Niagara-on-the-Lake War of 1812 battle reenactment: How it’s done
There’ll be lots of the stuff flying around Fort George during the War of 1812 bicentennial commemoration, especially at the July 14-15 naval assault on the fort (a classic battle still taught at America’s elite West Point military academy), and the Oct. 12-14 celebration of the Battle of Queenston Heights.
Recreating a battle on “archeologically sensitive” ground is tricky. For one thing, says Peter Martin, you can’t dig in case you disturb a relic. That means you can’t bury the explosives needed for the pyrotechnic effects.
From volunteers in period uniform firing Brown Bess muskets several times a day for visitors to the fort to full-scale battle reenactments, creating the illusion of reality is all-important, says Martin, special events coordinator for Niagara National Historic Sites. That and ensuring it all goes off safely.
Which is why firing a cannon in battle involves more than one big bang. Cannon were actually aimed at the ground so the solid ball would skip, rather like a flat stone across a pond, and take down as many enemy troops as possible.
To simulate this, several small charges are laid in line where the ball would bounce and set off remotely with split-second timing so you’d swear you were following the deadly progress of a chunk of iron. The flying peat moss that was heaped over the charges makes it even more dramatic.
“It’s not just fireworks,” says Martin, who’s always ready to put on a uniform and swell the ranks as anything from a private in the Glengarry Light Infantry, a sergeant in the 41st Regiment of Foot or an officer in the Royal Engineers. “We hire experts who know how to get it right.”
That’s right first time; there are no rehearsals.
“You get one shot . . . literally,” he says.
Different armaments created different results. A mortar fired an explosive shell, generally fused to blow up before it hit the ground and spread mayhem among enemy troops. Martin compares it to a basketball, lobbed over obstacles with a certain amount of precision.
A simulated mortar blast needs smaller, secondary detonations “with sparkly things” to suggest the shell explosion.
Cannonballs, he says, were more like baseballs: “Your fastball, straight and hard — [They] go through everything.”
But then there were “hot shots,” cannonballs heated until they glowed red with the aim of setting fire to buildings.
“The Americans showered Fort George with hot shots and burned it to a cinder,” he explains.
Ground-charges to blow up a building become complicated when no digging is allowed.
“But we’ve worked with the experts to use big tubes of steel. You put the charge at the bottom, fill them with peat moss and then hide them. All you see is the explosion and the flying earth; you don’t think about where it came from.”
And then there are the Congreve rockets, designed by Sir William Congreve and notoriously unreliable and inaccurate. But they were one of the first “terror” weapons.
“They screamed really loud when they were in flight,” Martin says. “They were psychologically terrifying. Trying to emulate that safely is difficult. It’s not nearly as straightforward as the rockets used in firework displays.
“Doing a battle reenactment is totally different. It’s not all pretty colours and ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and it’s usually over quite quickly — boom, boom, boom, pow! But it’s very spectacular.
“At the same time, it has to be safe, both for the spectators and the reenactors. You may have 300 of them on the field and it has to be very clear where they can and cannot go. There’s always a staff guy on hand to say, ‘The field is clear,’ before they cross.
“It’s not just keeping them away from the explosions; there are holes left behind and you don’t want them tripping and maybe getting injured.
“This is just a pretend battle. Guys fall over and play dead, but then they get up again. The idea is for it to end without a single casualty.”
For more information on the 1812 celebrations, visit http:www/pc.gc.ca/voyage-travel/provinces/intro-ontario/1812.aspx
How to fire a cannon
In the madness of battle, firing a cannon depended upon method — the same disciplined movements time after time from the gun crew, which could be as many as six men.
Peter Martin explains: “The vent-man would be at the back of the cannon. He’d use a long metal needle to check that the vent-hole was clear. Then a ‘worm,’ a long pole with a screw at the end would go down the barrel to pull out any debris left from the last shot.
“Then the piece would be sponged with a pole like a big Q-Tip, dipped in water. That was for cleaning the barrel and putting out any burning embers.
“The powder and shot would go in and be rammed down — very carefully. If the cannon went off prematurely, it could take guy’s arms off. Then the vent-man used his needle to piece the powder-cartridge and insert a quill filled with powder and the cannon would be touched off with a rope soaked in saltpeter that burned rather like a cigarette.
“Sounds complicated, but a well-trained crew could get off a shot every minute.”
Some unscrupulous commanders — “None of ours,” he says — could boost that rate by omitting the safety steps. But such was the risk of a misfire that reserves waited behind the gun to take over from the inevitable casualties among the crew.
Musket-fire, too, calls for a carefully disciplined display of precision.
“But an experienced man can get off four shots a minute,” Martin says. “The fastest I’ve seen — and done myself — is 10 seconds.”
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