The Artillery Driver

 As told from the Federal Perspective

This article is an attempt to continue the study done by Dave Fox Driver, Ferguson’s Battery.  Mr. Fox’s article first appeared in the Camp Chase Gazette, March of 1997, and is the inspiration for this one.  The background history of the Artillery driver is taken from his article.

Artillery drivers, then called postillions, appeared on the military scene soon after wheels were levered under the early hooped gun tubes. In the middle ages, postillions were simple civilian husbandmen who hired themselves and their animals to professional gunners who, in turn, hired themselves and perhaps their privately owned field guns to a king, lord or cause on contract for a given campaign.  Upon the early adoption of the wheeled limber, postillions rode their draft horses to lend direction and control, hauling the guns, caisson wagons, and general supply transport. 

            Mercenary gunners were held in superstitious awe; members of something of a guild or union, and were, with their guns, so valuable that even after a catastrophic defeat the victors would likely protect them as useful turncoats.  Not so the postillions, he was considered a country bumpkin, who received no respect from his betters and whose stock was liable to be confiscated over his dead body.  In return, no one anticipated civilian postillions to risk themselves or their valuable animals in actual battle.  Thus they unhitched well out of danger, requiring each cumbersome gun to be manhandled into action by large squads of pioneers and matrosses.  This placed a large restriction on field artillery's tactical usefulness.

Amazingly, this system persisted for centuries, in spite of the military regularizing of the gunner and crew.  Professional artillerists depended upon civilian contract postillions whom would stay well clear of harm's way and were not subject to military discipline.  This limited artillery maneuvers on the field of action to the abilities of  the matrosses harnessed to the pieces by pull ropes called bricoles and leading to the development of cannon little larger than oversized muskets on wheels to create mobility.

A Veuglaire Gun (Picture from the Castelmoron-sur-Lot France)

 Matrosses were the gunners' assistants, i.e. the 'servitor gunners' or 'inferior gunners'.  After several years of service their status upgraded and they were given a more respectable title and position. Unlike their predecessors they were all on the same rate of pay, which was somewhat lower than a Gunner’s.  The name matrosses comes from the German matrossen meaning sailors.  They were given this name because the tasks allotted them in battle. Traversing, loading, firing, sponging, manning dragropes, etc, was deemed to be sailors' work. They were also less trained technically than the gunners. As warfare progressed and tactics changed the archaic system in place for the movement of the guns cried for reform.


Reform began in the decades surrounding the turn of the 19th century when postillions began to be styled as "drivers". The first real reform was when the drivers and dray animals were made part of the regular military establishment and subjected to regular military discipline.  A corps of soldier-drivers opened up military tactics to many more options. Including the massing of guns during battle and the Napoleon tactic of galloping light batteries right up to white-of-their-eyes ranges, unlimbering, and blasting slow-moving infantry masses with up to 15 rounds of grape per minute, per gun. Napoleon, you'll recall, was a trained artilleryman and knew well the effect of a large volley of cannon could do.   Instead of Artillery being used as merely the thunderous opener of combat, too cumbersome to follow the action, the field artillery became a glamorous and dangerous participant on the field.   Thus becoming the “King of Battle”, partially because of a change in the role of drivers.

Napoleonic Artillery Driver, Guard Artillery Train 1813 by Bryan Fosten for Osprey Publishing







        Secondly, soldier-drivers ceased to form their own separate organization and were assigned to individual artillery companies.  And finally, by the Mexican War they crossed-trained as cannoneers to be available to man the guns in case of an emergency. It is unlikely this later use of drivers was often made practice. If gun crews were being decimated, then most likely the same would be said of the drivers.  And with the loss of the drivers the guns would be immobilized and rendered useless and subject to capture. The better way to remedy the issue of a crew having to load and fire with diminished numbers was to adopt infantry into the open positions.  Lt. Timothy Blaisdell mentions in one of his letters to his sisters that “Company D of the 11th Illinois Regiment being on detached duty to Battery B of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery and had done great service filling in for battery members either sick or wounded.”


