View Full Version : " Prong up de shackasses "
05-25-2010, 10:43 AM
Admittedly not as knowledgeable about Artillery matters, this article in the June 24, 1862, Philadelphia Inquirer kinda threw me:
Major Thomas S. Richards of the First Pennsylvania Cavalry, paid a flying visit to his family, in Reading, on Wednesday last, after an absence of nearly six months, and left again next morning. As connected with his experience of military life, the Major relates the following incident:
One of General Fremont's batteries of eight Parrott guns, supported by a squadron of horse, commanded by the Major, was in a sharp conflict with a battery of the enemy near at hand, and shells and shot were flying thick and fast, when the commander of the battery, a German, one of Fremont's staff, rode suddenly up to the cavalry, exclaiming in loud and exited tones,
"Prong up de shackasses, prong up de shackasses, for Cot sake, hurry up de shackasses, im--me--di--ate--ly."
The necessity of this order, though not quite apparent to our readers, will be more obvious when we mention that the " shackasses " are mules carrrying mountain howitzers, which are fired from the backs of that much-abused but valuable animal, and the immediate occassion for the "shackasses' was that two regiments of rebel infantry were at that moment discovered in descending a hill immmediately behind our batteries. The "shackasses'with the howitzers loaded with grape and cannister, were soon on the ground. The mules squared themselves , as they well knew how, for the shock. A terrific volley was poured into the advancing column, which immediately broke and retreated. Two hundred and seventy-eight bodies were found in the ravine next day, piled closely together as they fell, the effects of that volley from the backs of the "shackasses."
Now this is a period account, purportedly a description by an eyewitness, albeit in a NEWSPAPER. ( I generally take "Press" accounts with a grain of salt.) But this has a ring of truth to it. Probably just my ignorance, but this is the first I've heard of the practice of firing howitzers from the backs of pack animals. And the article intimates that this was a common or accepted military practice of the day.
Anyone have any other instances of this, or maybe just care to enlighten me a bit?
Something in a manual perhaps?
No way. Our mountain howitzer recoils between 3 and 6 feet, and that's without a projectile. I don't know how much it weighs but certainly more than a mule could handle with it strapped to it's back. Nothing less than an elephant would be able to withstand the weight or those forces. It'd be like strapping a .44 to a chipmunk. "The mules squared themselves , as they well knew how, for the shock." Right. If by chance one could ever fire a howitzer that way, good luck talking a mule into doing it again.
Sorry, sounds like a whopper to me.
05-25-2010, 12:11 PM
I did find this. Notice that it is "claimed " to be able to be fired from the back of a horse. In an emergency, I can see that happening. The Inquirer article notes the mules, "squared themselves for the shock, as well they knew how". So if the first is a reasonable possibility, then therefore might not at least some units made it a practical demonstration of arms?
Major Richards doesn't relate the date of this engagement ( other than it was previous to June 24,1862 ), but if anyone has the names of Fremont's German Staff officer/ Battery commanders in the general time frame, or ditto a list of engagements of the First Penn. Cav., I'd appreciate a heads up.
Just found another reference from 2nd Manassas;
On Aug.29, 1862, during the Second Battle of Bull Run at a critical point in the engagement when Hooker's troops were being hard-pressed by the Confederates "...stubbornly contesting the ground, some one shouted, 'Pring up the shack-asses.' Sure enough, up there came, at a shambling gait, a battery' of M1835 mountaini howitzers mounted on the backs of those animals. Hooker's men hurried up, laughing and shouting at the operation of this quaint battery'.
"What battery' is that?' 'The shackass pattery, py Gott,' savagely came the answer Get out mit der way', or we plows your hets off~ ' That battery' with the other artillery', opened with canister at short range on the advancing line of rebels, from the fringe of woods, and checked their advance..." Warren Lee Goss (Goss, Recollections of a Private, pg. 85)
Another German officer, or maybe the same fella...????
Yet another question to drive me nuts.
If you will pardon the pun; I believe this going to become a burr under my saddle ;)
Thanks in advance,
05-25-2010, 12:20 PM
You hear about "jackass batteries" a lot, but in general it seems the cannons were disassembled and packed on the back of the animals, not fired from them.
However, there's the classic story of the inventor and the cannon and the mule...
Here's (http://www.cgsc.edu/carl/resources/ftlvn/briefhist/briefhist.asp) one telling of it.
In 1853 an unknown inventor appeared at Fort Leavenworth with a muzzle-loading cannon which, according to his instructions, could be fired from the back of a pack mule. To fire this "self-propelled" artillery piece, the gunner had merely to point the posterior of the mule in the direction of the enemy and light the fuse. Of course, the most astute military mind could readily discern the implications of this new device as a "quantum jump" in mobile artillery.
Amidst considerable skepticism on the post commander's part, an agreement was struck to allow the "ordnance expert" to demonstrate his weapon on the bluff overlooking the Missouri River. An army mule served as the firing platform. The contractor attached the gun to the poor creature's back, postioned his tail toward the Big Muddy, and loaded the cannon. The post commander and his officer watched apprehensively as the fuse was lighted. The mule, aggravated by the sputtering noise emitted by the burning fuse at his rump, spun around for a better look. In so doing, he pointed the muzzle of the cannon in the direction of the spectators. They immediately took a reactive posture of self-defense. When the gun fired, the mule and cannon crashed down the bluff and into the river. After dusting himself off and regaining his composure, the post commander informed the "ordnance expert" that there were still some "bugs" in the weapon system, and he declared it unsuitable for adoption by the Army. Historical records make no mention of the actions, if any, taken to recover the cannon and its firing platform.
