July into August 2010 and parts of the Eastern USA suffer the worst heat in memory. Alabama along the Tallapoosa River was no exception, and rather than risk heat exhaustion clearing brush or waging war against various kudzu incursions, I finally made the journey to Horseshoe Bend National Military Park. The temperature was between 95 and 100, and even within my air-conditioned vehicle the heat could be sensed transferring from the windshield into the interior space.
At the park entrance I stopped to explore the visitor center/museum. A cannon, freshly painted in baby blue sat by the front door commanding attention. Inside were books and pamphlets and a small museum. I was the only person in the shop. A uniformed Interior Department employee soon appeared to greet me, explained that the park could be toured by automobile, and said by the way, they are about to fire the cannon out back. Apparently the firing of the cannon is one of those events that occur from time to time along with other more elaborate demonstrations of things as they were in 1814. Having grown up in Baltimore and knowing first hand what the Star-Spangled Banner was all about, I felt that some metaphysical circuit had closed and I was there just in time specifically to witness the firing of the cannon.
I walked out the back door and noted a group of about 6 figures down a small hill dressed in what had to be uncomfortably warm clothing complete with wide-brimmed black hats: not quite stovepipe, but headed in that direction. They were engaged in some sort of ballet with yet another baby blue cannon and a baby blue box about 10 yards or so behind the cannon.
There was a bench just outside the door so I sat there and viewed from a distance, as I did not want to get too close when the cannon fired. The ballet continued for a few minutes with no apparent sense of imminent conclusion, so I went back inside and walked about the small museum and historical display.
There was much presentation and discussion of the mound-building indigenous cultures that preceded the arrival of the Europeans. One thing that caught my attention was a display of the foods which sustained the mound-builders and later the Creeks, whose Red Stick faction were responsible in part for my being in that particular place at that time. Pumpkins, beans, squash and corn – the very foodstuffs we tried to grow. There must be some logic to all this.
I heard a raised voice from outside and fearing the cannon was about to go boom I went back out the door and sat on the bench again. Indeed, the ballet seemed to be resolving into a more urgent order about the cannon. One of the troupe appeared to touch something to the base (breech?) – I know nothing of cannons circa 1814 – and there was an extraordinarily loud report that reverberated through the park and a huge puff of smoke that wafted from the cannon through the trees. I thought that the psychological impact of just the noise and smoke would have been enough to discourage the Red Sticks.
The ballet was over and the troupe was clearly starting to disassemble the order of things. I walked tentatively down the hill hoping to get a closer shot with my camera-phone (now that I heard what this thing could do I was really impressed) and one of them beckoned me closer. He turned out to be very talkative, and was quite appreciative that I was their audience for the afternoon’s re-enactment, however brief. I posited my cannon-as-psy-ops theory with which he agreed somewhat, but the Creeks by then were familiar with firearms so the emotional impact would not have been so great. Turns out Jackson only had two cannons – a three pounder like the one by the Visitor Center entrance – and the one just fired, a 6 pounder. The projectile was merely a metal ball, and the destruction was via kinetic energy only. No bombs bursting in air here. The re-enactment used no ammunition, of course, and only a half-charge of powder. The battery ballet was similar to that which would have obtained in 1814, although the real artillerymen could get off about three rounds per minute. The re-enacters were not attempting to emulate a battle-like tempo.
The Red Sticks were outnumbered 3-1 but did not exactly become cannon fodder, as the artillery had little effect on the wooden fortifications. Only after the encircling infantry – with their Cherokee and Lower Creek allies – crossed the river and attacked them from the rear did Jackson order a frontal assault, and the rest is, as they say, history. And not very pretty history either. I pointed out to my talkative battery commander that the Spaniards in South America were successful for the same reason – political divisions among the indigenous. How else explain how a relative handful of Spaniards could have overcome millions? Of course, at that pregnant juncture in history we cannot discount the psychological effect – like a six pounder heard and felt for the very first time — of these aliens arriving at one’s doorstep, as strange as an extraterrestrial landing on the White House Lawn. Hopefully our ETs will be unfamiliar with the history of the collision between the European and indigenous American cultures, and will not seek to exploit our many divisions in order to conquer.