Thursday, September 29, 2022

Breaking news: Devil's Den will reopen Friday after six-month rehabilitation project, Gettysburg park officials say

The landmark in 1909, at the advent of the car era (NPS photo)
Devil’s Den, scene of fierce fighting during the July 1863 battle, will reopen on Friday after a six-month project that tackled erosion and unauthorized trails that created safety hazards, Gettysburg National Military Park announced Thursday.

The project reestablished the features that make up this segment of the battlefield and will allow visitors to better immerse themselves into the historic landscape that is essential to understanding the three-day Battle of Gettysburg,” park said in a social media post.

The work tripled trail access to those with disabilities, increased overall greenspace by trimming some trail space and added features that will help with water runoff. Slip-resistant steps replaced uneven and worn stone steps, officials said.

“Although the area will reopen to visitors, one central area will remain fenced to allow more time for further vegetation growth. The fencing in this area will remain until native grasses have fully established. This process may take up to two growing seasons – up to 2024. In the interim, all non-native vegetation will continue to be treated within the entire project area.

View of Devil's Den from Little Round Top (Wikipedia, Wilson44691)
The reopening comes amid similar work on Little Round Top, which closed to visitors in July. “The rehabilitation of Little Round Top will address overwhelmed parking areas, poor accessibility and related safety hazards, significant erosion, and degraded vegetation,” the park said.

After the park earlier this year announced the Devil's Den closure in a Facebook post, critics and supporters weighed in. One said the need for work at both areas has been known for years and the public will be disappointed that two landmarks would be closed at the same time. Others said people should be grateful the work is happening to perpetuate the memory of those who fought there.

Park spokesman Jason Martz told the Picket in a March email that the timing of the projects was a coincidence, but they are both meant to address problem areas.

Devil’s Den was the scene of fierce fighting on July 2, 1863, during the decisive battle. The boulder-strewn hill was the object of forces under Confederate Lt. James Longstreet. Rebels took the position and engaged in fire with Union troops on Little Round Top.

Volunteers recently assisted the park with clearing vegetation overgrowth at Devil's Den as it neared reopening. Park officials then treated stumps to prevent sprouting.

View of Devil's Den after volunteers cleared vegetation (NPS)

Mathew Brady's photographs captured the reality of the Civil War. A new gravesite memorial celebrates the diversity of his subjects

A partial view of the memorial depicts Brady in foreground (Congressional Cemetery)
A new memorial at his gravesite in Washington, D.C., celebrates pioneering Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady’s legacy.

Photo historian Larry West spearheaded the effort to honor Brady, who died destitute in 1896 and was buried in Congressional Cemetery. The photographer is remembered for his depictions of famous and everyday Americans, and battlefield scenes that brought the horrors of war to American's doorsteps.

Matthew B. Brady
A dedication on Sept. 17 showcased life-size bronze statues of President Abraham Lincoln and civil rights figure Frederick Douglass – among famous Americans photographed by Brady -- a portrait on stone of Brady, a reproduction metal camera and 85 fired porcelains of images, most by the photographer and his associates.

“The memorial features Mathew, recognizing him as the entrepreneur, innovator, team leader and posing artist that he was,” West wrote the Picket in an email this week. 

While it does not include his famous scenes from the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields and those of campsites, many of the porcelains depict people who were wartime figures.

Historians this year are marking Brady’s 200th birthday, emphasizing his importance to the field of photojournalism.

“Brady’s photographs of Gettysburg caused a sensation when viewed by members of the public,” says Congressional Cemetery. “Americans were little used to scenes of war that before had only existed in imagination.

“The prior year, in 1862, Brady had shocked the public when he exhibited photographs of dead enemy soldiers, captured by associates Alexander Gardner and James M. Gibson, from the Battle of Antietam.”

Lincoln, Douglass and Anna Murray-Douglas (Congressional Cemetery)
Brady’s team took more than 10,000 photographs by war’s end. He had spent some $100,000 but the federal government initially declined to buy them. Brady declared bankruptcy and struggled financially for the rest of his life.

Eventually, the government purchased Brady's photographs for $25,000, providing him some financial relief. Fortunately, most are available on the Library of Congress website.

