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The American Civil War Big Guns


The American Civil War was a war full of new fighting techniques, extraordinary generals, innovations and a war that almost literarily divided the United States into two nations. It was a war that ended ancient warfare and started modern warfare with many innovations that modernized artillery and weaponry. The first railroad gun, a cannon mounted on a flatbed railroad car, was first used in the Civil War during the Siege of Petersburg in Virginia on June 29, 1862. The gun was called the “Dictator”. This was the first of many big guns used during the Civil War. This idea of putting big guns on railroad cars was later resurrected by Hitler during World War II with even larger guns.

There were at least five other big guns called “Siege Guns” used during critical sieges in the war. The Union and Confederate armies realized that if they wanted to get the upper hand in the war they needed to make bigger cannons to force their opposing sides into submission. However, these big guns could do a lot of damage and not always just to the enemy.

Union soldiers with big gun at Fort McAllister in Georgia

Union soldiers with big gun at Fort McAllister in Georgia

A Little About The Big Guns

These guns were big and were about the size of the ones used on the battleships during World War II. Three developers developed the guns; Thomas Rodman, John Dahlgren and Robert Parrot and these powerful weapons often carried their names. They were the most massive and heaviest guns used during the war, weighing more than 116,000 pounds (58 tons). A typical field artillery piece could be moved from place to place with a team consisted of six horses. A siege gun required a team of 10 horses to move it in position.

It took a lot to use one of these guns. Projectiles for the biggest guns weighed as much as 1000 pounds so a mechanical device was used to hoist the projectiles into position to load them into the guns. It took an experienced crew of seven men at least 10 minutes to get the gun ready, then aim and finally fire and then repeat this process again for the next shot.

Despite their destructive results against the enemy, these guns came with one serious risk while being use. The guns often exploded on the artillery crew with deadly consequences during firing. This was a very unpredictable occurrence; some of the guns exploded on the very first shot and other went several rounds or more and then exploded. Many of these guns had very limited use during the war but they did change the course of the war in some cases. For starters, the first shots in the war were fired at Fort Sumter at 4:30 on April 12, 1861 from the big guns situated at Fort Johnson on James Island near Charleston, South Carolina. The guns were located about mile and half from Fort Sumter. Major Robert Anderson was force to surrender Fort Sumter to the Confederates without any casualties except one dead horse and would not get it back until almost exactly four years later on April 14, 1865.

The Five Famous Big Guns

There were five big guns that stood out during the Civil War where some of these guns didn’t even fire a shot. They had colorful names such as “Swamp Angel”, “Lincoln Gun”, “Whistling Dick”, “Monster Rodman”, and “Lady Polk”.

Swamp Angel

The Swamp Angel was a 16,500-pound (8 ton) parrot gun with an eight-inch bore (size of projectile was approximately 8-inches in diameter). In 1863 outside of Charleston, South Carolina, a team of 450 men dragged this siege gun through the swampy area of Morris Island located four and half miles south of Charleston. The gun was mounted on a makeshift battery or platform. The Union soldiers managed to get off 35 rounds of incendiary hollow shells before the gun exploded on the 36th round. Despite its size, the firing of the gun on the city only managed to force the evacuation of the southern end of the city. There were only a few casualties. Today you can see this gun at Cadwallader Park in Trenton, New Jersey.

Lincoln Gun

The Lincoln Gun was once called the biggest gun in the world at the time. It weighed a whopping 49,000 pounds (about 25 tons). It was a Rodman 15-inch smoothbore. That means its projectile was about 15 inches in diameter. The projectiles weighed 425 pounds and were solid spheres. The gun was located in Virginia at Fort Monroe to protect Hampton Roads where the famous “Battle of the Ironclads” between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia took place on May 8-9, 1862.

Big gun on railroad car

Big gun on railroad car

Whistling Dick

The Confederate used a siege gun during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 nicknamed the “Whistling Dick” because the projectiles fired from the gun emitted a whistling sound while airborne. It was an 18-inch smoothbore gun and was credited for sinking the USS Cincinnati, a Union gun ship, during the siege. The gun mysteriously disappeared after the fall of Vicksburg. Legend has it that the Confederate crew moved the gun from Wyman Hill on July 3, 1863 and dumped it into the Mississippi River where to this day the gun has not been found. Some historians believe the gun is buried in a loess cave on or near Wyman Hill.

This a Rodman big gun, but this is not the "Monster Rodman", a slightly larger gun

This a Rodman big gun, but this is not the "Monster Rodman", a slightly larger gun

Monster Rodman

The Monster Rodman was the biggest of the big guns during the Civil War. Two of these guns were made during the Civil War and one after the war. This gun weighed in at an incredible 116,500 pounds (about 58 tons) and had a 20-inch smoothbore. For comparison an Abram battle tank weighs 60 tons. A 20-inch solid shot lobbed by one of these guns weighed 1,080 pounds and a spherical shell weighed 700 pounds. The maximum range of this gun was determined during testing to hit a target 4.5 miles away with one of these shots. One of the guns were eventually positioned at Fort Hamilton, New York but was never used in combat during the war.

