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





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