Mexican War Artillery Shell Jacket (Courtesy of the U.S. Smithsonian)


            Charles Affeld also mentions on a few occasions the assistance of Infantry.  In one example he mentions during Battery “B”s stay at Desoto, Louisiana the use of Infantry for manual labor.  He writes in his entry for Tuesday June 23rd, 1863, “After supper it commenced raining and drizzled all night. We moved our guns( the left section) with a detail of infantry about an hour before dusk to within a mile of the river bank, where we unhitched and the infantry detail helped us pull our guns to the levee near the bank of the river, directly opposite the Prentiss House or between the Depot and the Prentiss House. The infantry dug a platform for our guns in the little levee to the right of the [Vicksburg Shreveport Texas Railroad] tracks.”

Prior to 1861, except for the period of the Mexican War when light artillery was again perceived as the glamorous service, drivers were scarce in the American Army. Neither the regular army nor State militias could afford peacetime horse-drawn field artillery.  Many militia batteries hauled their guns by hand for parades, presuming they even had guns.  Most pre-Civil War American artillery companies were trained equipped and functioned as infantry and were artillery in name and dress only. Carriages were more costly than tubes, harnesses and horses were more costly than carriages and so they were scarce. But, with the starting of the Civil War, militia, state, and national authorities set aside frugality to the greater good of slaughter.

It is unlikely drivers shared the routine fatigue duties of cannoneers. Drivers' specialized duties were profoundly more onerous. Before addressing his own personal needs, the driver had two horses to attend to.  Attending to either the near or off pair to which he was assigned. The driver’s first duties in the morning were tending the horses; the major duties during the course of the day were tending the horses; last duties at night before rolling into their blankets was tending the horses.  Feeding, bathing, grooming, vetting, training and exercising a brace of horses was a ceaseless task.  Charles Affeld mentions on several occasions in his diary of being detailed to work with either the swing team of one of Battery Bs caissons or switching with his brother for his team:


Monday, April 20, 1863.   Was up at reveille, morning pleasant. After clean­ing my team, and then eating breakfast, all the drivers went after oats each getting three sacks on horse back.”


Tuesday, April 21, 1863.     We were up at the usual hour. A detail of two from each squad went after hay immediately after reveille, Cleaned my team before breakfast.”


Friday April 24, 1863.  We were up at the usual hour, Otto takes the swing team for a week from me.  At 10 A. M. the battery was harnessed and hitched up, an account taken of what was needed and then we were dismissed.”

 For both sides this was unenviable task, more so for the Confederate driver.  Again, the ever present issue of a better supplied army was the cause.  The Union army had the assets to vet, feed, and care for their animals. The health of Confederate artillery's dray animals was critical.  A depreciating asset as suitable beasts became scarcer as the war consumed them by the tens of thousands. 

Horses selected for the artillery service needed to fit the requirements set by the U.S. Army.   Artillery horses were highly scrutinized with the hope of obtaining the animals that possessed as close as possible these desired qualities.  John Gibbon’s describes the qualities most valued in a horse intended for artillery in his diary “The horse for artillery service should be from fifteen to sixteen hands high ... should stand erect on his legs, be strongly built, but free in his movements; his shoulders should be large enough to give support to the collar but not too heavy; his body full, but not too long; the sides well rounded; the limbs solid with rather strong shanks, and the feet in good condition. To these qualities he should unite, as much as possible, the qualities of the saddle horse; should trot and gallop easily, have even gaits and not be skittish.”

Horses that were between the ages of five and seven years old were usually selected, and  John Gibbon carefully portrayed what was wanted, but horses with these qualities were not always available. Horses became scarce and stayed in short supply in areas of continuing conflict. This fact standing, horses still had to possess the qualities set by the U.S. government and once obtained attended a short camp of instruction of their own.  They were taught to react to various commands and cues from the rider. They were also taught how to react appropriately to certain situations they might encounter on the battlefield. Horses either serving in the Artillery or under an officer endured as much hardship and danger as any human on the field. An effective tactic used when attacking artillery was to shoot the horses harnessed to it. If the horses were killed or disabled, moving the guns was impossible. Unfortunately for the horses, they could take much punishment. They were difficult to bring down and once down kept down, even with the impact of large-caliber Minie balls.