Lady Polk

The Lady Polk was a 20-inch Dahlgren gun used during the Battle of Belmont on November 7, 1861. It was named in honor of General Leonidas Polk’s wife, Frances. The gun weighed about 16,000 pounds (8 tons) and could lob a projectile weighing 128 pounds. This gun was different from the other big guns because its projectiles were pointed and left the gun with a spin, which made this gun more accurate and also the spin increased the range of the projectile. The Confederates were able to get 128 rounds off against the Union soldiers across the Mississippi River forcing them to retreat. The battle ended with one round still in the gun. Unfortunately four days later during a demonstration for the general ten of the thirteen men around the gun were killed and the general was knocked unconscious after the gun exploded. The explosion occurred because the round left in the gun four days ago could not exit the gun because the bore of the gun had shrunken in size after cooling down after the battle.


Despite the limited use of these guns during the war the idea of using big guns in warfare did not end after the American Civil War. This eventually led to the development of the big guns seen today on battleships. These battleships ultimately change the tide of the war with their big guns at the Battle of Midway during World War II for the United States against Japan. This important historical event set the U.S. on the path to end World War II with an even more destructive weapon, the atomic bomb.

© 2011 Melvin Porter

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Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on April 01, 2020:

Superb. I love this information - Those guns were something else, indeed. Thanks for an interesting and informative piece on the Civil War big guns.

Vir Kotto on March 31, 2011:

Don't mention it, dear melpor! I'm very interesting in history of the U.S. Civil war big guns...

Melvin Porter (author) from New Jersey, USA on March 31, 2011:

Vir Kotto, thanks for the additional information on "Lady Polk".

Vir Kotto on March 31, 2011:

I found such piece!

Grant upon hearing that General Polk intended to bring more Confederate troops into the area decided that an attack on Belmont had to take place. Union forces landed on the Missouri shore and attacked the Confederate camp forcing then to retreat. Grant’s men turned Belmont’s guns on Columbus and began to fire on the Confederate defenses. The Southern artillery fire from the opposing heights became so deadly that Grant had to retreat to Union gunboats. The Confederate bombardment of Grant and his men came from 140 cannons, including the famous 15,000 pound, 6.4 inch Andersen Rifle known as “Lady Polk.” Named in honor of General Leonidas Polk’s wife, the Lady Polk cannon could fire a 128-pound projectile for three miles.

So "Lady Polk" wasn't 20-inch and Dalgren system. All became clear!

Vir Kotto on March 31, 2011:

Vise Versa, dear melpor! Rodman Monsters were heavier than Dalgren ones! But IMHO there were not any bands around the loading end of it!

Melvin Porter (author) from New Jersey, USA on March 30, 2011:

I believe the Dalgren guns had a band around them near the loading end. This extra weight made the guns heavier than the Rodman.

Vir Kotto on March 30, 2011:

Don't mention it, melpor! But what do you think on my second question about weights of the Rodman & Dalgren 20-inchers?

Melvin Porter (author) from New Jersey, USA on March 29, 2011:

Vir Kotto, thanks for catching the error. I corrected it.

Vir Kotto on March 29, 2011:

[quote]For comparison an Abram battle tank used during World War II weighs 60 tons[/quote]

What do you mean? Abrams tanks were adopted much later after the WWII!

And one more question! Why Dalgren 20-inch was much lighter than Rodman one?

Melvin Porter (author) from New Jersey, USA on February 15, 2011:

ImChemist, I hate guns and wars also but unfortunately that is the way of the world. There will always be some form of conflict in this world between two groups of people as is in this case or between two nations.

ImChemist on February 15, 2011:

I hate the war and i hate the guns.

Pamela Lipscomb from Charlotte, North Carolina on February 15, 2011:

Yeah, I was thinking all they had was a musket and a cannon. Who knew? Oh, yeah, you did! lol!

Melvin Porter (author) from New Jersey, USA on February 15, 2011:

2besure. thanks for the comment and compliment. A lot of people are unaware of all the technical innovations that came out of the Civil War.

Pamela Lipscomb from Charlotte, North Carolina on February 15, 2011:

Wow, I never knew the civil war had such big guns! You did and excellent job on this hub!

Melvin Porter (author) from New Jersey, USA on February 13, 2011:

Genna East, yes you can post a many comments as you wish. You are right this has been an ongoing debate for decades.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on February 13, 2011:

You are right, Melpor. (Can we post more than one comment? As a newbie, I want to make sure I am observing etiquette.) The many lives saved by dropping these bombs has been debated for decades. I would like to think that it did…I certainly hope so.

Melvin Porter (author) from New Jersey, USA on February 13, 2011:

Genna East, Thanks for your comment and for stopping by. Unfortunately the U.S. ended up being the first one to use the most devastating weapon on earth but it ended the war sooner than later. Also it may have save countless thousands of lives had the war continued.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on February 13, 2011:

Fascinating hub. I will never forget the look on Oppenheimer's face (in interviews, etc. since this was before my time) after Truman ordered the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki…tremendous guilt, regardless of his words.

Melvin Porter (author) from New Jersey, USA on February 12, 2011:

Wesman, thanks for the comment and compliment. I am glad you enjoyed reading my hub. Thanks for stopping by.

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on February 12, 2011:

This was honestly, one of the best, most interesting, and HP original topics and articles that I've read in a long time.

I'm not fan of war (few are, right?) , but I'm a pretty big fan of war history; and I was really pleased to read this hub.

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