05-25-2010, 12:33 PM
Ah, yes, the infamous "shackass batteries." Bruce Catton discussed them at one point in his Army of the Potomac series. I recall a passage which caused me to burst into laughing which went something along the lines of a Federal infantryman watching an artillery battery, mounted with mules, being pulled into action. When the infantryman asked what for unit they were, one of the German officers repiled, "Ze shackass battery, by Cott! Now get out mit der vay or ve blow your hets off!"
05-25-2010, 12:35 PM
I read an account of a pre Civil War experiment, I believe it is in "The Cavalry Horse and his Pack", originally published in 1903 by Hudson-Kimberly Publishing Co.. Kansas City, MO. (at least that is what my copy states)
I can't remember who came up with the idea, but it was thought that the Mountain Howitzer, might in times of emergencies be fired from the pack saddle while still on the pack animals back. Provisions were made to better secure the tube to the saddle and to better secure the saddle to the pack animal. (in this case a Mule) The rim of a canyon/arroyo was selected and a date set for this demonstration to take place.
The pack mule was backed up to the canyon, tube loaded and primed (in this case with a fuse instead of the friction primer).
A rather large group of observers had been assembled to watch and evaluate this experiment. These observers had been formed in a large semicircle facing the mule and overlooking the canyon.
Now, it is important to note that from trunnions of a Mountain howitzer to muzzle is a shorter distance than from where these trunnions rest on the pack of the animal, and the length of the animals body. This translates to there being more mule rump extending beyond the muzzle than the mule will care for when the tube is detonated. This also means the priming vent will be near the pack animals head. The last note at this point is that no one has ever accused a mule of being stupid, and gotten away with it!
A pack animal handler has a hold of the lead to control the animal, the experiment is ready to begin, the fuse is lit.
The mule hears this hissing on his back and tries to turn his head to see what it is. The handler wont let him turn his head so the mule swings his backside around so he can see what this hissing is. Now, the Howitzer tube is pointing towards the gathered observers who scatter and dive for cover... the Howitzer goes off... the mule goes ballistic and is never seen or heard of again!
The general consensus from the observers was... Bad idea!
I know, it sounds more like a Laurel & Hardy skit.
05-25-2010, 01:45 PM
I read an account of a pre Civil War experiment,
See my post above for another version. The secondary source I found in a quick search for something like mule back fired cannon dates it to 1853 Fort Leavenworth. Anyone have a contemporary account? The story's all over the place in post-war and modern sources but I wonder when it spread and how well-known it was at the time of the war.
05-25-2010, 05:46 PM
Me, I think this was an attempt at Civil War humor for the newspapers. I just can't see the "shackasses" putting up with this sort of thing emergency or no!
The DoubtingThomases Mess
05-26-2010, 07:46 AM
Oh, I thought this thread was all about me.
05-26-2010, 07:56 AM
I'm no expert on animals, but I believe there's a reason mules were used to draw wagons rather than caissons and limber chests. They're a lot more nervous under fire than horses, and thus maybe smarter than both horses and men. Read Billings' chapter on the army mule and his description of bringing them under fire. This is something that people might have well known about at the time, which makes the very idea of mounting a gun on a jackass kind of funny to begin with -- the details of the joke just draw out the laugh.
05-26-2010, 08:34 AM
Another account of someone at least giving this a try;
When the piece was in battery, the ammunition mule stood 15 yards behind the gun; the other mules were lined up behind. The shafts were left near the right wheel, pointing to the rear. Incredibly, there are a few recorded cases of mountain howitzers being fired while still on the back of a mule. The terrified animals, frantically bucked or rolled on the ground trying to rid themselves of the cannons on their backs. One such incident happened at Fort Benton, Mont., in 1864, when some visiting Indians were given a demonstration of the firing of a cannon. A mountain howitzer, still on the back of a mule, was loaded and set to fire by means of a length of fuse instead of the usual friction primer. The hissing fuse scared the mule. Bystanders ran away, threw themselves to the ground, or even jumped into the nearby Missouri River as the panicked mule spun around, pointing the cannon in one direction, then another. Luckily, when the cannon fired, the mule's back was arched so that the shot slammed harmlessly into the ground nearby.
An excerpt from David A. Norris' "Confederate Gunners Affectionately Called Their Hard Working Little Mountain Howitzers 'Bull Pups' "
06-01-2010, 02:47 PM
I don't have the information in front of me @ present, but I know a similar idea was used by the Turks and those in the Mid-East and India as early as the 1500s. Swivel guns mounted onto Camels, Elephants and Oxen. Now a Swivel gun is a lot smaller than a Howitzer of course, and lighter too, but still... In WW2 I was told by my grandfather that in the Pacific (Philipines or China where ever he was stationed) they fixed fireable mahineguns to Elephants as well on a platform, not sure if that was true or not, old soldiers story??
May not be relivent, but just thought I would mention it.
Indeed I would imagine that the above w/ Mules would cause a terrible situation!
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