Archive for Sunday, August 24, 1997

CIVIL WAR DAYS BRING HISTORY TO LIFE

August 24, 1997

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From howitzers to hardtack, Civil War Days brings history to life.

Judging from the colors of uniforms worn by Civil War re-enactors in Lawrence's Constant Park Saturday afternoon, Johnny Reb still isn't welcome in Kansas.

The encampment, part of Civil War Days, will continue today and features artillery, rifle, blacksmith and cooking demonstrations.

The navy blue wool uniforms worn by Frontier Brigade members during the Civil War Days camp re-enactment showed the men's loyalty not only to the North, but to their hobby. Temperatures reached into the high 80s on Saturday, but few of the men shed the heavy wool jackets and itchy pants.

"It's hot," said Roy Lafferty.

Lafferty, Lawrence, portrays a corporal with the 3rd Kansas Light Artillery unit, and was on hand to help demonstrate how cannons were fired during the Civil War.

"The reason they wore wool is because cotton burns, but the wool would only smolder," Lafferty said.

Although only powder charges were used -- with 4 to 6 ounces of gunpowder -- the loud booms echoed under the bridge crossing the Kansas River.

The stars of the artillery show -- a 10-pound Parrott rifle, a 12-pound mountain howitzer and a 6-pound field gun -- are replicas owned by the re-enactors. A group of people watched as Salina gynecologist Merle Hodges, who owns the brass mountain howitzer, explained the firing procedure.

First, a soldier uses a "worm" -- a straight rod with a curled iron attachment -- to clear the bore of any materials left from the previous round. Another man jabs a wet sponge, resembling a giant cotton swab, into the bore to extinguish any embers.

A "powder monkey" brings a round to the cannon. Rounds used during the re-enactment are made from tinfoil packed with gunpowder, and resemble Hostess Ding Dongs.

Hodges, a colonel, said the group sometimes uses real charges.

"We do drill a lot because this is a dangerous hobby," he said.

Sgt. Steve Schuler, Rossville, an agronomist, said charges used during the war ranged from solid metal balls to percussion-tipped rounds that exploded on contact. The weapons could also be used to fire canisters of .69-caliber balls much like a shotgun.

The method not only knocked out whole lines of troops by shattering their legs, the cannons and massive rifles instilled fear in charging enemies.

"You can emotionally devastate the troops," Schuler said.

Steven Melvin, an 11-year-old from Havensville, is in his first year as a powder monkey. Steven became interested in the Civil War when re-enactors visited his school as part of a living history lesson.

"It's neat," said Steven, whose father, Ken Melvin, is also involved with the group.

"We've got a lot to learn. We're pretty green at it, but we've met some really nice people," said Ken Melvin, whose cowboy boots aren't exactly standard Army issue.

Later, the men line up for their "pay," which is fake money. Just as in the 1860s, privates do a lot of work but don't draw much pay. Anyone complaining might be told to join the Confederates, who often weren't paid and might not even get a uniform.

Civilized side

Others at the camp participated in civilian re-enactments. Connie Werner toiled over a cast iron pot of stew.

"I've been telling people there's buffalo, rattlesnake and prairie chicken in here," Werner said, stirring the bubbling stew.

Werner's husband, Don, built a covered wagon modeled after an 1846 wagon used on the Oregon Trail and is in the process of building a Civil War-era ambulance. Don Werner is also a wheelwright and demonstrated the art of building wagon wheels.

"I've always been interested in history, and Don's father had a wagon they would use to shuck corn with," said Connie Werner, Horton.

Werner invited passers-by to sample hardtack, a flat cookie made by mixing water and flour and cooking it slowly. The finished product is very hard and tastes like raw pasta. They last two years and are also known as "worm castles," said Yvonne Larson, Waterville.

How hard are they? A common joke explains:

What do you have when you bite into something soft in hardtack?

A nail.

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