Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Fort at Number 4

The Objective
From Wikipedia: The Fort at Number 4 was the northernmost British settlement along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire until after the French and Indian War. Now known as Charlestown, it was more than 30 miles (50 km) from the nearest other British settlement at Fort Dummer. Construction began in 1740 by brothers Stephen, Samuel and David Farnsworth. By 1743, there were 10 families settled in a square of interconnected houses, enclosed in a stockade with a guard tower.

In the early 1970's, not knowing that the War Between the States had been over for more than a hundred years, an intrepid band of Confederate infantry crossed the Connecticut River from Vermont into New Hampshire and seized the Fort at Number 4. These men were a detachment from the 10th Mississippi Volunteer Infantry who had been given the mission of raiding the North and causing maximum disruption to the Northern war effort. Obviously, they were too late and too few to have the desired effect.

Confederate scouts in mufti had been observing the bridge over the Connecticut River for a few days prior to the planned assault in order to determine the best time to strike. Finally it was decided that 3:00 AM would be the best time as traffic over the bridge generally ceased shortly after 1:00 AM and didn't pick up again until just before sunrise.

The raiders had been living undercover for a number of weeks in Springfield on the Vermont side of the river as it was felt that it would be easier to remain incognito in the larger town. Then, as now, Charlestown had a rather small number of inhabitants.

At 2:30 AM, the assault party met on the Vermont side of the river at a place just down river from the bridge. Gearing up, they moved out and began moving over the bridge towards the fort. The troops managed to move unobserved to the very walls of the fort. Dragging out their scaling ladders from where they had been concealed in an uncut wheat field, the party was quickly up and over the wall.

Discovering that the fort was unoccupied, the Confederate troops raised the Confederate banner over the tower and settled in to await the morning. The fort was theirs, but could they hold it?

The Real Story

The above actually happened. However, the "troops" were not actually Confederate infantry but a small group of reenactors who had had their sense of honor offended. I know, I was there and I shouldered my SN&WTC rifle with the other fellows when we seized the fort.

You see, in the days of my youth I was a Civil War reenactor. At the age of 13 I had joined up with a small group of reenactors who consisted of a few adults and multiple young lads like myself. We were horrible looking and about as authentic as those Italian admirals I mentioned in my Waterloo post.

For uniforms we wore dark blue "Big Yank" shirts and pants. Seriously. Not terribly realistic looking. For the very few reenactments we went to it was only through the chivalry of our fellow Northerners and the honor of our Southern foes that we were not laughed off the field.

As we got a little older we discovered that coming up with reasonably authentic looking Southern apparel was a lot easier than actually coming up with authentic looking Union uniforms. As many Southern troops wore their everyday clothes to the war, especially in the later years of the conflict, we found suitable woolen clothing of the appropriate period shades and went forth to war. The equipment and weapons we had were fairly authentic, so we didn't look too bad at all.

So we transformed ourselves from the 9th Vermont to the 10th Mississippi. The first reenactment we went to we were well-received by the other participants. But that is another story for another day.

During this period, which was after high school and before my enlistment in the Air Force, we had a buddy who had found a volunteer gig at the Fort at Number 4. Seems the folks who ran that place had a cannon and needed someone to fire that cannon on weekends for the joy and amazement of the tourists. Our buddy volunteered those of us who were willing to serve as the crew of this cannon.

Now if you will recall from that blurb above from Wikipedia, this fort was active around the time of the French and Indian wars. So we were all expecting a cannon from that era. Nope. What they had was a James six-pounder, from the Civil War (that's the War Between the States for my Southern readers). To add insult to injury, the uniforms they provided for the gun crew were completely inaccurate.

Now for a reenactor in those days, the worst insult which could be bestowed was to be called a "farb". This term was, I believe, derived from the German word for color, "Farbe". To be called a "farb" was to infer that one's uniforms and accouterments were inaccurate, or "colorful".

So the uniforms provided immediately placed us in the "farb" category. But we realized we were just there for the tourists and we all rather doubted that any of them had any real knowledge of the time period in question.

Our jackets were red. Which pleased the crowd, because we all knew growing up that the British wore red. Unfortunately, British artillerymen of the period wore blue uniforms. Most artillerymen of the day wore drab colored uniforms because serving the guns was a very dirty business. One got filthy very quickly.

