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A weapon on the decline
Achargeof traditional cavalry is normally led at a walk, the horses gradually shifting to a trot, then a gallop, only in the last few hundred meters before contact with the enemy. It is indeed important to take care of the mounts, as a regiment may have to charge up to ten or twelve times in the same day. The two greatest enemies of the cavalry are artillery, whose cannon balls and grape can cause significant losses, and the square infantry formation, which proves to be practically impossible to break if its cohesion is not had previously been reduced by an artillery preparation.
Charges conducted in this manner could be successful as long as the opposing infantry was armed with smooth flintlock muskets. The "deadly zone In which the musketry was really a threat did not exceed a few tens of meters; When faced with galloping horsemen, infantrymen could generally only fire a single shot before contact. This was no longer the case when the infantry was equipped with rifled rifles firing Minié bullets and supported from a distance by modern artillery.
The Crimean War had already provided a serious warning in previous years - through one of the most famous episodes of this conflict, the famous "charge of the light brigade ". This British cavalry unit had been decimated by the crossfire of Russian artillery and infantry when charging, during the Battle of Balaklava (25 October 1854), a battery covered on its flanks by other guns. Pounded and pulled from three sides, the brigade had lost 40% of its strength in less than half an hour.
He was now almostsuicidalto launch a cavalry charge against a well-supported infantry line and, as was to be more and more the case during the Civil War, well entrenched. Square formation, previously the best defense for infantry against cavalry, was no longer even necessary. Infantry fire could decimate a cavalry charge even before it made contact. Already unaccustomed to using it, the cavalry commanders avoided resorting to this dangerous tactic as often as possible.
The few times they did not, the outcome was often fatal. During the fighting of July 3, 1863 inGettysburgNorthern General Elon Farnsworth was ordered by his superior, Hugh Kilpatrick, to carry out a charge with his cavalry brigade. He refused, and did not comply until Kilpatrick called him cowardice. Farnsworth died with many of his cavalry riddled with bullets, shot down as if on practice by Southern snipers in an action which one of the Confederate officers present described as "parody of war ". The successful charge of J.E.B. Stuart in Bull Run (July 21, 1861), much more psychological than real, owes it only to his own circumstances - by accidentally running into retreating troops - that he did not turn into disaster.
Outside such occasions, cavalry charges were only likely to succeed against ... other cavalry units. This still required the target to be mounted itself, as the fire from the breech-loading rifles could mow down the attacker as quickly as infantry fire. However, such mounted cavalry combats remained quite rare, and were often the result of fortuitous encounters. The Battle of Brandy Station (June 9, 1863), the war's largest cavalry engagement with nearly 20,000 combatants, provided several opportunities.
Riders ... on foot
Paradoxically, the cavaliers of the Civil War would most often fight ...walk. Horses were used much more often as a means of transport than as actual war mounts. The background of the American cavalry was not for nothing. She was used to employing tactics aimed at moving on horseback and then fighting on foot. The two regiments of dragoons existing before the war were equipped and trained to fight, mounted or not, traditional use of this troop. The mounted infantry regiment, as the name suggests, only used the horse for movement. As for the two cavalry regiments, armed only with sabers and revolvers, they had not been formed until 1855 and corresponded more to a search for savings than to a real tactical choice.
The cavalry officers were anywayused to fighting like this. Except on rare occasions, such as the War with Mexico (1846-48), American horsemen had spent most of the previous decades confronting Native Americans. In the face of the sparse formations employed by the latter, the mass effect which was the usual advantage of mounted cavalry was of no use. In contrast, the vast, roadless and often mountainous spaces of the Far West required mobility that only cavalry possessed. It was therefore quite natural to move on horseback and then fight on foot.
Several deployments are then possible. The most common is the line ofskirmishers: The dismounted cavalrymen form a line of spaced soldiers, in the same way as the infantry. The main problem here is what to do with the horses. The riders can continue to hold them by the bridle: if it has the advantage of allowing all the soldiers to fight, and to get back in the saddle quickly if necessary, it is however impractical because it is not obvious to aim and shoot correctly with the rifle while holding the reins of a horse more or less stressed by the sounds of combat.
