This was one of the first scenes I wrote, after spending days researching 1810 artillery procedures. A year or so later I yanked it because it went into too much detail, diluting the other events of Organization Day that had far-reaching implications. I added a few cannon-firing snippets later on.
Her described experience is based on my experience firing an M67 recoilless rifle at Fort Riley while in ROTC. The rifle lacks recoil because propellant gas blows out the back, in the opposite direction of the 90-mm antitank shell that speeds out the front. There were nine of us laying in the dirt, each with an M67 over our shoulder, pointed at some distant, shattered tank hulk. They started firing at the far end, and the mammoth booooom! of the first gun rattled my teeth…and then the booooms! grew closer and closer, as if Godzilla was approaching, and when I fired the back-blast blew a bushel of dirt and sand into my uniform. What a rush!!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Warning! ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The following is a deleted scene, mercilessly cut from the heart of the novel and tossed screaming into the outer darkness of this web site for your sadistic amusement. It’s raw stuff, unrefined, un-wordsmithed, probably not even spell-checked. Read at your own risk!
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22 May 1810, 1500 Hours, Fort Lafayette
The crowd cheered as eight teams of horses clattered up towing four cannon and four ammunition wagons. Soldiers flooded downrange to erect the targets from logs cut the day before. One cannon was positioned in front of each target, the team captains drew lots to see which team would get which cannon.
“Headquarters, this way!” Gladys led the headquarters team to the far left gun. “They used to let us have a practice shot, but that made it too easy. Now they point the gun to the side and set it to minimum elevation. We do one dry-fire for safety, then they turn us loose. First team to knock down their fortress wins.”
Dolley saw that each cannon had its own “fortress” two hundred yards distant, consisting of a number of fifteen-foot logs lashed into a conical structure. It resembled a plains indian tipi without the hide covering.
“How many shots does it take?”
“If you can hit the lashing dead on, just one. Otherwise as many as ten. We’re going for the lashing!”
They arrived at their gun. Dolley had been close to them before, but knowing that she would be helping to fire it made it appear much larger than she remembered. The wagon with the ammunition was thirty feet to the rear. The cannon’s regular gunner, Sergeant Johnston, explained that he would answer any questions they had and hopefully keep them from killing themselves.
“Ladies, I can’t offer any advice once the competition starts, but I beg you to ask questions now. The Captain promised a one-day pass to the gun crew who’s team wins, and I really need the time off.”
“Thanks Stewart, but you know we’ve been rehearsing. Girls, you all know your assignments, stand to! Dolley, you stand right here.” She pointed to a spot in the grass, to the left of the gun, four feet away and even with the rear of the barrel. “This is yours.” She handed Dolley a stick that looked like a church candle lighter.
“Quick review. I’m the Gunner. I aim the cannon and shout the commands. Mary Ellen, the Chaplain’s wife, is Number One. ” A gray-haired, stocky woman at the front-right waved. “She swabs the bore after each shot to remove burning debris, and tamps the new round after its loaded. If she messes up, the gun will either prematurely fire or not shoot consistently. Lucy, the Adjutant’s wife, is Number Two.” A short, plump, cheery girl at the front-left waved. “She will take the cartridge from Sergeant Johnston and place it into the muzzle. Sherri Mosey is Number Three. Her job is to clear the breach vent after each shot, and adjust the direction the gun points. Dolley Madison, Presidentress and Honored Guest”–the ladies cheered and applauded. Dolley curtsied.–“is Number Four. When I yell ‘Fire’, you shout ‘Fire In The Hole’ and touch that wick you are holding to the vent hole, firing the cannon. Any questions? How did I do, Stewart?”
“Is everybody ready?” roared Sergeant Major Mosey.
Sergeant Johnson waved a green flag, as did three other sergeants.
“First team to topple their fortress wins. Begin on my shot.” Sergeant Major pointed his pistol skyward and fired.
The ladies flew through their routine. Sponge, Cartridge, Tamp, Adjust.
My match needs lit! Dolley looked up in panic to see that someone had done it for her. Gladys smiled as Sherry primed the vent with powder.
“Fire in the Hole!”
The sound was deafening. Dolley could hear nothing except a loud ringing in her ears. The concussion blew bits of grass and dirt from in front of the gun into Dolley’s hair and down her dress. Her bright yellow sun hat was gone, and she rubbed at the grit in her eyes. Did the gun explode? Is everyone dead? The smoke began to clear and she saw Gladys yell “Load!”, though the target was obscured by smoke. The ladies whirled through the drill and Dolley ineffectually stuck her finger in her ear to clear the obstruction. She sneezed, violently. Gladys mouthed the word “Ready!”, her voice faint and distant. Dear Lord, I have to do this again! Please don’t let it be so loud this time.
“Fire In The Hole!”
The concussion blew grit and grass clippings into the mouth she forgot to close. Ears ringing, hearing gone again, she peered through the smoke, watching Gladys’s lips for the command to fire, picking small, gritty objects from her décolletage, noticing for the first time that everyone else wore dresses buttoned to the neck. She felt something crawling between her breasts, looked down. An ant! She quickly brushed it off. Then another. Why did I pick today to wear the low cut gown? Oh please, hit the target, hit the target, hit the…
“Fire In The Hole!”
A small dust-devil kicked up by the blast carried fine grit into her eyes. She could barely see. Her ears had stopped ringing, but her hearing had not yet returned. She felt the desperate need to scratch places ladies just didn’t scratch. She looked about, noticed smudged faces, blackened hands, hair rumpled messes, expressions intense and, well, happy. She was miserable, but so was the rest of her gun crew. Her gun crew! Dolley was starting to see why the men loved this sort of thing. It wasn’t that bad at all, in fact it’s kind of fun.
“Fire In The Hole!”
Dolley thought she heard a cheer. Was it her imagination, or did Sherri just make a major shift in the gun’s direction? Dolley looked up. Their fortress was gone! They won! Why aren’t we stopping? She shifted her position a bit to stay with the gun. Gladys was aiming at the fortress of the Ranger Company wives! Can we do that? Why not? Go go go!
“Fire In The Hole!”
Another faint cheer, another major shift by Sherry. The fortress of the Ranger Company wives was down, and Gladys was aiming at the fortress of the Dragoon Company wives. Yes!
“Cease Fire! Cease Fire! Cease Fire! ” Waving a red flag to attract attention, Sergeant Johnson ran over. Grinning. “You won first place! You also won second place. I think.”
Dolley joined in as the ladies gathered around Gladys, screaming with delight and hugging each other. In glee they noted the excellent work each had done in achieving the victory. A few minor criticisms, but mostly praise. Dolley listened, having little to add.
“And did you see Dolley after that first shot?” said Lucy. “Her eyes were as big as saucers and she went white as a sheet. For a moment I thought she was going to run away!”
They all laughed, Dolley included. “You didn’t tell me cannons were that loud. I thought the gun had exploded!”
“But you stayed.” Gladys was beaming. “Not only that, but you never once missed firing. That’s what counts. You were scared, but stayed and did your job anyway. That’s how battles are won.”