Upon his passing in 1896, veterans of the 7th New York Infantry helped finance Brady's funeral and interment at Congressional Cemetery.

Sept. 17 dedication in southeast Washington (Congressional Cemetery)
"His photographs, and those he commissioned, had a tremendous impact on society at the time of the war, and continue to do so today," says the American Battlefield Trust.

West, a board member of Congressional Cemetery, designed and provided primary financial backing for the memorial.

“Celebrating Brady's outstanding artistic achievements, the memorial reflects the diversity of his subjects and the Washington, D.C. community,” a Facebook post says.

Congressional Cemetery, founded early in the 19th century, has graves of Washington residents and numerous national figures.

It is the final resting place for about 600 Union service members and 100 Confederates.

“Generals lie next to privates, and brothers who fought on opposite sides rest only a few feet apart.”

Among those buried there are Alfred Pleasanton, a Union cavalry general, Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphreys and executed Lincoln conspirator David Herold.

Visitors can take a self-guided, Civil War-themed walking tour.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Reenactment, other events to mark 160th anniversary of Perryville

Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site in Kentucky's Boyle County will host a Civil War reenactment next month for the 160th anniversary of the battle. Perryville became the site of the most destructive battle in Kentucky, which left more than 7,600 killed, wounded or missing. The two-day event, October 8-9, includes tours, battle reenactments, lectures, museum exhibits, educational programs, food and other vendors. -- Article

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Macon's Cannonball House will display military and other items from two time capsules placed with Confederate soldier monument

Officials hope to verify the identity of this man (Historic Macon Foundation)
Updated Sept. 26

Clearly, someone wanted this man to be remembered. His photograph, set in a small wooden case and protected by facing burgundy-colored cloth, was among items included in a time capsule placed at the base of a Confederate monument in Macon, Ga.

He likely was a Civil War veteran, given the monument was topped by a marble Confederate soldier holding a rifle, and he appears to wear a uniform. Are the crutches he holds the result of a battle injury or did the need to use them rise after war’s end and before the time capsule was created in 1878?

Officials with Macon’s Cannonball House recently opened two time capsules associated with the monument, one of two monuments relocated over the summer amid the national reckoning over Confederate memorials and after years of legal wrangling

Macon's Cannonball House interprets several topics (Wikipedia)
The house expects to exhibit some of the time capsule contents when it reopens Oct. 3 following a renovation of a few rooms, including its museum. Officials had hoped for a Sept. 26 reopening but there were unforeseen delays in one room.

Executive Director Cheryl Aultman tells the Picket that she hopes to eventually learn the man’s identity.

“I'm going to ask an expert in the field to get some pointers on where to go from here to try and identify him,” she wrote in an email. “I know a little about the (donor) family and I feel there must be some connection.”

Bibb County supplied numerous regiments to the Confederacy and, according to Aultman, it was the largest hospital center outside Richmond, Va., with 15 identified locations. There were several daguerreotype artists in Macon at that time, as well, she said

An inventory of the 1878 time capsule lists H.C. Tindall of Macon as the donor of the photograph and a miniature Confederate flag worn by a soldier. Another source gives his name as M.C. Tillman. A Cannonball House list of time capsule donors says Harry C. Tindall was a bookkeeper who died in 1929 and is buried in Atlanta. He would have been too young to fight in the Civil War.

About 50 people attended the Sept. 2 opening of the two copper boxes (left), Aultman at right and Earl Colvin holding one box. (Photo: Historic Macon Foundation)

“The contents of one box, put inside the monument’s base … were actually in better shape than a capsule placed near the monument’s cornerstone when it was relocated to Second Street and Cotton Avenue in 1956,” the Historic Macon Foundation said in a social media post. “Several of the items were damaged by moisture that had seeped in over the years.”

The laying of the cornerstone in 1878, a year before the monument was dedicated, drew thousands of spectators. A procession included several former Rebel officers who had lost an arm during the Civil War. Among the speakers was Gov. Alfred H. Colquitt, a Confederate brigadier general who advocated states’ rights. He opposed Reconstruction following the war.

The 1878 donations were largely focused on the military and most donors served with the Confederacy.

