by Gordon Thorsby
The "Land Merrimac" a.k.a. The "dry Land Merrimac" (Library of Congress)
It is generally accepted that the first use of rail artillery occurred on June 29, 1862 at Savage’s Station, Virginia in the American Civil War. That gun was nicknamed the “Land Merrimac” also “Dry Land Merrimac" also “Lee-Brooke Rail Gun.” For the second time in 1862, Confederate ingenuity led the way; first with C.S.S. Virginia followed by the “Land Merrimac.” Two pictures are often associated with the "Land Merrimac," one erroneously. The picture above is of the Confederate “Land Merrimac” and below is of the Union “Dictator” in 1864 at Petersburg.
Robert E. Lee needed heavy offensive weapons to counter Union artillery superiority and on June 5, he inquired with Richmond if it was possible to mount a heavy gun on a railway car. Confederate Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas appealed to the Navy and Lt. John M. Brooke (Brooke gun renown and a C.S.S. Virginia designer) proceeded to design such a weapon.
Brooke’s concept was a sloped front like the Confederate ironclad to deflect incoming artillery rounds from possible counter-battery fire. The front was constructed of eighteen -inch thick wooden beams and covered with two inches of rolled steel. The sides were covered by wood planking to protect the crew from musket fire and the top and rear was open for ventilation and for escape. A 32-pounder Brooke rifled Cannon was mounted on a custom-built flatcar with seven axles to handle the weight of the gun and the recoil. Thirteen-inch Union mortars were impressive, but the Brooke rifle could fire farther and more accurately. Accompanying the naval gun adaptation were 200 rounds of ammunition that featured massive 15-inch solid bolt shots. A heavy caliber cannon on rail was capable of outdistancing any gun on the field and throw massive rounds.
The car was well protected but the engine and accompanying cars were not. When completed, the "Land Merrimac" (front left view) weighed 60 tons and on 26 June, she was ready for the field. Manning the gun came easy. Commanded by Lt James E. Barry, and Sgt. Daniel Knowles, many volunteers (13) came from the Norfolk Navy yard and who had served on CSS Virginia.
Several battles around Richmond had already been fought when the gun when it went into
action on 29 June. Lee ordered Maj. Gen. John Magruder's division to advance down the Richmond & York River Railroad along the Williamsburg Road. With steam up and ready, Lt. Barry advanced the train at around 10 a.m. The train slowly advanced while Kershaw’s South Carolina Infantry brigade paced alongside. When the train came to near the Savage house the train engineer slowed to speak with Brig. Gen. Richard Griffith. A Federal battery opened on the train landing rounds next to the gun and mortally wounded Griffith. The “Land Merrimac immediately responded and silenced the Federal threat.
Union General William Burns held several regiments in Savage's field and the 32-pounder fired two rounds scattering the formation. As stated by historian Stephen Sears “With measured thundering regularity, the railroad battery dropped its shells into the woods and fields on the Yankee front.” Each time the gun fired the train’s brakes released to receive the recoil of the Brooke gun. Another Federal battery opened on the rail gun that eventually forced it to withdraw under a storm of shot landing all around it but suffering no damage. The rail gun restarted a slow advance until the 72nd Pennsylvania infantry got on its flank peppering the battery with musketry and forcing and final withdrawal from the battle. The Land Merrimac survived fire but damage to the engine and roadbed prevented further use.
How effective was the “Land Merrimac?” It depends on whose versions one believes.
Gen. John Magruder felt the railroad gun performed well and later constructed a version for use in Texas. Magruder recalled, “Taking my position on the railroad bridge, which commanded a good view of the fight and of the enemy’s line of battle, I directed the railroad battery, “… to open his fire upon the enemy’s masses below, which was done with terrible effect.” General McLaws was not as impressed, “…with the advance of the troops and by his fire annoying the enemy …deserve all praise.” Union reports never mentioned it. One Union prisoner opined the rail gun killed or wounded 100 men and 30 horses. Union Private Robert Knox Sneden painted a watercolor of what he saw. For soldiers experiencing the incoming rounds, it would have been sheer misery.
The rail gun concept had problems. The gun had almost no traverse left or right. Aiming it meant finding a section of track consistent with a desired angle and the track and roadbed had to be in good condition. Recoil was another problem. It would give the gunners quite a ride.
For those that made the decisions, the rail gun saw its first and last day in the Eastern Theater on June 29. Union forces used their version of a rail gun, “Dictator” in the Siege of Petersburg for seven rounds before converting it to a placed platform mortar.
To the Gates of Richmond, by Sears, Stephen W., Houghton Mifflin Co, 1992, ppg 269-271.
American Civil War Rail weapons, Weapons and Warfare, June 20, 2021.
Heavy Batteries Last Updated on Sat, 13 Aug 2022 , https://www.minecreek.info/railroad-tactics/heavy-batteries.html
Photos: Library of Congress