Category Archives: Vicksburg

Richard, the Widow, and some other cannon: Named guns at Vicksburg

A few days back, I posted about Widow Blakely, a 7.5-inch rifled gun imported from England and used by the Confederates in defense of Vicksburg.  I originally used this photo to illustrate the post:

Whistling Dick, ca. 1863

The photo is often captioned as “Whistling Dick” of Vicksburg fame, which it is not.  However, as reader D. Dickens pointed out, it is not the “Widow Blakely” either!  A mistake which I should have avoided simply by referring back to my original notes on this photo!

Alas, having found myself spinning even more confusion into what is already a confusing story, I pulled the image out of the post – I’d already seen where my miss-identification was carried onto another forum.  That said, I need to clear this up!

The gun in the photo, which you see reproduced often, is a 32-pdr Navy Gun.  The same gun appears in other wartime photos:

Vicksburg32Pdr

Here, from my archive of 35mm photos, is a similar gun posted outside the Vicksburg visitor center (in the 1990s, however the gun was on a siege carriage at some point):

Vicksburg32PDRRifle

Banded and Rifled 32-pdr with trimmed muzzle at Vicksburg

Notice the loop cascabel, rear sight arrangement, band extending back to the rear sight, the front sight block over the trunnions, and the truncated muzzle.  This gun has marks indicating proofing in 1849.

In Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, Historian Warren Ripley noted this particular gun came to the park from a Vicksburg cemetery which it had guarded since at least 1874.  Although provenance is not always enough to establish fact, three tons is a lot to move about.  I’ve never researched the full history of the gun, but believe there’s enough similarities between the wartime photos and the gun located at Vicksburg today to apply a “very likely” tag here.

There are several “sisters” to this gun, which I shall christen “Miss Identified.”  One sister is at Fort Branch, North Carolina:

NC 28 Jul 12 130

Banded and Rifled 32-pdr at Fort Branch

Another “sister” is at the Washington Navy Yard:

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32-pdr Navy Gun of 57cwt, Banded and Rifled, from CSS Teaser

That particular gun was captured by the US Navy on board the CSS Teaser in July 1862.  And that 32-pdr is right next to the Widow Blakely’s sister…

WashNY 21 July 272

7.5-inch Blakely at the Navy Yard

…affording me a rather nice segue!

Widow Blakely Vicksburg

Widow Blakely at Vicksburg

We can say the bands on the Widow Blakely and “Miss Identify” are of two different types of construction.  The Blakely’s were done in England of course.  The 32-pdr bands were done by the Confederacy, likely Tredegar in all three cases.  In fact, there’s good reason to believe the 32-pdrs were among those guns captured at Gosport Navy Yard in April 1861.

But the muzzle of the two guns – Blakely and “Miss Identify” – which are similar enough to fool even this old cannon hunter.  Both have a few feet trimmed off to include the muzzle swell.  Because both guns were damaged at Vicksburg (or at least in the vicinity of Vicksburg), very likely the work was done by a local vendor.  If so, the odds on favorite is A.M. Paxton & Company.   I’ve mentioned that firm in connection with finishing done on Quinby & Robinson guns.  While the firm of A.B. Reading and Brothers sent most of their machinery to Georgia well before the siege of Vicksburg, Paxton apparently retained enough for work supporting the besieged garrison.

Page 80

That’s $2,000 for “Foundry work” through July 4, 1863.  Paxton’s account was not completely settled, even a year later.

I think we can establish, with little doubt, that Widow Blakely and “Miss Identify” were at Vicksburg at the time of the garrison’s surrender.  And the two guns, with only slight hesitation in regard to the 32-pdr, are at Vicksburg today.  But what about “Richard”… I mean Whistling Dick?

First, let us agree beyond a shadow of a doubt, the wartime photos captioned “Whistling Dick” are indeed NOT that famous gun.  The similarities between the gun in the photos and the surviving 32-pdar are far too close.  And we can rule out “Richard” being a 32-pdr.  In his official report of the siege, Major Samuel Lockett gave a very precise identification of the type of gun (emphasis added):

On the 29th, the usual repairs and improvements continued along the whole line: a new battery made in rear of the line left of Hall’s Ferry road; the new battery in rear of General Lee improved, and “Whistling Dick” (an 18-pounder rifled piece) put in position, and a new battery started in rear of General Moore’s center, but the working party was driven off by the enemy’s sharpshooters, and the work stopped.

While not attributing a name to the piece, Colonel Edward Higgins report indicates only one rifled 18-pdr was in the Vicksburg siege lines. That 18-pdr was temporarily disabled on May 22, at the same time the Widow Blakely suffered its burst muzzle (go figure!).  The 18-pdr was repaired and, as Lockett indicated, sent from the water batteries to reinforce the siege lines on May 28, 1863.

Do we have photos of Whistling Dick?  Not that I know of.  Lack of a post-surrender photo would lend credence to a Confederate veteran’s 1900 account.  Alfred Leach claimed the gun was dumped in the Mississippi the night before the official surrender.  Why, with over a hundred other guns in the lines, this particular gun was dumped, I cannot say.

