Cannon fire at Fort McHenry helps to mark celebration

Gunners and musicians are part of living history events

September 13, 2014|By Carrie Wells | The Baltimore Sun

The gunners at Fort McHenry readied the 3-ton cannon known as Messenger, heaving it into position behind a wooden wall with a block-and-rope pulley system and loading it with gunpowder and a substitute cannonball of peat moss.

The call came: "Clear!" and the gunners stepped to the side, with one touching a slow match to the gunpowder inside the cannon. The boom rocked the air and echoed across Baltimore's harbor as a geyser of fire and smoke poured from the cannon's mouth.

Park ranger Tyler Mink said the first time he set off a cannon, the experience was "a little nerve-racking." Though the cannons at Fort McHenry were firing peat moss instead of real cannonballs, there is a danger that the gunpowder can ignite inside the cannon and explode, and the fire and force coming from the cannon could kill a person standing in front of it, he said.

Saturday's re-enactment at Fort McHenry, complete with soldiers, sailors and citizens dressed as they would have been in 1814, was part of the "Living History" events for the Star Spangled Spectacular bicentennial celebration of the national anthem. For the volunteers, Navy sailors and park rangers who set off cannons or played traditional fifes and drums, the experience was also a lot of fun.

"I am very lucky, because I'm firing cannons and not down in the parking lot," Mink said. "Being a history buff, this is just to die for. Plus, we get to wear nifty uniforms."

The re-enactors included fife and drum players led by Tim Ertel, music director for the U.S. National Park Service. The group performs at Baltimore Orioles games and other events, but this weekend, the plan was to play "Yankee Doodle" at the same time it was played in 1814.

"When we play 'Yankee Doodle,' it's the 'Yankee Doodle' straight out of the manual," from the 1800s, Ertel said.

On Saturday, gunners set off three 6,000-pound iron and oak cannons capable of firing 18- to 24-pound rounds, in addition to a cannon that can fire a 12-pound round and another that can fire a 6-pound round, Mink said. The barrels of the cannons are first cleared of debris with a corkscrew device called a worm, then swabbed with a sponge on a wooden pole to cool them and extinguish any remaining embers. Gunpowder in a flannel or silk bag, weighing about a third of the weight of the shot, is then inserted.

A gunner pokes a small hole in the gunpowder bag with a brass pick, then loads a vent with a finer gunpowder called primer. Then a gunner touches what's called a slow match, which burns at a measured rate, to the gunpowder.

The cannons, some named after soldiers who died at Fort McHenry, can fire shot at 980 miles per hour. The report is so loud that most gunners wear foam earplugs.

"It is loud, but you get used to it," said retired gunnery Sgt. Thomas E. Williams, director of the U.S. Marine Corps Historical Company. "I'm stone deaf in my left ear, between aircraft and gunfire."

The Living History re-enactors planned to set off 91 rounds between about 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. Saturday, with more to come in the following days and after the bicentennial celebrations end.

The Star-Spangled Spectacular "is not the end," Mink said. "We're going to keep educating, keep commemorating well into the future."

cwells@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cwellssun

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