Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fort Benton. My History Trivia

My first contact with Fort Benton, Montana was when I was first stationed in Montana. I always thought of it as the town in the hole. Literally it you have to drive down a pretty steep hill to reach it. As we would pass by on our way to missile sites you could just barely see it. I always thought to myself, I should stop in and visit it one day.

Flash forward 6 years. I had been subscribing to a history magazine, and one issue (which I need to find) had an article about the Mountain Howitzer. The Mountain Howitzer was a small cannon that was intended to be easily transported, and as the names suggests used in mountainous terrain.

Designed in 1839, and redesigned in 1841, this small cannon was used during the Mexican-American war, the American Civil War, and the Spanish American War. One soldier had joked that it was too small to call a cannon, and too big to fit in a holster.

At the end of the Civil War the United States turned its attention to "settling the west." This brings us to Fort Benton. Fort Benton is known as the "Birth Place of Montana." This name is rightly deserved. Before the trains connected the west you could jump on a paddle wheeler and sail from St. Louis to Fort Benton. From Civilization to The Rugged Frontier on a floating bar and casino.

A Mountain Howitzer found its way into the hands of the Military Unit in Fort Benton.* Like all military personnel someone was looking for a way to make using the weapon more efficient. They had proposed the idea to their commanders..and it was accepted.

The Black Feet Nation could have wiped Fort Benton off the map if they had so chose, but the Military Commanders, and citizens did their best to stay on good terms with the Black Feet. The military commander had taken to inviting the Black Feet leaders to meet with them from time to time. So they invited the Black Feet to a meeting, and the military commander would show off his new cannon. The Black Feet were not naive. They had seen cannons before, and were fully aware of the capability of a cannon, as well as, its short comings.

The problem with Cannons is you have to use horses to pull the cannon, horses to pull the ammunition, and have an entire pack train available to keep them supplied. Setting up a cannon requires you to unhitch the horses, block the cannon so it does not jump all over the place, load it, and sight it. Until the weapon becomes 'seated' it is not that accurate or fast.

The Black Feet were some of the most skilled horse fighters the world has ever seen, they were aware they could avoid the cannon. This is where the new tactic comes in to the picture.

As the various Black Feet leaders gathered, an Army mule was brought out to the edge of the river. Strapped on the back of the mule was the disassembled Mountain Howitzer. An Army officer explained how the new cannon could be transported by just one mule. In fact, it can even be loaded and fired while still strapped to the mule.

With that two soldiers held the mule, butt end faced toward the river, and an officer lit the fuse.

Whether it was the hiss of the fuse, or the mule realized what was about to happen, no one will ever know. The mule began to rear up and buck. All the while the muzzle of the cannon was swinging wildly. The soldiers decided this was a bit much, and ran for cover.

When the smoke cleared the mule had gone to that quiet pasture in the sky.

As the Black Feet dusted themselves off, one Chief commented that "there are easier ways to kill a mule." They left the meeting unimpressed. Thus ended the U.S. Military's first attempt at a mobile cannon system.

A simple lesson can be drawn from this, always practice your presentation before you actually present it.

A second lesson would be "Think things through." I am not a mule expert, but using a mule as a platform for a cannon is not that good of an idea.

President Obama is pretty good at practice. Thinking things through...not so much. I direct your attention to Iran and the Soviet Union.

* I have been unable to find out what Military Units were stationed in Fort Benton..if you know I would love that info.

Fort Benton History
1841 Mountain Howitzer
U.S. Military History Magazine (still trying to find it).

NOTE: A visit to Montana is not complete without a visit to Fort Benton. It is along the wild and scenic portions of the Missouri River, and the fishing can be very good. Thanks to my international and U.S. Friends for requesting I write this. More to come later.


Gordon2 said...

You do know that Thomas Francis Meagher, Montanas first territorial Governor died in Fort Benton. He was a commander in the Irish Brigade during the CIval war. No one knows if he fell in the river in a drunken stupor or maybe some of those who saw their freinds butchered due to his drinking during battle, "remedied" theor greivances with him. Montana has a lot of "interesting" history.

Capt Black Eagle said...

Yes it does and his story is one of them. I think an old rebel did it.

tonyinmontana said...

Be careful visiting Fort Benton. The Police there attacked me for carrying a notebook computer. The library in Fort Benton is supposed to be an open wi-fi hotspot. The police say access from the sidewalk is stealing service. Figures that a mule was a big part of their history.

Capt Black Eagle said...

That is pretty Odd Tony.