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Athen's Double Barrel Cannon
About North Georgia

by Richard E. Irby, Jr.


One of Athen's most prized possessions, the famous Double Barrel Cannon, was cast at the Athens Steam Company in 1862 and today stands on the lawn of the City Hall in Athens, Georgia. The Athens Steam Company was renamed the Athens Foundry and Machine Works in December 1863 and most reports name the Foundry as the site of manufacture. The Cannon is a double six-pounder, cast in one piece, with a three degree divergence from the parallel between the barrels. Each barrel has its own touch hole so it can be fired independent of the other and a common touch hole in the center is designed to fire both barrels simultaneously.

The idea was to connect two cannon balls with a chain and mow the enemy down like a scythe cuts wheat. The gun is four feet eight and one-half inches long, the bore is three and thirteen-hundredths inches and the gun weighs about thirteen hundred pounds.

The gun was designed by John Gilleland who has been identified as a local house builder and mechanic, a Jackson County dentist, a private in Mitchell's Thunderbolts and as an employee of Cook's Armory. The Cannon was financed by a $350 subscription raised by 36 interested citizens and the casting was supervised by Thomas Bailey.

The Cannon was taken out on the Newton Bridge Road in April 1862, for test firing. The test was, to say the least, spectacular if unsuccessful.

According to reports one ball left the muzzle before the other and the two balls pursued an erratic circular course plowing up an acre of ground, destroying a corn field and mowing down some saplings before the chain broke.

The balls then adopted separate courses, one killing a cow and the other demolishing the chimney on a log cabin. The observers scattered in fear of their lives.

Some reports claimed two or three spectators were killed by the firing. The reports of the deaths have not been substantiated. The Watchman promptly reported the test an unqualified success.

The Cannon was then sent, at Gilleland's insistence, to the Augusta Arsenal for further tests. Colonel Rains, arsenal commandant, tested the gun and reported it a failure for the purpose intended. Colonel Rains had tested a similar weapon at Governor's Island in 1855 with the same results.


Gilleland, however, was still of the opinion that the gun was a perfect success and engaged in a heated correspondence with the Confederate Secretary of War. Gilleland contended the Cannon had been fired successfully and James W. Camak reports one successful shot. Camak also stated that the Cannon was very effective if both barrels were loaded with canister or grape shot and fired simultaneously.

Further persistence proving futile Gilleland then approached Governor Brown in an attempt to interest the state in his gun. Brown declined to provide money for further experiments and the Cannon was returned to Athens.

According to Legend the Cannon was placed in front of the Town Hall as a signal gun and loaded with blank shot. Dr. Moore was appointed master of the Cannon and was to fire the blanks on the approach of any Yankees. The women and children were to gather in the Town Hall and the men were to form a circle around the Hall and sell their lives dearly.

One Sunday morning the women and children were in church and the men napping at home when some boys fired the gun. Pandemonium resulted, the churches broke up, the women ran screaming into the streets and the men went running through the town in their underwear. When the dust settled the Town Hall was packed full of men and the women were pounding on the door trying to get in.

The truth behind the legend is no more complimentary to Athens than the legend. The July 27, 1864, Watchman reported that a rumor of three or four thousand Yankees at High Shoals on July 23 quickly grew to thirty or forty thousand Yankees. The Banner of the same date reported the Yankees, several thousand strong, to be in Monroe. The cannons were fired, the bells rung and the companies for local defense assembled. The Watchman reported males of all ages in place ready to defend Athens. The Banner reported a few defections.

Private correspondents, however, were not so kind. Mrs. Marcellus Stanley in private letters reported "some of our men were so scared ... that they ran off". Mrs. Stanley also describes men running through town to the train depot barefoot, coatless and hatless followed by women, with their corsets and stockings in hand, attempting to fasten their dresses. The Yankees did not materialize and the military stood down after agreeing upon a signal for reassembling.

