Henry Hunt was the great gunner general of the Civil War. He was too stuffy and conservative, too stiff, too "Old Army" to ever be popular with his men, but his prompt action and decisive direction of the artillery arm of the Army of the Potomac had already been crucial to several battles in the two years before Gettysburg.
Hunt had a genius for organization, and his keen knowledge of the science of gunnery drew admiration even--perhaps especially--from his Confederate foes, who ruefully considered the Union artillery the best in the world. Hunt believed in dense salvos of gunfire from massed batteries, amply supplied. At the same time, however, he sternly preached that each gun crew should fire sparingly, taking the time to carefully acquire a target before each shot. Even in the hottest action, he considered a gun firing at a rate quicker than one round every two minutes to be firing wildly, wasting ammunition. (One story told about him was that when one of his artillery officers appealed for more ammunition in the midst of a battle, Hunt scolded him, "Young man, are you aware that every round you fire costs $2.67?") A crew that fired up all its ammunition was probably just anxious to hitch up the guns and head rearward, he thought, so he forbade any battery to retire just because the chests were empty; batteries were required to send the caissons back for resupply and then sit under fire--every man at his post--while they waited for it to return. He liked to focus every available gun on one Confederate battery at a time, and when that one was pulverized move on to the next.
Hunt was born into a military family in the frontier outpost which was Detroit in 1819 (he would be forty-four at Gettysburg). As an eight-year-old boy, he accompanied his father, an infantry officer, on the expedition that established Fort Leavenworth. Orphaned at age ten, he graduated from West Point at twenty and chose the artillery arm of the service. He earned fame for his bravery a few years later in the Mexican War, when he ran his field piece right up to an enemy cannon and destroyed it in a muzzle-to-muzzle duel. By 1856, he was already one of the most distinguished authorities on the gunner's art in the Regular Army, chosen as a member of a three-man board to review light artillery tactics. The report of the board was adopted in 1860 and served as the "bible" for artillerymen on both sides in the Civil War.
After the Civil War began, Hunt made himself conspicuous in its first battle, heroically covering the retreat of the Union army from an exposed position with his four-gun battery at Bull Run. By the time of the Peninsula Campaign the next spring, he was already the new Army of the Potomac's top gunner, commander of its Artillery Reserve. At the end of that campaign, at Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862, he directed his massed, well-sited guns "as if he were an organist pulling the stops" according to one admirer, causing such slaughter to the Rebel attackers that the battle was won almost without the aid of the infantry.
Hunt was promoted to brigadier general in September 1862, and made Chief of Artillery by commanding Maj. Gen. George McClellan in the middle of the Maryland Campaign. An immediate indication of Hunt's value to the Union army was the nickname the Confederate veterans gave to the climactic Battle of Antietam on September 17: "Artillery Hell."
At the army's next battle, Fredericksburg, in December, Hunt spent a week or more posting 140 guns in a line on the Stafford Heights on the Union side of the Rappahannock River. It was Hunt's intimidating array which deterred Lee's army from any thought of counterattacking the decimated and otherwise vulnerable blue infantry formations as they staggered away from their disastrous assault on the Rebel stronghold.
The army's next commander, Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker, for some reason had an unfortunate antipathy to Hunt, and stripped him of his command of the guns, leaving him with only administrative duties. This cost the Federal army dearly at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, where the traditional advantages in the quality and volume of fire of the Yankee batteries were squandered through mismanagement, a fact that was missed by nobody. A sadder, wiser Hooker restored Hunt to his active battlefield role on the third day of the battle, but by that time Hooker was already beaten and preparing to retreat.
Thus, as the Army of the Potomac headed toward Pennsylvania in the early summer of 1863, Hunt's value was freshly vindicated and universally acknowledged. When Maj. Gen. George Meade took command three days before Gettysburg, the army had a new chief who was very much like Hunt--thoroughly professional and rather stiff. Although the two generals were not great friends, Hunt appreciated the fact that the new commander was "a gentleman" (unlike Hooker before him), and Meade returned the respect by employing Hunt as a surrogate on the battlefield, a man whose opinion Meade sought often and whose judgment he trusted implicitly.