The other solution is therefore to entrust the horses to the guard of a detachment remaining behind. The downside to this practice is that it easily immobilizes up to one in four soldiers, further reducing the effective combat power of the unit in question. If necessary, a line could even be formed in close ranks, similar to that of the infantry. The major difference was that the smaller size of their rifles, and their reloading being done more and more frequently by the breech, allowed the riders toenjoy more cover provided by the field. It was in fact easier for them to reload their weapons while lying down or with one knee on the ground, which was not easy with the long infantry rifles.
However, the very armament of the horsemen made it difficult for them to stand up to the infantry in this type of combat. Ballistically, cavalry rifles were generallylowerin range and in precision with infantry rifles. Under certain circumstances, however, the cavalry were able to use their best use of the terrain, flexibility, and the superior rate of fire of their weapons to hold their own against the opposing infantry. During the first hours of the Battle of Gettysburg, the 1er In July 1863, General Buford's northern cavalry division thus gained precious time which enabled the remainder of the Federal Army to arrive on time on the battlefield.
A new strategic job
The employment of the cavalry evolved not only tactically, but alsoat the operational and strategic level. Deprived of the shock power that had until then been its primary focus on the battlefield, the cavalry would focus on missions that were previously theirs, and others more unheard of. In this context, it was mobility that was to be its main asset. If the Confederation was to see the possibilities offered by this new job fairly quickly, the Union was going to be slow to follow it down this path.
When the Civil War broke out, the Federal Army did not consider giving the cavalry a major role. The volunteer regiments are almost all infantry, and few mounted units are formed. The companies taken from the regiments of the regular army are considered sufficient for the missions they will have to carry out:reconnaissance, escort and liaison. This certainty is so anchored in the Northerner command that it was even considered for a time to rearm all the existing regiments on the model of the light cavalry, with armament limited to sabers and revolvers. It is with this in mind that the regular regiments of dragoons, mounted infantry and cavalry will all be renamed and renumbered in August 1861. However, rifles quickly proved too useful to be spared, and were gradually distributed to all units.
As a consequence of this approach, during the first months of the war, the Northern cavalry regiments were hardly ever employed as such. Most often, their companies werescatteredacross the different echelons of the military; they were sometimes grouped into battalionsad hoc. Brigades, divisions and army corps were assigned these detachments according to their needs to conduct reconnaissance, provide escort to staffs, or provide protection to supply convoys.
The Southerners, for their part, very quickly had a different view of the employment of the cavalry. They quickly understood that grouped and led independently, cavalry units could have a much greater impact on the development of operations. One of the precursors of this doctrine wasTurner Ashby, whose cavalry regiment played a decisive role in Stonewall Jackson's success in his famous "Valley Campaign" in early 1862. Ashby briefed Jackson on enemy forces and their movements, while providing him with a screen of cavalry which prevented the Northerners from knowing its actual numbers and intentions.
Nicknamed "the Dark Knight of Confederation" because of his romantic image and his habit of riding all-black horses, Ashby was killed on June 6, 1862 in rearguard action at Good's Farm. However, he was going to be emulated. A few days later, General Lee confided to J.E.B. Stuart most of his army's cavalry and sent him off to conduct a large reconnaissance operation. Stuart not only acquitted himself of it, but he entirely bypassed the Northerner army which threatened Richmond, looting almost unopposed for a whole month its rear and supply depots, during arideas daring as it is spectacular.
From then on, the cavalry, grouped in divisions or even autonomous corps, would prove particularly effective in threatening the supply of enemy forces. Theraidson the opposing rear were going to multiply, and several Confederate generals were going to excel in this field. This was especially true in the West, where stretching northern lines of communication made them particularly vulnerable to this type of action. Officers like Forrest, Wheeler and Morgan led numerous cavalry raids, causing the Federals considerable logistical difficulties.
The Northerners were slow to find adequate countermeasures. General Rosecrans did not form the first autonomous cavalry division until the fall of 1862, and the Cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac was not formed until April 1863. It took time for the Northerners to learn to master the tactics of their enemies. Once at the level of its southern counterpart, the federal cavalrytook over in 1864 thanks to a new generation of more aggressive generals, such as Custer or Sheridan, and better equipment - repeating rifles in the lead. Now able to take the initiative, the Northerners in turn raided their opponents devastatingly, also contributing to the collapse of the Southern war effort.