Alternatively, I would offer that, as with so many other weapons captured at Vicksburg, the rifled 18-pdr might have remained in the city.  Federals later used the 10-inch columbiads, 32-pdr smoothbores, and other smaller pieces in the city garrison lines.  However weapons requiring non-standard projectiles – such as the Widow Blakely, Whistling Dick, and “Miss Identify” – were shunted to the side. The Widow went to West Point, was incorrectly cited as Whistling Dick, until corrected in the 1950s.  “Miss Identify,” as mentioned above, probably stayed in Vicksburg guarding a cemetery until relocated to the park in the 1960s.  But “Richard” is lost to the ages.  A famous gun, and a rare 18-pdr siege gun at that (only one cataloged survivor of the type today), discarded without a trace.

So there you have it.  My penance for an earlier mistake with the wartime photo.  Let us remove the confusion about Whistling Dick, Widow Blakely, and that “other” gun.

Sources:  See Ripley, Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War (Forth Edition), pages 30-32. Ripley cited Edwin Bearss, “The Vicksburg River Defenses and the Enigma of Whistling Dick” from The Journal of Mississippi History, Vol. XIX, No. 1, January 1957, page 21. 

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.

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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.

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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.

Water batteries against gunboats: Defenses of Vicksburg, part 2

Continuing from yesterday’s post on the Confederate defenses of Vicksburg, now let me turn to the big guns… and those with some real “names.” During the siege of Vicksburg not all the pressure the defenders came from the land approaches.  With Federal gunboats still working along the Mississippi, the Confederates had every reason to retain the batteries at the city’s riverfront.  Those heavy guns would parry any attempt by the Federals to take the city by riverine assault.

Colonel Edward Higgins commanded the river batteries.  In his consolidated report of the siege, filed on July 25, 1863, he offered a list of cannons under his command and their dispositions:

The line of batteries extended along the river front, commencing at a point above Fort Hill, on the right of my line, to a redoubt which terminated the extreme right of the rear lines and met my left, a distance of 3 miles, and consisted of 8 10-inch columbiads, 1 9-inch Dahlgren, 1 8-inch columbiad, 1 7.44-inch Blakely gun, 1 7-inch Brooks, 1 6.4-inch Brooks, 3 smooth-bore 42-pounders, 2 smooth-bore 32-pounders, 8 banded and unbanded 32-pounder rifles, 1 18-pounder rifle, 1 20-pounder Parrott, 1 Whitworth, 1 10-inch mortar, 1 8-inch siege howitzer, making in all 31 pieces of heavy artillery, besides 13 pieces of light artillery, which were placed in position to prevent a landing of the enemy on the city front. These batteries were divided into three commands, as follows: The upper batteries, from Fort Hill to the upper bayou, were worked by the First Tennessee Artillery, under Col. Andrew Jackson, jr. The center batteries, or those immediately on the city front, were under charge of Maj. F. N. Ogden, Eighth Louisiana Artillery Battalion, to whose command was attached Capt. S.C. Bains’ company, of Vaiden Light Artillery. The lower batteries were in charge of the First Louisiana Artillery, under Lieut. Col. D. Beltzhoover. A portion of the Twenty-third [Twenty-second] Louisiana Volunteers was joined to Lieutenant-Colonel Beltzhoover’s command.

The batteries offered an impressive weight of fire, on paper at least. Keep in mind that some of these guns arrived at at time that other sectors, namely Charleston, were also requesting heavy guns.

On May 18, 1863, Federal gunboats appeared both up and downstream of Vicksburg, seemingly prepared to rush up with the anticipated infantry assault.  The following day, positions on the north end of the river batteries came under fire of Federal sharpshooters.  Responding to that threat, traverses went up overnight to the side and rear of the four gun water battery.  Throughout May 20 and 21, Federal gunboats and mortar boats maintained fire on the batteries but with little effect.

Timed with army assaults on the lines, again the navy moved up to bombard the river batteries.  Higgins reported:

On the 22d, at 9 a.m., four iron-clads and one wooden gunboat engaged the lower batteries, and after an engagement of one hour and a half were repulsed. Two of the iron-clads were seriously damaged. This engagement was creditable To the First Louisiana Artillery, who, with ten guns, mostly of small caliber, contested successfully against thirty-two heavy guns of the enemy. Our casualties were only 2 wounded during the fight; one 10-inch columbiad and the 18-pounder rifled gun were temporarily disabled. The Blakely gun burst at the muzzle.

The siege had just began and three of Higgins’ best guns were on the disabled list.  All three were eventually returned to service.  The Blakely, soon obtaining the nickname “Widow Blakely” as it was the only weapon of that type in the lines, was repaired by cutting down the cracked muzzle.  The 18-pdr rifle was likely the famous “Whistling Dick,” and likewise returned to service.

On May 23 Higgins released eleven of his light field pieces to reinforce the landward defenses (and thus those guns appear on the table shown yesterday).  With pressing needs in the siege lines, later more of the guns and crews shifted to the landward side.  The two Brooke rifles burst during the siege.  For the rest of the siege, the remaining heavy guns worked against the gunboat threat and also fired counter-battery against Federal weapons on the Louisiana shore. (And I plan to examine some of the more interesting of those exchanges in line with 150th anniversaries, with this being a “setup” post in that regard.)

According to Higgins’ report, the last shots from the river batteries came at 5 p.m. on July 3.

(Higgins’ report comes from OR, Series I, Volume 24, Part II, Serial 37, pages 336-340.)