published Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Park Service seeks volunteers to fire artillery

Park Ranger Chris Young fires a replica Civil War era Enfield rifle during a firearms demonstration at Chickamauga Battlefield on Wednesday. The battlefield is looking for volunteers to work in Union cannon teams for re-enactments, which require a minimum of six crew for each cannon.
Park Ranger Chris Young fires a replica Civil War era Enfield rifle during a firearms demonstration at Chickamauga Battlefield on Wednesday. The battlefield is looking for volunteers to work in Union cannon teams for re-enactments, which require a minimum of six crew for each cannon.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

TO PARTICIPATE

Training sessions for volunteer artillery cannoneers begin on Saturday, May 5. Volunteers need to be at least 16 years old. For information, contact Park Ranger Gerry Allen at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park at 423-752-5213, ext. 120.

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If the idea of shooting off a cannon while dressed as a Civil War soldier appeals to you, now's your chance.

The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is seeking artillery cannoneers to take park in re-enactments this summer and fall at Chickamauga Battlefield and on Lookout Mountain. The first training session is on Saturday, May 5.

"We're just trying to get some new blood," said Park Ranger Gerry Allen, who's in charge of the park's black powder program.

The catch?

You have to dress like a Union soldier. The park's cannoneers are all federal troops.

"There may be a few volunteers that aren't willing to wear blue," Park Ranger Chris Young said. "To most people, it's not that big of a deal."

Re-enactments are about the "memory of the soldiers that were here, no matter what side they fought on," he added.

Still, being a volunteer cannoneer requires a commitment of time and effort, and not just in the clothing.

"They have to take two days of training just to shoot the thing one time," Allen said.

There's some risk involved, even though the park's cannoneers don't fire projectiles and only use 8 ounces of gunpowder -- compared to the 2 pounds that would have been used in a real battle cannon.

Re-enactors must be sure not to step in front of a cannon when it fires, for example. And, unlike Civil War soldiers, cannoneers wear ear protection nowadays.

A six-man cannon crew works like a machine with six separate parts, and each re-enactor has a specific job to do very quickly. For example, one man sponges the barrel, another pricks the powder bag, and another loads the primer.

In battle, cannoneers constantly had to monitor each others' movements.

"It's basically choreography on the cannon," Allen said. "You could fire a gun one time every 20 seconds, if you were a good crew.

"It's a real team-building exercise," he said.

While the park is littered with antique cannons, the Park Service only allows modern-day reproductions to be fired. The park has two reproductions: An iron 3-inch-diameter ordinance rifle and a shiny, bronze 12-pound howitzer, so named because it fires 12-pound iron cannonballs.

The park plans four cannon firings this summer: two at Chickamauga Battlefield and two on Lookout Mountain.

The highlight will come in September, when six cannons manned by a total of 36 men will give Chickamauga Battlefield visitors a sense of the deafening sound and fury generated by a battery-gun crew. For that event, volunteer crews and four cannons will come from Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia and Stones River national battlefields and Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee.

The cannon and gunfire was so loud during the two-day battle of Chickamauga that residents about 50 miles to the south thought they were hearing a thunderstorm, according to newspaper accounts from the time, Allen said.

"You could hear it in Rome, Ga.," he said. "It was Chickamauga [fighting] that was occurring."

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township┬╣s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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