Fort Sill volunteer restores Civil War cannon
December 20, 2010
- Volunteer puts in more than 100 hours to restore Confederate cannon.
- Iron cannon tells story of Confederate losses of copper mines in Tennessee during war.
- Hopes to finish it this week as early Christmas present for museum curator.
FORT SILL, Okla. -- As Harry Shapell works at the Fort Sill Field Artillery Museum, he breaths new life into a historical artifact -- a cast-iron Civil War-era Confederate cannon.
The nearly 100 hours of restoring the artifact doesn't translate to a paycheck. For Shapell, a museum volunteer here since 1994, it is a labor of love.
"I enjoy doing this because I know people are interested in history," said the greybearded Shapell, who has dabbled in this area of interest for a long time. "It's fun to bring a part of history to life."
The cannon, a 12-pounder Napoleon, Type 6, was cast sometime toward the end of the Civil War. It generally went by its more common name, a Confederate Iron Napoleon. Up until 1863, the South forged cannons of bronze that required about 1,000 pounds of copper for each gun created.
As the North seized Confederate territory, most notably copper mines in Tennessee, the South lost significant amounts of copper ore. What remained was hoarded to produce percussion caps for small arms. It then turned to cast-iron as the raw material of choice to provide battlefield commanders with field pieces.
The South produced an estimated 125 cast-iron Napoleons, but instead of the usually smooth surface from breech to muzzle of brass cannon, the cast-iron model required a modification, one which Shapell recognized instantly.
"I'd never seen this type of gun before and thought it was a Parrot rifle," he said.
The Parrot's main distinguishing feature is a reinforcing brass band melded around the breech to strengthen the gun. Because cast-iron was more rigid than brass, gunsmiths added a stronger wrought-iron band around the breech to keep the gun from exploding due to the tremendous pressure created inside when the powder ignited.
Now, only eight of the field pieces remain. Fort Sill's newest addition to the museum came from New York. It was discovered in 1970 along with three others on the west bank of the Hudson River at the Watervliet Arsenal in New York during excavations to build a new highway. It became an exhibit piece at the arsenal's museum until September of 2009 when Gordon Blaker, the FA museum curator, visited and requested the artillery piece be transferred here.
Since its arrival in September, Shapell has worked with wood putty filling the pitted iron surface which deteriorated in its century mired in the the bottom of the Hudson River.
Once dried, Shapell sanded off the excess putty to restore the surface to a facsimile of its original smooth finish. Following primer and finish coats of paint the cannon will appear as it did long ago when it primarily fired solid shot, shell and spherical case, said Shapell.
The cast-iron cannon gained a reputation for accuracy to about one-third of a mile. It was also known for creating a "sharp, piercing ring so severe [to cause] blood to break from the ear of the cannoneer" as one Confederate Army account read.
Working from photos taken of the field gun, Shapell is fabricating a likeness to the cannon's front sight.
He estimated the cannon will be finished a few days prior to Christmas. So, it will be "a Christmas present" for Blaker and museum patrons.