Even more than the cavalry, theartillerywas a secondary weapon during the Civil War. For the reasons already mentioned - wooded terrain and poor road network - the field artillery very rarely played the decisive role that had so often been played during the Napoleonic wars. As for the siege artillery, it lost much of its effectiveness when the old masonry forts were replaced by earthen fortifications. The use of the weapon was not equal between the two belligerents either, the Union being rather clearly favored in this field, compared to the Confederation.
A technical weapon
On the ground, the basic artillery organization isdrums- the equivalent of the company in other weapons. Commanded by a captain, the battery is divided into two or three sections, themselves directed by a lieutenant, and each comprising two guns. Each piece, headed by a non-commissioned officer, requires at least ten or twelve men to be used to full effect. The use of a cannon is indeed a rather complex operation requiring teamwork and, so to speak, real choreography.
First we mustclean the barrel after the previous shot, to prevent incandescent residue from prematurely igniting the next charge. To this end, we use rammers, instruments that will be described rather briefly by comparing them to large cotton swabs. One has a metal end (particularly useful for cleaning scratches) which "scrubs" the barrel, the other a sponge used to empty the residue thus collected. This can be done by one or, most often for rifled guns, two men. Once the part has been cleaned in this way, loading can be carried out.
The propellant charge is contained in a flannel pouch. It can be introduced separately from the projectile or at the same time as the projectile if the two are combined through a wooden shoe - this is often the case with solid balls. With the exception of the extremely rare breech-loading Whitworth cannon, this is doneby mouth. The projectile and the charge are then pushed with the other end of the ram.
We must then aim. To do this, thepointer- arguably the most important man among the servants, as he aims and commands fire - uses a removable and rather sketchy metallic sight. The pointer estimates distance and direction, and must also take into account the direction and speed of the wind. Everything is done in a pretty pifometric way, and in this game, the experience of the pointer is often paramount. The latter himself applies the necessary corrections in elevation, by means of a screw located under the barrel, and communicates those to be applied in direction to another servant who acts on the arrow of the carriage.
Once this is done, the pointer is withdrawn and another servant pierces the gargousse using an instrument inserted into the lumen - the hole on the top of the barrel. A friction plug - in other words, a large firecracker - is then inserted into the conduit. This primer is connected to a cord which will activate it. On the command "ready!" ", The gunners move away from the wheels, as the gun can sometimes move back several meters during firing. We can thenmake fire pulling on the cord, the explosion of the pin communicating to the load through the hole in the gargousse. The gun is then returned to its battery position, where the cycle can then begin again.
Mobility, an essential factor
Considering its weight (up to 800 kilos, excluding the mount, for a 20-pound Parrott), it is not possible to move an arm cannon more than a few tens of meters without completely exhausting the crew. For transport over long distances, the gun is coupled to a front end containing ammunition, which transforms it into a four-wheeled vehicle pulled bya team of four to six horses. Another hitch carries the ammunition box, which has a much larger capacity than the cannon fore end. In all, an artillery battery consists of almost as many horses as there are men.
We then distinguish, traditionally,artillery on foot and artillery on horseback. In the first, the servants follow their pieces by walking and, if necessary, by running. In the second, all the servants are on horseback. As a result, mounted artillery is more mobile than foot artillery, but also costs more to maintain due to the significantly higher number of horses it requires. During the Civil War, the field artillery will be mainly on foot, the mounted artillery being reserved for accompanying cavalry units.
The first maneuver that artillery must perform on the battlefield isbattery setting. This is a difficult operation at times, as it often takes place in an exposed position - usually the price to pay for the ensuing fire to be effective. Turning on battery - and its opposite, turning off battery - takes several minutes, during which time the unit is vulnerable. The guns are placed forward, the forequarters and the caissons several meters behind to limit the effects of enemy fire on the ammunition they contain. As for the horses, particularly precious, they are placed further back.
On the eve of the war against Mexico in 1845, the Federal Army adopted a user manual written by Major Samuel Ringgold. The latter had adapted the artillery concentration tactics then in use in Europe to the peculiarities of North America - difficult terrain and low number of guns. Its doctrine was based on a very mobile horse artillery, capable of deploying very quickly as close as possible to the enemy army to overwhelm it with grapeshot. Ringgold was fatally wounded in Palo Alto during the first major battle of the Mexican War, but his "flying artillery As it had been baptized was decisive in the Americans' final victory.
