Visitors to Galena’s Grant Park have a rare opportunity to view an amazing Blakely cannon – a weapon which ranks as one of the Civil War’s most historic pieces of artillery. The Galena Blakely Cannon has an intriguing history and the distinction of being the first rifled cannon fired in combat on American soil.
England’s Theophilus Alexander Blakely designed the rifled cannon which bears his name. Earlier cannons were pipe-like with smoothbore barrels. Grooves cut into the inside of the rifled cannon’s barrel forced ammunition to rotate, making the weapon more accurate and giving it a greater range than a smoothbore cannon. Since Blakely’s designs were not adopted by the British government, he had no production facilities and was forced to contract with others to produce his weapons. According to the engraving on the Galena cannon’s barrel, the Blakely was cast at Fawcett, Preston & Co. of Liverpool.
Securing rivets and outlines of a plaque once mounted on the cannon are still visible above the engraving. According to historians, the missing memorial plaque bore the inscription, “Presented to the Sovereign State of South Carolina by a Citizen Residing Abroad, in Commemoration of the 20th of December, 1860.” Charles Kuhn Prioleau, an agent working for the Southern cause in England, is said to have donated the cannon to honor the date South Carolina seceded from the Union.
On April 9, 1861, soon after Prioleau donated the cannon, South Carolina Governor Francis Wilkinson Pickens wrote a description of the new Blakely cannon to LeRoy Pope Walker, the Confederate Secretary of War:
“There has just arrived on the bar a fine rifled cannon from Liverpool, of the latest maker, an improvement upon Armstrong, of steel rolls or coils, with elevation of seven and one-half degrees to a mile. It throws a shell or twelve-pound shot with the accuracy of a dueling pistol, and only one and one-half pounds of powder. Such, they write me, is this gun, and I hope to have it in position to-night. We expect the attack about 6 o’clock in the morning, on account of the tide.”
Three days later, Confederate soldiers positioned the Blakely in the “Point Battery” on Morris Island under the command of Captain J. P. Thomas. On April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, SC, marking the beginning of the Civil War. The Blakely rifled cannon hurled twelve-pound iron projectiles with deadly accuracy at the fortress some1200 yards away.
Harper’s Weekly, a popular publication of the day, featured an engraving of the Blakely, mounted upon its carriage, in its May 18, 1861, issue. The commemorative plaque on the breach was clearly visible in the etching. Harper’s said:
“This was the gun a ball from which knocked down the flag-staff at Fort Sumter. It was then at the iron battery; now it is on Morris Island, and commands the ship-channel. In the foreground will be seen a couple of the balls. The point is of iron, but the base a softer metal, which expands and fills the grooves in the piece when discharged.”
The Confederates used the gun for the remaining years of the war. Near the end of the conflict, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman found the weapon abandoned by retreating rebels in the little hamlet of Cheraw, SC.
Once again Harper’s Weekly featured the Blakely, publishing another engraving on April 1, 1865. The image showed Union troops firing the captured Blakely across the Peedee River. The caption under the sketch read: “As the rebels fled across the river, Maj. Gen. Mower sent after them a few shells from a Blakely gun which he had captured and which had been presented to the state of South Carolina by citizens residing abroad”.
At the close of the Civil War in 1865, the Blakely cannon was shipped to the United States Arsenal at Rock Island, IL, and put into storage. Thirty years later, Jonathan White, the Jo Daviess County, IL treasurer living in Galena, spearheaded a successful drive to secure the cannon for his town as part of birthday celebration festivities for one of the city’s favorite sons – Ulysses S. Grant.
White had served with the 45th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and was among the soldiers entering Cheraw, SC, in March of 1865. He remembered capturing the Blakely cannon from the retreating Confederates. Three decades later, White wrote to Illinois Congressman Robert Hitt, and soon legislation mandating the gift of the cannon to the Galena Grant Park Commission was in the works. The Blakely was shipped by freight at Galena’s expense and placed in the park overlooking the Galena River in time for the April 1896 Grant birthday celebration.
Grant and his family had settled in Galena in April 1860. Early on, Grant worked as a clerk and bookkeeper in his father’s leather store. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted, and less than a week after the fall of Fort Sumter, he was elected to head Galena’s recruiting effort. Grant often returned to Galena, and soon, the city began the tradition of celebrating Grant’s April birthday – a tradition which continues to this day.
Unfortunately, the plaque on the barrel of the Blakely has been lost, but there is no doubt that the gun placed in Galena’s Grant Park in 1896 is the very same cannon that fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 – the very same cannon that was captured by the Union four years later.
Galena is proud of its Blakely cannon – an historic piece of artillery that fired the opening shots of the Civil War and saw action in the hands of both Confederate and Union soldiers. Now, the Blakely rests in Grant Park as a silent memorial to the heroism of soldiers who served on both sides of the worst conflict in the history of the United States.