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Yuma Sun reporter is Union soldier for a day
Editor's Note: Reporter Chris McDaniel shares a firsthand account of covering the recent Civil War Days and being asked to don a uniform and participate.
“Round forward!” shouted Cpl. Mike Maxfield of Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery as the Confederate infantry advanced toward our gun emplacement.
It took me a few moments to respond. I had been engrossed in the chaos of the battle unfolding before me during the recent 2013 Civil War Days at the Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park.
I ran forward to the side of the “Walking Stick” cannon, reached down into the brown leather satchel hanging from my side and pulled out a gun powder charge. Once it was in Maxfield's hands, I quickly returned to my post at the rear.
The round was rammed down the barrel of the 6-pounder, and Pvt. Ken Wagner prepared to discharge the cannon. He pulled the firing lanyard taut and awaited the order to fire from Lt. Gary Wear, the unit commander.
“Fire!” Wear yelled, and the three cannons in the battery let loose one at a time, each creating a deafening boom that echoed over the rolling grass hills of the historic park.
I had been enlisted into Battery B earlier in the morning by Pvt. Price Carson and by afternoon was wearing a loaned federal blue uniform and feeling very much like a Billy Yank.
I wore a blue kepi adorned with two crossed brass cannons, a blue wool shell coat and sky-blue wool pants with a red stripe running down each leg to designate my status as an artilleryman.
This was a waking dream for me. When I was about 7 years old, I watched the Civil War movie “Glory” for the first time. From that moment on, I became greatly interested in the history of the War Between the States and spent many hours re-creating battles with figurines or reading about the conflict, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 750,000 soldiers.
But watching movies or reading books is nothing like the experience of participating in a re-enactment.
On the field, the smell of black powder wafts on the breeze as the cannons belch smoke and flame. You watch as the infantry on both sides load their rifles, take aim and shoot at one another — some falling where they stand. You hear as the bugler sounds the charge, or the hasty retreat.
While exhilarating, the experience is also very somber — a way to honor the armies of dead who never left the field of battle in the 1860s. I imagine a re-enactment could never compare with actually being at Antietam or Gettysburg, where thousands died using obsolete tactics in the face of new and lethal weaponry.
Here there were no cannon balls being discharged into an oncoming wall of gray soldiers marching in tight formation. No cries of agony from men felled with minie ball bullets. No buckets full of hacked-off limbs outside the medical tent.
And when the fighting was over, the “dead” soldiers rose up and were able to go home to their loved ones.
The following afternoon, I found myself once more on the field of battle and ready to fight the invading horde of Johnny Rebs. This time, I was promoted from “powder monkey” to the No. 3 position at the rear right of the cannon.
In addition to the powder monkey, there were four men working the cannon. At the front right in the No. 1 position was Price. At the front left in the No. 2 position was Cpl. Marc Cornelius. And at the rear left in the No. 4 position was 1st Sgt. Bruce Fleshner.
As the rebels advanced, Battery B opened fire.
After each firing, Cornelius yelled, “Vent!” I responded by covering the vent hole at the rear top of the barrel with my thumb and replied, “Vented!”
This had to be done before Cornelius could use a wormer, a pole with a metal tip shaped like a compact fluorescent light bulb, to clean any debris left inside the barrel. If the vent was not covered, the airflow could cause any remaining powder to ignite and seriously injure him.
When Cornelius removed the wormer, Price inserted a rammer with a wet sponge to swab the inside of the barrel. He did this to extinguish any fire left over from the previous firing.
Afterward, Cornelius inserted a dry mop rammer to soak up the water left inside. When the job was done, he yelled, “Piece is clear!”
Fleshner then ordered the powder monkey forward, and a black powder charge was given to Cornelius. The corporal again made sure my thumb was covering the vent hole before placing the round in the end of the barrel so Price could ram it to the bottom of the bore. Even though the gun had been swabbed, any missed sparks could ignite the gunpowder charge and send Price's severed arm flying down field.
To make sure I understood the serious nature of my duty, Fleshner joked morbidly about the many one-armed Civil War veterans who had been artillerymen.
After ramming the charge and removing his rammer, Price shouted, “Piece is loaded!”
The next step was to “prick and prime” the charge. I poked a sharp thin piece of metal called a priming wire, or pick, into the vent to pierce the tinfoil encasing the black powder. After removing the priming wire, a friction primer (detonator) was placed into the vent.
Fleshner connected a lanyard to a wire attached to the friction primer and prepared to fire.
“BOOM!” The cannon bellowed as he pulled the lanyard, and we were engulfed in a cloud of black powder smoke that smelled both sweet and acrid.
We repeated this process a few times before Fleshner invited me to take over his position at No. 4. We followed the firing procedures and attached the lanyard to the detonator.
Once all of the steps were complete, I held the lanyard taut with my right arm. I also held my left arm upright to let Lt. Wear know the gun was ready.
When the command was given, I pulled the lanyard with all my strength. The cannon erupted, sending the wire attached to the friction primer flying through the air. It stung as it impacted my right shoulder at high velocity.
Soon thereafter, the 69th New York Infantry “Irish Brigade” routed the remaining rebels, who surrendered in short order, and the battle was over.
The Confederate flag was lowered from the flagpole, and Old Glory rose up to take its place. I snapped to attention and saluted the Stars and Stripes with the rest of the Union troops. Afterward, the bugler played a stirring rendition of Taps to honor those who died in the battle.
For me, that was the greatest importance of the re-enactment: remembering the souls who lay down their lives to preserve the Union or in support of the rebel cause. But helping to load and fire cannons was serious fun, too.
My special thanks to the men of Battery B for letting me participate. For more information about Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, go to www.facebook.com/pages/Battery-B-4th-US-Artillery/101999583309214.
Chris McDaniel can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6849.