The Swamp Angel at 150

Last Saturday (August 24), Trenton, New Jersey rededicated the “Swamp Angel” in Cadwalader Park.  From New Jersey Online:

The massive, eight-ton cannon named Swamp Angel was memorialized in celebration of its 150th anniversary and a new marble plaque was unveiled at Cadwalader Park by members of the Camp Olden Civil War Round Table and Museum, Abraham Lincoln Camp 100, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and North Ward councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson. (Full story.)

Rarely can we link a specific cannon to service with a particular unit.  In the case of the Swamp Angel, we can link it to a specific place, time, and event.  Prior posts have discussed the arrangements made for the Marsh Battery, construction of the battery, and a bit about the Swamp Angel’s use against a civilian target.  Let’s look to the damage and bursting of the gun, how it ended up in New Jersey, and give it a proper walk around.

On the night of August 23, Lieutenant Charles Sellmer, supervising a detachment of the 11th Maine Infantry, resumed the firing into Charleston.  After firing a few rounds, and experiencing some premature explosions, the crew encountered a serious problem with the gun, as recorded in the regimental history:

After the sixth shot the gunner called out, ‘I can’t get the priming wire down, sir!’ Examining the vent, it was found that the gun had moved in its jacket – the wrought-iron band shrunk around the breech of a Parrott gun! Although the priming wire would not go down, there was still sufficient space to ignite the charge with the primer.  The gun was injured beyond redemption; it might burst at any discharge.  In order to get all possible service out of it, Lieutenant Sellmer decided to fire the gun until it burst. The men were cautioned to go outside the battery at the command, ‘Ready,’ so as to be out of danger when it should burst. Number four, who discharged the gun, was given two lanyards tied together, that he might be protected by the epaulment.  In this way the service of the gun continued.  At the twentieth round fired that night, Lieutenant Sellmer desired to know the time of night, in order to calculate the rapidity of the firing.  Watch in hand, he placed himself on the left side of the gun, so as to see the time by the flash of the discharge.  He gave the command, ‘Fire.’  Instantly the whole battery was one sheet of flame.  The Parrott gun had burst.

Sellmer and three others were wounded with the bursting, but none were killed.  Sellmer received the worst of it, suffering a burst ear drum and having his hair, eyebrows, and mustache singed.  The gun burst at a point behind the vent, with the breech thrown back and the rest of the gun thrown forward, as seen in a wartime photo:

In his final report on the operations against Battery Wagner and Fort Sumter, then Major-General Quincy Gillmore included a diagram of the gun detailing the gun’s point of failure:


Just as described in the 11th Maine’s history, the break in the breech came just behind the vent.  Gillmore’s diagram indicated the band remained on the main portion of the gun, while the breech section broke out.  He also recorded the registry number and foundry number of the gun. The diagram above also compares well to a photograph – an incorrectly captioned photograph – found in the Library of Congress’ digital collection:

The photo shows the breech, to the left, with the cascabel just visible behind. The gun still has the band attached.  But before we conclude this is the Swamp Angel, I’d point out no markings are visible.  With so many burst Parrotts on Morris Island with similar failure patterns, proving this is the Swamp Angel, beyond doubt, would require more information.  But let’s just say this photo makes a good transition to the next phase of the gun’s story.

After examination by the ordnance officers and other interested parties, the Swamp Angel became just another bit of scrap metal.  The scraps were then sent north for sale. Charles Carr, of the Phoenix Iron Works of Trenton, New Jersey (no direct relation I know of to the Phoenix Iron Work of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania) purchased the Swamp Angel among other scraps. While waiting the smelter, someone working at the iron works recognized the gun.  With that, Carr preserved the gun.  Eventually the gun went to a memorial on the corners of North Clinton Avenue and Perry Street.  Lots of vintage photos on Trenton – notice the horse trough built into the original base.  The monument stood from 1877 to 1961.  At that time the city moved the gun to Cadwalader Park.

We can confirm the gun’s pedigree with a simple review of the muzzle stamps:

Trenton 14 Aug 10 373

The “No 6” is clear, as is “8 IN” for the caliber, “W.P.F.” for West Point Foundry and “A.M.” for Alfred Mordecai, the inspector.  Less clear is the weight stamp of 16,577 pounds, which is only partly seen in the damaged portion to the lower left.   The date stamp at the 2 o’clock position reads “1862.”  These are Army style stampings, ruling out this is somehow the Navy’s registry number 6.

The only other markings I noticed when visiting the gun was the inventor’s initials on the right trunnion – R.P.P. for Robert P. Parrott.

Trenton 14 Aug 10 379

The foundry number has long disappeared from the front sight base above the trunnion.

The breech was welded back on the gun in order to fit onto the monument base in 1877.

Trenton 14 Aug 10 380

But the band was removed, lost, or otherwise discarded.  Vestiges of the location the band joined the gun tube may be seen with a careful examination.

Trenton 14 Aug 10 384

And think, we know exactly the time and place that break was created.  An historical artifact, no doubt.

The cascabel lacks the block.   But otherwise it is a typical blade type used on the larger Parrotts.

Trenton 14 Aug 10 377

Looking down the line of sight, here Lieutenant Sellmer aligned the gun to a compass angle in the early hours of August 22.

Trenton 14 Aug 10 387

For comparison, this 8-inch Parrott at Fort Moultrie today is what the Swamp Angle looked like in service.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 552

The missing band leaves it somewhat bare.  But it does show the underlying “ordnance shape” used by the large Parrotts.

Trenton 14 Aug 10 381

So there’s “No 6,” better known as the Swamp Angel.  Arguably one of the best documented cannons from the Civil War.  And one of the most famous guns used in the war.  Eight tons of Civil War history, immortalized in verse, sits today in a place of honor in Trenton.

(Citation from The Story of One Regiment: The Eleventh Maine Infantry Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, Press of J. J. Little & Company, 1896, page 145.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

7 thoughts on “The Swamp Angel at 150

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