Because the first thing to catch a visitor’s eye at Grays’ Armory Museum (other than the Armory itself) is often the cannon in the lobby, that seems a good place to begin our blog.
The “secesh cannon” is a “six pound iron rifled” Napoleon. Let’s break that down. Although popular culture has Union soldiers calling Confederate soldiers “Johnny Reb” or “the Rebs,” during the time just before and after the outbreak of the Civil War, Union supporters used another sobriquet: “damned secessionist,” shortened to “damn secesh.” It was not meant as a compliment. The gun was manufactured at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia early in 1861 for the North Carolina militia – which soon became part of the damn secesh.
The Napoleon-type cannon was introduced in 1857, classified as a light field-artillery piece. Towed by a six-horse team, it required a firing crew of four (with additional crew to supply ammunition and provide other support). In both armies it was the most widely-used type of cannon during the Civil War. The Napoleon could fire several types of ammunition, the most common being “round shot,” “canister,” and “Shrapnel’s shell.” Round shot was a solid cannonball. A canister round contained gunpowder and lead balls; shortly after leaving the muzzle, the balls separated from the canister and traveled down range in a cluster, much like the blast from a shotgun. Shrapnel’s shell also contained gunpowder and lead balls (large than those in canister); however, the shell remained intact until it reached the target, then exploded sending the balls in all directions.
A six-pound gun fired a projectile of that nominal weight. A rifled weapon has grooves cut into the inside of the barrel to impart a spin on the projectile, improving accuracy.
The secesh cannon is unusual in several respects: most Napoleons are made of bronze, this one is iron; the standard-size Napoleon for both Union and Confederate artillery was twelve-pound, this is six-pound; and, the standard Napoleon was smooth bore (i.e., unrifled), this cannon is rifled.
The next installment will tell how the secesh cannon came to be at Grays’ Armory Museum.