Cannon controversy continues
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau | July 21,2008
The New York Times
The 2nd Battery Vermont Light Artillery’s cannon was cast in 1863. The battery, a re-enactment unit, has used it since the late 1970s.
MONTPELIER — Another volley has been fired in the pitched battle between a group of Civil War re-enactors and the state of Vermont.
The re-enactors for three decades have maintained, repaired and, during the summer months, fired a century-and-a-half-old cannon commissioned by the Proctor family during the Civil War. But the bronze, 12-pound Napoleon cannon is owned by the state, and about 18 months ago, the state government demanded that the re-enactors — named the 2nd Battery Vermont Light Artillery after the original unit that used the cannon in the Civil War — stop firing the cannon for safety reasons and hand it over.
However, during the spring of 2007, the re-enactors got surprise reinforcements from the Statehouse. Lawmakers arrived on the scene, and after hearings, inserted language in the state budget bill that required that officials "enter into an agreement with the 2nd Battery Vermont Light Artillery that allows the organization to continue to safely use, maintain and store the cannon."
But after an expert's report on the condition of the cannon, the state will not reach any agreement with the re-enactors that allows the unit to fire the gun.
Charles Smithgall said in a report that although the cannon "meets current requirements to be fired" and the blank charges fired by the re-enactors put much less pressure on the cannon that it would have originally withstood, firing it still posed a risk.
"The gun, as with any mechanical device, has a finite amount of use it can withstand before it will fail, no matter the breach pressure," Smithgall wrote. "There is no way to tell how many more firings that it can handle before the barrel would fail."
"This gun could be fired for historical demonstrations, however firing this gun is not without risk," Smithgall added.
Some risk is present whenever an antique historic cannon is fired, even if it is in good condition, Smithgall said in a recent interview.
"Is there any danger in firing it? Can someone be injured? Yes, it is possible," he said. "Can you guarantee anything? No."
Based on that report, John Hall, commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, determined the state was right in its previous opinion that the cannon should not be fired, even with a small amount of gun powder and no cannon ball in the barrel.
"My determination is that is Civil War artillery piece, which is owned by the state of Vermont, cannot be safely fired and the agreement allowing the 2nd Battery to 'safely use' it will include a prohibition on firing," Hall wrote to lawmakers in May. "I cannot in good conscience permit the public at large and this irreplaceable artifact to be placed at risk by firing the Proctor Cannon."
That is too bad, said Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, one of the legislators who believes the re-enactors perform a service to the state by refurbishing the cannon's wooden carriage and displaying — and firing — it at events and ceremonies.
"They took a cannon that was worthless, that was falling apart and they rehabilitated it," Sears said. "I am on their side in this battle."
Something will be lost "if it sits in a museum and nothing happens with it" Sears added. "They actually showed how the cannon worked and people could see a re-enactment of history."
"Watching it fire, watching them go through the effort, what a difference that would make in your understanding," he added.
James Dassatti, a leader of the group of re-enactors, agreed.
"The expert's testimony basically says the cannon is sound to fire," he said. "That is the beauty of this gun. It is in marvelous condition. There is no reason it cannot be fired."
His group is dedicated to showing how soldiers lived and fought in the war, and to do that they really need to fire the cannon, said Dassatti, who lives in the village of Jacksonville. This summer the 2nd Vermont is using a reproduction of a smaller gun — a 3-inch ordnance rifle they borrowed from a private owner — for their demonstrations.
"We don't have as much interest in the gun if it can't be fired," Dassatti said.
Smithgall's report also indicates that the tools used on the cannon were the proper ones for the cannon and the gun — now stored in the U.S. Army Arsenal in Watervliet, N.Y., had not been adequately cleaned.
"The bore of this cannon has not been cleaned after its last firing. This is an indication of lack of care for this gun, which could lead to dangerous firing conditions," Smithgall reported.
However, Dassatti said, since the last time the cannon was fired, but before Smithgall's test, he checked the inside of the cannon with a white glove and found green oxidation from the bronze but no gun powder traces.
That section of Smithgall's report is just incorrect, Dassatti said.
It is not clear who will win the war in the end over the cannon, which is worth about $75,000 or more according to Smithgal. Dassatti said his group had drafted an agreement to submit to the state that would allow the 2nd Vermont to fire the gun again. But David Mace, spokesman for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said the state, acting on the recommendation of Hall who has since retired, would not sign an agreement allowing the gun to the fired for safety and liability reasons.
"We are under obligation of statute to come to agreement with the 2nd battery," Mace said. "The key part of the agreement would be that the cannon not be fired."
"Our first and primary concern is over the safety of the public and the safety of this artifact. It is irreplaceable," he added.
But the group of re-enactors doesn't believe firing the cannon safely would present an unreasonable risk.
"The charges we are firing are far smaller than the charges originally used with the gun," said Elizabeth Murphy, coordinator for the group. "There is an educational benefit of being able to talk about the gun, but it is kind of incomplete without experiencing the gun being fired."
Contact Louis Porter at email@example.com.