Turning Black Powder into Gold

- by Pati Nagle

When I found myself writing a series of Civil War novels, I knew I’d need help understanding the realities of a soldier’s life in the 1860s. Fortunately, I have some friends who are Civil War reenactors, and they kindly undertook to educate me.

That education involved wearing a wool uniform in midsummer (more comfortable than you’d think), helping to carry a flag as wide as a street, and my favorite part: learning how to load and fire a cannon.

Artillery drill is like a ballet. Every movement is choreographed. Every cannoneer has his part, and must play it at the right time, in the right way, for the dance to succeed. In the Civil War, eight cannoneers served each gun. This was the ideal, of course. On the battlefield, attrition inevitably robbed the gun crews of their numbers. An interesting and rather macabre historical artifact I learned about was the chart on the inside of the lid of the artillery chest. It shows which of the eight cannoneer positions was taken on by which remaining cannoneer when one was wounded or killed. It goes down to two—two men standing, handling the jobs of all eight of their crew. That’s when the dance gets really interesting!

I’ve done this. There’s an annual performance of the 1812 Overture in a city park in Littleton, Colorado. I’ve gone up for it a couple of times to help my reenactor buddies crew their guns. It takes eighteen guns for the performance, and they come from all over New Mexico and Colorado. These are mostly replica Civil War era guns, though one year we had a WWII howitzer on the line (it misfired).

The gun crews are usually scant, with only two or three cannoneers per gun. Each gun fires once during the overture, and afterward two more rounds are fired, one in sequence, and one volley in unison. We terrify the ducks on the lake over which the guns are aimed.

Why is it worth it to drive 400 miles to fire three rounds? Because it helps me feel what it was like to be in an artilleryman’s shoes (literally–we’re in uniform when we do this). The smell of the black powder, the kick of cannonfire beneath my feet, the silent dance of the cannoneers, it’s all grist for my writer’s mill. It’s gold for a storyteller. Pure gold.

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  1. Interesting post. I never knew it took so many men to man a cannon.

  2. Elting Morrison, the historian, wrote about how, up until WW II, gun crews included a man whose function had been forgotten. Basically, he stood back when the cannon was about to be fired, with his hands in a raised position about shoulder high. Inquiry among old cannoneers finally revealed that his job was to hold the horses–which hadn’t been used for many, many years.

  3. Very cool, Pati. This is a fascinating subject and I learned something new today — that chart about which cannoneer does what when their comrades get wounded or killed!


  4. I saw a small scale civil war reenactment a few weeks ago. Cavalry. Very impressive. I didn’t get the smell of the black powder though because they’d packed their blank rounds with malt-o-meal. Smelled like breakfast. They did have a canon and a Gatling gun though. I was surprised how loud the cannon really was. That is so cool that you got to actually load and fire a cannon! Thanks for sharing the experience.

  5. I think the guy who held the horses was number 8. He was also keeping an eye on the caisson and the spare artillery chests, and would of course take on other jobs if his comrades were killed or wounded.

    Artillery had the highest casualties of any branch of the army, mostly because when a cannon barrel exploded, which they did when they got overheated, it would take out a whole crew or more.

    Rebecca, LOL about the malt-o-meal! What a hoot! Our guys use flour in their blanks. Makes good smoke, but it doesn’t smell like breakfast.

  6. Wow Pati, what a cool way to get experience for your writing! Thanks for sharing this!

  7. Thanks, Laura!