Monuments across the South following the Civil War perpetuated the 
Lost Cause narrative, which asserts states’ rights, rather than the preservation of slavery, was the South’s chief cause. Most historians have challenged that view.

The items included numerous regimental rolls and listings of those who died, newspapers, dozens of coins, a ballad about Gen. Robert E. Lee, a letter from Jefferson Davis (right) about the laying of the cornerstone, war bonds, Confederate money and a map taken from the body of Capt. J.G. Rogers of the 12th Georgia after he was killed at Antietam in September 1862.

The second time capsule was placed in the monument when it was moved in 1956 from Mulberry Street to Cotton Avenue. Among its items is a copy of “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell, yearbooks for two chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a Stone Mountain half dollar coin dated 1925 and a July 1866 letter to Lee confirming upon him the honorary degree of doctor of laws, and a copy of a letter in which he replied.

“There are a few more items that are too wet to open yet,” Aultman wrote last week. “We are attempting to dehumidify them and are hopeful we might yet save them. The large 1956 metal box had taken on moisture over the years damaging many of the items enclosed."

An early edition of the book was in the 1956 box (Historic Macon Foundation)
The Cannonball House, built in 1853 and named for damage it sustained during Federal cannon firing in July 1864, will display items with interpretive signage.

The house is “deeply honored to be chosen as the repository of these historic relics and are looking forward to sharing them with visitors,” Aultman said. 

Our docents are knowledgeable and love sharing the history of the Cannonball House, its inhabitants, and the history of many in the central Georgia area.”

The soldiers monument in its original location
The monument of the soldier is now in a small park outside Rose Hill Cemetery, where numerous Confederates are buried. Opponents of the move cited state law restricting movement of such monuments while others said the marble represented a bygone era and needed to leave its prominent spot downtown. Current plans are for the intersection to become a community green space.

The Cannonball House, which has Civil War and other collections, is open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Forty-five minute tours include the main residence and the original two-story brick kitchen and servants’ quarters. 856 Mulberry St., Macon, Ga.

Some of the coins found in a capsule (Historic Macon Foundation)

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Replaced Civil War marker in Smithfield, Va., recalls a ham-fisted Federal foray in 1864 that was all sizzle, but no steak

If you’re a believer in the adage “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” look no farther for an example than a Civil War skirmish that occurred in Smithfield, Va., best known for its famous hams.

But this debacle has nothing to do with pork. Rather, it was a foray of Union troops trying to stop Confederate harassment of naval ships. The brief mission failed, resulting in the capture of about 100 men, the loss of a Federal gunboat and the taking of a war trophy that rubbed salt in the wound.

Visitors to the Isle of Wight County Museum can learn about the Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1864, clash. Just outside is a new Civil War Trails sign replacing a marker damaged several years ago by a truck.

The text was revised for the new sign (above, courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum), officials told the Picket.

“Relocated from its former spot on Church Street, this sign brings more attention to the events which happened right here on Main Street in 1864,” museum director Jennifer England said in a press release.

The museum displays a model of the doomed Federal army gunboat Smith Briggs and a distinguished gilded eagle wrested from the vessel after capture and before its destruction.

Guilded eagle plundered from the Smith Briggs (Isle of Wight County Museum)
For months, federal transports and war vessels had been operating with impunity in the James and Nansemond  rivers despite Rebel harassment. The Yanks wanted to put an end to the firing on shipping and decided to land troops in Smithfield and have a separate detachment join the attack from Chuckatuck (Suffolk), to the southeast.

On Jan. 31, 1864, about 90 troops from the 99th New York Infantry and other regiments were transported via Pagan River to the unoccupied Smithfield, across from Newport News.

Union Capt. James Lee led his men south from Smithfield toward Chuckatuck, but ran into stiff opposition from local Confederate troops. The troops who landed at Chuckatuck heard distant firing, saw no enemy and decided to return to where they landed.

Things weren’t going well for their comrades in blue near Smithfield.

Model of the federal gunboat Smith Briggs at Isle of Wight County Museum
“Outmatched, Lee fell back on Smithfield, pulling items from stores along this street to throw up barricades in the hopes of stalling the Confederates,” the sign says. The Union troops were desperate for rescue.