           An example of this tactic would involve the 10th Massachusetts Light Artillery at Ream's Station in August of 1864. During the battle the battery was fighting from behind a makeshift barricade.  The men were protected but the horses were fully exposed. In the passing of the opening minutes of the battle only two of the thirty horses were still standing and both of these animals bore wounds. Of the two remaining horses one horse had received seven separate wounds before it went down. Others were hit, went down, and struggled back up only to be hit again. The average number of wounds each horse had suffered was five. 

Thousands of horses were killed or wounded in battle.  But these numbers do not compare to the number of horses that were lost to disease or exhaustion. As an example, between October 1862 and April of 1865 the Tenth Massachusetts Battery lost 157 horses. Of these 157 horses, 112 died of disease and of those 112, 45 of them died of glanders.  Glanders is a highly contagious disease that attacks the skin, nasal passages and respiratory system of a horse. And it was a common ailment amongst the horse stock during the Civil War.  Another forty-five horses from the same battery were lost to fatigue; they simply became too exhausted to work and had to be put down.

The capacity of a healthy horse to pull a load was affected by a number of factors. Chief among these was the nature of the surface over which the load was being hauled. A single horse could pull 3,000 pounds 20 to 23 miles a day over a hard-paved road. A horses pulling capacity then lowers to 1,900 pounds over a dirt or gravel road, and then down to 1,100 pounds over rough ground. The pulling ability was further reduced by one-half if a horse carried a rider on its back. Finally, as the number of horses in a team increased, the pulling capacity of each horse was further reduced. A horse in a team of six had only seven-ninths the pulling capacity it would have had in a team of two. The goal was that each horse's share of the load should be no more than 700 pounds. This was less than what a healthy horse, even carrying a rider and hitched into a team of six, could pull, but it furnished a safety factor that allowed for fatigue and losses.

            Now you’ve read the background history and have slight idea of the job faced by an Artillery Driver during the Civil War.  Let’s now cover the tools of the trade.


The Impression

A Federal Artillery Driver

Throughout the Civil War thousands of men served as drivers. Except for a very few photographs and more numerous spirited drawings, paintings and lithographs, the artillery driver of the American Civil War is an invisible man today, rarely an object of post war comment in scholarly works or currently at most Reenactment events.  There are several artillery units around the country that are fortunate enough to have the means to have both the proper equipment and horses to do the impression.  If you have the opportunity to see them in action takes full advantage of it.  There is nothing like seeing 6 horses at a gallop charging across of field with a gun in tow.

As pointed out in earlier in this article, the artillery driver's role was critical to American field artillery of the 1860's.  The driver’s job was certainly demanding, and his combat accomplishments often exploring the limits of human valor.

The Uniform:

The uniform of a driver either federal or confederate would have been of very little difference from any other artillery reenactor; there was no distinctive driver's uniform during our time period.

A) The Uniform Coat: based on your impression of federal or confederate will determine the jacket type you would were.  Research the unit that you belong to and determine what was worn and when.  Federal impressions have it easier; you wear either a private’s sack coat or a standard Mounted Service Jacket trimmed in red as per regulations.

 B) The Uniform Pants: As a mounted person, one might opt for boots although many mounted personnel of the 1860's favored the lace-up brogan, which may surprise some. In the Federal service and, to a lesser degree, in the Confederate army, the driver's issue trousers boasted an additional layer of cloth re-enforcing the seat and inside of the legs. Individual soldiers sometimes made their own arrangements for trouser reinforcement by adding reinforcements to their issued dismounted trousers; a favorite material was white tent canvas which gave the wearer both protection and that distinctive look horse soldiers have always cultivated. Oft times the trousers had a strap running under the instep to keep the pants legs down over the footwear.

Federal Artilleryman wearing mounted pants and a Mounted Service Jacket.  Notice the heavy seams on the inside of the leg.


A) The Whip:  The United States Army Ordnance Manual of 1861describes the artillery driver's whip as, “1”stock, (raw hide) about 30 inches long. The raw hide is first covered with India-rubber cloth; 1 leather cover, sewed over the India-rubber covering, with a loop in the end well secured; 1 lash, (thread,) tied to the leather cover; 1 loop for the hand, nailed to the butt of whip with 2 tacks.”. The whip is obviously one of the most distinctive accoutrements of the driver, is easily replicated, but is usually neglected in a reenactor’s persona. It is regularly seen in Civil War art and, at least once, in photography. So to replicate this driver's tool, used to encourage his team when rapid or difficult hauling was needful for the greater good, I have purchased a reproduction whip from Border States Leatherworks. 