But we adapted and over time we tweaked and modified our uniforms and equipment so we didn't look that bad. Management at the fort began to have certain, shall we say, misgivings about our behavior. After all, the folks who ran the place were supposedly experts on the period. Well, they were as far as what civilians looked like back then. About the military forces of the time period, they had no clue. They were insistent that we could not change our coats from red to blue, after all "everyone knows that the British Army wore red coats". Grrrr.

Another thing which irked the hell out of us was the powder charges they issued to us for the thrice daily firing of the gun. It came wrapped in tissue and was about enough black powder to make the gun go "poof". Okay, it was a little louder than that. But not much. To them it was enough to get the rather large amount of smoke which black powder produces.

We pleaded with the "colonial authorities" at the fort (for such they thought they were) for more powder. Just maybe a quarter pound charge, just enough to let our cannon bark, if not roar. But no. They were very safety conscious. We tried to explain that all of us were most experienced with black powder weapons and knew enough about the gun to take the proper precautions.

They thought they were being safety conscious but in reality they didn't know squat. For instance, when we brought out a wooden bucket, filled with water, they were curious as to what the bucket was for. They were kind of amazed when we pointed out that it was important to swab the barrel out after firing to extinguish any lingering embers. "Hmmm, we didn't know that", they murmured in amazement.

We put on quite a show at the fort. We actually staged a dual with flintlock pistols one day. The crowd on hand was most delighted. The authorities, not so much. We needed, they said, to stick to the script. Which to them was: march out, load the gun, fire it, then march back inside. Three times a day. Boring!

Well, we stuck to the script for the rest of the summer. But (unbeknownst to the Crown) we were squirreling away just a bit of powder out of our standard issue with each firing. By the last Sunday of the summer we had perhaps a half pound charge. Enough to make Mr James at least bark, if not roar. Then our gun captain figured out a way to make the show a bit more spectacular. The final Sunday we went out into the fields around the fort and cut some hay. Quite a bit of hay actually.

For the final shot, we loaded up Mr James with that half-pound of powder and tamped the charge down with rather a lot of well-soaked hay. The crowd was expectant, the authorities were a bit nervous as they were wondering what all the hay was for.

The gun was loaded. The crew stepped back and the gun captain brought his slow match down to the touch hole. The crowd sensed something was afoot.

When the cannon discharged, Mr James did not bark. No, Mr James ROARED! That wad of hay flew over the stockade wall and I swear the gun rolled back in recoil perhaps a foot.

The crowd was silent for a moment, then began to roar their approval. The authorities were furious but hid it well from the tourists. When the last group left the fort, the Crown informed us that we were NOT invited back for the next season. We were out of hand and out of control they claimed. Dorks.

So we did not return the next summer as a gun crew. But we did show up with a few friends in the garb of the Confederate States for to seize the fort in the still of the night. On the very first day of the tourist season.

When the staff showed up to unlock the gates, they were somewhat puzzled to see the Confederate flag flying over the fort. They were even more amazed to find a squad of 15 rebel soldiers drawn up at the present arms on the parade ground inside the fort. The younger guy on the staff thought it was a hoot, the more senior guy was NOT happy.

We were threatened with action by the local constabulary until the local newspaper showed up with a cameraman. We were interviewed and photographed, the local media thought it was pretty neat. (They had been forewarned of the impending action by a buddy of ours who worked at the local paper.)

We marched away from the fort, past a line of cars loaded with tourists who thought it was a great show. (I often wonder if any of them thought it odd that Confederate infantry had seized a French and Indian War era fort. But the ignorance of history has long been somewhat prevalent in the US. It has gotten worse over time,  sad to say.)

So we had avenged the insult to our reenactors' honor. We had taken over the fort from which we had been discharged as amateur artillerymen. We were, after all, unpaid volunteers and we did know our business with muzzle loading, black powder cannon. We actually studied prior to joining up!

But the fort did get a lot of visitors that summer. Seems that the article in the paper (along with pictures!) with our exploits had been picked up by a larger newspaper and this attracted a number of tourists to the fort.

We later heard that Mr James did not get exercised that summer (or the next), as the Crown could not find any volunteers to serve the gun...

A shame really, it was such a lovely cannon.

A Cousin of Mr James (foreground)


  1. That's a pretty danged good story... ALL of it!

    1. Appreciate the compliment Buck. Hot out there I see!


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