Saturday, February 6, 2010

Search for Secrets of A Sunken Cannon -21

Twas a beautiful today in great lakes states. I sat in my lawn chair my back to a large Eastern white pine tree and listened to the manistee breeze whisper thru the pine boughs. The sky was pure blue. Lots of sunshine, but cold, but it still felt good to feel the sun's warmth. It didn't break my heart to hear that folks in Washington DC got buried (24") and some places in West Virginia got 40" of snow in 24-36 hours. We can't be piggish and selfish in the frozen north country. It's time others shoveled the real beauty of El Nino weather history in 2010.

Only mother nature knows the destiny of snow in any geographical region. The world will be doomed the day man controls the weather. No doubt about it. The snowstorm sure wasn't coincidence, but its amazing how the weather changes history, too. It's fascinating how adverse weather shortens the lives of iron cannons to 20 years as opposed to brass, which remains prime for hundreds of years.

In SSSC - 20 you learned a little about Sam Houston's and Texas' twin sisters. The Twin Sister's history runs parallel with the mysteries of the Cannonsburg cannon. The dispositions of all three cannons and the mysterious disappearances were based upon the condition of the cannons although beit the twin sisters were buried because of age so they wouldn't be recycled at a Yankee foundry at the conclusion of the Civil War. The Cannonsburg cannon went missing after it killed Walter Tompsett in 1885. His wife and friends took its disappearance to their graves. Never did anyone squeal where it was buried. The disappearance was sealed in blood - a death pact. Fact is six Texans buried the Twin Sisters just as five men and one woman were responsible for the Cannonsburg cannons demise. Destiny or historical coincidence. The circumstances are uncanny. History was repeating itself.

The craft of cannon founding originates from about 1373 and it took nearly 500 years of trial and error gunfounding before the British had finally mastered their own cannon makings of iron in the 1700's. Up until that time the English purchased cannons from the Flander countries, because they had the best craftsmen. Throughout the history of gunfounding many cannons exploded prematurely the first firing, killing the master gun-founders and foundrymen. Shoddy mistakes in workmanship left various Old World kings and queens searching for qualified replacment gun founders from Italy, Austria and Germany. Brass cannons were expensive no matter who made them, but England didn't have a source for copper and tin., except for roofing. England had an abundance of iron and vessel riggings, but it had many dead gunfounders.

The Texas 'twin sisters' were America's first cannons followed by other sand mold cannons that were being sold to a few wealthy individuals to protect towns from renegade Indians. These cannons were sold by private foundries. It was a court-martial offense for any military personnel to sell small cannons from U.S. Army garrisons. Cannons purchased from private foundries didn't meet the strict military specifications of quality construction. Test firings of iron guns showed many prematurely exploded after repeat firings or before the 30th firing. The Cannonsburg cannon roared to life many times over nearly 40 years without incidence, but the accident didn't happen because of metal fatigue, but rather human negligence.

After the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, the twin sisters were used to guard Mexican prisoners. Five years later the twins were used in Austin and fired the celebratory rounds when Sam Houston was sworn in as President of the Republic of Texas (1836-38, 1841-44) until statehood in 1845. Houston was then elected the state's first Senator. Afterwards the twin sister cannons were put in storage at the U.S. Army Depot in Louisiana and when Texas joined the Confederacy in 1861, the cannons were removed and sold separately to different foundries. The old iron cannons were in sad decay and could no longer be fired. They might explode, but they were moved from town to town as historical keepsakes and destined for recycling.

Both of the twin sister cannons were 65" long with a four-inch bore. They were standard 6-pound field cannons - the duplicates of a captured English cannon. Both weighed 800 pounds each minus carriage. Dry weight piece and carriage exceeded 1650 pounds. The piece mounted would be 10-11 feet long with a carriage width of 6 feet wide. This was the exact size cannon Bob believed he had dowsed beneath his coffer box. These were the smallest military cannons in the US Army prior to the Civil War. Nothing smaller so Bob Alcumbrack felt this was the correct size of the Cannonsburg cannon. Only the English had smaller cannons on Navy vessels sailing the high seas prior to 1647. Bob based the cannons size on reports that whenever the cannon exploded it made an awesome roar, therefore, it must be a 6-pound cannon.

