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)

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