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Utah Civil War buff adds cannon to his arsenal

VERNAL — From his brogans to his kepi, it's easy to see that Val Spruell is passionate about the Civil War.

Of course, his cannon is a dead giveaway, too.

"It's so rare in the Rocky Mountains to see these sizes of guns and actually see them live fired at a target," Spruell said Sunday, shortly before using his Type 5 12-pounder Napoleon cannon to fire cannonballs, grapeshot and canister at an already-wrecked Cadillac and two water-filled barrels.

"These size of guns are just fascinating to me to watch 'em go off," Spruell said, before rattling off the cannon's specs the way a car aficionado talks about horsepower and torque.

"This shoots a 4 ½-inch projectile, a 12-pound iron ball," he said. "It's a full-scale copy of an original Confederate Tredegar smoothbore. There were 125 of these originally made. Only two or three survived the war. You could stand this one side by side with one of those and not be able to tell the difference."

A longtime Civil War reenactor, Spruell began as an infantryman. He later "graduated" to artillery and began to learn all he could about how cannons were used in the Civil War, how to sight and fire the big guns and the different rounds used against different targets.

"Artillery is a hazardous job; the infantry is going to try to pick us off," Spruell said. "If they get within 500 yards of us, they're in musket range and they will start picking our crews off.

"At that point we start loading canister shot," he said, talking tactics as if he were on a Civil War battlefield.

Spruell's love of Civil War history is personal. His great-great grandfather fought for the Union at Vicksburg, was captured in Louisiana, and spent the last eight months of the war as a prisoner in Texas.

In 1998, Spruell traveled to Pennsylvania with his wife in for the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. That's where he says she first understood his dream of owning a cannon.

"She saw the artillery on that field and she fell in love with it, too," Spruell said.

Spruell took delivery of the cannon on Valentine's Day and has fired it several times. Sunday's demonstration, however, was the largest by far, drawing about 100 spectators to the gun range at the Buckskin Hills Complex northeast of Vernal.

"Honestly, I wasn't surprised," Zach Smith said, when asked about Spruell's decision to spend $22,500 on a cannon.

"It is Val we're talking about," Smith said. "He said once he got the money, he was going to get himself a cannon. Now, I guess he's got one."

T-Jay Whitmore, 11, said he enjoyed the "big vibration" he felt when the cannon was fired.

"It was awesome," Whitmore said. "And it looks like the (Cadillac) is never going to work again."

Spruell admitted that getting dressed in his gray uniform and firing the cannon is a blast, but said his real aim is to help people remember and understand the terrible losses suffered by both sides during the Civil War.

"More Americans lost their lives in that war than all other wars combined," he said. "This thing was huge, and I don't think we should ever forget what happened here."


Twitter: GeoffLiesik