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The Gun Club
DURING THE Civil War in the United States an influential club was formed in Baltimore. The vigor with which the military instinct developed in that nation of ship owners, merchants, and mechanics is well known. Shopkeepers left their counters and became captains, colonels, and generals without ever having gone to West Point. They soon equaled their Old World colleagues in the "art of war" and, like them, won victories by lavishly expending ammunition, money, and men.
But in the science of ballistics the Americans far surpassed the Europeans. Not that their guns attained a higher degree of perfection, but they were made much larger and therefore reached much greater ranges. When it comes to grazing fire, plunging fire, direct fire, oblique fire, or raking fire, the English, French, and Prussians have nothing to learn, but their cannons, howitzers, and mortars are only pocket pistols compared to the awesome engines of the American artillery.
This should surprise no one. The Yankees, the world's best mechanics, are engineers the way Italians are mu_sicians and Germans are metaphysicians: by birth. Nothing could then be more natural than for them to bring their bold ingenuity to the science of ballistics. The wonders performed in this domain by men like Parrott, Dahlgren, and Rodman are known to everyone. Armstrong, Paliser, and Treuille de Beaulieu could only bow to their transatlantic rivals.
And so during the terrible struggle between the North and the South the artillerymen reigned supreme. The Union newspapers enthusiastically extolled their inventions, and there was no tradesman so humble, no idler so guileless that he did not rack his brain day and night calculating fantastic trajectories.
Now when an American has an idea he looks for another American who shares it. If there are three of them they elect a president and two vice presidents. If there are four they appoint a secretary and their staff is ready to function. If there are five they convene in a general assembly and their club is formed. That was how it happened in Baltimore. A man who had invented a new cannon associated himself with the man who had cast it and the man who had bored it. That was the nucleus of the Gun Club. A month after its formation it had 1,833 resident members and 30,575 corresponding members.
There was one strict condition for membership in the club: the applicant had to have invented or at least improved a cannon; or if not a cannon, some other kind of firearm. But it must be said that inventors of fifteen-shot revolvers, pivoting rifles, or saber pistols were not held in high esteem. The artillerymen took precedence over them in all circumstances.
"The respect they get," one of the most learned orators of the Gun Club said one day, "is proportional to the mass of their cannons and in direct ratio to the square of the distances reached by their projectiles." This was almost a psychological application of Newton's law of gravity.
Once the Gun Club had been founded, it was easy to imagine the results produced by the Americans' inventive genius. Their cannons took on colossal proportions, and their projectiles reached out beyond all normal limits to cut harmless strollers in half. All these inventions outstripped the timid instruments of European artillery, as the following figures will show.
In the "good old days," a 36-pound cannon ball would go through 36 horses and 68 men at a distance of 100 yards. The art was still in its infancy. It has come a long way since then. The Rodman cannon, which shot a projectile weighing half a ton to a distance of seven miles, could easily have flattened 150 horses and 300 men. The Gun Club considered testing this, but while the horses raised no objection to the experiment, it was unfortunately impossible to find men willing to take part in it.
Be that as it may, these cannons had extremely murderous effects. With each of their shots, combatants fell like wheat before the scythe. Compared to such projectiles what was the famous cannon ball which put twenty-five men out of action at Coutras in 1587, or the one that killed forty infantrymen at Zorndorf in 1758, or the Austrian cannon that felled seventy enemy soldiers each time it was fired at Kesseldorf in 1742? What was the amazing gunfire at Jena or Austerlitz, which decided the outcome of the battle? There was real artillery in the Civil War! At the battle of Gettysburg a conical projectile shot from a rifled cannon struck down 173 Confederates, and during the crossing of the Potomac a Rodman ball sent 215 Southerners into an obviously better world. We must also mention the formidable mortar invented by J. T. Maston, distinguished member and permanent secretary of the Gun Club. It was more lethal than any of the others, for it killed 337 people the first time it was fired, though it is true that it did so by bursting.
