Imported seacoast rifles from England: Introducing the Widow Blakely and her sister

UPDATE: I’ve revised this post to remove a wartime photo hastily added which I identified as the Widow Blakely. Such was not the case.  Please see my follow up post for the details about the guns in question.

Most cannon serve somewhat anonymously, maybe at best with an officer recording a registry number or weight. But on occasion a weapon appears with a very distinctive name. Typically, those named guns have a story to tell. That’s the case with this particular gun.

The “Widow Blakely” was one of several “named guns” in the Vicksburg defenses. The name derived from that particular weapon being the only Blakely cannon in the Vicksburg siege lines. Colonel Edward Higgins cited the gun as a “7.44-inch Blakely Gun” in his report of the siege.

The Widow Blakely’s origin parallels the heavy caliber James rifles and other similar conversions. In 1860, British Captain Theophilus Alexander Blakely patented a system to modify old smoothbore guns into rifles, with a breech band added for strength. The conversion required the breech moldings turned down, to allow a breech band slipped over to reenforce the critical section of the gun. The bore was also enlarged and rifled to complete the conversion. On the surface, the system was not much different than similar conversions made in America. One major difference, which may have been more semantics, was Blakely’s use of a steel band (the term “steel” being used to describe several variations of metal composition during the Civil War).

In 1861, Confederate agents in England secured some of these Blakely conversions. Several variations in caliber appear among the records and surviving weapons. But concentrating for now on the Widow Blakely, the firm of Fawcett, Preston & Company secured British naval 42-pdr, of 57 cwt, smoothbore guns from Low Moor Iron Company. And it is important to note, these were likely not Royal Navy guns, but rather pattern guns produced by Low Moor and seconded for conversion.

The 42-pdrs started out with a 7-inch bore. The conversion reamed out an additional half inch with the rifling process. For some reason, which is not entirely clear, Confederate records cite the weapons as 7.44-inch. The guns were 124 inches in overall length, including a breeching loop.

Most likely the gun that became the Widow Blakely arrived in Savannah via the blockade runner Bermuda in September 1861. However a very similar gun was also purchased by the state of Virginia and used in the state’s defenses along the Potomac River. It was captured the following spring by Federal forces, and is today part of the Washington Navy Yard trophy collection.

WNY 10 Apr 10 295

7.5-inch Blakely at Washington Navy Yard

The gun bears the trunnion stamp of Low Moor.

WNY 10 Apr 10 297

Low Moor Trunnion Stamp

The breech reinforcement was built up with three separate rings.

WNY 10 Apr 10 296

Breech Band on 7.5-inch Blakely

The muzzle betrays the gun’s origin as an old smoothbore design.

WNY 10 Apr 10 299

Muzzle of 7.5-inch Blakely

The rifling, which still stands out clearly, was a triangular 12 groove.

WNY 10 Apr 10 300

Rifling of 7.5-inch Blakely

Do be mindful of those renting space there at the top groove.

This is what the Widow Blakely originally looked like, more or less.

WashNY 21 July 272

7.5-inch Blakely at the Navy Yard

But, as mentioned above, the Widow Blakely suffered a mishap. A premature shell explosion damaged the muzzle. With heavy ordnance in short supply, the Vicksburg defenders cut the muzzle back a couple feet to repair the gun. There’s reference to its use as a mortar, although I’d say the employment was much closer to that of the columbiads.

The Widow is still there at Vicksburg, having spent some time at West Point’s trophy yard.

Widow Blakely Vicksburg

Widow Blakely at Vicksburg

From the trunnions back, the Widow matches well to her “sister” gun at the Washington Navy Yard.

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One response to “Imported seacoast rifles from England: Introducing the Widow Blakely and her sister

  1. Pingback: Richard, the Widow, and some other cannon: Named guns at Vicksburg | To the Sound of the Guns

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