Buglers, drummers, cannons of wars

Bennett Place’s Memorial Day observance shows military ‘Through the Ages
May. 26, 2013 @ 11:05 PM

At the site of the largest surrender of the Civil War, historic interpreters shared facts not only about the War Between the States but the American Revolution, the War of 1812, World War I and World War II.

For Memorial Day, Bennett Place Historic Site presented “United States Military Through the Ages,” with camps, displays and sessions on military uniforms, music, weaponry and tactics used during warfare in the 18th through 20th centuries.

Volunteer Matt Vincett was dressed as an American officer during the Revolutionary War. He showed spectators a 3-pound cannon used in 18th-century artillery, and the three kinds of shots. A solid shot was a 3-pound iron ball that could travel about a mile. Grape shot looks like grapes, and canister shot sprayed musket-ball sized pellets. The iron ball was used first, resulting in “a fairly horrific death,” Vincett said. As the opposition approached within 600 to 800 yards, grape shot was used, then canister shots for 400 to 600 yards. Then they switched from cannons to muskets.

“You’re basically up against bayonets, advancing in exploding musket balls,” Vincett explained. Being in artillery was a highly trained, indispensable job.

“You had to calculate range, distance and trajectory to fire a cannon. You needed to know math to be in artillery,” he said.

“They did have bombs in the 18th century, shot out of howitzers and mortars,” Vincett said, rather than cannons. A 4-pound bomb was hollow iron filled with gunpowder and a hand-packed wooden fuse inside.

“There’s a song that talks about bombs bursting in air at Fort McHenry,” Vincett said, referring to “The Star-Spangled Banner” depiction of the Baltimore defense against the British during the War of 1812. “Francis Scott Key wrote that poem while watching this happening, bombs bursting in air.”

After Vincett, two living historians dressed as Civil War Union musicians talked about how integral music was to soldiers’ daily lives and battlefield directives.

Bugler Bill Stallings said Bennett Place was close to his heart because his great-great-grandfather William Henry Stallings was in the Confederate 66th Regiment of the North Carolina Infantry during the Civil War and was surrendered at Bennett Place. On April 26, 1865, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered soldiers from Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida to U.S. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman at the Bennett family farm in Durham. The generals later became friends.

Stallings said that during the Civil War, the first call of the day was not reveille, but assembly of the buglers. Stallings and historic drummer Mark Robertson are both in the 26th North Carolina Field Music, a reenactors regiment.

The full reveille lasted about 15 minutes, Robertson said, and soldiers had to be in line by the end of it. He likened it to an alarm clock that keeps going and going. Soldiers kind of resented the musicians, too, because they were paid more for their skills. But they went from hated to loved, Stallings said, because right after reveille was the buglers’ breakfast call. Each call meant do something else, from getting up to going to eat to getting in line. He also talked about the origin of taps, which was a version of the last bugle call of the day, extinguish lights, that U.S. Gen. Dan Butterfield asked bugler Oliver Wilcox Norton to rework in 1862. The notes Butterfield gave Norton are close to the 1835 tattoo bugle call.

Bugle calls used on the battlefield were shared by both sides. Confederates used the same manuals as U.S. troops, so when a bugle call was made to change direction, charge or retreat, the opposing side knew what their enemy was doing, Stallings said.

Mickey Kropf, who lives in Durham, visited Bennett Place for the first time on Sunday.

“Living history is always neat. It’s fun to see them so passionate about it – it comes through in their talks,” Kropf said.

Andrew Stephenson of Raleigh and his childhood friend Aaron Sawyer of Fort Bragg first visited Bennett Place two days prior, found out about the Memorial Day observance and came back on Sunday.

“I like it. It’s really interesting,” said Sawyer, who is an active Army infantryman himself. “I like history. It’s engrossing.”

Sawyer said he went right to display tables when they arrived and was curious about comparing weapons used during the American Revolution. He said that in school, he learned about the surrender at Appomattox, not Bennett Place, which was the largest surrender of the war.

“There’s a lot of good stuff here. This is a tucked-away place,” Sawyer said.

Michael Murray, of Raleigh, watched the living history presentations and said he was impressed.

“I read a lot about the Civil War. I like it here because this is where they came in peace. I don’t go to reenactments – I don’t like even pretend hostility,” Murray said. “I like the spirit here, that the conflict was resolved here.”