What can we add to these figures, so eloquent in themselves? Nothing. It will therefore be easy to accept the calculation made by the statistician Pitcairn: he divided the number of members in the Gun Club by the number of victims of their cannon balls and found that each member had killed an average of 2,375 and a fraction men.
From this figure it is clear that the aims of that learned society were the destruction of the human race for philanthropical reasons and the improvement of war weapons, regarded as instruments of civilization. It was an assemblage of Angels of Death who at the same time were thoroughly decent men.
It must be added that these dauntless Yankees did not confine themselves to theory: they also acquired direct, practical experience. Among them were officers of all ranks, from lieutenant to general, soldiers of all ages, some who had just begun their military career and others who had grown old over their gun carriages. Many fell on the field of battle, and their names were inscribed on the Gun Club's honor roll. Most of those who came back bore the marks of their unquestionable valor. Crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms with iron hooks at the wrist, rubber jaws, silver skulls, platinum noses—nothing was lacking in the collection. The aforementioned Pitcairn calculated that in the Gun Club there was not quite one arm for every four men, and only one leg for every three.
But these valiant artillerymen paid little heed to such trifles, and they felt rightfully proud when a battle report showed the number of casualties to be ten times as great as the number of projectiles used.
One day, however, one sad and wretched day, the survivors of the war made peace. The shooting gradually died down; the mortars fell silent; muzzled howitzers and drooping cannons were taken back to their arsenals; cannon balls were piled up in parks; bloody memories faded; cotton grew magnificently in abundantly fertilized fields; mourning clothes and the grief they represented began to wear thin, and the Gun Club was plunged in idle boredom.
A few relentless workers still made ballistic calculations and went on dreaming of gigantic, incomparable projectiles. But without opportunities for practical application these theories were meaningless, and so the rooms of the Gun Club became deserted, the servants dozed in the antechambers, the newspapers gathered dust on the tables, sounds of sad snoring came from the dark corners, and the members, once so noisy, now reduced to silence by a disastrous peace, lethargically abandoned themselves to visions of platonic artillery.
"It's disheartening!" the worthy Tom Hunter said one evening while his wooden legs were slowly charring in front of the fireplace in the smoking room. "There's nothing to do, nothing to hope for! What a tedious life! Where are the days when we were awakened every morning by the joyful booming of cannons?"
"Those days are gone," replied the dashing Bilsby, trying to stretch his missing arms. "How wonderful they were! You could invent a howitzer and try it out on the enemy as soon as it was cast, then when you came back to camp you'd get a word of praise from Sherman or a handshake from McClellan! But now the generals have become shopkeepers again, and balls of yarn are the deadliest projectiles they're likely to deal with. The future is bleak for artillery in America!"
"You're right, Bilsby, it's a cruel disappointment!" said Colonel Bloomsberry. "One day you give up your calm, peaceful life, you learn the manual of arms, you leave Baltimore and march off to battle, you fight heroically, and then, two or three years later, you have to lose the fruit of all your efforts and do nothing but stand around idly with your hands in your pockets."
The valiant colonel would have been unable to dem_onstrate his own idleness in this way, though not from lack of pockets.
"And no war in sight!" said the famous J. T. Maston, scratching his rubber skull with the iron hook at the end of his arm. "There's not even a cloud on the horizon, and yet there's still so much to be done in the science of artillery! Only this morning I drew up a complete set of plans of a mortar that's destined to change the laws of war!"
"Really?" said Tom Hunter, involuntarily recalling the test firing of Maston's last creation.
"Yes," said Maston. "But what good did it do me to make all those studies and work out all those difficulties? I was only wasting my time. The New World seems determined to live in peace, and the belligerent New York Tribune has begun predicting catastrophes caused by the scandalous growth of the population."
"But there's always a war going on in Europe to _support the principle of nationality," said Colonel Bloomsberry.
"What of it?"
"Well, there might be something for us to do over there, and if our services were accepted . . ."
