10 Reasons to be a Civil War Artilleryman
by Greg M Romaneck
In many ways being an artilleryman in reenacting can be compared to the lot of the proverbial “stepchild”. At many living histories, mid-sized reenactments, and larger regional or national events the artillery becomes a branch of service that is relegated to holding the chair while the more robust and omnipresent infantrymen sit at the table. Cannons are cumbersome objects and their movement on the reenacting battlefield is both rare and unwieldy. In many instances, infantrymen will fail to take seriously the impressions, dedication, and hard work that go into being an artilleryman. Yet, despite these elements of scoffing at artillerymen that sometimes arise being a cannoneer is an impression that has much to be said for it.
While it is true that there is a great deal of logistical hassle inherent in an artillery impression there are far more benefits than disadvantages. Being an artilleryman may not be the most numerous or glamorous impression but it can become a highly satisfying one.
In some ways, an artillery impression provides advantages absent from all other branches of service open to living historians. What follows is a brief summary of ten keynote reasons why the pursuit of an authentic artillery impression may be just the right thing for a current or potential reenactor.
1. FAMILY ORIENTATION: While it is not uniformly true there appears to be a general consensus among reenactors that artillery groups tend to be more open to a family orientation. Many artillery units welcome spouses and children as part of the group. Attached civilian impressions are the norm with many artillery reenactment units. If having your family be a part of your hobby is important you are much more likely to be able to follow that dream in the artillery than in the somewhat more exclusive infantry.
2. EMPHASIS ON TEAMWORK: There is no doubt that infantrymen participating in events are required to have a high level of expertise in drill. Infantry units unable to perform basic school of the soldier and company/battalion drill quickly stand out in a negative way on the field. However, the teamwork involved in manning a cannon is much more life preserving than that engaged in by foot soldiers. A gun crew is a team with each person having not only their own assignment but a huge safety inspector element as well. A well-drilled crew acts almost as one. The repetition involved in clearing, loading, and tiring a weapon of potential mass destruction breeds a strong sense of both teamwork and camaraderie.
3. LIVING HISTORY OPPORTUNITIES: At many events members of the public are drawn to the cannons as if to a magnet. An original twelve-pounder Napoleon stands out in its bronzed dignity as an object that needs to be described and examined. Thus, at many events simply standing by the guns affords a living historian ample opportunities to speak with the public. It seems more likely that an artillery reenactor with a bent for public discourse will have more chances to interact with spectators than the sometimes reclusive infantrymen.
4. CENTER STAGE PRESENTATIONS: At small to moderate sized events the artillery makes a greater impression on the public than the infantry does. Pay attention to the crowd’s reaction the first time a cannon fires and you will note that it is more impressive than that resulting from the scattered skirmish fire of a few dozen hardy infantrymen. The public will be at fairly close viewing range at the more moderately scaled events. Therefore, artillerymen will make a bigger show for them than their infantry cousins. If you think of a reenactment as a form of performance art than the gunners are on center stage with other branches as supporting actors.
5. ARTILLERY IS ECONOMICAL: It is far less expensive to get started as an artilleryman than any other branch of service. Once you connect with a reputable, authentic and safety conscious unit all you need to purchase is your basic uniform with minimal accoutrements. The cost of a musket alone basically surpasses the introductory costs of an artillery impression. Cavalrymen are far beyond the scope of cost required in the artillery as they have a veritable host of horseflesh expenses. Thus, it’ the initial investment necessary to get started in the hobby is a factor you had best strongly consider artillery.
6. THERE IS A PROUD HERITAGE: If you have read very much about the Civil War you will come to realize that the artillery was a far more professional branch of service than the infantry. In the Union forces the artillery cadre was marked by discipline more akin to the regulars than that implemented in the volunteer infantry regiments. Southern units such as the Richmond Howitzers and Washington Artillery were highly polished and well drilled. In many ways, the Federal artillery stands out as one of, if not the most, consistently excellent group of men to serve on either side. One would be hard-pressed to find many instances when Union gunners failed to perform at an outstanding level in any battle. Being an artilleryman on either side represents following in the footsteps of men who not only served their country but also did so with an unusually high level of excellence.
7. ORIGINAL PIECES: In many instances reenactment groups have successfully restored original tubes on reproduction carriages and thereby brought historical artifacts back to life. Serving on an original gun is a thrill unmatched by many other experiences in reenacting. To fire a piece that was used at Shiloh, Atlanta, or Vicksburg represents a direct connection with our Civil War ancestors. Being able to tell spectators that the cannon they are looking at, touching, and observing was actually used in the Civil War is a wonderful living history treat. If you are fortunate enough to serve on such a gun take pride in yourself and; the, men who worked that piece in the 1860’s.
8. LONGEVITY: Even though there are some physical demands involved in moving a cannon it is generally true that a person can survive in an artillery unit longer than in an infantry group. The energy needed to march, fight, carry a pack, and generally light as an infantryman is tar beyond what is normally required of an artillery reenactor. It can be very tough to move a gun on a hot and humid day or to manhandle it through the mud. However, those experiences are not the norm. If you are at a point in your reenacting career where you feel the energy reserves you possess are ebbing perhaps artillery is the ticket. If you are considering joining a living history group for the first time and you are fearful of the physical demands involved in infantry you probably stand a greater likelihood of having a longer reenacting career in artillery.
9. COMRADESHIP: The togetherness of a well-drilled gun crew is pronounced. Likewise, many artillery groups are marked by a tremendous sense of comradeship and mutual responsibility. Artillery groups are confronted by logistical demands that their less encumbered infantry relations avoid. At the end of an event an infantryman can reasonably walk oil’ the field carrying all he needs on his back and in his hands. It is impossible for an artillery battery to exit the field in this way. In order to function in any reasonable fashion an artillery unit must be built around a shared work ethic. Moving the guns off and back onto the unit’s transport vehicles requires effort and teamwork. Coping with the seemingly inevitable deluges that congregate at many events pushes an artillery unit to pull together to even exit the premises. Out of this mutual dependence a much tighter sense of comradeship develops than is often observable in the more independently minded infantry groups.
10. IT IS SIMPLY FUN: Whatever impression you choose to develop, living history is a wonderful hobby. You will make friends, see historic places, and come to understand a small part of the original Civil War soldier’s experience in a way that no book can convey. Although all impressions otter unique elements they can also become somewhat repetitive. If you can swing it try to “cross train” and have the ability to pursue two or more impressions. Consider making one of those impressions an artillery man. Being on the field or in camp with a lightly bonded and well-drilled artillery unit affords a unique type of reenacting fun. Think about sleeping under an original gun on a battlefield such as Perryville, Prairie Grove, or Resaca in a way similar to that of our Civil War predecessors and you will conjure up the possibilities inherent in being an artilleryman.
In closing, please bear in mind that personal preferences in reenacting will vary. In no way should an endorsement of an artillery impression be confused with belittling other branches of service. In a world where tolerance is not always in evidence it would be helpful to realize that there may well be “different strokes for different folks”. Within the range of Civil War living history impressions other reenactors sometimes deride artillery. Yet, the next time you glance at the guns on the field stop and think about how much effort it took to get those field pieces where they are. Then ponder the safety issues inherent in tiring a charge of up to one pound of powder per round. Consider the dedication of people who transport an artifact weighing a ton, or more, across hundreds of miles and then see if your own commitment to the hobby is more profound. Being an artilleryman demonstrates a love of Civil War history not much different than that of other committed living historians. This is an impression worthy of respect and interest. It is also one that offers great possibilities to either new recruits or veterans seeking a change of pace.