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Guard group aims to fix Civil War cannon 'Old Sam'

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Through its history, Fredericksburg has seen its share of cannons come and go -- most notably the ones the Union Army fired across the Rappahannock River in its December 1862 bombardment of the city.

But one obscure cannon--sitting across from the post office downtown and known as "Old Sam" -- is again getting some long-overdue attention.

With a nod from the Fredericksburg City Council, the Fredericksburg Guard Association has launched an effort to restore the gun, believed to be a Model 1841 six-pounder.

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Headed by retiring Virginia Army National Guard Lt. Col. David James, the association is raising money to refurbish the unusual cast-iron artillery piece and buy a new carriage to replace the deteriorating, homemade carriage that supports it.

While much is known about the gun, some of its history has been lost. It may have been a ceremonial gun used on special occasions, and to train local militia -- the precursor to the National Guard.

James and at-large City Councilman Matt Kelly want to see the cannon refurbished and repaired, though they differ on some of the weapon's lineage.

Last December, the city agreed to loan the gun to the association for restoration and display at the Fredericksburg Armory.

James estimates it will cost about $10,000 for a wooden carriage replacement and about $14,000 for a long-lasting metal one.

The last time the carriage was replaced was in the 1970s, when the gun sat outside the former Fredericksburg Information Center at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Princess Anne Street.

James says association members are pitching in half their dues toward the project. He hopes other military organizations, local history buffs and the public will chip in as well.

"Old Sam" refers to 1876 presidential candidate Samuel Tilden, who lost a contentious election to Rutherford B. Hayes. Tilden, a Democrat, won the popular vote, but lost the contest in the Electoral College. Local legend has it that the gun was forged in anticipation of Tilden's election.

One thing is likely, James said: "That particular gun was never fired in anger, apparently."

James first saw the cannon as a boy walking along Princess Anne Street.

"I wondered, 'Why in the heck would they put a cannon next to the fire department?'"

It again came to his attention as he was gathering material for a history of the National Guard in Fredericksburg. James noticed the cannon was deteriorating and wanted to know more about it and what could be done.

He scoured back issues of The Free Lance-Star and historical records for clues about its origin.

"It sounds to me like it was most likely made for [Samuel] Tilden's election," James said. Hayes went into the history books in 1877 as the nation's 19th president; Tilden, a Democrat, quietly faded into history, "but his cannon continues on."

It appears "Old Sam" was fired on special occasions.

It was used for the opening of the Falmouth Bridge in March 1886, James said.

This note about it appeared in The Free Lance: "Sam Tilden, borrowed by Mr. Honey for use on occasion of opening the bridge, got his axle broke and otherwise busted up when returning from Falmouth last Monday."

A brief 1891 article said the cannon was owned by the Democratic Party of Fredericksburg and was fired to herald Democrats' victories.

The cannon, also referred to occasionally as "Old Sam Tilden," was shot to celebrate President Grover Cleveland's first-term win in 1885. During a 21-gun salute, the gun fired prematurely. The explosion badly injured a member of the local militia, the Fredericksburg Grays. The ramrod was shot clear to Falmouth, nearly one mile away, according to an article in the October 1886 Free Lance.

Historical accounts say the cannon boomed on July 4 celebrations.

"What I am most attached to is that it was used by the local militia," said James. "It was their piece of armament that they used to train on."

By the 1880s, the gun was kept in the market lot (now Market Square).

"It was used as a hitching post for horses, it was in such bad shape," James said.

After that, James believes, it was stored in the city's former jail downtown, where it sat through World War I and World War II.

Had it not been out of sight, James said, it might have been melted down for scrap.

"A German cannon that used to be around Maury School was melted down in World War II. Somehow, this cannon survived," he said.

After World War II, "Old Sam" was moved to the Wallace Library, where the city School Board administration office now sits on Princess Anne Street. At one point, the cannon was displayed at a Veterans of Foreign Wars building in town.

It was a fixture at the information center site on U.S. 1. for years. That property was sold to the former Mount Vernon Realty Inc. in 1979.

A brief battle over the gun ensued when the new property owner mistakenly thought the cannon was part of the deal. The city then agreed to let the gun stay on the site with a lease arrangement, with the gun to be maintained by the company.

"Old Sam's" journey ended shortly afterward when it was taken to its present location.

Kelly has a somewhat different narrative about the cannon's history.

He was doing research on the first non-elected council, and in the council minutes, "I saw a reference about the city receiving a cannon from the state adjutant general" in 1852, Kelly said. It's unclear whether that was "Old Sam."

Kelly said a Library of Virginia record indicated the city originally requested a larger, 12-pounder cannon, which was widely used at the time, but got a six-pounder, instead.

"And it was not given to the city, it was almost a loan, and the city agreed to maintain it," Kelly said.

He believes that's the gun the city received because, at one point, it was stored in the city armory, now the Circuit Courthouse on Princess Anne Street.

The city's cannon was mentioned in armament expert Warren Ripley's 1973 book, "Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War."

Ripley wrote that the cannon "might have been cast between 1841 and the start of the [Civil] War. However, most weapons manufactured during this period of peacetime were [made] by the large founders who generally affixed their mark." Still, he goes on to say that the unmarked cannon here may have been made at a Confederate foundry.

"Firms such as Clark, Leeds and Tredegar cast bronze six-pounders of this pattern for the Confederacy," he wrote.

The Model 1841 six-pounder was a standard artillery piece prior to the Civil War, and was produced for years afterward. But cast-iron models were rare because they were prone to failure during testing.

In his research, Kelly found that some six-pounders were imported from Sweden, and possibly, New York. Tests on the gun, he says, might be able to determine where it was made, and whether the gun was made for the military or for ceremonial purposes.

"There's still a lot of questions to be answered," Kelly said, "but it's kind of fun playing detective about our city history."

rdennen@freelancestar.com
 

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