The Sunday peace was broken at 11 AM next morning by the firing of three cannon, at the Town Hall, disrupting church services. The Banner reported the citizens as "retiring to their homes with order and decorum" and the military units as assembling "with a promptness highly creditable." Julia Pope Moss recorded in the margin of her Bible, "Everyone left (Church) in a great state of excitement," but she did not report any widespread panic. According to Colonel Young the signal guns were fired under a misapprehension of orders. The Watchman exhorted the citizens to "KEEP COOL!" and promised that Colonel Young would give the signal when danger approaches. No mention was made of the Double Barrel Cannon having a part in these events.

James W. Camak claimed in an article in the Magazine of Antique Firearms, reprinted in the July 1915 Confederate Veteran, that the Cannon was used by Lumpkin's Artillery when they repelled Stoneman's Raiders at Barbers Creek on August 2, 1864. The cannon was loaded with canister. The Athens papers did not describe this action in any detail. They were going to press and a thousand murderous Yankees attempting to cross the Oconee did not warrant holding the presses.

Two other articles making this assertion have appeared in the Confederate Veteran, the latest by Donald B. Parr, Jr. in 1990. Parr contends that the Double Barrel Cannon was placed in the bottom tier of cannon and, following a four shell barrage, both barrels were discharged simultaneously dispersing the Yankees. The August 10, 1864, Southern Banner reported four shells being fired but made no mention of the Double Barrel Cannon or canister being used. The Banner also reported a Yankee Lieutenant killed and four men wounded. When the Yankees came to Athens in 1865 they took no chances and spiked the Cannon.

The Cannon disappeared about 1891 and reappeared in 1895 or 1898. According to reports a thirteen year old boy found the Cannon in a pile of debris and rocks while chasing lizards. He dug the Cannon out and sold it to a junk shop for $4.00 and it was resold to the city for $5.00. In 1962 James Walter Cook claimed he was the boy that discovered the Cannon. Gilleland's relatives insist that a grandson sold the Cannon to the junk shop and that another grandson repurchased the Cannon and resold it to the city for $5.00. Guns Magazine April 1968, credits Thomas Bailey, who supervised the casting, with discovering the Cannon in the junk shop. Donald B. Parr, Jr. asserts that John Wesley Gilleland, Jr. sold the Cannon to Athens for $5.00 following his father's death in 1875. The April 26, 1912, Banner credits Thomas Bailey and Reuben Nickerson with rescuing the Cannon from the junk shop.

The Cannon was mounted on a carriage with fourteen spoke wheels. Old pictures show the Cannon on a carriage with sixteen spoke wheels and this led to some controversy in 1988 when the carriage required repairs. Toombs D. Lewis, Jr. described the carriage as "a fairly old, homemade carriage made from a wagon axle, wagon wheels, and four boards" in a January 15, 1989, interview by the Banner-Herald's Valerie Thompson.

Guns Magazine also reported that an unidentified politician noticed the muzzle of the Cannon was pointing at City Hall and promised to turn it around if elected.

The ideas of connecting cannon balls by chain and double barrel cannons are as old as cannon. Antonio Petrini invented a double barrel cannon in 1642. All navies were in the habit of firing cannon balls connected by chain and loaded in the same barrel to cut the sails of enemy ships. Antonio Petrini's cannon was designed to fire balls connected by chain from different barrels like Gilleland's cannon.

Apparently double barrel cannons were not unknown in Europe but while there are models of double barrel cannons in museums there is no other known specimen of a full sized double barrel cannon which faces north, just in case. It is also at the north end of the City Hall.

County: Clarke County

Athens Double-Barrel Cannon (Athens City Hall)




Directions


Take the Athens Perimeter Hwy, which is also known as US 29 and US 78, to exit 8 (Oconee St/US-78 E/GA-10). Turn left on Oconee Street (US 78), which becomes Oak Rd and becomes Oconee Street again just before it crosses the Oconee River. A mile into the journey the road bears left and becomes Broad Street, however, it retains the US 78 designation. At 1.6 miles turn right on Lumpkin Street, travel 3 blocks to Hancock Street and park. The Double-Barreled Cannon is ahead at the north end of the city hall.

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