As a result, this use of artillery was still in effect in 1861. It did not stand the test of fact. The Mexicans had to oppose him only with heavy cannons and muskets with smoothbore. It was quite different with the belligerents of the Civil War, now armed with rifled rifles with much greater range. The Northerners paid the price at Bull Run in July 1861: having advanced their batteries to bombard the Confederate line on Henry House Hill, they saw the servants shot down by the southern infantry, somewhat helped by the confusion which reigned on the field. of battle. The lesson was learned and thereafter, both sides carefully avoided exposing their artillery, often placing them far enough from the front lines. The downside was that its effectiveness diminished further, confining the artillery toan often secondary role.
Long range shooting: cannonballs and shells
Deprived of this use, the artillery had as its main missionsupport shooting against enemy infantry, whether defending by opening fire on the attacker, or attacking by bombarding enemy lines. To this end, each battery carries with it, in its front gears and caissons, several hundred projectiles of different types. Their use is essentially a function of the distance at which the target is located, and their endowment per piece may vary.
The most widespread and the simplest is theballfull, a simple sphere of lead. Despite its rusticity, it will still be widely used during the Civil War. Its main advantage lies in its great range: not exploding, the cannonball can ricochet over long distances if the ground is suitable, retaining sufficient force at the end of its stroke to cause incapacitating injuries to the legs of men and horses. . Its moral effect is considerable, for the cannonball pierces and maims entire rows of soldiers with terrifying ease. The only shock wave generated by its wake - the "cannonball wind" - is enough to kill a man if it passes close enough to his head.
On the other hand, cannon balls are generally ineffective against an infantry line, which is only two ranks deep. They are more so against a deep formation or in column, or when they take the enemy line in succession, that is to say from the flank. But in this case,the accuracy of the shot is essential, and that of smooth guns is often lacking at long distances. The rifled guns made it possible to solve this problem, by firing "ingots" (bolt in English, the spherical balls being for their part calledcannonball orsolid shot) solid and cylindrical.
Also used in abundance are grape shells (calledcase shot in English), orshrapnel. These owe their name to their inventor, the British officer Henry Shrapnel, who introduced them at the end of the 18th century.th century. Like the balls, they exist in spherical version for the smooth barrels, and cylindro-conical for the rifled parts. They contain several dozen lead bullets, coupled to a bursting charge (center or rear) actuated by a rocket - a time delay detonator.
When the shrapnell explodes, the grape it contains is propelled around or in front of the bus, potentially injuring or killing more enemy soldiers than a full cannonball. Its major drawback is the low reach of its content. Ideally, the shrapnell should explode just in front of or above the opposing infantry to produce maximum effects. It is therefore essential that the rocket is set to the right distance, which means evaluating this correctly - whereas the artillerymen of the time did not have rangefinders.
To compensate for this, we also usehigh explosive shells (shell in English), with thicker walls and a higher bursting load. The resulting shards are larger and carry farther, increasing their lethal effectiveness and allowing significant effects to be achieved even with lower precision. However, these fragments are also less numerous, which reduces their chances of hitting someone. In the end, they will prove to be less effective than grape shells, and will remain in the minority in the ammunition endowment of batteries. Their weight (9 kilos for a 20-pound Parrott) was also too small to allow them to be effective against fortifications, requiring the use of siege pieces with much heavier projectiles (up to 300 pounds, or 136 kilos approximately).
Point blank: the grape shot
These ammunition, intended for long and medium range use, represent the major part of the ammunition distributed to the batteries. At short and very short range, however, they are replaced by projectiles more suited to this type of use. This is the big grape shot (grapeshot) and grape boxes (canister). Both turn outthe deadliest (hence their preferred employment through "flying artillery" tactics), but their use also means that the gunners are within gun range of the adversary.
In 1861, thebig grape shot is essentially obsolete; it will therefore be little used, the grape box being considered more modern and more efficient. It consists of ten balls arranged around a central metal rod. Everything is sometimes wrapped in a flannel bag held by ropes. If the word "grape shot" inevitably evokes small projectiles to the reader, it is not here: in size, the large grape shot is closer to the pétanque ball than to the small lead. If it carries further than the contents of the grape boxes, causing cruel wounds in the process, its effectiveness is limited - in the same way as for high explosive shells - by the small number of bullets fired at each shot.