B) Saber Belt:  In a perfect world, drivers, as mounted combat troopers, would be issued and wear saber belts. In the Federal service, this was an M-1851 saber belt of black buff bridle leather with the rectangular brass eagle plate and silver wreath. Strictly regulation U. S. Artillery saber belts differed slightly from the U. S. Dragoon and Cavalry models in that there was no provision for the over-the-shoulder support strap.

An example of an Union Enlisted man’s Saber belt and buckle (Courtesy of Hanover Brass)

C) Spurs:  As described by the United States Army Ordnance Manual of 1861 are to be made of brass and include 2 spurs; 2 rowels; 2 rivets.  The spur straps are to be 19 inches long, and consist of 2 roller-buckles No. 11 and 2 standing-loops of leather.  There were two different sizes the No.1 which had a length of heel of 3 1/2 inches, and the No. 2 having a 3 1/4 inch inside measurement.  The width of heel for the No.1 was 3 1/4 inches and the No. 2 was 3 inches.  The length of the shank to centre of rowel was 1 inch.  And the diameter of the rowel was to be 0.85 inch.  The specified weight of a pair of spurs and straps was .57 lb.

An Example of Federal enlisted man’s Spurs

D) Gauntlets: It is likely leather gauntlets were widely worn by drivers. Handling the reins and harness would be hard on hands and cold weather could render them insensitive if not protected.

E) The Haversack, canteen, or blanket roll. The driver was supposed to have access to a leather tube called a valise which was strapped to the off horse saddle.  The valise is described later in this article. I've never noticed a war-time illustration of artillery horses carrying the driver's haversack, blanket roll or canteen.  Theses items the driver may then have worn on his person or strapped to running boards of the limber or spare wheel along with the other battery members belongs if this was allowed by the Sgt.

F) The Leg guard: This is what sets the driver apart from the common reenactor. It stimulates conversation with civilians and other reenactors alike; a visually impressive object unique to the postillion impression and little understood. I’ve worn mine at a couple of Living Histories and have been asked when I broke my leg.  The leather and iron leg guard remained unchanged for more than 100 years beginning in the 1830's and is described in the United States Army Ordnance Manual of 1861 as 1 body (strong kip leather;) 2 layers, sewed to the upper and lower part of the body with four seams; 4 leg-straps, 4 buckles No. 10 and 4 standing-loops, sewed to the body: the billet-ends pass through slits in the body; 1 foot-strap, sewed to the bottom of the body, at both ends; 1 plate, (iron,) 0.1 inch thick, riveted to the body with five rivets.  My reproduction comes from Border States Leatherworks.

Leg Guard full view

A leg guard on a drivers leg



A). Saber. The M- 1840 artillery saber was in service twenty years before the War (and forty years thereafter) and was available from prewar stocks and wartime manufacture. I have seen a few examples of drivers wearing the M-1840 saber and the M-1850 Cavalry saber. It seems, at least for a driver's impression, a valid accoutrement.

Examples of a M-1840 Light Artillery Saber and a M1850 Light Cavalry Saber


B). Handguns Although the general knowledge holding that enlisted artillery men were ordered to turn-in their hand weapons in 1862 is true. This does not seem to hold true for the driver.  It is safe to say a pistol or revolver was a necessary tool. Just as the mahout carried a mallet to drive a stake into the brain of a war elephant gone berserk, so the driver had to be prepared to dispatch a crazed or wounded artillery horse which, in its distress, could injure its other team members. Cutting the throat of such an excited animal would, even if feasible, have left long seconds of continued thrashing while the doomed beast pumped gallons of life's blood out of the wound, the odor of which alone would have crazed the other horses.  So, dispatching one with a pistol seems the most likely tool to do so. 

C). Knives. Another tool particularly useful in an emergency to the driver would be a knife. Many soldiers carried clasp knives, but it took two hands to get one open and the short blade was not able to chop or slash through heavy harness leather to cut a horse free as the easily one-handed belt or "side" knife carried by troops from both sides of the line. 

