The Shelling of Carlisle

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The Civil War Battle of Carlisle

Battle of Carlisle

"The Shelling of Carlisle - July 1-2, 1863" by Ron Lesser

"Shell away!" Brig. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith's answer to the surrender ultimatum sent to him by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart on the evening of July 1, 1863. It was not what the great Confederate cavalryman wanted to hear. As to whether the residents of Carlisle (the Pennsylvania town Smith was defending) were pleased with Smith's response, the general could not be sure nor did he bother to inquire. The town would be defended, like it or not. Smith could be sure of one thing - Stuart was not going to like it and he didn't, not one bit. "Jeb" Stuart and his boys, the troopers of Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton's, Brig. Gen. Fitz Lee's, and Col. John R. Chambliss' brigades, had seen some hard riding since they left Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on June 25. Determined to cause as much trouble behind Federal lines as he possibly could, Stuart led his men on a bone weary jaunt that saw him destroy canal boats, tear up several miles of railroad track, capture hundreds of prisoners, and pick up over 100 Federal supply wagons before clashing with Federal cavalry at Hanover, Pennsylvania, on June 30. Now, desperately trying to find Lee's army, Stuart had hoped to locate some portion of it at Carlisle, only to find "Baldy" Smith in a bad humor and with a chip on his shoulder.

Stuart concluded that all Smith needed was a little persuasion, so he forwarded the guns of Capt. James Breathed's 1st Stuart Horse Artillery. Dashing into position, Breathed unlimbered his guns and commenced a bombardment of the town. Capt. Henry D. Landis' 1st Philadelphia Battery answered him defiantly and soon shells and solid shot were arcing over the houses and shops of Carlisle whose citizens scattered to shelter or pulled in their necks to escape the flying iron. Stuart watched and waited for Smith to come to his senses, but the Federal commander kept his artillery blasting away at Breathed.

Frustrated that Smith could not be budged Stuart decided to strike elsewhere and ordered his men to burn the United States Cavalry barracks just outside of the town. Flames soon soared skyward from the buildings while additional fires erupted in Carlisle. Still, Smith refused to yield. Sitting on his horse pondering his next action, Stuart happily welcomed the return of two of his men who had been sent out scouting for Lee's army. Maj. Andrew R. Venable of Stuart's staff and Lt. Henry C. Lee of Fitz Lee's staff had managed to find what Stuart had been looking for and returned with orders from Robert E. Lee for Stuart to report to him at "Gettysburg without delay." The news saved Carlisle from possible additional damage. Breathed's guns fell silent and the gray cavalry began to withdraw. Stuart trotted south toward Gettysburg, to a battle that would, for the most part, determine the future of the Civil War. Smith and the citizens of Carlisle had withstood the invader. Smith would await further orders. The people would fight the fires and then return to their normal lives but with their heads held a little higher and their chests a little broader. Future generations would come to know what Carlisle endured that day and remember those who endured it.

- Robert Trout

The Shelling of Carlisle by Stuart's Horse Artillery

The forces that J.E.B. Stuart brought to bear against Carlisle on the fateful night of July 1st and 2nd, 1863, were unique.

To those with only a passing interest in the Civil War the concept of horse artillery (cannons traveling with cavalry) might seem unremarkable. But the idea of great Napoleon cannons weighing over a thousand pounds accompanying fast moving cavalry is actually something quite remarkable.

Generally, cannon batteries in both the Union and Confederate armies were served by men who walked beside them when they moved from place to place. This limited the speed to the soldiers' rate of march. In the horse artillery, however, everyone rode a horse which meant that the guns could move much more rapidly.

Though Stuart was not the one to invent horse artillery - that was Frederick the Great of Prussia - he understood its value early in the war and made every effort to see that he had the best available. Stuart was an aggressive general who believed his cavalry should never wait to be attacked. He would attack first. His horse artillery also needed aggressive commanders. Men such as John Pelham, James Breathed, and others proved throughout the war that they understood what Stuart expected of his horse artillery.

By the time of the Civil War, the role of cavalry had changed dramatically from what it had been in the wars of Napoleon. Gone were the long swords and steel breastplates and the thundering charges that threw infantry into a panic. They had passed from military history with the smooth bore musket with its limited range and hitting power. Infantry used a new weapon, the rifled musket, which could destroy a cavalry charge.

Carlisle Civil War Battle
Carlisle Civil War Battle.gif
Battle of Carlisle Battlefield

Further, while cavalry should be able to handle other cavalry this was not always the case. Whichever side had the last formed regiment or squadron usually swept the field. The mounted arm required a base to attack from and to rally on. It needed a weapon that could slow down infantry, hold it in check, or drive it away. That turned out to be - the horse artillery.

The guns of the horse artillery could give the cavalry everything it needed in the way of firepower. Its ability to engage the enemy well beyond rifled musket range meant that enemy infantry would have to advance more slowly and deliberately. Once within range the horse artillery could rapidly change its position and start the fight all over again. If the infantry was accompanied by its own artillery, the horse artillery still held the advantage because it could move and change its position rapidly, thus never giving the enemy's guns a predictable target.

Throughout the four years of war the Stuart Horse Artillery Battalion repeatedly proved its value. Stuart reached his goal of having artillery that could ride with the cavalry yet still give it the firepower necessary to face any enemy. The horse artillery fought gunboats, infantry, cavalry, other horse artillery, and regular artillery. It galloped across battlefields, trotted along on raids, and held dug in positions.

There is no doubt that the sum of the damage Stuart's forces inflicted during their brief assault on Carlisle was largely due to the unique character and effectiveness of the Stuart Horse Artillery.

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