Monday, September 05, 2011

1861 News--- Cannons' Tests Became Public Spectacle In Pittsburgh

Eyewitness 1861: Testing Of War Cannons Became Public Spectacle, Len Barcousky, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 7, 2011.

In the summer of 1861, cannons like this one, now installed at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, were tested at a "proving ground" near Tarentum. Testing, or "proving," Pittsburgh-made artillery was combined with "al fresco" dining by local businessmen and their wives during the summer of 1861.

On June 5 crews transported 10 cannons, called "columbiads," and four mortars by train from the city to a "proving ground" across the Allegheny River from Tarentum. There the guns were subjected to day-long tests. "Some experiments were also made to ascertain the effect of projectiles on heavy iron plates," according to a next-day story in the Pittsburgh Daily Dispatch.

"The experiments on the iron plate, together with the novelty of the Government proof, attracted quite a large party, chiefly gentlemen connected with the iron interest," the story said. "A number of ladies also accompanied the party, for whose special delectation the aid of a city confectioner had been called in to prepare a banquet 'al fresco.'" Several lawyers and "gentlemen of leisure were also added to the party, engrafting the lighter amusement of an impromptu picnic on the graver business of Uncle Sam," the report went on.

Such weapons tests were especially important in the opening months of the Civil War as Pittsburgh's workshops, foundries and "manufactories" geared up to supply the Union forces with weapons, ammunition and uniforms. The site of the former proving ground is now private property, according to local historian Arthur Fox, who has identified the spot. Although the location was more than 20 miles upriver from Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle, the area was by no means wilderness in the 19th century.

The site lacked "a large extent of waste country or a body of water ... on which the balls or shells may fall without risking life," the story said. Mortars were usually tested by angling their barrels at 45 degrees, but the Dispatch story said that the weapons for these tests were aimed almost parallel to the ground in an effort to keep spent rounds from landing close to nearby houses. Later tests included mortar firings at near point-blank range -- a mere 100 yards -- at iron plates of various thicknesses. "The plates were invariably hit, and generally at approximately the center, which would not have disgraced many riflemen," the reporter wrote.

Gun crews then carried out similar checks on the 8-inch columbiads, smooth-bore cannons that fired 64-pound balls. During the proving ground trials, one of the targets for two of the guns was a5-inch-thick iron sheet. When the smoke cleared away after one test firing, observers found two trees had been toppled and the plate had been hit twice and broken in half. "The result of all the firing proves that at short range no ordinary, or practicable iron sheeting would resist the power of a columbiad shot," the reporter concluded.

That conclusion, however, would be proved at least partially wrong nine months later. In March 1862 the Union's Monitor and the Confederate's Merrimac, both ironclads, battled each other to a draw, at the mouth of the James River in Virginia. The results of that otherwise minor engagement showed that iron plate could be very effective in protecting ships and their crews from cannon fire. In the years that followed, navies around the world rapidly converted their fleets from wood to iron.

Image Caption:In the summer of 1861, cannons like this one, now installed at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, were tested at a "proving ground" near Tarentum, Pennsylvania.

Text and Image Source: Pittsburgh Post Gazette, August 7, 2011

No comments: