Thursday, March 18, 2010

Search for Secrets of A Sunken Cannon - 43

When Bob Alcumbrack started his first major dig for the Cannonsburg cannon he thought he had all the necessary tools to accomplish his mission. Having all the right tools of any trade is a prerequisite of life. Mechanics need specialized tools to get the job done right. Bob had bilge pumps for water removal from the tank, but for clean water only, but alas what he needed was pumps that could handle debris.

The Cannonsburg seven firing the cannon needed specific tools to servicethe cannon, but some tools had one on each end of the rods, like powder-scoops and ramrods to nest powder, shot and wadding into the bore. Six specific tools were needed for servicing a cannon. That's six tools necessary for safe cannon loading and consider these military accessories. During the Civil War a 6-pound cannon was serviced not by seven men, but 21 men due to the enormous amount of supplies each battery had to supply. It wasn't just the cannon, but the caissons, tools and ammunition, which weighed in at nearly two tons and military requires one horse for each hundredth total weight.

Probably the most important was (1) the thumbstall, a leather pouch or sheath used for protection of the gunner's thumb, which when placed down over the vent prevents oxygen from entering the hot chamber while the powder and shot are rammed down and nested. There is a stark difference between iron and brass cannons after first firing. Iron cannons are exceedingly hot - to hot to touch the metal barrel. A good brass cannon would be cool to the touch. So cool a stick of butter wouldn't melt. That's the proof difference between brass and iron. It takes many repeated firings to melt butter on a brass cannon. The core heat from a 6-pound iron cannon after one firing is 575 degrees F., which makes the outside surface metal too hot to touch.

A (2) quadrant was used in hand to elevate the angle of barrel. An elevation rise of 5 degrees could send a projectile downrange one mile, the cannonball or stones hitting a target in four seconds. It reached the target before anyone heard the blast. Many English cannons had a device for raising cannons, but when captured by Americans we destroyed this when we put old cannons on new carriages. In doing so American guns were inferior in relation to superior English cannons.

The (3) rammer or ramrod, was used for pushing the powder, shot and wadding into the bore and nesting it in the bottom chamber. The (4) sponge-rod, was used for swabbing and cleaning out the bore of debris and glowing embers inside the bore between shots. Failure to use this rod after each firing was suicide. The (5) worm rod, was used to clear out obstructions, like damp charges or burning debris from the bore or hold rags soaked in vinegar when cleaning the cannon bore. The (6) powder-scoop was used to measure out a precise amount of loose gunpowder if premeasured bagged charges were absent. These were the military required specific tools needed for the art of safe gunnery.

Our group believed that when Walter Tompsett was critically injured by the premature explosion they didn't have all the necessary tools to fire it safely. We felt this is one of the reasons why the Cannonsburg town elders buried the cannon the day before the accident. The Federal government was urging villages to either bury, dismember, smash, discard or recycle old cannons, but most of these cannons were 25-year old wrought iron cannons were post Civil War. These were the guns that were prematurely exploding because of fatigued metal. Another reason why the government was discouraging towns from firing the old weapons was that so many of those injured or killed never had any strict artillery training. Those who fought in the Civil War wanted nothing to do with military cannons. Firing a cannon takes discipline and those servicing such weapons of destruction can't be distracted from firing point procedures.

Four of seven young men were distracted when loading the Cannonsburg cannon. The sponge and worm rod weren't used to clean out burning debris and glowing embers from the bore before loading. Had they used these tools it wouldn't have exploded prematurely, but equally important was the fact the vent man was distracted and raised his thumb allowing oxygen to enter, which in turn brightened the glowing embers and instantaneous ignition. Strict artillery procedures were circumvented and Tompsett's accident was inevitable. Missing tools, mistakes in judgement and distractions of non-artillery trained men were the liabilities of the accident. This is what the town elders tried to stop by burying the cannon on July 3rd, but they should have buried it long before Fourth of July and kept their mouths shut where it was buried.

The mistakes of all cost Tompsett his life on July 5, 1885, by a small military improperly serviced. Sponge and worm rods are safety requirements for entire the battery of men servicing the cannon. The bore is wormed of obstructions and sponged out with water and vinegar to extinguish any glowing embers clinging inside the bore and to soften and remove soot from last shot fired. Before loading with fresh gunpowder, the thumbstall man presses his thumb down on the vent hole while the rammer, with ramrod in hand pushes powder and shot down the bore. The gun is aimed on orders from the gunner as he sights along the barrel using a quadrant and then primes the vent holes for ignition. The gun fires, but the Cannonsburg cannon prematurely exploded.

Evidently the Cannonsburg seven were quick firing the cannon, but since none had any military training or knowledge of the strict disciplines of gunnery and they weren't using the specific tools. Again none of the town elders were teaching the younger men how to fire the cannon. The sponge rod, the worm rod weren't used, but the thumbstall man removed his leather encased thumb from the vent hole causing premature ignition of sparks to powder. A distraction caused him to momentarily remove his thumb.

A thumbstall is a piece of leather tied around a thumb for vent suffocation. Its similar to a rubber pouch which when used by Postal Workers helps them sort mail faster or food workers who use sharp knives to protect fingers when peeling fruits and vegetables.

It's the missing tools which prompted Cannon town elders to bury the cannon. They feared it was only time before the lack of artillery training and lost tools would result in a premature explosion that might kill or injure some young man. Repeated government warnings couldn't be ignored any longer and the threats of providing liability insurance was an expense small villages couldn't afford. Cannon township men had been firing the cannon for almost 38 years. Iron cannons were what was causing all the ruckus -- delibus ones - to old to be safely fired. Because the Cannonsburg cannon being fired repeatedly over 38 years meant the cannon must be brass, but lost tools is what prompted town elders to consider getting rid of the cannon.

Bob started digging in July 1986 and four hundred years earlier (July 1586), Maurine of Nassau, Prince or Orange (1567-1625), the Dutch son of "William the Silent" of the Netherlands commenced battering Spanish rule with 36 cannons. His cannons reported all day without intermission "for he had his charges of powder ready in bags" and beside them were milk and vinegar and all supplies to clean and cool the pieces (cannon or ordnances).

The English, French and Italians all used water and vinegar to clean and cool pieces between shots. Vinegar was a quick cooling agent, but when combining vinegar and water on blistered skin it cools. Never use just vinegar on large areas of sunburned skin since vinegar causes an immediate cooling effect. Too much vinegar over large areas on the hottest of summer days leads to hypothermia, the same as wind to cold core body temperatures after a cold swim on hot summer days.

Had the Cannonsburg seven swabbed the cannon, the Tompsett accident wouldn't have happened. Newspaper accounts about the tragic accident report that Tompsett was the only one critically injured, but we wondered why Fred Thomas and John Murray showed the most grief to the whole accident. John Murray's facial expressions, tears and remorse at the trail crossing was Bob Alcumbrack's biggest faulty clue to the possible whereabouts of the missing cannon. Beyond the creek is where Murray's tears ended. He felt it must be buried closeby.

Fred Thomas reportedly was too drunk on hard cider to help bury the cannon a second time. In a drunken stupor he might lead them to the last burial site so the remaining five left him in town, because he couldn't be trusted. Bob thought this was the reason. To my thinking could it be that Thomas was made purposely drunk, because as rammer he was enveloped in the flash burn and shock by the blast and suffering severe burn pain. Walter was standing with cannonball in hand next to Fred, his knee partially in line with cannon muzzle. John Murray released his leaden thumb stall briefly from the vent hole allowing oxygen to brighten glowing embers igniting scooped gunpowder and instantly exploded.

"BOOM!" Flash, bellowing smoke and Walter Tompsett thrown outward as Tompsett's screaming brought the picnic festivities to an end. Many a soldier has seen the flash and felt the sting of shrapnel before the noise. When the noise stopped reverbrating Tompsett lay screaming with nones and flesh scattered across the ground with Fred Thomas in severe pain, the others in disbelief and shock. This is the horrible scene Murray remembered for more almost 60 years. None of the remaining mens eyes showed as many tears as Murray's nor did they show such intense facial expressions of sadness. The entire village was gripped with intense emotions, so deep was the grief of residents, the village was locked in extreme depression for more than five years. The ultimate secret society was born upon Tompsett's death. Enough for today...

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