In the Civil War, canons played a huge role in deciding the outcome of battles, and thus, the war itself. Each canon required up to eight men to operate and six horses to move. With an artillery battery usually comprised of six canons, safe and effective operation required the synchronized effort of dozens of highly trained men.
After all, one mistake could mean the difference between life and death!
Each canon was under the command of a sergeant who led two corporals. The first corporal was in charge of the caisson and limber, specialized storage units holding the canon’s supplies (powder, projectiles, spare parts, tools, etc.) that were located well behind the canon’s firing position. The second corporal, functioning as the gunner, was responsible for leading the men who actually aimed and fired the big gun.
The choreographed movement of these men was a sight to behold.
After each shot, the Number One Man would swab the bore of the canon with a wet sponge attached to a pole to extinguish any embers still burning inside the tube. The Number Two Man would then step forward with the (inspected and approved) powder bag and projectile and place them inside the canon’s opening. The Number One Man would step forward once again, and with the opposite end of his ramming shaft, push them to the back of the canon. With the canon cleaned and re-loaded, the Number Four Man would use a sharp tool to prick a hole in the powder bag. Then, a friction primer that provided the spark necessary to fire the canon would be put in place. Finally, when the gunner shouted “Fire!” the Number Four Man would yank the rope connected to the friction primer causing sparks to ignite the powder bag. The canon would erupt in a deafening boom filling the battlefield with smoke and death.
Operating a canon in the midst of battle required precision and focused activity. All of the men, whether behind the canon or around the canon, were in constant motion.
Well, almost all the men….
The Number Three Man doesn’t move around all that much. In fact, he basically stands in one spot the whole time the canon is being prepared to fire. While the other men are frantically cleaning the canon, or transporting ammunition for the next shot, or carefully aiming the massive gun, the Number Three Man, also known as The Thumb Stall, just stands near the rear of the gun with one finger touching the canon.
Is his job less important than the others? Is his role unnecessary?
The Thumb Stall gets his name from the leather patch he wears over one of his thumbs. Using his protected thumb, he covers the vent hole above the powder bag to prevent oxygen from entering the bore and prematurely igniting an ember inside the canon while the crew is performing their crucial duties. If the Thumb Stall wasn’t in place doing his relatively simple but crucial job, the canon could easily fire while the other members of his crew were in front of the canon!
The importance of the Thumb Stall is a great reminder about the truth of the church: there are no unimportant members. After Paul paints a picture of the Church as a body, he closes with this thought in 1 Corinthians 12:22.
“…the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…”
No matter what role you play in the church, it’s important! There are no small, unimportant members in an artillery battery. There are no small, unimportant members in the Church, either.