Maine re-enactor talks about a soldier’s weapons

 

Private Bob Pierce of Co. A, 3rd Maine Infantry, displays his replica 1861 Springfield rifled musket and its 17-inch bayonet while re-enacting at Good Will Hinckley School in Fairfield in late August 2012. (Brian Swartz Photo)

So how do Civil War re-enactors decide who will “take a knee” during combat scenarios?

Sometimes it’s all in the firearm, suggests Bob Pierce, a private in Co. A, 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment.

Along with other Co. A re-enactors, Pierce camped at Good Will Hinckley School in Fairfield during the Aug. 24-26, 2012 “We Are Coming, Father Abraham” re-enactment. The weekend involved drilling, filming scenes for MPBN’s “Maine at Gettysburg” documentary, and shooting at Confederates on Saturday and Sunday.

The battles left most soldiers standing; in few re-enactments do participating units incur the casualty rates that occurred in specific Civil War battles (the 1st Texas Infantry suffered 82-percent casualties while fighting at Antietam’s cornfield, for example). The volunteer re-enactors want to stay standing and shooting, and even the “wounded” or “dead” soldiers soon rise up on an elbow to watch the action.

As Confederate infantrymen advance at Perryville, Ky. on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, one “casualty” of Union fire is already up on his elbow and checking his hat. Most Civil War re-enactors would rather “fight than die” during a battle; some re-enactors in particular units take turns “dying” to spread out the action for everybody. (Brian Swartz Photo)

“You always have to have people take ‘the fall,'” Pierce said while standing near his tent on Saturday morning. Occasionally an officer determines who will “bleed” by counting off every third, fourth, or fifth man.

Another factor can influence specific re-enactors to tumble to the ground. “A little secret is, most of the time people will do it if there’s something wrong with their musket or they’re out of ammo or if their musket is too hot to fire,” Pierce explained. “Some people don’t want to clean their muskets a lot [after shooting during a battle], so they’ll take a hit right away and just drop. Most of the time it depends on the musket.

“I carry a replica … made by Army Sport,” he said, displaying his well-kept musket. “It’s a replica of the 1861 Springfield, which is a .58-caliber rifled musket, accurate from anywhere” between 300 and 500 yards.

The standard .58-caliber rifled musket used by both sides during the Civil War fired a concave bullet. When a spark ignited the gunpowder inside the musket barrel, the resulting explosion would cause the bullet’s concave bottom to “mushroom” and effectively seal the bullet to the barrel’s rifling. The bullet would spin to develop a greater velocity than available with a smoothbore firearm. (Brian Swartz Photo)

In “real life,” he would tear a paper cartridge and pour its black-powder contents into the Springfield’s barrel, then  place “a concave .58-caliber minie ball” into the barrel and tamp it “all the way down with the rammer.” The minie ball would rest on the black powder, which “with a military load was between 90 and 110 grain,” Pierce said. “For re-enacting, we probably shoot 45 [grain], and just black powder for the effect.”

After pouring the powder into the rifle and loading a bullet into it, a soldier places “a percussion cap onto the musket nipple,” he said. When the trigger is pulled, the musket’s hammer strikes the metal percussion cap, and “you get an explosion, which goes down through the touch hole” and “ignites the gun powder.”

The igniting gun powder hurls the rifled bullet outward. “As it’s going down through the barrel, it’s actually spinning in the grooves. It comes out the other end at a high velocity,” Pierce said.

The 1861 Springfield weighs 13 pounds and develops “hardly any kick” when fired with a full load (bullet and powder) “because of the weight of it,” he said.

Pierce pulled his 17-inch, three-sided bayonet from its scabbard and demonstrated how the bayonet twists and locks into place onto the musket barrel. “The reason it’s three-sided is because a three-sided wound doesn’t heal properly or quickly,” he said.

Pierce enjoys re-enacting. The July 2011 re-enactment of First Manassas was his first large-scale re-enactment, which took place in torrid heat a few miles from the actual battlefield.

“There were approximately 3,700, 3,800 Union [troops] and probably 5,000 Confederates on the field,” he remembered. “They had us march out on the battlefield. We got to form up and stand behind the cannons, let them do their duel with the Confederates [artillery], and then we marched around the cannon and up to the line of battle.

“In one instance we forced the Rebels back, and then they forced us back. [At] Manassas, of course, we had to leave the field in a hurry” as Union troops did on July 21, 1861.

“During a major re-enactment, you get to witness the cannons going off and feel the concussion, hear the muskets going off, [and] smoke fills the air,” Pierce said. “You get to see things like [infantry forming] a cavalry square.

“That’s when you have the fife and drum corps standing in a circle. The infantry forms a square [around the musicians], and the cavalry comes up to charge that square,” Pierce explained. “You have soldiers pointing their muskets out with the bayonets fixed and stamping their feet to scare the horses. It’s really quite a spectacle. You have the colors flying and the muskets going off. It’s just really exciting.”

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.