Such a cannon would require 7-8 horses and 8 men in battlefield engagement to service this cannon. The Cannonsburg cannon was being serviced by seven men, but that is precisely the amount of manpower needed to fire field artillery pieces of any size. Each hundredth weight (CW) requires one military horse and one soldier and it requires lots of men to remove it from a carriage. Military memoires and notes describe the twin sisters as in decripit state and because of their aged condition should never be fired again. Wouldn't you have thought that such decorated cannons in Texas history would have never been allowed to deteriorate so badly. Surely someone should have protected or preserved them and not allowed they to rust and vanish without a trace. They did, five Texans and one black servant recently freed did indeed bury the cannons so "damn deep no Yankees would ever find them." They lost their minds, too.

For many years leading up into the 1980's Lynn Ashby and Texan historians had premonitions that the Twin Sisters were buried in the Harrisburg area and inside the boundaries of Houston, Texas. They had documentations that proved where its last stop was located -- that's Henry North Graves found the twins resting on a flat car shortly after all hostilities ended. He actually saw the Battle of San Jacinto plaques on the carriages with cannons sitting on a flat car of the Galveston, Houton and Henderson Railway Company in 1865 near Brady's Island. In 1987, this railway line hadn't moved an inch. The GH&H tracks cross Bray's Bayou near Mason Park in the Harrisburg area. Both cannons were sitting amongst other bad cannons tagged for destruction.

Henry North Graves, John Barett, Ira Pruitt, Jack Taylor, Sol Thomas and a freed black servant named Dan found and stole the cannons, burned the carriages and rolled the cannons down to the edge of Bray's Bayou and buried the cannons "so damn deep no Yankee will ever find them," said Graves. Had they not intervened in recovering the cannons they would have been scrapped, destroyed or recycled. That had been a common practice with the English for hundreds of years. Captured guns were amassed in huge piles and recycled into bigger hardware at the Tower of London or Woolrich. What nobody can figure out is exactly where and what side of Bray's Bayou the cannons are buried. Time changes scenery after 30 years - that's how long they had been buried until the men returned to dig them up. The site was barren -- stripped of all brush, the train station depot gone, too. Time passed had erased the visual historical landmarks that dark night when the cannons went missing. They couldn't have buried them deep without finding water since the elevation of Brady's island is 16 feet. Eight hundred pound cannons don't roll easily or very far.

Graves returned again in 1920, but his memory had faded. What is known is the fact that five men couldn't pick up an 800-pound cannon and throw it into Bray's Bayou. The men also couldn't have buried the cannons too deeply once water infiltrated the holes. They might have been buried further back from the water's edge, but digging in clay soil would have been too time consuming as sunrise was fast approaching. Many military depots were secret locations and were dismantled afte the Civil War and documentation was destroyed. These cannons couldn't just disappear, but they did and nobody has found them yet. Once water laden soil is encountered it becomes extremely difficult to bury anything. Saturated soil is a cannon or treasure hunters nightmare. Objects buried in heavy soil remain in shallow graves. If rolled into Bray's Bayou they sink deep into the ooze, then covered with silt or bank side slippage, but what the men didn't say was they were wet. To sink in mud they just needed to shake them to settle, but that is no small fete. This is what the Cannonsburg group encountered.

Legends still swirl around the vanishing act of the fate of the Twin Sisters. Their heritage still lives in the heart of Texans and Americans today just as the fate of the Cannonsburg cannon does too, but ways of finding them is changing. Instead of dowsing rods, range finders, electronic and computerized metal detectors, the best hunters seek out Ground Penetrating Radar or electromagnetic detection units. These aren't for the fate of wallet seekers. These units sell for up to a quarter of a million dollars. The Cannonsburg group first used the experimental versions in 1986. We helped lay the pioneer groundwork for today's GPR's. Bob at the time of his death wasn't aware of how advanced this technology had become. Then again the new electronic computerized versions of metal detectors seems to have taken some of the mystery out of digging up something by seeing it before you dig it.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up!

    Jeff (Spring, Tx)