The Smith Briggs returned the next day to save the harried Federal troops, but things went south, so to speak.

Confederate artillery caused the vessel to run aground, leading to its capture and looting. The trapped New Yorkers and others were forced to surrender. (Most were shipped to Andersonville prison in Georgia.)

The late local historian Segar “Sig” Dashiell, who wrote numerous newspaper articles about the history of Smithfield and other towns, wrote of the demise of the Smith-Briggs:

“When the Yankees had been removed, the citizens who had congregated on the wharf were allowed to come aboard the Smith Briggs and carry off anything they wanted. She was equipped with fine-cut glass with the name of the vessel cut on each piece and considerable supplies of tea, coffee and other goods… (Sgt. Joseph) Norsworthy climbed to the top of the pilot house and wrung and twisted from its bracket the handsome carved and gilded eagle that adorned the vessel and brought it ashore…A boy was sent around town to warn every householder to open all windows, as the gunboat was about to be blown up.”   

The Smithfield marker is one of four Civil War Trails markers in the county used to boost tourism. The nonprofit Civil War Trails is based in Virginia and has markers in six states.

By the way, there's a webcam in the museum for what's called the "world's oldest ham."

The Isle of Wight County Museum will host its next lecture and guided tour about the 1864 Battle of Smithfield at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22. A short ribbon-cutting event will take place during that lecture.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Man fined $15,000 for using metal detector, digging at Chancellorsville battlefield claimed he did not know he was on federal land

A portion of the Chancellorsville History Trail (NPS photo)
A Virginia man is paying a civil penalty of more than $15,000 after he was caught using a metal detector and digging on the Chancellorsville battlefield, officials said.

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Friday took to social media to remind visitors that it is unlawful to do such activities on federal land, saying artifacts are “an irreplaceable part of the nation’s heritage.”

Acting Superintendent Chris Collins on Monday told the Civil War Picket that the unidentified Alexandria man “was very forthcoming because he did not realize he was on federal property and gave up anything he had.”

The rangers discovered multiple unauthorized excavation sites.

Chris Collins
Collins said nothing significant had been removed from the area adjacent to the Chancellorsville History Trail. Given the circumstances, the agency handled the matter internally, rather than seek federal prosecution, officials said.

A press release said an off-duty Virginia State Police trooper noticed the man digging on the battlefield on March 16, 2021, and contacted the park, which sent rangers “who confronted the gentleman,” said Collins.

The man must pay $15,557.25 for damage caused by the excavation.

The trail is close to the park visitor’s center and State Route 3. The 4.3 mile loop follows “in the footsteps of Confederate soldiers hammering against the Union defense on the morning of May 3, Chancellorsville crossroads and house site, the Bullock House Site, and the apex of Hooker's last line,” according to the park.

The May 1863 battle was a decisive Confederate victory and paved the way for Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania that summer. It came at a huge cost: the death of Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, killed by his own men.

Collins said commercial development and lack of public awareness produce challenges for protecting historic resources. “There (are) consequences if you are doing something like this on federal property.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Numerous historic artifacts have been found during restoration of Georgia coastal building that survived burning in 1863, as shown in movie 'Glory'

Ceiling rafters and joists will be repaired, left exposed (Photos, Marion Savic)
You’ve got to be willing to play the long game – and the expenses that come with it – when trying to fix up a 200-year-old building that was close to collapsing in a cloud of dust.

Milan and Marion Savic and a team of preservation experts are in second and final phase of the extensive restoration of the Adam Strain building, a tabby structure that survived the controversial burning of Darien, Ga., during the Civil War.

The Strain, damaged in the fire, has stood on the bluffs of the small port city since circa 1813. The Savics hope new businesses – a brewery and event space -- will be open by mid-2023.

Crews stabilized the structure by shoring up the walls and installing tie rods and plates – all aimed at strengthening the picturesque landmark. They more recently have focused on steel support columns as they move toward shaping the interior space.

Interior of annex building next to Strain
“We have found a great deal of historic artifacts while digging for the footers. Everything is at the archaeology lab at Coastal Georgia Historical Society on St. Simons Island,” Marion Savic wrote in a recent email. “They are processing and dating all the finds. We have found items from Native American periods, 18th century and 19th century.”

