General Henry J. Hunt, Union Chief of Artillery

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023-2024, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the May 2024 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

For most of the Civil War the Union had an artillery advantage over the South for numerous reasons. Paramount among those many reasons, and especially for the Union Army of the Potomac, was the Chief of Artillery, General Henry J. Hunt. He made a big difference in organizational philosophy for the entirety of the North’s artillery arm, but most decisively in his battlefield exploits for the Army of the Potomac, especially at the Battles of Malvern Hill, Antietam, and Gettysburg and also the siege of Petersburg. None other than the incomparable Mr. Ed Bearss, Historian Emeritus, U.S. National Park Service, in his book Fields of Honor called General Henry J. Hunt “one of the Civil War’s premier artillerists.”

Henry Hunt

Henry Hunt was born in Detroit, Michigan to Samuel Hunt, who attended West Point but did not graduate. Henry Hunt was the nephew and namesake of Henry Jackson Hunt, the second mayor of Detroit, and the grandson of Colonel Thomas Hunt, who served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Young Henry was on an expedition with his father when Fort Leavenworth was founded in what would become the Kansas Territory. Henry Hunt, like his father, attended West Point and graduated in 1839. Hunt then joined the artillery and served in the Mexican-American War, where he took part in most of its major battles. Later Hunt was posted to Kansas Territory in 1856, commanded artillery, and helped protect polling places during territorial legislature elections.

The barracks at Fort Leavenworth in 1858

Having earned the reputation as an artillery expert, Hunt was one of three authors who wrote the revised army manual “Instructions for Field Artillery.” The War Department made it the principal artillery manual in 1861, and it was used throughout the Civil War on both sides. When the war began, Hunt commanded a battery of artillery at the First Battle of Bull Run and helped to cover the Union Army’s retreat. Afterward, he was assigned to the artillery in defense of Washington, D.C.

Having known General George B. McClellan since the Mexican-American War and being that Hunt shared many of the same political sentiments and military thinking, Hunt met with McClellan subsequent to Little Mac’s arrival in Washington after McClellan’s Alleghenies Campaign. Edward G. Longacre, in his book The Man Behind the Guns, states, “Little Mac reciprocated (Hunt’s) cordiality, and at once made known his desire to attach Hunt to his staff as soon as possible…organization began to assume definite shape…uniformity of cannon caliber within each battery…3 guns per every 1,000 infantry…six pieces as standard content for each battery. Hunt’s guiding influence was most evident in additional principles that called for the organization of an artillery reserve and a siege train. Both would remain his pet projects throughout the conflict…the artillery reserve would be …initially of one hundred guns…A siege train would serve for stationary operations when time permitted the emplacement of the heaviest (pieces) and…of those cannon able to be lugged into the field…Hunt considered a siege train almost an indispensable part of the (army)…when operating in an enemy’s country.” The 30 guns present under Hunt’s command in Washington after Bull Run soon blossomed to 520 by the spring of 1862, and this large number of artillery pieces required the full use of Hunt’s considerable administrative skills.

In March 1862 Little Mac’s army disembarked at Fortress Monroe, and Hunt’s siege train was soon employed in the Peninsula Campaign. But it was mostly against a phantom enemy, since McClellan fell for a defensive ruse concocted by Confederate General John McGruder. However, at the end of the Seven Days Battles at Malvern Hill, Hunt’s philosophy of employing the artillery reserve paid off. L. Van Loan Naisawald states in his book Grape and Canister: The Story of the Field Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, “the Union position ran along the cleared crest of the north face of Malvern Hill…the bulk of Colonel Hunts’s Artillery Reserve batteries were…near the Malvern house. Some one hundred guns were employed.” They first defeated opposing Confederate batteries in a preliminary artillery duel and then decimated the rebels’ subsequent infantry assaults, with hardly any assistance from Union infantry. Again from the book Grape and Canister, the author states, “The attack was broken…Several Confederate divisions had been wrecked before the fire of the twenty-five-odd Blue batteries.”

Soon thereafter, Hunt’s massed batteries were authoritatively employed on Stafford Heights on the north side of the Rappahannock River during the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. After the Battle of South Mountain, Hunt was promoted by Little Mac to Chief of Artillery, and Hunt arranged for McClellan what Little Mac called his “pieces of position” for his signature victory at the Battle of Antietam (as discussed in the history brief of December 2021). Located not far from the Pry House on the bluffs rising over the east bank of Antietam Creek, the large-caliber weapons in part caused Curt Johnson and Richard C. Anderson Jr. to name their artillery book on the Battle of Antietam Artillery Hell. The authors state, “the mass of guns, about 75 in number, many of them 20 lb. Parrott rifles, of Hunt’s artillery reserve…some 3,000 yards from (Stonewall) Jackson’s position northeast…of the Dunker Church…had an enfilade fire on Jackson’s lines, an advantage which they utilized to the full by a constant heavy fire.”

Four cannons on the Chancellorsville battlefield

Prior to Chancellorsville, Hunt ran afoul of General Joseph Hooker, who severed Hunt’s direct command of the artillery reserve. The resultant confusion and lack of coordination in the placement of the Union batteries, combined with the withdrawal from key artillery positions near Hazel Grove and Fairview Knoll, ceded tactical artillery advantage to the Confederates and contributed significantly to the embarrassing Union defeat. Regretting this, Hooker restored Hunt to his command three days into the battle, but that was too late.

It was good for the North and for General Hunt that President Abraham Lincoln replaced General Hooker with General George Meade, just in time for the Battle of Gettysburg. Meade respected Hunt and gave him wide authority for placement of artillery, and especially the reserve artillery. Such confidence was critical, for example on day two of the battle, when Meade sent Hunt to intervene when General Daniel Sickles pushed out his salient near the Peach Orchard. The rascal Sickles largely ignored Hunt. However, Hunt’s visit importantly resulted in adroit battery positioning that fully utilized the terrain for optimal effect. These batteries were crucial in holding the Union position on the south edge of the fish hook-shaped line of defense against General James Longstreet’s corps.

George Meade and his staff
Henry Hunt is standing in the entrance to the tent.

On day three at Gettysburg, Hunt became the indispensable man during Pickett’s Charge by placing artillery batteries in the vicinity of the copse of trees and on the flanks as far away as Little Round Top, which gave the Union enfilading fire over the coming rebel charge. Hunt also throttled back the Union rate of counter-battery fire to preserve ammunition for the upcoming rebel infantry assault. Fairfax Downey, in his famous book The Guns at Gettysburg, summed it up by stating, “The record of blue guns at Gettysburg stands as an enduring tribute to the organizing and commanding genius of General Henry Jackson Hunt. By his provision of ammunition and by his brilliant tactics, particularly in the use of guns from the Reserve, he proved himself a great Chief of Artillery, unsurpassed in American history.”

A cannon on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg looking toward Seminary Ridge

Toward the end of the Overland Campaign, after crossing the James River, General Ulysses Grant put Hunt in full charge of siege operations in the Army of the Potomac’s last major fight. By the end of the war, Hunt was promoted to major general. Hunt retired from the service in 1883 and was made governor of the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, also known as Lincoln’s Cottage (the focus of the history brief of October 2023). Hunt passed away in the Soldiers’ Home in 1889 and is buried in the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery.

Related links:
McClellan’s “Pieces of Position” at Antietam
Lincoln’s Cottage

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