- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

PETERSBURG, Va. (AP) An old seacoast mortar has been transported to Hampton Roads to be reconditioned after sitting in the Petersburg National Battlefield for more than 26 years.
"We want to preserve this for future generations, and that means making sure it is taken care of," said Bob Kirby, the battlefield's superintendent.
The 139-year-old mortar, also known as the Petersburg Express, was used by Union forces to support their attack at the Battle of the Crater. It also provided counter fire at Confederate artillery positions.
Now the mortar will go to the Mariner's Museum in Hampton Roads so experts can remove rust, salt buildup and other substances that are causing the outer casting to deteriorate.
The process involves placing the old artillery piece in an electrolysis bath to remove buildup. It will take almost two years.
Though plans to send the 17,000-pound mortar for cleaning have been in the works for almost two years, park officials have been struggling to find a way to transport it.
Fort Lee commander Maj. Gen. Terry E. Juskowiak offered the services of a U.S. Army-issued crane along with the 109th Quartermaster Company when he learned about the problem.
Just moving the mortar, also knows as the Dictator, from its metal base onto a truck bed took about two hours.
"We couldn't have done this without the help of Fort Lee and their generosity," Mr. Kirby said.
He also said money from park admissions will help cover the costs of reconditioning the mortar, a popular exhibit at the park.
In fact, the mortar is second only to the Crater in popularity and importance at the park, said Jimmy Blankenship, historian for the Petersburg National Battlefield.
"This is something that interests people because of the weight, the firing capacity and the power this mortar had," he said. "When it was fired, it caused a 3-ton rail car to recoil about 14 feet. That's just amazing."
The piece of Civil War weaponry could lob a 225-pound, 13-inch shell about 2.5 miles, and it has attracted visitors from all over the country.
However, it's not the original Dictator, but an authentic Civil War mortar of the same style. Historians are not sure where the original is.
The original came to Petersburg on a rail car and was fired 218 times during the four months it was in commission.
Park officials say the absence of the Dictator for two years will take away from the exhibits, but the restoration will be worth the wait.
"This is an important piece of our history, and we have to maintain it," Mr. Kirby said. "We want it to be at the park for people to see for many years to come."

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