Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Search for Secrets of A Sunken Cannon - 42

Believe-it-or-not when Bob Alcumbrack started his exploratory dig for the missing Cannonsburg cannon he thought perhaps the gun was less than 50 years old. The misnomer it was a small military cannon is what he got wrong. He thought the cannon must be brass because after many repeat firings at celebratory functions it never prematurely exploded during its 38 year history in Cannon Township.

The Cannonsburg cannon was made between 1635-1743 and the barrel of every gun made in existence before a king or queen has decorations, marking and reliefs when cast. Four categories: (1) pure art (2) founders signature and date (3) facts about the gun owner (4) ordnance marks. Engraving cannons many years after being cast is almost impossible on iron cannons, because it causes tiny fractures within the metal causing metal fatigue and accidental bursting.

Imagine what Mary, Queen of Scots and Mary I coat-of-arms quartered with England, France and Spain's coat-of-arms might have resembled and how hard it would be to deciphercannon history. ECU professor Rodgers said they couldn't understand the decorations, because they didn't have these reliefs in any publications. They hadn't seen anything like the decorations on the cannon dredged up from the Atlantic Ocean in a commercial fishing net.

This is not to say that brass cannons couldn't be engraved after casting, because many specialty British cannons with illustrious histories were engraved post battle with American capture history and recaptured by the British. I suspected for this reason Mr. Cannon had a brass plaque attached to the carriage and that is what Bob had to find to historically authenticate the Cannonsburg cannon. Finding just the piece would render it another marina landscape cannon unless it was engraved with Le Grand Cannon's name when given to Cannonsburg town elders in 1848.

Well you now have some insights into the problems associated with cannon manufacturing. The first four hundred years of cannon manufacturing was done outside of England. England didn't have copper and lead. These were imported in the country beginning in late 1600's.

In 2008-09, Odyssey Marine Excavations of Florida, a treasure hunting group using towed sonar discovered the shipwreck location of a 17th century ship they dubbed the "Meat Wagon" southeast of England. The vessel was loaded with lead bound for England and it sunk with the world's richest cargo of lead and today's value places its worth at 100 million dollars. Because you find something in the world's oceans doesn't mean finders keepers.

It wasn't until the late 1600's the England started casting its own iron cannons with many imperfections due to bad kings, queens and subordinates who cheated craftsmen out of money owed or those who scrimped to make faulty cheap cannons. The English monarchy at time didn't care how many of their loyal countrymen lost their lives and limbs. The monarchy always claimed they had the best weapons and the king's artillerymen thought he wouldn't put them in harms way. Many within England had only eyes for money and lives lost were just collatorable damage due to war. Many cannons exploded and the shrapnel from the burst cannon killed whole batteries of men and those servicing it.

The Cannonsburg cannon prematurely exploded killing only Walter Tompsett. The piece didn't disintegrate. He lost his life approximately 13 hours after he had been struck by premature explosion of the piece, which sent the ramrod that just nested the gunpowder charge rocketing out striking his knee. Why was Tompsett standing in front of the cannon is what puzzled Bob. That puzzled us, too, but Bob Alcumbrack assumed Tompsett was distracted by someone and didn't realize he was standing too close. Bob was correct in assuming that the seven men wouldn't be content to shoot off the cannon, see the flash, smoke and hear the awesome blast listening to the repercussions and echoes up distant valleys.

The men had to be shooting cannonballs or stones. He searched for cannonballs and stones on distant hillsides, but never found any to substantiate they were live firing the cannon. After 100 years the exposed iron balls would be mostly rust and the scorched by fire stones would have been washed clean by acid rain. What he didn't understand that many stones were covered with lead, the weight of the metal made the stones fly farther. This was another silent secret we didn't share with the public.

When supplies of English cannonballs dwindled they substituted iron balls for bluestones that were heavy in weight. Bluestones could be found throughout England and in the vicinity of Stonehenge. These stones along with round pibble stones were shot from small cannons like poop deck and swivel guns. American artillerymen used greenstones - heavy in weight and dipped in lead. This was a secret we didn't share because we didn't need throngs of other artifact and would-be cannon hunters digging holes and trespassing on private property. We sought to keep our expedition a controlled hunt. Bob was digging enough holes, lots of holes and we couldn't chance outside influences tarnishing our resolve to treat other property owners with respect.

Another problem with the accident was Bob never anyone who could substantiate whether the seven men were using a powder-scoop to load loose-powder or gunpowder bags. No matter because the outcome would have produced the same tragic result. Three men were at fault and one lost his life, because he bled to death before physicians could save his life. Bob also miscalculated how the ramrod from a 6-pound cannon ramrod could strike Tompsett in the knee was a mystery. He assumed the carriage wheels were nestled deep in soil, but if the the blast was as 'awesome' as eyewitnesses said, the force would have flipped the cannon. It needed to recoil.

If the ramrod shot from a 6-pound cannon struck Tompsett in the knee it should have struck him in the upper abdomen or the rod could have cut him in two pieces or killed instantly. Bob envisioned the men nesting the carriage wheels in sand and blocked them, but old cannons needed to recoil to keep them from exploding upward and flipping. Six-pound cannons rested atop heavy wooden timbers made of oak and mounted 54-inch wheels putting the piece 48-inches above the ground. This fact alone proved that Bob's six-pound cannon was more mythical, a ghost cannon rather than factual. He based the cannon size because the smallest U.S. military ordnance was a 6-pound iron or brass cannon. If the later he had to find the brass plaque.

The life expectancy of a brass cannon is unlimited in battle, but iron cannons burst before the 30th firing in succession or anytime before the 300th firing. Brass cannons can be fired 130 times or more in one day and it can be fired an unlimited amount of time before bursting. The Cannonsburg cannon didn't just prematurely explode because it was 'delibus'. It was missing the necessary tools or someone else made a mistake in loading it. The Cannonsburg town elders who buried the cannon the first time probably did so because the Federal government was warning town officials that many cannons were nearing the milestone firing. That alone was a good reason to get rid of the old cannons - destroy or recycle them. See you next time for more interesting stories about the Cannonsburg cannons disappearance and whether or not Bob actually found the cannon.

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