Among the items found by an archaeological team in 2020 was a Civil War-era bullet -- likely an Enfield round. The team found it on a bluff that overlooks water, Savic told the Picket. The so-called Pritchett bullet was used in the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. The rifle was used by both sides during the conflict, and the Confederacy imported thousands from England.

It’s too early to surmise how the bullet came to be there, when it was deposited and to whom it belonged. 

The Adam Strain was used to store cotton prior to shipment in 1861 and 1862 before the Union naval blockade clamped down on Georgia’s coast.

By summer 1863, coastal towns knew that where the Union army was going, emancipation of slaves was soon to follow. That fact permeated society in Darien. Most of the town’s 500 white souls had fled before June 11, frightened by the blockade and the deployment of African-American troops on nearby St. Simons Island.

On that day, Darien was largely vacant.

Civil War bullet found during 2020 archaeological dig (Marion Savic)
Darien held little strategic value to the Union, but Col. James Montgomery, commanding the African-American 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, supposedly believed it was a safe haven for blockade runners.

He apparently had another reason for shelling, looting and burning Darienleaving only a few buildings standing among the charred ruins. The destruction was depicted in the award-winning 1989 film "Glory."

Steven Smith, site manager for nearby Fort King George Historic Site in 2013 when the Picket first wrote about the town’s burning, said Montgomery “wanted to make a political statement. Here was a town built on the backs of slaves.”

Montgomery ordered Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the famed 54th  Massachusetts Infantry to participate. While Shaw didn’t mind the looting to help resupply his troops, he opposed setting the town to torch. He apparently relented under threat of court-martial.

The Strain survived the fire but much of its interior was destroyed.

The Adam Strain building before stabilization work began in 2020
It was repaired and saw a rebirth for several decades before it was used for storage following World War II and then shuttered. 

The Picket first wrote in 2020 about the efforts to save the building after decades of deterioration. At one point before the Savics’ purchase, it appeared the beloved piece of history might be demolished. Made of oyster shell tabby and stucco, the structure, one of the oldest in Darien, is beloved by its 2,000 residents.

The Savics, who have experience in operating retail businesses in metro Atlanta, turned to an array of contracted historic preservation experts to bring back a building that was at risk of being toppled by strong winds. The work has often had to break for permits, updated engineering plans and supplies. A Facebook page keeps those interested up to date.

“Covid didn’t help with material prices and availability. It slowed it down more than we had anticipated. The building was also in worse shape that we all had thought, though that wasn’t a surprise,” says Marion Savic. “We expected the worst, so not a lot of surprises, but definitely some delays and unusual situations regarding the procurement of materials.”

Steel support pit showed evidence of fire (Marion Savic)
The Adam Strain is one of few tabby structures remaining on the Georgia coast.

Tabby is a type of cement made from crushed oyster shells and was popular in the region for several centuries leading up to the Civil War. Stucco is placed on the exterior to protect it from water damage.

Contractors are installing a steel membrane of columns and beams to support the walls.

There will be tabby loss when we begin to straighten and tighten up the steel membrane. The worst spot is on the back facing west facade. Landmark Preservation is our contractor and they are tabby experts, so all tabby will be reused if possible and they will make tabby to replace lost areas,” says Savic. “The entire building will be tabby, either original or rebuilt, covered with stucco as it is meant to be.”

The Adam Strain will house a brewery on the first floor and a history center/museum and event space on the second. A one-story adjoining building, which housed a bank and other businesses, will house a kitchen, brewing equipment, bathrooms, office and storage.

The museum will include artifacts and information from the archaeological dig. It  will convey the Strain’s and Darien’s history -- including shrimping, timber and the story of thousands of enslaved people who were the backbone of the economy in McIntosh and neighboring counties. (At left, these bottles were found beneath floorboards)

The Savics, from Marietta, Ga., want the Strain building to meet requirements for the National Register of Historic Places and they are pursuing economic incentives, including federal and state tax credits, available for such preservation. The property is a contributing resource to the West Darien National Register Historic District, which was listed in 2001.

According to Rebecca Fenwick with Ethos Preservation, which is working for the Savics on the project, property owners at the state level can receive a 25% historic tax credit and an eight-year year tax freeze. At the federal level, the property owners can receive a 20% historic tax credit.

