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Artillery demos planned for Harpers Ferry

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — In September 1862, the tranquility of the river valleys surrounding Harpers Ferry was disrupted by the roar of heavy artillery fire as Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate troops captured the town.

“As one Confederate reported, Harpers Ferry was, and I quote, ‘a magnificent pyrotechnic display,'” said Dennis Frye, chief historian of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. “One Union solider saw it a different way, and I quote, ‘Many giant trees around us were torn into atoms.'”

This weekend, the Park’s Living History reenactors will kick off a season of artillery demonstrations that will offer visitors a small taste of the explosive force that town residents experienced during that long-ago bombardment.

One weekend a month through October, alternating groups of Confederate and Union reenactors will set up replica smooth bore cannons or rifled artillery guns on the Bolivar Heights Battlefield and fire off several rounds of blank charges.

“You’re standing on the ground that the original cannons shook and you can feel the demonstration cannon shake that ground right under your feet,” Frye said. “It’s without a doubt one of our most popular living history programs.”

The reenactors will make themselves available to answer visitors’ questions before and after each discharge throughout the weekends.

John King, the park’s chief historical weapon’s officer, enjoys educating visitors on the technical specifications of the artillery. He said that this weekend will feature rifled cannons that fire missile-shaped exploding shells measuring about 10 inches long, 3 inches in diameter and weighing about ten pounds. The 7-foot-long, 700-pound guns could fire a round every 30 to 45 seconds and had an average range of about a mile. Each gun required six horses to move it into place, another six to haul the ammunition, and a crew of seven specialized soldiers to load, aim and fire.

“It’s a very complex activity because the shell is loaded from the front of the gun,” King said. “Then the shell was rammed through the rear of the gun, then a small explosive device is inserted into the breech, which when a rope is pulled creates the explosion which send the shell to its destination.”

King said that despite the enormous investment of battlefield resources behind each artillery gun and the low casualty rates that resulted from their use, Jackson surrounded Harpers Ferry with 60 guns because of the psychological effects caused by the blasts.

“Close to 70 percent of the casualties in World War I and World War II were by artillery. Probably less than 10 percent of the Civil War casualties were from artillery, but it had a terrific effect on soldiers,” King said. “In the Civil War, not as many men were hit by artillery shells, but it still had the same effect of demoralizing people. The loudness of it would be terrifying. Blasting a shell near you would scare people very, very much.”

King said that in addition to educating visitors, the artillery demonstrations will serve as a memorial to everyone who died in the war.

“It is a commemoration for the men who fought and died for us here. I say for us because, Yankee or Confederate, there’re fighting for their cause. But by the end of the war, it is one union,” King said.

The demonstrations will take place at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday. Other Living History events will take place throughout the day, including camp cooking demonstrations and displays of Civil War artifacts. Shuttles from the Visitor Center at Cavalier Heights to the Bolivar Heights Battlefield will be provided.

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