It’s Smarter to Be Lucky: Finding Gun No. 2

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Kevin Pawlak

We all react to cannons on a Civil War battlefield differently.  Some people climb on them, others simply look at them, while others—like my friends and I—take pictures of all of the gun’s markings and features in the hopes that someday we will be able to track it down, discover where the gun had been, and what battles it participated in.  It’s a stretch, to be sure, but sometimes you just end up being lucky.

I’ve always said that a lot of skill goes into researching—knowing where to look for useful sources, figuring out which libraries hold whose papers, and so on.  I’ve also recently come to the realization that some researchers have luck on their side, affirming the saying, “it’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.”  Someday, you have luck on your side.  Allow me to share an example.

While researching for a future book project of mine, I sifted through Henry Hunt’s Papers at the Library of Congress from September 1862.  As the Army of the Potomac’s Chief of Artillery, the boxes and folders were filled with reports and inspections of the army’s various batteries.  Then, I stumbled on a piece of paper unlike the others.  The writing stretched the length of the page, though it was not as busy as the reports.  Scrawled across the top were the words, “Marks on a 10 pdr Parrott Gun captured from Battery “D” 5th U.S. Artillery in the Battle of Bull run July 21st 61, and recaptured by the Battery near Shepherdstown Sept 20th 1862.”[1]

For me, this was a gold mine.  The document bears the most in-depth description of any Civil War gun I had ever seen—the markings on the barrel, the number of bullet holes through its carriage, and so on.  It was marked as Gun No. 2.  Better yet, this was a story I was familiar with, since it was the Battle of Shepherdstown I was researching anyway.

Charles Griffin commanded the West Point Battery, Battery D of the 5th U.S. Artillery at First Bull Run.  In the ensuing fight and subsequent hasty retreat from the battlefield, Griffin lost most of his guns, including Gun No. 2, the one detailed in Hunt’s documents.  Fast forward fourteen months, Charles Griffin is leading a brigade of infantry in the Army of the Potomac that is engaging Confederate forces across the army’s namesake river at Shepherdstown on the evening of September 19, 1862.  Fitz John Porter, Griffin’s superior, ordered him to send a portion of his force across the river to scatter the rebel infantry and capture as many of the guns as he could.  The plan worked, and the Confederates fled the field, leaving behind several pieces.  One of them that was picked up in the next two days was Gun No. 2 (stay tuned for a fuller description of the story of Gun No. 2 during the Civil War).[2]

Holding that paper in my hands, I thought to myself, “How cool would it be if that gun was still around?  And, what if I could find it?”  Those thoughts monopolized my mind the whole ride home from downtown Washington, DC.  Now, here is where the luck, or divine intervention, comes in.

Several weeks later, I was spending my free time in college in the university library browsing through Civil War books, as was my tradition.  One of my good friends and fellow Civil Warrior showed me a book he had found in the oversized section.  It was Hazlett’s, Olmstead’s and Parks’s Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War, a book I knew about but had never spent the time to go through (if you are an artillery nut, this is the book for you).  In the back, as my friend pointed out, is a list of all known Civil War cannons and where they sit today.  Immediately, Gun No. 2 reentered my mind.  Would it be in here?  Was it still around?

Sure enough, we discovered that a Model 1861 Parrott Rifle was part of a Civil War monument in Avon, New York (a town ironically less than an hour from my upstate New York home).  At this point, I nearly drove the six hours from Shepherdstown, West Virginia to Avon on a whim.  However, common sense overruled my historically inclined impulses, and I had to wait several more weeks before I was heading home for fall break.

One of my first days back in western New York, I dragged my dad along with me to go see if this cannon was the cannon I had been hoping to find, but never seriously thought that I would.  When we arrived in Avon, we found an impressive Civil War monument with four Parrott rifles perched at each corner.  As fate would have it, the first gun I walked up to had all of the same markings detailed in Henry Hunt’s Papers.  Gun No. 2 was found.

The parts of the story that I already knew regarding Griffin’s gun returning to him like a prodigal son were, as I later discovered, only part of the story of the gun that took part in the first major battle of the war, was captured, fought at Antietam, and then was recaptured by Charles Griffin.  But more details on this later.

Gun No. 2

Gun No. 2

When I knelt down beside Gun No. 2, I knew that I had to thank my friend, my research, and my lucky stars for rediscovering that piece.

[1] This document was found in the Henry Jackson Hunt Papers, Box 7, Folder August-September 1862, Library of Congress.

[2] The story of Griffin’s actions at Shepherdstown and the recovery of several guns is outlined in his after-action report of the Maryland Campaign, OR vol. 19, pt. 1, 349-50.

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6 Responses to It’s Smarter to Be Lucky: Finding Gun No. 2

  1. Great story! So happy you were able to find the artillery piece.
    Thanks for mentioning the artillery book for cannon “geeks”. I’m actually trying to track information on the role and specific duties of a staff officer whose position was Chief of Artillery; any particular artillery books you would recommend for that subject?

    • Kevin Pawlak says:

      Thanks, Sarah. I think the story of the gun in the war is even more fascinating, so stay tuned! As for Chief of Artillery roles, off the top of my head, I can only suggest a few sources that might be helpful. Charles Wainwright’s “A Diary of Battle” is a great diary all around, but has some great tidbits about artillery in the Civil War. Wainwright was Chief of Artillery of the 1st Corps at Chancellorsville.

      Here’s two sources pertaining to Henry Hunt, maybe the most famous Chief of Artillery in the war: Longacre’s biography of Hunt, The Man Behind the Guns, might be a good starter point. Additionally, since I’m a Maryland Campaign buff, read through Henry Hunt’s report of that campaign (http://antietam.aotw.org/exhibit.php?exhibit_id=90), which provides a good idea of what he had to do as Chief of Artillery.

      Hope this helps!

      • Thanks. Those sound like good sources and I didn’t have them on my list. I’d been thinking I should read the material that had been written about or by other artillery chiefs while I keep searching for specific details on the “man of mystery. ” Thanks again for the recommendations.

  2. Meg Groeling says:

    OK–so I am teary now. Please touch that gun once for me, and for the 11th New York.

  3. Pingback: ECW Welcomes Kevin Pawlak | Emerging Civil War

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