‘Gettysburg Gun’ represents rare bit of Rhode Island, US history

gettysburg gun

Given that much of the War Between the States was fought below the Mason-Dixon Line, it’s hardly surprising that much of the history associated with the conflict is found in the Southern US, whether on battlefields or in museums.

Still, there are many unique war-related attractions located in the north. One such item is the so-called Gettysburg Gun, located in the Rhode Island Statehouse.

The 12-pound Napoleon was last fired on July 3, 1863, the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, by Battery B, 1st Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery.

The battery, which began the battle with six guns but was down to four by the third day of action, was pounded by Confederate artillery in the fighting that preceded Pickett’s Charge.

During a fierce cannonade one of the 12-pound Napoleons, the cannon which would become known as the Gettysburg Gun, was struck by a Confederate shell, killing two of the Rhode Island gunners.

Sgt. John H. Rhodes of Battery B, 1st Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery described the incident in an 1892 monograph on The Gettysburg Gun:

No. 1, William Jones, had stepped to his place between the muzzle of the piece and wheel, right side, and had swabbed the gun and reversed sponge staff, which is also the rammer, and was waiting for the charge to be inserted by No. 2. Alfred G. Gardner, No. 2, had stepped to his place between the muzzle of the piece and wheel, left side, facing inward to the rear, taking the ammunition from No. 5 over the wheel. He turned slightly to the left, and was in the act of inserting the charge into the piece when a shell from one of the enemy’s guns, struck the face of the muzzle, left side of the bore and exploded. William Jones was killed instantly by being struck on the left side of his head by a fragment of the shell, which cut the top completely off. He fell with his head toward the enemy, and the sponge staff was thrown forward beyond him two or three yards.

Alfred G. Gardner was struck in the left shoulder, almost tearing his arm from his body. He lived a few minutes and died shouting, ‘Glory to God! I am happy! Hallelujah!’ his sergeant and friend bending over him to receive his dying request.

The sergeant of the piece, Albert A. Straight, and the remaining cannoneers tried to load the piece, and placing a charge in the muzzle of the gun. They found it impossible to ram it home. Again and again they tried to drive home the charge which proved so obstinate, but their efforts were futile. The depression on the muzzle was so great that the charge could not be forced in, and the attempt was abandoned, and as the piece cooled off the shot became firmly fixed in the bore of the gun.

As members of Battery B worked to drive the shell into the malformed muzzle with a hammer and ax, another Confederate shell shattered one of the gun’s wheels and the cannon collapsed.

Close-up of 'Gettysburg Gun,' showing shot lodged in damaged muzzle.

Close-up of ‘Gettysburg Gun,’ showing shot lodged in damaged muzzle.

The shot was welded in place as the barrel, hot from heavy use during the action, cooled around it once it could no longer be fired. It remains lodged in the gun’s barrel to this day.

The Gettysburg Gun was said to have a dramatic effect on the battle, even after it was knocked out of action.

When Union Artillery Chief Henry J. Hunt rode up toward Battery B’s position, he could see the unit was in disarray. Only three guns were serviceable, all the officers were killed or wounded, and long-range ammunition was almost expended.

Hunt ordered the battery to the rear, an order it obeyed promptly.

Across the field, Edward Porter Alexander, Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s artillery chief, witnessed Battery B’s withdrawal. At the same time, overall Union gunfire was slackening following orders from both Hunt and Gen. George Meade.

Alexander reported that the Union artillery on the ridge – all of it – was pulling back. It was decided that if Pickett were to charge, the time had come. Battery B had unwillingly helped launch Pickett’s Charge, which would spell doom for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the pivotal battle.

Battery B, 1st Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery, mustered into service at Providence, RI, in August 1861, was mustered out in June 1865. The unit saw action at nearly every major action the Army of the Potomac was involved in, including Seven Pines, Savage Station, Malvern Hill, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Mine Run, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Deep Bottom and Saylor’s Creek.

The unit arrived at Gettysburg with 103 men and six Napoleons; seven men were killed, 19 wounded and 2 were recorded as missing. In addition, only one of its guns was usable following the battle. During the war, 29 officers and men from Battery B died as result of wounds and disease.

Following the war, the cannon was exhibited in Washington, DC, until 1874, when it was returned to Rhode Island. In August 1962 it was discovered that two and a half pounds of black gunpowder were still in the cannon, encapsulated by the shot lodged in the muzzle.

On August 25, 1962 the Rhode Island National Guard removed the cannon from the Statehouse to a nearby National Guard maintenance shop where a hole was drilled into the gun and the black powder was successfully removed.

Today, the famed gun can be seen inside the foyer of the main public entrance of the Rhode Island Statehouse, one of very few Civil War guns still mounted on its original carriage. It still bears the scars of several direct hits from shells and some 39 enemy bullets.

(Top: Gettysburg Gun, seen in Rhode Island Statehouse. Civil war regimental flags from Rhode Island units can be seen in background.)

7 thoughts on “‘Gettysburg Gun’ represents rare bit of Rhode Island, US history

  1. The saga of the Gettysburg Gun should include two more important notes. #1. Upon its return to Rhode Island in 1874 the Gettysburg Gun was placed on a concrete slab outside and in front of what is now known as the Old State House on Benefit Street. It was flanked by another Civil War cannon, the Bull Run Gun. Both of these historical and important artifacts were, therefore, open to the elements. There they each stood for a quarter of a century until it was decided to move them into the Smith Street portico inside the newly constructed marble state house that serves Rhode Usland to this day. As has been indicated in the article above, the Gettysburg Gun remained in the new State House until the successful removal of the black powder in 1962.
    #2. The Gettysburg Gun would leave the State House once more as in 1988, on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Gun was loaded onto a flatbed truck and returned to the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where it was placed on the exact spot where Battery B, 1st RI Light Artillery had fought on the day the Gun was disabled. There the gun was hailed as a highlight of the 125th Anniversary observance. This brief return of the famous gun to the battlefield was accomplished by a joint effort of the reenacting unit for Battery B and by the Rhode Island National Guard. (Note: I was privileged to participate in this project and will forever remember the love and respect this valuable asset, the Gettysburg Gun, received from hundreds of reenactors, both North and South at this historical event.)

    • Thank you for your note, Ron. I can only imagine how it felt to take part in bringing the gun back to the battlefield. What an incredible opportunity to relive history.

      It’s interesting how objects so revered today were treated so haphazardly in the immediate aftermath of the war. Who knows what we have that is sitting around today that will be seen as a priceless remembrance in 125 or 150 years …

  2. I appreciate the time you took here in telling the story of the Gettysburg Gun. I did not have a chance to spend so much time in front of the gun. The foyer was jammed with people trying to get into Legislative Session.

    • I was lucky enough to be there when the legislature was not in session. Of course, in South Carolina, everything on display in that foyer would have been housed reverently in a museum. It was nice to be able to pass through the Rhode Island Statehouse and see history so easily.

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