As indicated by his name,the grape box is a cylindrical container of light metal, filled with about 30 large caliber bullets packed in sawdust. Upon firing, the box fragments, adding its shards to the bullets it contains and creating a deadly cone of grape in front of the barrel. The effect of an entire battery firing grape-shot on an infantry line could be particularly deadly. The only weakness of the grape box was its short range: due to their relatively small size and dispersal, its shards were hardly lethal beyond 200 yards, and became virtually harmless at over 300 or 400. meters. With rifled infantry rifles, this flaw reduced them to strictly defensive use.
The grape box was also the artillery's last resort in a direct attack on a battery. If the situation so wished, officers could order aredoubled shot (double canister). This last-ditch tactic was only employed if the battery was under direct threat from an assailant about to overwhelm it. It was simply a matter of loading the cannon with two boxes of grapeshot instead of one. Bullets and fragments were twice as numerous then, but with the powder charge remaining the same, they obviously had much less force on impact, limiting their effectiveness to only a few tens of meters.
Different guns, different uses
Not all types of guns used the same ammunition withthe same efficiency. The rifled iron guns, precise and far-reaching, made excellent use of full projectiles. HE shells and shrapnel also benefited from their accuracy, but their generally limited weight - the bus fired by the 10-pound Parrott and the 3-inch gun weighed little more than 4 pounds - reduced their lethal effects. Smooth-bore bronze guns, on the other hand, were not as precise, and proved inferior to long-range rifled guns. But the main one, the 12-pounder Napoleon, compensated with heavier projectiles. His grape boxes also held more bullets, making them more effective at short distances.
While the bronze cannons and the rifled pieces complemented each other rather well, both were still quite poorly effective, taken individually. Their shooting only became really deadly at a very short distance - but they were then vulnerable to musketry fire - orin large concentrations. Essential in the success of artillery during the Napoleonic wars, these were seldom seen during the Civil War, for the reasons already mentioned: wooded terrain coupled with a mediocre road network, and difficulty in finding unexposed positions. .
Overallinefficient and dispersed, the batteries could not compensate by a faster fire. Although in theory a seasoned crew could fire up to four rounds per minute, in practice this type of sequence was only very exceptionally desirable. In fact, the cannons of the time retreated freely when fired. This requires returning the part to battery, then re-aiming entirely, an operation of thoroughness and precision on which the effectiveness of the shot depends. Unless there is immediate danger, it is therefore best to take your time. What is more, rapid fire would involve a high consumption, not to say a waste, of ammunition - something which the logistics of the time were not yet ready to cope with.
In addition to supporting fire, the artillery was also tasked with silencing enemy guns. This type of attack, calledcounter-battery fire, required great precision, as a battery offers an even smaller target than an infantry regiment in line of battle. The rifled guns were therefore the best in this type of combat. Full projectiles were often enough to cause significant damage: by ricocheting they could damage teams and caissons even with missing cannons, and the death or injury of a few horses was enough to considerably reduce the mobility of a battery.
Artillery was rarely decisive during the conflict. One ofrare examples of concentrated use is provided by the Battle of Malvern Hill, the last engagement of the so-called "Seven Days" campaign, on 1er juillet 1862. Le colonel Henry Hunt, de l’artillerie nordiste, concentra une soixantaine de canons qu’il employa comme une seule énorme batterie de réserve. Tirant avec une terrible efficacité, elle permit de repousser les assauts sudistes pratiquement à elle toute seule. L’artillerie confédérée, quant à elle, brisa l’attaque du XIIème corps d’armée de l’Union à Antietam (17 septembre 1862), que son commandant avait, il est vrai, imprudemment déployé en colonnes par compagnie. Les boulets sudistes purent ainsi faire des ravages dans les formations profondes de l’infanterie fédérale.
Des belligérants inégaux
L’emploi et l’organisation tactique de l’artillerie varia beaucoup au cours de la guerre, non seulement dans le temps, mais également d’un camp à l’autre. Durant les premiers mois de la guerre, il était commun de disperser les batteries et d’en attacher une à chaque brigade, afin que ces dernières puissent bénéficier de leur propre soutien d’artillerie rapproché. Parallèlement, d’autres batteries étaient rattachées directement au commandant de l’armée, afin de constituer une réserve que celui-ci pourrait utiliser à sa discrétion au moment opportun.
