Artistic License and the French Artillery Park at Yorktown, A Case Study

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Karl G. Elsea

It is common for artists to use “artistic license” when painting historic events including American Revolutionary War art. The problem is this practice also

aids inaccuracies persisting. Here is one case study of one picture involving an historic event that is presented by the National Park Service (NPS) at Yorktown. Please note the staff is helpful and the grounds are beautiful. As for the severity of the problem, the reader can decide after reading the information.

The following picture is from the field at Yorktown where the French Artillery Park was located. The picture illustrates the idea of what an artillery park was.

The problem is this picture contains a number of images that are wrong. For example, the carriages, wagons, carts, and limbers should be painted light blue. The French Army artillery had been painted light blue prior to 1750. There is a lot of confusion to this day concerning gun and limber carriage colors. This confusion may have been generated by a current belief there was one French artillery color. The French used the color of the items to assist which department owned the material. The French Navy department [Ministry of Marine] was responsible for the colonies, including North America, and their cannon were on red carriages with, in all most all cases, iron barrels. The French Quartermaster’s department had their wagons were painted a brighter red. The French Army artillery was painted light blue with bronze barrels. Thus, the French Army barrels shown should appear to be “brass.”

Thanks to the meticulous work by Louise Nicolas van Blarenberghe the following picture is an example of the French Army artillery as it appeared in 1747. Notice the color of the carriages is light blue and the barrels bronze.

It is noteworthy to mention a related topic concerning French artillery that is often times confused; namely, that Valliere guns were on red carriages and Gribeauval carriages were on blue carriages. That is not correct. The argument between Valliere supporters and Gribeauval supporters involved the change in artillery systems and the artillery crew uniforms. Supporters of Valliere wanted to keep red waistcoats and red breeches whereas Gribeauval supporters wanted blue waistcoats and blue breeches. Valliere designed French army gun carriages were blue during the Seven Years War.

The harness shown in the “French Artillery Park” picture above is also wrong. The French harness had a large, distinctive hames from the 1740’s, or before, through the Napoleonic wars. The harness for the lined-up limbers, ammunition wagons, and carts is also missing from the picture. It is possible, although highly unlikely, the harness could be on the ground near the horses on their picket line. The picket line is not shown.

The limbers shown in the picture have a pole so the unit had to be the Auxonne Regiment of Artillery. That unit had Gribeauval designed carriages and limbers. Yet the gun carriages in the picture do not show the Gribeauval carriage profile. The other French artillery unit at Yorktown, the Metz artillery, had limbers with shafts because that unit still used four-pounder “a la suedoise” guns and carriages. The guns in the picture have quoins instead of an elevating gear and that is wrong, The Gribeauval elevating gear was a superior design. Also, in the picture the gun barrels should have aprons [vent covers]. Also missing are the implements for the guns.

Next, it would be impossible for a person to ride the limber as shown. Neither the Gribeauval limbers nor the limbers used with the Valliere guns had this capability. The pintle pin and gun carriage trail would cause a rider in that location great harm.

Another item of concern is the placement of the limber as to the gun in the picture. Normally, the limber would be attached or very close to the gun, or a minimum of fifteen feet away (probably more). The reason is that if the gun was fired the recoil would be six to eight feet and would thereby crash into the limber. The limber is in the way if a hasty firing were required. The Patriots learned this important lesson concerning an artillery park because at the battle of Brandywine the Patriots had to do a hasty retreat of their artillery park. The French would likely know this practice.

It is now time for the reader to decide. As for the author, for the casual observer the picture at Yorktown is probably adequate to convey the concept of an artillery park. However, for a more exacting observer, maybe the NPS could consider keeping a file on each piece of prominent art used at Yorktown with an associated errata sheet to aid future historians.

3 thoughts on “Artistic License and the French Artillery Park at Yorktown, A Case Study

  1. John Foskett

    This is an interesting piece. As an aside, do you know if there are records confirming how much/all of the French artillery at Yorktown was Gribeauval? I’ve seen a number of unsourced statements that Rochambeau brought at least mostly Gribeauval and that the guns supplied to the Americans commencing 1778 were Valliere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Karl Elsea

      Sorry for the long delay. I missed thIs reply.
      Robert Selig has performed excellent research on the French guns at Yorktown. He shows which guns were Gribeauval at Yorktown. The short answer is that the Metz artillery had eight light 4-pounders (Valliere) and the rest of the French artillery was Gribeauval.
      Hope this answers the question.

      Liked by 1 person

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