Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Serving a Civil War Cannon: Part 2

By Rob Watson

If you have not already, you might want to go back and read my previous posts on the US Civil War. The first (Civil War Battle Re-enactment: Pleasant Hill, Mansfield) was written a year ago and the second (Serving a Civil War Cannon) was written the first of this month (April 2014).

I was slow in contacting the folks that keep the Battery organized and was fortunate to encounter one at the "Cowboy" shoot at the local gun range. He informed me the Battery was going to participate in the re-enactment of the Mansfield battle this week end.

"Now wait a minute" you say. "wasn't that held the first weekend in April?" Well, yes that is so. The town of Pleasant Hill holds an annual re-enactment of the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. More specifically, the folks who are descendants of the original towns people, and owners of the land on which the battle of Pleasant Hill was fought, have organized that re-enactment annually.

The re-enactment held this weekend was organized by the Great State of Louisiana and is held on the ground of the original battlefield of the Mansfield fight every ten years. This is also the location of the Louisiana State Park and Museum for the Mansfield Battle. (This ground was originally purchased by local citizens and efforts continue to acquire and preserve more of that battlefield.) Also participating, were the National Park Rangers from the Creole National Historical Monuments around the city of Natchitoches, LA. It should be noted that security for the event was provided by the the Desoto Parish Sheriff's dept and the Louisiana State Police. (these people should also get credit for providing security at the Pleasant Hill event earlier)

During the intervening three weeks I have read more about the position I served on Gabriel's Horn. My first position was at the forward left of the gun. It is called the number two position. My primary duty is to clear the barrel of debris after the shot is fired. I even learned what the number three gunner was shouting at me before I used the corkscrew like device (called an implement) to clear the barrel: "Primer hole clear, Primer hole covered" and why: to insure that sparks do not get back into the chamber where the powder charge will be placed.

There were a number of changes in procedures from Gabriel's Horn and the gun I served today. Previously, the gun captain required that I use my  implement to clear the barrel whenever the command "Service the Gun" was given. Today, if this operation had previously been done, I was not to repeat it. The other big change was brought on by government regulation, because we are on government land.

Previously, we mustered at the gun an hour before the re-enactment was to start. We also practiced loading and firing the gun. (and I got my initial instruction on serving the gun). By government regulation, today we mustered at the gun some four hours before the re-enactment. A state park ranger asked me if I was familiar with my duties, and I answered "well mostly, but I would like to review them." then he asked if I was familiar with the failed primer drill. "No."

Here the unit commander, I shall call him Richard, carefully and patiently helped me through a review of my previous instruction and oversaw a few practice drills. Then he demonstrated the "Failed Primer" drill. (In real life, and in re-enactments, this is actually a dangerous situation and this green apple newbe was learning how to make things safe... and how to be the primary actor in making things safe.) It goes like this...

When the number 4 gunner pulls the lanyard the gun usually fires. If the primer fails, there is a good possibility that fire has been applied to the powder charge but for some reason the charge has not ignited. In the drill, each member of the gun crew, except me the number two man, turns his back to the gun and performs his duties in the drill as best he can from that position, The number two man gets to step away from the gun about three paces. After a time delay of three minutes (to allow the sparks to initiate the charge or, hopefully, to burn out) Number two lays down his  implement, turns his back to the gun and backs up to it but avoids touching the carriage. If any part of the primer remains above primer hole he receives pliers from the powder monkey and attempts to remove the primer. Then he receives a pick (a heavy wire device) from number 3 and pokes down into the primer hole. If there is still fire in the remaining primer parts, the gun will discharge. (which is why one does not touch the carriage)If the gun has still not gone off, the number four man gives number two (me) a new primer which I insert in the primer hole and secure the lanyard until he resumes his normal position. The gun captain reports the gun "ready" and each member of the gun crew returns to his "ready" position. Hopefully, the gun fires on the next "fire" command.

Now, with the ranger watching, the gun crew goes through a complete load and fire drill, or two. Then we did a couple of "Failed Primer" drills. If the ranger is satisfied each gun crew member knows his part, we are officially "Certified". The whole process of certification takes place whenever an event is held on government property.

As reported previously, units are often required to fight for the Union side for lack of true, low life, Yankees. My gun crew was so required for this event. I borrowed a blue coat for the certification drills then went to the sutlers tent to buy my own blue coat. (Fortunately, the Union and Rebel artillery uniforms are similar enough that all I had to change from my Confederate one was to change the coat.) Wife bought her first re-enactment garment, a period sun bonnet. Later I came back and bought a canteen.

Afterwards, Wife and I went over to the Visitor Center and Museum. The museum was rather interesting in that, along with maps, descriptions, and artifacts from the battle, there were numerous quotations from battle participants from both sides, for each of the displays on the phases of the battle. The Louisiana Lt. Governor came to make a presentation. Wife was too far from the man to understand what he was saying. I stayed inside the museum to finish going over the exhibits. An extended golf cart was available to transport folks between the re-enactment site and the museum. We took that back.

