Fourth of July cannon firing tradition continues in Fort Mill

adouglas@heraldonline.comJuly 4, 2014 

— The town of Fort Mill celebrated Independence Day with its tradition of firing two cannons made in the 1860s, just before the Civil War.

Town officials and residents gathered at Confederate Park on Friday morning to watch the cannon firing after a short processional from First Baptist Church. The July 4 holiday ceremony included patriotic music and tributes to the American flag.

Mike Short, the “official cannoneer,” set up the cannons on Friday as he has for nearly two decades. The tradition began with his father and uncle in the 1970s.

“The first time they fired it, there was no big organized event,” Short said, standing next to one of the 10,000-pound cannons. More than 300 people gathered near Confederate Park on Friday as Short directed three guests to set off the cannons.

Standing on a hill overlooking the railroad tracks downtown, Short shared a story about his family’s history with the Confederate Park cannons. The first time his father and uncle fired them, he said, they didn’t have permission.

“The story goes, the chief of police came up and wanted to know what they were doing,” said Short, who lives in Fort Mill.

Threatened with a $1,000 fine and arrest, the two men shot the cannon anyway, he said.

“They found out they couldn't destroy these five-ton guns with a pound of powder.”

Friday’s Independence Day event marked the 41st year the cannons have been fired in Fort Mill, Short said. He took on the role of “chief cannoneer” around 1998.

A history buff, Short is a re-enactor with the Pee Dee Artillery and McIntosh Battery groups of the Palmetto Battalion, a statewide collaboration of Civil War re-enactors. He also serves as a chaplain with the group.

On Friday, he helped show off some South Carolina history by firing the two cannons, which were made at the West Point Foundry in New York. Fort Mill’s Confederate Park cannons are siege guns, Short said, which probably once sat on the Charleston coast.

After the Civil War, he said, most cannons of its kind were destroyed. The two now in Fort Mill arrived on a flatbed train car and were dumped beside the downtown tracks.

Historical records show they were mounted permanently in 1896, he said.

Short uses a modern technique to fire the cannons – much different than the method that would have been used during the Civil War. Town officials have banned the traditional method, he said, so he rigs a round of gunpowder with an electric charge to set off the cannon by electricity.

Firing the cannons every July 4 is a treat, he said, but, “I look forward to it with a little trepidation, because I’m always worried they’re not going to fire.”

A misfire is more than just inconvenient for the crowd, he said – it’s potentially dangerous.

“If they don’t go off, I have to pull the round out and fix it,” Short said. “There’s always a chance when you do that, it will go off.”

Friday’s cannon firing happened without any misfires or injuries. Afterward, Short posed for a picture with his grandson, who sat on top of one of the cannons. His happy face was one of many in the crowd at Confederate Park.

“I'm always relieved when (both cannons) go off,” Short said. “People love it.”

Anna Douglas 803-329-4068

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