The Seacoast Mortar called “The Dictator” at the Siege of Petersburg 1864

Civil War seacoast mortars were very large mortars used defensively in fixed fortifications  and in coast and river defense. They were also used in siege operations and occasionally in other offensive endeavors. The largest mortar in the Federal arsenal was the 13 inch seacoast mortar, so named for the size of the weapon’s bore. Perhaps the  most famous individual 13 inch mortar was one used at the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1864. Union soldiers gave this weapon the nickname “The Dictator”.

Cast in a foundry in Pittsburgh, the Dictator weighed in at 17,120 pounds. Thirteen inch mortars were difficult to move due to their size and were transported by ships and by rail. At Petersburg, the Dictator was placed on a specially reinforced railroad flatcar and run along a spur line of the City Point and Petersburg Railroad into various firing positions. The flatcar also served as a firing platform.

The Dictator used a 20 pound gunpowder charge to fire a 220 pound shell. The range of the mortar was 4235 yards when fired at a 45 degree angle of elevation, although one round is reported to have gone over 4750 yards. The flatcar recoiled 10 to 12 feet when the mortar was fired.

Dictator Mortar in Position at Petersburg

The Dictator was served by Company G of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery Regiment and it went into action for the first time on July 9th. The Dictator lobbed shells into the city of Petersburg, but its primary target was a Confederate artillery battery across the Appomattox River called the Chesterfield Battery. “This 13 inch mortar was used principally  against what was known as the ‘Chesterfield Battery,’ which from the left bank of [the] river, completely enfiladed our batteries on the right; all our direct fire seemed to have no effect.  From this mortar was the only fire that seemed to hold the battery in check” wrote the regimental historian of the 1st Connecticut.

After firing five rounds on July 11th, the recoil of the mortar broke the flatcar it was sitting on, despite the flatcar’s reinforcement with iron rods and plates. The car was repaired and reinforced more, and the mortar returned to action.

During the Battle of the Crater on July 30th, the Dictator fired 19 rounds in support of the Union attack. One shell took out a cannon in the Chesterfield Battery, and another shell killed eight to ten men at the same location.

The Dictator remained in service at Petersburg though September,  firing a total of 218 rounds. This unusual mortar on a flatcar arrangement also was a favorite subject of photographers covering the war at Petersburg, making it one of the more famous individual weapons of the conflict.

Despite it’s fame during it’s relatively short time in service, the exact fate of The Dictator is unknown, but it was probably sold as scrap iron at some point after the war.  Today, a similar 13” seacoast mortar from the Civil War era is on display at Petersburg National Battlefield, at the same place where the actual weapon was located during the siege.

Dictator Exhibit at Petersburg National Battlefield


  • Arms and Equipment of the Civil War by Jack Coggins.  Mineola, NY:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1990.
  • History of the First Connecticut Artillery by John C. Taylor.  Hartford, CT:  Press of the Case , Lockwood, and Brainerd Co, 1893
  • The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau.  Boston, MA:  Little, Brown, and Co., 1991.
  • Staff Ride Handbook for the Overland Campaign, Virginia, 4 May to 15 June 1864:  A Study in Operational Level Command by Dr. Curtis S. King, Dr. William Glenn Robertson, and Steven E. Clay.  Fort Leavenworth, KS:  Combat Studies Institute Press, 2009.
  • The War of the Rebellion:  A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.  Volume XL Part 1.  Washington, DC:  U.S. War Department, 1881-1901.

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12 Responses

  1. Greg degan says:

    My father was a well known relic hunter. Be spent most of his time digging in the dinwiddie colonial heights, petersburg area. He passed away 5 years ago and left me two fragments of a dictator ball he dug out around petersburg ,colonial heights line.. I have wondered why he left me these two items.. Are they rare, valuable or strictly emmotional? Are there many frags? I would think not but i am just not quite sure. Thank you..

    • Mark says:

      Civil War relics vary in value depending on a lot of factors. If you are curious as to how much those fragments might be worth, you’ll need to have an expert examine them. Be sure to show him/her any documentation you have about where your father found them and any other information he had about the pieces.

    • Daniel says:

      I’m not sure of the value, but I have found a fragment of a dictator shell. 112 pounds of one.

  2. Kenneth Fitzgibbon says:

    I last heard that the Dictator was on the lawn of the Connecticut capital as a tribute to the 1st Conn Artillery and civil war vet’s

    • Mark says:

      I haven’t heard that, but if it’s true, that would be an appropriate location for it.

    • Paul Pomeroy says:

      From the Hartford, Connecticut website:
      Petersburg Express (seacoast mortar). Location: State Capitol grounds (southeast
      corner). Designer and Builder: Stephen Maslen (pedestal base). Dedicated
      September 25, 1902.
      The Petersburg Express is a 13” seacoast mortar mounted on a carriage. It was
      used in the Battle of Petersburg in the Civil War by the First Connecticut Heavy
      Artillery (originally the Fourth Connecticut Infantry). It is set on a granite pedestal,
      with inset bronze plaques.
      The monument is dedicated to the men of the First Connecticut Heavy Artillery,
      which was the first volunteer regiment sworn into U.S. service for the Civil War. On
      the day of its dedication, a grand parade was held which included many veterans of
      the regiment. Many civic offices and businesses closed for the duration of the parade
      and dedication ceremony, including offices at the Capitol and at the Hall of Records;
      the Sage Allen department store; the Hartford Post Office, and the Wadsworth
      Atheneum building, which included the Connecticut Historical Society, the Watkinson
      Library, the Hartford Public Library and the Hartford Scientific Society collections.∗
      The monument was arranged for by the survivors and friends of the First
      Connecticut Heavy Artillery

  3. Bobby Houchins says:

    I have pieces of shrapnel that are quite thick. I am wondering if they might be from Dictator. What is the thickness of the mortar?

    • Mark says:

      The Dictator fired round 220 pound projectiles that fit in the mortar’s 13 inch diameter bore, so it could produce some pretty big chunks of shrapnel. If it was recovered from a location that was shelled by the Dictator, then I suppose it would be possible, although I don’t know how it could be proven.

  4. Jay Ricketts says:

    If your shrapnel piece includes a significant size piece of the outer curvature of the mortar ball. With a piece of cardboard carefully trim the cardboard so that it matches the outer smooth curvature of your fragment piece. When you have carefully trimmed the cardboard use the cardboard template to mark the exact curvature on another piece of carboard. Now all you need is a large compass with a pencil taped on one leg. Adjust the compass/pencil so that your compass follows the penciled curvature exactly. Then carefully measure the distance from point to pencil tip and if it is close to 6.5″ radius you have a Dictator 13″ diameter mortar round.
    I know this works as I have used it on numerous air burst fragments from Vicksburg. 404-329-9746.

  5. Cauthon says:

    In 1962 there was a mortar of that type on display outside the Armory on Academy Street in Oneonta, New York. By the 1970’s it had been disappeared somewhere else. I never asked anybody what happened to it, I just drove by, expecting to find it still there and show my children something interesting, and did not find it. The Armory is still there and open for visitors, so maybe somebody would have more information. There is a little more information about the site on Google Maps.

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