I sought  out the camp of the Battery and joined them in the usual discussions... Politics, people, jokes, and previous re-enactments. Richard turned the conversations to questions which I might have. I had several and he was efficient in answering them. My gun captain appeared with a Scottish hat (not a tam) and I asked if he had his kilt yet. He reported his was on order and intended to wear it at the next event. He was the same young man who had served, with me, on Gabriel's Horn. On the second day of this re-enactment he showed up without the hat. Someone commented on that and another replied they were glad he had not worn his new dress.

When it was time to muster at the guns, Richard insisted on a respectful delay (Possibly preferring the man made shade of the camps tent to wandering around in Mother Natures warm sun in a heavy wool, Union uniform.) Then we all collected and donned our heavy wool Union uniforms and meandered over to the gun positions.

In striving for authenticity, the script called for the Rebel forces to overrun our position and capture our guns, as was done in the actual battle.  We gunners discussed who should runaway and who would fall dead. This was not necessary. Apparently in giving instruction to the rebel forces, it was stressed, for safety reasons, not to approach the guns closer than 50 yards until they stopped firing. When the rebel lines approached the 50 yard marker, we secured the guns and backed away from them. Presumably, overcome with an excess of caution, the Confederates never charged. The dead all got up and the whole units presented themselves to the audience. They then fired a salute to the crowd. This error in procedure was repeated on Sunday as well.

After the re-enactment on Saturday, Wife and I wandered back to the museum and took in the video presentation on the battle. Later a Belgian scholar, founder of a Belgian American Civil War Society, made a very interesting presentation on the life of a Frenchman who commanded one of the Confederate divisions during the battle... Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac.
Presumably Prince Polignac was quite proud of his involvement in the victory at Mansfield as he named his son Victor Mansfield.

One of the interesting things I encountered in these re-enactment adventures is the number of Louisiana residents that had relatives in that war. A couple we met, claimed a captain in the Mansfield battle was their relative so we invited them to come along and see the activities. They stayed and went through the museum afterwards. They invited us to their home for hamburgers grilled over a charcoal fire. A very pleasant evening was had by all.

I was pleased to learn the Battery had a rule against doing re-enactments in the heat of the summer. Our next event will be in East Texas in September. It is not clear what battle will be re-enacted in Northeast Texas... as the battle of Mansfield "saved Texas for the Confederacy" and no union soldiers, under arms, ever set foot in that state. (However there was a large prisoner of war facility near Tyler)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Serving a Civil War Cannon

By Rob Watson


This week is the 150 anniversary of the American Civil War battles at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill In the State of Louisiana. The fight at Pleasant Hill was the largest battle, based on troops involved, ever fought west of the Mississippi River. It is being celebrated in the town of Pleasant Hill, on the actual ground of the original battle, with a re-enactment of the original battle. You should read my posts about the reenactment of last year before reading this post.

Anyone who has ever been in real combat will surely find this silly, but to me, serving a replica Confederate Civil War cannon was as exciting as anything I have done in many years. Here is my story. A video at the end (if i can get it in) will make some things more clear.

My original plan for the day was to attend the re-enactment and associated festivities and write a post for my blog. In executing that plan, Wife and I drove to Pleasant Hill early in the morning. We ate breakfast at the American Legion, with the choices of a Rebel Breakfast Of eggs, bacon, grits, and two very good biscuits. Then we went to a suttler's tent. I bought parts of a new Confederate artillery mans uniform.

I found some folks that I had been invited, last year, to visit at the battle re-enactment campground. I boldly walked into their Primitive camp where all the equipment and materials were of the Civil War period. I told them I had purchased a Civil War artillery uniform and asked if I might serve one of their cannon during the days events. One of the older members of the group asked one of the gun captains nearby if he could use some help. The gun captain replied that he was one man short and said he would be pleased to have me. I stayed in camp for a while socializing. One of the men in the group was from my home town and graduated from my same high school. They talked of rules and events and told old "war" stories. I asked what time we "mustered" before the battle then went off to eat lunch and dress in my new uniform.

The Battery is a formalized organization. To be a member, one must attend three events (re-enactments) in a year, then at the annual meeting the group votes on whether the prospect will be accepted  into the group as a member. After that one pays his dues and participates in as many activities as he wishes.

