“A Remarkable Cannon”: The Blakely of Grant Park

By H. Scott Wolfe

“We have a remarkable rifled cannon, 12 pdr., superior to any other here. Others ought to be ordered.” (As reported by General P.G.T. Beauregard to Confederate Sec’y of War L.P. Walker, April 15, 1861.)

At 4:30 A.M. on April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery batteries ringing the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina opened fire upon the Federal garrison occupying Fort Sumter. Of these batteries, the “Point Battery,” emplaced on Cummings Point of Morris Island, possessed a then truly novel weapon…an English-made 3.67 inch Blakely rifled gun…which despite a shortage of suitable ammunition, consistently hurled twelve pound iron projectiles to breach the walls of the fortress, 1200 yards distant.

Commanded by Captain J.P. Thomas, the Blakely gun literally reverberated with history. For not only was it a participant in the initial engagement of the American Civil war… it was the first rifled cannon to be fired in combat on the American continent.

Brig. General P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the Confederate forces, saw fit to specifically mention the Blakely in his official report of the hostilities at Charleston:

“I would also mention in terms of praise…Captain Thomas, of the Citadel Academy, who had charge of the rifled cannon, and had the honor of using this valuable weapon — a gift of one of South Carolina’s distant sons to his native State — with peculiar effect.”

So unique was the Blakely rifle, that the May 18, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly contained an engraving of the gun, mounted upon its carriage…the Confederate Morris Island encampments in the background. Of particular importance in this drawing is the visible presence of a commemorative plate, shown mounted above the breach of the gun. Engraved upon this plaque of brass was the inscription:

“Presented to the Sovereign State of South Carolina by Citizens Residing Abroad, in Commemoration of the 20th of December, 1860.”

December 20, 1860 …The State of South Carolina, by ordinance passed in convention assembled, seceded from the United States of America.

Sherman’s army rolled inexorably northward. On the morning of March 3, 1865, elements of the Seventeenth Army Corps approached the South Carolina hamlet of Cheraw. Confederate skirmishers presented only a token resistance before withdrawing across the Big Pedee River… burning the bridge behind them. The Union troops… including the 45th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, the “Washburne Lead Mine Regiment”… entered the unoccupied town and discovered a sizable store of ordnance abandoned by the retreating forces. This Confederate materiel had recently been transported from Charleston, upon the evacuation of that city…muskets, sabers, small arm and artillery ammunition, limbers, caissons … and twenty-five pieces of artillery. Several of the captured cannon were turned upon the fleeing foe across the Pedee. One participant in the cannonade was a 3.67 inch Blakely rifled gun…with a brass commemorative plate mounted upon its breach.

On April 26, 1865, General Joseph Johnston surrendered the last of the principal Confederate armies to Union General Sherman. The long dying was over. The volunteer forces were dismantled and the weaponry retired. And the Blakely rifle of Charleston and Cheraw languished at the United States Arsenal in Rock Island, Illinois until 1896 when an old soldier had an idea.

Jo Daviess County Treasurer Jonathan White had marched with Company D of the “Washburne Lead Mine Regiment.” He had been among the troops entering Cheraw, South Carolina on that March day of 1865.

Now, in April of 1896, he related to ex-Galena Major Thaddeus Bermingham the history of a distinctive artillery piece seized during the South Carolina invasion …a Blakely rifled gun, with a commemorative plate mounted upon its breach. White suggested that the cannon, then stored at Federal arsenal in Rock Island, be secured from the government and presented to the Galena Grant Park Commission for permanent display in the Park itself. He hoped the formal presentation could be made during the Grant’s Birthday Celebration held on April 27.

Impressed with the suggestion, Bermingham penned a letter to congressman Robert Hitt, who promptly replied:

“Washington, D.C. April 14– T.J. Bermingham, Esq., Galena, Ill. Dear Sir: I have your interesting letter of the 11th, and will today endeavor to obtain from the Secretary of War authority to take the Rock Island gun that has such a history to Grant Park for the Grant Birthday celebration on the 27th, and I hope he will give an order that it can be made a permanent feature of that memorial park. Very truly yours, R.R. Hitt”

Congressman Hitt immediately introduced legislation mandating the gift… and on April 22, 1896, both houses of Congress passed the bill “with a hurrah.” It was signed by President Cleveland, and Bermingham was notified by the War Department:

“Rock Island, Ill., April 23– Mr. T.J. Bermingham, Galena, Ill.

Sir: Pursuant to instructions received from the Chief of Ordnance, U.S. Army, a Blakely gun, 3.67 calibre, has this day been shipped to your address as freight…All transportation charges to be paid by you. This gun has a brass plate with the following inscription:

“Presented to the Sovereign State of South Carolina, by one of her citizens residing abroad, in commemoration of the 20th of December, 1860.” Respectfully, A.A. Buffington, Colonel of Ordnance Commanding”

The shipping costs were defrayed by Messrs. Bermingham and E.W. Montgomery, of the Galena firm of William Hoskins & Co. On Saturday evening, April 25, the Blakely arrived and was carried to a place at the base of the Jo Daviess County Soldiers Monument in Grant Park.

At 7:30 A.M. on April 27, 1896, a “large crowd of old soldiers and citizens” gathered at the base of the Soldier’s Monument for the formal presentation of the “war worn cannon” to the Grant Park Commission.

T.J. Bermingham, who was “chiefly instrumental in securing the relic for Galena”, spoke briefly to open the ceremonies:

“Gentlemen of the Board of Park Commissioners: It gives me great pleasure to transfer to you for the use and embellishment of Grant Park, this historic trophy. What more appropriate place could be selected, or what day could be more desirable? Here, under the shadow of this monument, erected to the sacred memory of the brave heroes who faced death, that the spirit of treason might be destroyed, this war relic has been placed, and is now conveyed to your care on this memorable day which we are celebrating to the memory of the Great Commander. This ordnance was dedicated on the 20th day of December, 1860…the birthday of secession. We dedicate it anew today with thankful hearts that we are a great and undivided nation…”

At the appropriate moment during Bermingham’s address, the Blakely was unveiled by “little” Harriet Montgomery.

The Honorable Richard Barrett, representing the Park Commissioners, then formally accepted the gun. His remarks were filled with the chauvinism so characteristic of the period: The Blakely Rifle in Grant Park, Galena, Illinois…1989

“…Monuments that commemorate deeds of valor, and love of country, cannot be too numerous.

They are sure means of keeping alive the martial spirit which has been awakened by past triumphs. They animate the beholders with the pride of their country’s renown. They remind us of former greatness and point to future glory. With monuments, such as this, (in) our public places, where they force themselves upon the attention of the people, the memories of glorious deeds will never die. In behalf of the commissioners of Grant Park, and of the thousands who will inspect it, and be moved by the events connected with its history, it is with very great pleasure that I receive this cannon, and give it this most suitable place in this park, from whence is a full view of the monument to the memory of the Great Commander, our former fellow citizen, General Grant, under whose banner many of you have often marched to victory…”

After Treasurer White related an informal history of the capture of the gun, “with a joke or two at the expense of the rebels,” the crowd dispersed.

Today the Blakely rifled gun rests on the fringe of Grant Park… silently trained toward the west side of the river. The commemorative plate has been removed… its fate unknown. Its original shape and position is evidenced by pitting of the iron on the gun’s breach.

The Blakely is often ignored by visitors… overshadowed by the nearby statue of Galena’s citizen Ulysses Grant. An occasional child will peer into its muzzle, or straddle the tube like some imaginary steed. But the Blakely rifle merits the attention of all… for its distinguished history makes it a truly “remarkable cannon.