“Tax credits can be taken against hard and soft costs, to include work on walls, windows, doors, floors, etc. Soft costs that are eligible include architect's fees, engineer's fees, contractor labor, etc.,” says Fenwick. “Of course, there are some strings attached, as all work proposed must be reviewed and meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation.”

The incentives acknowledge that historic rehabilitation projects often cost more than other projects and that historic buildings help tell our collective story and improve the quality of life of Georgians. Projects are made possible by these incentives that might not otherwise have the necessary funding to proceed,” Fenwick says. 

“I think the most interesting finds have been the discovery of additional masonry openings (windows and doors), with the removal of interior wall cladding," she says.

The preservation of the Strain building, which sits on the southeast corner of Broad and Screven streets, is just one piece – albeit a significant one – in any plans to boost the small downtown district, which has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.

A new boutique hotel on the river is scheduled to open this fall and there is new housing in the area. Savic’s husband, son and daughter-in-law opened The Canopy Restaurant in the historic Emanuel Brown house in Darien. Marion Savic also cites plans for downtown streetscaping and plans for repaired and expanded docks.

“Everyone is very excited for the completion of the project, and we hope that things will keep moving along,” she says.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Rally to the sound of the guns: Fort Pulaski near Savannah is looking for cannon crew volunteers. Here's what you need to know before enlisting

Crew fires a Parrott gun and trains on a howitzer; Doherty in foreground (NPS photos)
WANTED: Able-bodied men and women. No experience required. Applicants will undergo training and must pass a test. Requirements include working well with others and following orders. Job includes wearing a woolen uniform in hot weather. The position is a lot of fun, but safety comes first -- always. You’ll be firing cannons.

Fort Pulaski National Monument outside Savannah, Ga., recently took to social media to find folks for its cannon crew, with a special focus on Saturdays. While the Facebook post was not written quite like the Picket’s mock ad above, the job does entail those requirements.

Shannon L. Doherty, a park guide at Pulaski and its historic weapons supervisor, says it’s been tough to always field a crew because core volunteers sometimes can’t attend every event and staffers can’t always work extra days.

That’s where you might come in.

The cannon crew has typically been made up of older volunteers, many military veterans. But Doherty welcomes all those who can qualify.

“No experience is fine, because you have to be trained either way,” she says. “Firing a historic cannon is exhilarating. It’s loud and there’s the sulfur smell. The visitors come up and talk about how much they enjoyed it.”

The Fort Pulaski cannon crew portrays Union artillerymen.

They fire a reproduction 30-pounder Parrott rifle -- which recoils a bit -- and a 12-pounder smoothbore field howitzer, both made by Steen. The latter was not used in the Pulaski siege, but was a common anti-infantry weapon during the war.

National Park Service cannon and rifle crews do not fire period weapons. Chief Ranger George Elmore of Fort Larned National Historic Site in Kansas told the Picket in 2014 the agency does not want to risk destroying an historic artifact.

Various stages of the making of artillery rounds, not in sequence.
Doherty, trained in black powder, supervises  the work. (NPS photos)
Fort Pulaski has about two dozen cannons, several of which date to the Civil War. The Confederate masonry fortification surrendered in April 1862 after withering fire from Federal rifled guns destroyed parts of the wall and threatened its magazine. The innovative rifled weapons brought an end to that type of fort construction.

NPS venues that fire reproduction 18th and 19th century small arms and artillery must have an employee certified in their use and safety. Of course, actual rounds are not fired. Doherty, who underwent required NPS black-powder training in March, must be present at all cannon firings and she trains and supervises the crew.

Crew members must have awareness and aptitude

Both of Fort Pulaski’s demonstration weapons are in the parade ground. Each is fired during a typical 25-minute program. “We are trying to connect it to the theme of the park,” says Doherty. One example is the freedom story – how the Federal army helped the emancipation process.

National parks that fire cannons must follow a lengthy safety manual that is remarkably close to standards during the Civil War. “We try to be historically accurate and as safe as possible,” says Doherty.

