agility and speed, critical characteristics of successful engagements. Advances in technology also introduced multiple rocket launch systems (MLRS), providing the ultimate in area fire. The most recent introduction to the MLRS family is the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Launch System (HIMARS), an MLRS on wheels capable of launching the entire family of MLRS weaponry.

The HIMARS was successfully used in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Tactical planning was also overhauled, and with the formation of special operations and conventional teams, as well as advances in Army and Air Force air support, joint fire support became an obvious strategy.  Joint missions were executed almost flawlessly in Desert Storm, but proved to be tricky in efforts to destroy the al-Qaeda/Taliban presence in Afghanistan. Coordination efforts, new terrain and operational factors proved to be significant challenges, and joint operations were evaluated.  The results provided decided success in Operation Iraqi Freedom, with a model joint combined arms campaign between air and ground supports in which  Field Artillery deployed US tube, rocket and missile weapons to drive Iraqi military out of Kuwait. As Major General H.G. Bishop declared in 1935, field artillery is still “King of Battle.”

Any discussion of the history of Army Field Artillery would not be complete without mentioning two leading ladies of the battlefield. Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, dubbed Molly Pitcher during the Revolutionary War, earned her place in history when she tirelessly fetched pitchers of water for the tired and thirsty soldiers on the battlefield. During this time, her artilleryman husband was wounded and removed from the battlefield, and Molly, knowing that the Continental Army was already short on manpower, courageously assumed her husband’s role of swabbing and loading cannon. Mary “Molly Pitcher” McCauley was later awarded an annual pension by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for her services during the war.

Finally, St. Barbara was born in Nicomedia (modern day Turkey), and was best known for her practice of Christianity against her father’s wishes.  Upon being discovered, St. Barbara was tortured and beheaded by her own father, who was struck by lightning shortly after killing his daughter.  She was venerated in the seventh century, and became the Patron Saint of thunderstorms, fire and sudden death. She was invoked as protection against explosions when gunpowder was created, and the Patron Saint of the Artillery was born.

In honor of their Patron Saint, the Honorable Order of St. Barbara and the Ancient Order of St. Barbara were created as a field and air artillery honor societies. The Honorable Order of Molly Pitcher was also created to honor women who voluntarily and significantly contributed to the improvement of the field artillery.

The history of the Army Field Artillery afforded a number of memorable quotes, many of which can be found in the Right of the Line: A History of the American Field Artillery. My favorite is as follows:

“The Field Artillery lends dignity to what would otherwise be nothing but a vulgar brawl.”—Anonymous

Do you have any favorite moments or favorite quotes from the history of Army Field Artillery? If you do, it would be great if you shared them in the comments.

4 thoughts on “The History of Army Field Artillery”

  1. Faith A. Coleman

    This is an impressively written article, full of information but as succinct as this much information could be written. It is especially interesting to me in regard to the role of women who had a significant effect on the use of artillery, even taking over a husband’s position and apparently functioned quite effectively in that position. I wonder what we can learn today about the current role of women in the military, from the experience of the past.

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