Cette disposition s’avéra rapidement peu pratique. Dans les deux camps, on déposséda les brigades de leur batterie organique pour regrouper toutes les batteries d’une même division au sein d’un bataillon placé directement sous les ordres du commandant divisionnaire. L’unité ainsi constituée, forte généralement de deux à quatre batteries, permettait ainsi une plus grande concentration des feux – lorsque toutefois c’était possible. Cette organisation demeura la base du fonctionnement de l’artillerie sudiste durant toute la guerre. En sus, chaque corps d’armée confédéré se vit doter d’un ou deux bataillons d’artillerie de réserve. Cette disposition, en revanche, fut plus rarement appliquée à l’échelon de l’armée – l’ensemble débouchant ainsi sur une structure décentralisée qui allait souvent s’avérer problématique.
Les Fédéraux, eux, ne s’arrêtèrent pas là. Ils remplacèrent bientôt les bataillons d’artillerie divisionnaire par des brigades. Chacune d’entre elle regroupait généralement cinq ou six batteries, et se voyait directement rattachée au commandant de corps d’armée plutôt que de la division. D’autres brigades formaient quant à elles une réserve d’artillerie d’armée. Cette organisation plus centralisée permit de concentrer l’artillerie plus aisément. Le dernier jour de la bataille de Gettysburg, le 3 juillet 1863, fournit un exemple frappant de la supériorité de l’Union dans l’organisation et l’emploi de l’artillerie. Si les Confédérés purent aligner près de 150 canons pour préparer leur attaque contre le centre de l’armée nordiste, ceux-ci furent généralement trop mal disposés pour que leur bombardement soit efficace. Les Fédéraux, au contraire, avaient prévu où leur ennemi frapperait et purent y concentrer leur réserve d’artillerie d’armée, qui prit une part importante à la victoire finale.
L’infériorité de l’artillerie sudiste sur sa contrepartie nordiste n’eut pas que des causes tactiques et structurelles. Elle fut aussi numérique et technique. Le Sud n’avait pas le potentiel industriel du Nord, qui put produire assez de canons durant la guerre pour que ses besoins soient satisfaits – plusieurs milliers de pièces d’artillerie au total. La Confédération dut se contenter des pièces se trouvant dans ses arsenaux au début de la guerre, et de ceux qu’elle put capturer ensuite – dans les dépôts fédéraux ou directement sur le champ de bataille. L’importation ne pouvait subvenir aux besoins des Confédérés en canons, le blocus nordiste en limitant sérieusement le volume.
Pour ces raisons, les canons furent toujours des denrées rares et précieuses dans les armées confédérées. De façon significative, il fallut limiter la dotation de chaque batterie à quatre pièces au lieu de six. Cela pouvait aboutir à des différences numériques importantes sur le champ de bataille : alors qu’un bataillon d’artillerie sudiste se contentait de 12 ou 16 canons, une brigade d’artillerie fédérale pouvait en aligner jusqu’à 30 ou 36. Pour ne rien arranger, les canons d’une même batterie étaient souvent de types différents, ce qui compliquait grandement son ravitaillement en munitions. Les armées nordistes n’éprouvèrent que rarement ce problème.
En outre, les rares usines sudistes capables de fondre des canons manquaient d’expérience dans ce domaine, en particulier pour ceux en fer. De surcroît, la Confédération manquait des matières premières, et notamment des minerais, nécessaires à l’alimentation d’une industrie sidérurgique. Le résultat fut que les canons produits dans le Sud se montrèrent souvent de qualité et de fiabilité inférieures à ceux fondus par l’industrie nordiste. Pour ne rien arranger, les munitions péchèrent encore plus fréquemment, les fusées nécessaires à l’éclatement des obus montrant une fâcheuse tendance à exploser trop tôt ou trop tard – gâchant ainsi tout le travail accompli par les artilleurs confédérés.
- John GIBBON, The Artillerist’s Manual, New York, 1859.
- William FRENCH, William BARRY, Henry HUNT, Instruction for Field Artillery, Philadelphie, 1861.
- Site regroupant une large base de données sur l’artillerie de la guerre de Sécession.
- Article général sur l’artillerie de campagne de la guerre de Sécession.
- Biographie de Samuel Ringgold.