Cannoneers sponge the Parrott barrel at Pulaski (NPS photo)
Accidents are exceedingly rare, but the work does come with danger. In 2014, the breech of a gun fired at Fort McHenry National Monument failed, leaving one member of the cannon crew slightly injured.

Fort Pulaski requires volunteers to read the rules and take a 24-question test on safety. A couple questions are, “If the cannon fails to fire, what command is given?” and “The minimum waiting time before the piece is reprimed after a misfire is:”

The NPS manual of instruction begins with a sobering reminder for crews to be well-trained and prepared. It lists the four primary causes of accidents in historic weapons demonstrations using artillery:

1. Rapid firing

2. Poorly maintained or improper equipment

3. Improper drill

4. Improper ammunition

Cannon crew members march in for a demonstration at Pulaski (NPS photo)
During the Civil War, guns typically had a crew of eight. Crews firing replica weapons typically have six members, with one member fulfilling three spots, involving retrieving a charge and moving it up to the cannon.

Doherty makes sure they go over equipment and members understand all positions. Unlike, the Civil War, when all those in a battery needed to be interchangeable because of death or injury, volunteers don’t have to serve at every position.

For example, the No. 1 position involves sponging the barrel and ramming the round down the tube. “That can freak some people out.” 

The crew drills the morning of any cannon firings.

“(It’s) being comfortable into whether it was in one position or others, feeling confident. Not being shaky on anything,” Doherty says. “I am watching to see proficiency, if someone isn’t doing too well.” (At right, Parrott sponger, rammer and wormer at Fort Pulaski, NPS photo)

Another view of the howitzer training (NPS photo)
Elmore, who has conducted safety courses for NPS staffers, said each park is required to have its own magazine, meet ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) requirements and to have a loading area.

Doherty says the crew routinely goes over equipment, for example ensuring there are no holes in hand gloves are splinters in the sponge rammer. They are equipped with hearing protection.

The cannon cannot be fired more than once every 10 minutes. Visitors are 50 feet away and no one can be downrange of the barrel.

“This is not a race. We do need to be deliberate in the steps and not a rush. That’s when errors happen.”

Making the rounds safely is exacting work

Doherty – following ATF and NPS rules -- works with a mold to make the replica rounds, which contain aluminum foil, black powder and peat moss; the latter adds length and volume to the shell. On the day of firing, a friction primer causes ignition, setting off the black powder.

Black powder, finished rounds are kept in powder magazine
The black powder and finished rounds are stored in a World War II-era magazine.

The powder comes in a plastic bottle. The larger Parrott gun requires all 16 ounces while the howitzer uses about half of that.

Doherty takes the powder from the magazine, places it in a locked non-sparking box and works in another room after park hours.

While Doherty solely can do a few of the steps, others can help certain parts of the preparation – but only under her supervision.

To prevent a fire or explosion, Doherty works with a wooden table that has no exposed nails. It takes about 30-45 minutes to prepare six rounds, enough for three firings a day.

The rounds, weighing about a pound, are returned to the magazine for future use.

When the Picket wrote about NPS black-powder training in 2014, powder cost about $15 a pound. Like everything else, it’s gotten a lot more expensive.

A recent order of 50 pounds cost about $1,200 with shipping, Doherty says.

Fort Pulaski has helped other parks, including Fort Sumter National Monument, with supply.

More crew members, more cannon firings

The venue hopes the addition of a few more volunteers might ensure Saturday firings throughout the year.

Interestingly, the park did artillery demonstrations on Wednesdays during June and July because of higher staffing that day and the fact that visitors tended to travel on the weekends.

A crew moves the limber in the Fort Pulaski parade ground (NPS photo)
Fort Pulaski is particularly busy in November and December for holidays, thus the push to recruit more crew members. Doherty has three core members, all area retirees, to depend on, but she needs a bigger pool of recruits.

Sometimes, re-enactors come in with different standards. Doherty stresses people need to be open to learning and follow NPS rules.

For all the safety concerns, serving on a crew has its rewards.

“We can provide unrivaled weekend entertainment and outstanding camaraderie,” the park’s callout said.

Recruits can enlist with the Fort Pulaski cannon crew by emailing Historic Weapons Supervisor Shannon Doherty at Applicants will also speak with the park's volunteer coordinator.