"What!" cried Bilsby. "Are you suggesting that we do ballistic research for foreigners?"
"It would be better than not doing any at all," retorted the colonel.
"Yes, it would," said J. T. Maston, "but it's out of the question."
"Because in the Old World they have ideas about promotion that are contrary to all our American habits. They think a man can't become a general unless he's first been a second lieutenant, which is the same as saying that you can't be a good gunner unless you've cast the gun yourself! It's . . ."
"Ridiculous, that's what it is!" said Tom Hunter, stabbing the arm of his chair with his Bowie knife. "But since that's how things are, there's nothing left for us to do but plant tobacco or distill whale oil!"
"Do you mean to say," J. T. Maston exclaimed in a ringing voice, "that the last years of our lives will not be devoted to the improvement of firearms? That there will be no new opportunities to test the range of our projectiles? That the air will never again be bright with the flash of our cannons? That there will be no international difficulties which will enable us to declare war on some transatlantic country? That the French will never sink a single one of our steamers, or that the English will never hang any of our citizens in direct violation of the law of nations?"
"No, Maston," replied Colonel Bloomsberry, "we'll never be that lucky. Not one of those things will happen, and even if one of them did happen, it wouldn't do us any good! Americans are getting less and less touchy all the time. It won't be long before we're a nation of old women!"
"We're becoming humble," said Bilsby.
"And we're being humbled!" added Tom Hunter.
"It's all too true!" J. T. Maston said with renewed vehemence. "There are all kinds of reasons for fighting, but we don't fight! We're intent on saving arms and legs for people who don't know what to do with them! And there's no need to look very far for a reason for going to war. For example, America once belonged to England, didn't it?"
"Yes, it did," replied Tom Hunter, angrily poking the fire with the end of his crutch.
"Well, then," said J. T. Maston, "why shouldn't it be England's turn to belong to America?"
"That would be only fair," said Colonel Bloomsberry.
"Just go and suggest it to the President!" said J. T. Maston. "You'll see what kind of a reception he'll give you!"
"It wouldn't be a very polite reception," Bilsby murmured between the four teeth he had saved from battle.
"I certainly won't vote for him in the next election!" said J. T. Maston.
"Neither will I!" the bellicose cripples all shouted at once.
"Meanwhile," said the intrepid J. T. Maston, "if I'm not given a chance to try out my mortar on a real battlefield, I'll resign from the Gun Club and go off into the wilds of Arkansas."
"And we'll all go with you!" replied the others.
Things had reached this point, the members of the Gun Club were becoming more and more wrought up, and the club was threatened with dissolution when an unexpected event forestalled that catastrophe.
The day after the conversation reported above, each member of the club received the following notice:
Baltimore, October 3
The President of the Gun Club has the honor of informing his colleagues that during the meeting on October 5, he will make an announcement that will be of the greatest interest to them. He therefore strongly urges them to be present.
President's Barbicane's Announcement
AT EIGHT o'clock on the evening of October 5, a dense crowd was milling in the rooms of the Gun Club at 21 Union Square. All the members who lived in Baltimore had responded to their president's invitation. As for the corresponding members, express trains were bringing them in by the hundreds and they were pouring through the streets of the city. Large though the meeting hall was, it was unable to hold this influx of learned members, and so they overflowed into the adjoining rooms, the halls, and even into the grounds outside. There they encountered the ordinary people who were swarming around the doors, each one trying to make his way to the front, all eager to learn what President Barbicane's important announcement was going to be, pushing, jostling, and crushing one another with the freedom of action that is peculiar to a populace that has been raised with the idea of self-government.
That evening a stranger in Baltimore would have been unable to enter the meeting hall no matter how much he might have been willing to pay. It was reserved exclusively for the resident and corresponding members of the Gun Club, and no one else was admitted into it. Even the local dignitaries and the members of the city government had to mingle with the crowd and try to catch word of what was taking place inside.
From the Paperback edition.