Burned his Thumb Off at No. 3 - Pvt. Judson Porter of the Troup Artillery

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lelliott19

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A "thumb stall," such as the one pictured above, is worn by No. 3 of a gun crew to "stop the vent" on a hot cannon. As I understand it, blocking the vent prevents air from being sucked into the barrel through the vent hole and accidentally reigniting hot embers from the previous shot. Here's a story in which the thumb stall - or the lack of one - played a key role; as told by Capt. H H Carlton of the Troup Artillery (GA).

BRAVE ACT OF PRIVATE JUDSON PORTER
During what was known as Second Battle of Federicksburg and which was on the extreme right of the Chancellorsville battle, the Troup Artillery was engaging the enemy which were preparing to charge the battery and a portion of General Barksdale's troops. The battery was situated in the middle of the Telegraph Road, at what was known as the Pump. Young Thomas [E.] Dillard was serving the vent of the gun, a most responsible position.

The enemy had captured one of Capt. Cutts batteries which was stationed at the brick house, used by General T.R.R. Cobb as headquarters during the first battle of Fredericksburg. A shell fired from this battery struck young Dillard and going through his body killed him instantly. He fell with his thumb stall on his thumb, which was used to protect the thumb from burning by the great heat of the brass guns.

I at once ordered Private Judson Porter to take his place instantly as no time could be spared. After the fighting was over, Private Porter came to me and said, "Captain, see here what that gun did for me." I looked, and his thumb was all burned away to the bone, and the intense heat from the gun, caused by rapid firing, had so charred the bone that the first joint of his thumb had to be amputated. I said, "Why in the world did you not protect your thumb?" He replied, "I had no thumb stall." I said, "Why did you not use your coat?" "Why Captain, the coat would have caught on fire, and I would have lost my coat and my thumb both."

Manning the vent in a battle is a most responsible position, as upon its proper and careful management depends the life and safety of all those serving at and around the guns. ~ Contributed by Captain H. H. Carlton, Commander of the Troup Artillery from Clarke County.

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[The Athens Banner. (Athens, Ga.), April 26, 1912, page 5.]
Image from http://www.horsesoldier.com/products/artillery/18575
 
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Wallyfish

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Amazing story. Here is a bit more on the unlucky Judson.

Porter, Elisha Judson, from Hall Co., GA; enl. Aug. 24, 1861 in Co. I, 24th Regt. GA Vol. Inf.; pvt.; transf. Oct. 1, 1862 to the Troup Artillery; pvt.; thumb amputated due to severe burn when failing to use a thumb stall May 3, 1863; slight wound to leg July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg; killed May 10, 1864 (his head was knocked off by a piece of shell) at Spotsylvania CH and buried on the battlefield; re-interred in Spotsylvania CH Confederate Cem., Spotsylvania Co., VA.
 
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byron ed

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...there's something that doesn't quite jive with this story, but I can't quite put my thumb on it. :thumbsup:
 
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byron ed

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Stalling the vent was very important. If there were sparks in the tube while the new load was being rammed, it could ignite, taking the arm off the No. 1. This happened more than once.
That is one of the primary theories of Artillery reenacting. But the fact is that with the vent stopped, there's a whole column of fresh air being jammed down the tube ahead of the load, compressing and forcing air to rush past the fit of the load coming in -- taking with it any stirred up embers in the breech -- which makes the theory less than defensible, though I've heard many field "experts" do just that.

It's more defensible that the vent is stopped at other times during the drill, in times of statis in order to keep the tube from "breathing," keeping the air still so as not to unnecessarily excite any forgotten embers. Without air flow, the small embers simply die to ash.

I have no doubt that stopping the vent was critical back in the day, but their charges were in cloth bags or even served as raw powder, and wet swabs were skipped during combat. Today the value to vent-stopping is as much to keep the crew focused on the vent during ram or sponge -- listening for hissing of air -- to suppose an aluminum-encased charge might yet blow merely from the heat of an excited ember touching the aluminum. Anyway nothing is risked by the caution, it's prudent, and it looks right.

Actually I've heard several reenacting variations as to when stopping the vent is correct or not. I suspect it just doesn't make that much of a difference in a modern reenacting drill. Unlike real CW-era combat, reenactors today typically wet-swab the barrel between every load, which obviates the risk of forgotten embers. Not only that, but as mentioned modern charges are encased in aluminum foil so impermeable to embers (barring a sloppy round rolling where the charges have powder leaked on the outside).

I'm just pointing out that reenactors have developed theories about cannon fire that are not based on period practice. For you newbys out there, just go with it. The drill is of prime importance and all positions must be on board with whatever the "theory of the day" is.
 
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byron ed

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The thumb-stall looks like it could get darn hot too - that leather doesn't look any too thick, even given it's age. Man, that was a dangerous position.
The thumb stall itself didn't get very hot -- it's made of thick leather, often with padding like a baseball glove. btw the thumb stall was not only used on hot guns (as the OP implies) but necessary from the very first cold-gun shot -- its primary purpose was to stop the vent.

The case mentioned above was a unique case where a #3 man substituted his own thumb flesh to stop the vent hole. It seems (to we play artillerists) that as the tube got hot the man could at a minimum have used his leather kepi brim or his service belt (better than his coat, although as pointed out a wool coat would not have caught fire) to press against the vent. Consider that dry charred flesh and bone doesn't make a very good seal. But that's hindsight. We honor him. Not everyone is a McGyver.

btw positions #1 and #2 were in a consistently more dangerous place, being in proximity to and entering the muzzle with hand-held implements and explosive powder, all the while in the most exposed position to enemy sniper fire.
 
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