The Dictator Mortar

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The "Dictator" on flatcar near Petersburg, Va. (Matthew Brady, 1864) LOC Collection.
  • Type: 13-inch Seacoast Mortar
  • Tube Composition: Iron
  • Bore Diameter: 13 inches
  • Standard Powder Charge: 20 lbs.
  • Projectiles: 220 lb. Mortar Shell
  • Tube Length: 53 inches
  • Tube Weight: 17,120 lbs
  • Effective Range (at 45°): 4,325 yards
  • US Casting Foundry: Fort Pitt, Pittsburg, Pa. 1862
  • Current Disposition: Unknown
  • Special Notes: Cast at the Fort Pitt Foundry in 1862 by Mr. Charles Knapp, the Dictator was used for a short time in the summer and fall of 1864 during the siege operations in front of Petersburg, VA.

The 13 inch Mortar was intended for seige and fortifications and not field work. The Dictator, weighing in at 17,120 lbs. was made portable for limited field use during the Seige of Petersburg by being mounted on a railroad car, specially strengthened with extra beams and iron rods to withstand the strain of firing. The mortar was placed on the car and run up the tracks from City Point along the City Point and Petersburg Railroad, to a point in the ravine in rear of what is now generally known as Battery No. 5, near the Jordan House, a side track from the main road being constructed especially for the purpose of moving the Dictator.

The men of Company G of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, served the Dictator. A curve in the tracks allowed the Dictator's gunners to stay mobile and adjust the plane of fire. The power of this weapon was enough to shatter most field magazines and bomb-proofs, and it is credited with causing the Confederate gunners to withdraw their attempts at enfilade fire along the right of the Union line.

The Dictator fired a shell weighing 218 lbs., with a charge of 20 lbs. of powder. At an angle of 45 degrees the range is set down in the Ordinance Manual at 4,325 yds., but, if it is true that the shell thrown by the Dictator reached Centre Hill, in Petersburg, then it must have been carried at least 2.7, miles, or 4,752 yds.

Here is an Exerpt about the Dictator from "The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865", by Noah A. Trudeau. (Little Brown and Company, Boston: 1991), pages 291-2.

"Soldiers on both sides hated the mortars. 'These mortar shells were the most disgusting, low-lived things imaginable,' declared W. W. Blackford, a Confederate engineer. 'There was not a particle of the sense of honor about them; they would go rolling about and prying into the most private places in a sneaking sort of way.' 'Mortar shells fly into the works occasionally,' a Maine soldier confirmed, 'at which times we get out in double-quick time.' Added a Georgia infantryman, 'Old veterans can never forget the noise those missiles made as they went up and came down like an excited bird, their shrieks becoming shriller and shriller, as the time to explode approached.'"
"A soldier in the 35th Massachusetts described a mortar attack: 'In the daytime the burst of smoke from the Confederate mortars could be seen; a black speck would dart into the sky, [and] hang a moment, increasing in size, rolling over and over lazily, and the revolving fuze [would begin] to whisper audibly, as it darted towards us, at first, softly, "I'm a-coming, I'm a-coming"; then louder and more angrily, "I'm coming! I'm coming!;" and, at last, with an explosion to crack the drum of the ear, "I'm HERE!"
"Mortar batteries alternated with tubed guns all along the front. Some artillery even acquired nicknames: one seven-gun siege battery just south of Fort Morton was called the Seven Sisters, while Union soldiers referred to several different artillery pieces as The Petersburg Express, most notably the thirteen-inch heavy mortar that was also know as the Dictator. This gun, the only one of its size at Petersburg, went into action on July 9, and remained active until September, firing 218 times, from various positions. 'It made the ground quake," one infantryman swore.'"

The current whereabouts of the Dictator are unknown, this famous weapon may no longer survive. Its oft-repeated identification as the 13-inch Mortar, No. 95, at Hartford, Connecticut may be false, as that piece does not match the recorded weight of the Dictator.

The "Dictator" and Crew, Petersburg, Va. (Alexander Gardner, 1864) NARA Collection.