 Suggested Non Essential items used mostly for Living Histories:

 A). Valise. As described by the United States Army Ordnance Manual of 1861 is to be made of thick bridle-leather, a 1 piece body  and a 1 piece  body-lining, (cotton ticking,) pasted to the body; 2 ends, made of 2 thicknesses of leather, sewed together with one seam near the outer edge; 2 end-linings, (cotton ticking,) pasted to the ends; 1 inner flap, with 6 slits for wire staples sewed to the body, covering the mouth of valise; 1 strap, 1 chape and buckle No. 9, sewed to the opposite ends of body; the strap passes through the iron staples and holds down the inner flap; 6 iron-wire staples No. 8 pass through the body, are bent and held in place by a strip of leather sewed over their ends; 8 chapes and buckles No. 9, and 8 standing-loops, sewed to the body for the billets on the cover; 2 handles, (leather, rounded,) sewed into the ends between the two thicknesses; 2 loops, 1 inch wide, sewed to the bottom of the body, for the valise-straps to pass through; 1 cover; 1 cover-lining, larger than the, cover, sewed to it around its outer edge, forming a pocket: it has an opening in the middle, which is closed with strings: 1 binding, thin leather, sewed around the edge of cover; 8 billets, sewed to the cover to fasten it down. This item was strapped to the off horse saddle and a depository for the driver’s personal items instead of a knapsack or blanket roll.



B). Curry Comb.  As described by the United States Army Ordnance Manual of 1861 is to be made of iron, japanned black, a 1 piece body, (sheet iron, 0.4,) the top and bottom edges turned at right angles, forming 2 rows of teeth; 8 double rows of teeth riveted to the body by 6 rivets; 1 cross-bar, riveted across the top by 2 rivets; 1 handle-shank, riveted to the body by 8 rivets; 1 handle, (wood,) turned and painted, passes over the shank, and is held by the riveted end of the shank; 1 ferrule, sheet iron. Dimensions.--Length 4 inches, width 4.75 inches, thickness .75 inch; length of handle, 4 inches. Weight .75 lb. Used to groom the horse’s coat.


C). Nose Feed Bag.  As described by the United States Army Ordnance Manual of 1861 is made of a 1 piece body, (strong linen or cotton duck;) 1 bottom, (harness-leather,) 6 inches diameter, 4 inches deep, pressed in a mould, sewed to the body; 1 head strap with 1 buckle No. 8 and 1 standing-loop, sewed to top of the bottom, and fastened by 2 copper rivets No. 1; sewed to the top of the body and to an inside leather washer by the same seam, and fastened by 1 copper rivet No. 1; 1 head-strap billet, sewed to the top of the bottom, and fastened by 2 copper rivets No. 1; sewed to the top of the body and to an inside leather washer by the same seam, and fastened by 1 copper rivet No. 1. Width of bag at top, 15 inches; whole height, 15 inches. This was strapped over the horse’s nose to enable it to feed to of the bag.  Usually filled with oats.

D). Picket Pin As described by the United States Army Ordnance Manual of 1861 is to be made of iron, painted black. The parts are, the body, the neck, the head, the swell, the point, 1 lariat-ring around the neck, S-shaped, the larger opening for the lariat. Dimensions.--Length, 14 in.; diameter at swell, 4 in. from point, .75 in.; at neck, .5 in.; at head, 1 in. Lariat-ring, .2-in, wire, welded. Int. diameter, 1 inch. Weight of pin, 1.25 lbs.  This was pounded into the ground and used to hobble

E). Hoof Pick.  Half hammer half grooming tool.  This version is hinged in the middle for easy storage.  And was used to clear rocks and other debris from under the horse’s shoe.  The hammer end was for small repairs to the shoe.  My version comes from Border States Leatherworks.




Currently in our hobby there is a movement towards more authentic artillery.  Now, not all units are capable or have the means to become a fully mounted battery but this does not mean we should ignore this type of impression, their story needs to be told also.  Hopefully this article has shown how easy it would be to do the impression correctly and we may soon see more of them in the field.