| On July 1, after spending the entire first day of the battle in the
rear at army headquarters in Taneytown, Hunt received an order from Meade
sometime after 7:00 P.M. to move the Artillery Reserve to Gettysburg, an act
which effectively committed the Army of the Potomac to battle there. Hunt
himself rode to Gettysburg with Meade's small party of seven that night,
leaving around 10:00 and arriving on Cemetery Hill at 11:30.|
At about 2:00 in the early morning on July 2, Hunt and Meade rode south along the army's line in the moonlight, from Cemetery Ridge to near Little Round Top, then to the army's right, where the Baltimore Pike crossed Rock Creek. Having scouted the excellent defensive ground the army stood on, Meade instructed Hunt to continue to study the terrain and supervise the placement of the army's artillery. By 10:30 that morning, the efficient Hunt had 108 cannon from the Artillery Reserve on hand, as well as an extra supply of ammunition in wagons that even Meade didn't know about, a supply from which all the army's batteries would borrow gratefully in the days ahead.
A little after 10:00 A.M., as he returned to army headquarters from Culp's Hill, Hunt was introduced into one of the great controversies of the battle--between Meade and Third Corps's Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles--over the placement of the Third Corps. Sickles was worried about his corps's position on the army's left, and Meade declined to go over the ground with him personally, sending Hunt instead. Sickles pointed out to Hunt the advanced position he wanted to take, on the high ground along the Emmitsburg Road, about three-quarters of a mile in front of his assigned position. When Sickles asked if he should advance to the new line, Hunt shook his head: "Not on my authority." A cannonade had opened up back on Cemetery Hill which sounded like it deserved his attention, and Hunt rode away, making a point to go by headquarters and tell Meade of the line Sickles proposed. Later, Hunt rode back out to Sickles's line--which Sickles had by that time advanced, without permission--and readied the artillery for the attack which was about to be made against that front. When the Confederate attack commenced, Hunt went to the end of Sickles's line at Devil's Den, where one of his batteries was posted. After conferring with the officer there, Hunt, who had dismounted, was nearly trampled in a bizarre stampede of terror-stricken cattle when he tried to make his way back to his horse. He remained to direct his guns in the desperate fighting on Sickles's sector for the rest of the afternoon.
That night, Hunt worked with General Tyler of the Artillery Reserve and their assistants repairing damage, refilling ammunition chests, and reorganizing decimated batteries, getting the guns ready for service by the next morning. At dawn on July 3, when the Twelfth Corps batteries opened the battle on Culp's Hill, Hunt was there to help direct their fire. When the fighting on the hill eased in late morning, he went to Cemetery Hill to inspect the batteries there, and observed the Confederate artillery buildup in plain view on the ridges to the west, which he allowed to proceed while he accepted what amounted to an "artillery truce."
At 1:00 that afternoon, when Hunt was on Little Round Top resting from his morning's inspection, the 150-gun Confederate cannonade commenced, aimed at the Union defenders on Cemetery Ridge, the target for "Pickett's Charge" scheduled for later in the afternoon. Hunt rode back to the Artillery Reserve to see about fresh batteries and ammunition, then trotted to Cemetery Ridge. While the shells hissed and exploded among his batteries, Hunt moved up and down the line, checking the condition of his guns and crews and making sure they fired slowly and deliberately. After an hour or so, in spite of his efforts at conservation, ammunition began to run low. It occurred to Hunt that if the Union batteries ceased firing, the Rebels might be fooled into thinking the time had come for the infantry assault, so he rode along the ridge ordering his guns to go silent. Soon, about 3:00 P.M., the Confederate batteries stopped firing and the mile-long lines of Pickett's Charge appeared. Hunt did not react quickly, but his batteries which had fired slowly during the artillery duel and still had long-range ammunition in their chests, punished the attackers' flanks mercilessly. (In the middle, where Hancock's batteries were facing them head-on, the Confederates were relatively safe, because Hancock had ordered the guns under his command to keep blasting away during the cannonade to inspirit the infantry. Those were now out of shot and shell.) At the climax of the attack, as the Southerners clambered over the wall and closed in on one of his batteries, Hunt appeared among the guns on horseback, firing his revolver into the Rebels until he went down, pinned beneath his dead horse. Pulled free, he mounted his sergeant's horse and spurred off.
The battle was over soon afterward. Hunt continued as the indispensable chief of artillery for the rest of the war, but the last two years of the conflict offered few opportunities for spectacular employment of artillery. Hunt got along well with Grant, who put him in charge of the Petersburg siege operations starting in the June 1864.
For further reading:
Longacre, Edward G. The Man Behind the Guns. South Brunswick, 1977
_____, "The Soul of Our Artillery." Civil War Times Illustrated 12, Jun 1973