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War Is Heavy


Mortars were guns that lobbed cannon balls high and far. Thirteen-inch mortars, like the ones shown above, were huge and heavy. And sometimes they actually broke the train cars supporting them. What follows is an official back-and-forth between Union officers trying to transport some mortars to Petersburg, which was then under siege. It’s dated July 12, 1864, and comes from volume 40 of the 127-volume The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies:

Colonel ABBOT;
The truck of the 13-inch mortar broke down last night at fifth discharge. If you will send up another truck with two screw-jacks we will shift the mortar and try to rebuild the old truck or wait orders. Lieutenant Hall has just been killed by a sharpshooter. I shall try and make arrangements to send body home.
T. S. TRUMBULL,
Major

Colonel Henry L. Abbot, of the 1st Connecticut Artillery, then dutifully passed the message up the chain to his boss, Colonel H. S. Burton, the important aspect, of course, being the car and not the unfortunate Lieutenant Hall:

The 13-inch mortar is reported as having broken the car. Do you desire it repaired with a view to further use?

To which Colonel Burton replied:

The car upon which the 13-inch mortar is placed is broken. It is desirable to have the car repaired for further use.

Here I imagine Colonel Abbot chewing on a cigar and thinking, “I know it’s broken! I told YOU it was broken!!!!” Anyway, it’s a quarter past one in the afternoon at this point, and Colonel Abbott fires off a message to Brigadier General Rufus Ingalls, a no-nonsense Mainer who had been U. S. Grant‘s roommate at West Point. He now had responsibility for all the supplies running in and out of City Point.

The 13-inch mortar has broken its truck car. Can you send a platform-car upon which we can shift the mortar while we repair it?

To which General Ingalls replied:

Your dispatch is received. I will furnish the car.

Which was certainly good news, and worth relaying back to Major Trumbull, who had alerted the high command to the problem in the first place.

Will send the car and jack-screws also forge and battery wagon, with iron and what else you require if you desire it. The car must be repaired. State what you want. Have you a good mechanic?

Just another day at war, I guess. Only a few weeks later, by the way, Colonel Abbott would be awarded with the brevet, or honorary, rank of brigadier general for “gallant and distinguished services” on the lines at Petersburg (the citation doesn’t reference his participation in the repair of the broken car, but does it even need to?). He went on to author Siege Artillery in the Campaigns Against Richmond, with Notes on the 15-inch Gun, including an Algebraic Analysis of the Trajectory of a Shot in Its Ricochets upon Smooth Water (1867).
Which, I might as well admit, I have not yet read.
IMAGE: “Yorktown, Virginia. Battery No. 4 mounting 13-inch mortars. South end” by James F. Gibson, Yorktown, Virginia, May 1862 (Library of Congress)

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