My first position of the day was forward of the gun carrage and to the left of the gun tube. On the command "Load" the position #3 shouted " " (I don't actually know what she said, but it was her only command and after it I was to do my first thing) then I was to take a cork screw looking device and clear any remains of the previous shot from the barrel. I then took the cartridge from the powder monkey and placed it in the muzzle of the cannon. (Hold the cartridge in the left hand, Thumb on the round end, move it down under the barrel then up to the bore. Exposing only my thumb, slide the cartridge into the muzzle. The other guy rammed the cartridge down the barrel and seated it with a couple of firm jabs with his swab/ram tool. The two of us then faced each other, took one step to the side(away from the gun), one step backwards (to clear the carrage), then one giant step to the side, toward the rear of the position. We then leaned further to the rear, face turned, and covered the ear toward the cannon with our free hand. The gun captain reported the cannon ready. The officers commanding the battery then gave a series of commands directing the order of fire for the battery. After the cannon fired, I was to face forward (down range) and wait for the next command.

One might be another "load" command or a "service the gun" command. For the "service..." command my action was to clear the barrel as before. The guy with the swab/ram dipped it in a bucket of water and scrubbed the barrel several times. He then tipped the barrel down and let the water run out. The #3 position used a brass brush to scrub the initiator hole. When these were all done, the gun captain reported the gun serviced and each crew member resumed his "ready" position.

Just so you know, I watched a demonstration of this process once, three or four years ago at Ft Larned in Kansas. Yesterday, they did a run through of this process for me, exactly once, before going to live fire with live cartridges. My only advantage was that I recognized that almost every motion I made was for safety, and I recognized the reason for each move. During the live firing both the man with the swab/ram and the gun captain watched me closely and instantly corrected any deviation from the prescribed move. Everyone involved was quite serious about safety. A minor dustup occurred when a person who did not belong, entered the area of the battery. Only when the load/fire sequence and the service sequence had been properly executed, did the atmosphere relax to a casual but cautious one. (Usually lighthearted comments about events around us)

Our cartridge was made up of 5 1/2 ounces (156g) of black powder and one cup of flour (250ml). This was then wrapped in a few layers of heavy aluminum foil. (when the gun fired, the smoke was blown back into our face by the wind. Ours smelled like burned chicken feathers) The forward end of the cartridge was rounded and the rear was flat. These were assembled before hand and packed in steel surplus ammunition cans. Back in camp, these were transferred to a "Ready Box" and carried to the firing position. Due to the nature of this, possibly the flour, Gabrial's Horn, (the name Of our gun) was quite a bit louder than others. One of those others was so weak as to cause a gun crew member to comment "My daughter farts louder than that". To which another crew member was heard to agree.

One gun failed to fire after being loaded. Apparently the initiator failed. This caused a moderate disturbance among all the gun crews in the line. I did not look, thinking if anything did explode, it would be better to be hit in the back than in the face. After several minutes that gun was made safe and action resumed.

One of the gun tubes was from an actual Civil War cannon. (The carriage was of modern materials) I was told, the owner of that gun specifically stated it could never be used on the Union side and be serviced by anyone other than men in gray. (it is common at reenactments for troops and cannon to swap sides when there are too few Union participants. Many of the serious re-enactors have both uniforms. I could be in the Union Artillery if I spent another $100 for a blue Jacket, otherwise the artillery uniforms are the same)

As an added feature, this reenactment included a "Night Fire" where troops and cannon did their thing after dark. In history, part of the Mansfield battle, the re-enactment done this day, did actually take place after dark. Also thrown in were some regular fireworks. Gabrial's Horn and crew were in the night action. This time I asked to be the powder monkey. I stood beside the ready box. A cartridge was placed in my leather pouch by another crew member. I then held the pouch closed until the commands "load" then "charge". My duty was to rush forward with the cartridge to the loader and hold open the pouch. Then I was to hurry back to the ready box. I was warned to be on the lookout for people with lighted smoking materials and to chase them off if discovered.

The man in charge of the ready box had also brought along some additional steel wool. Because fine steel wool ignites easily, it was placed in front of the cartridge. When the gun is fired the steel wool adds considerable sparks to the muzzle flash. In one case the gun was fired into a fair breese. The sparks spread into a 15 foot (3m) circle and blew back toward the gun and crew in spectacular fashion. The sparks all burned out before getting to me and the ready box full of powder charges. There was really very little danger as the cartridges were wrapped in layers of aluminum foil and secured in a closed steel box.

On one of the firings, something flew out of our gun, burning, and continued to burn for several seconds after hitting the ground out 100 ft (30m) in front of us. This caused some chatter and comment among the gun crews and officers on the line. One being "You sure learn a lot about your gun when firing it at night." (This would not have been visible in daylight.)

To end the night in a very pleasing(and honored) fashion I was given the chance to actually fire the last round. I was given instructions on how to stand and how to pull the lanyard. To the surprise of the onlookers, the gun fired... Apparently first timers never pull the lanyard hard enough. The honor, I was told, was I am the only newby to be allowed to fire the gun on my first event with the Battery.

And, a excellent time was had by all.

video