A Tale of Two Cannon by Morgan Gates
On a hill in southern Vicksburg sits and a formidable piece of artillery, it is a British 7.5 inch Blakely rifled cannon, that was once a part of Vicksburg’s defensive arsenal. This tremendous gun’s breech was banded with wrought iron to strengthen it, it’s cast iron barrel was 124 inches long and it was able to loft a 150-pound shell. It was affectionally known to its crews as the “Widow Blakely” as she was the only one of her kind in Vicksburg.
The Civil War has been called the first modern war, for so many things that personify modern war first appeared on the stage in this bloody conflict. Speed of transportation, and communication, had made great leaps forward, as had the range accuracy and power of the weapons. A 12 pounder Napoleon fieldpiece can put a hole in modern an armored personnel carrier of the modern era (it has been done with replica of those guns). A three-inch ordinance rifle –another fieldpiece—could put all its rounds in 30’’ circle at a mile, the 30-pound Parrot Rifle (the American equivalent of the Blakely) could throw a shell four miles. Don’t let the name fool you this was no meek old lady “The Widow” was a widow maker!
On the night of April 22 1863 as additional transports made a second run past the guns of Vicksburg. A shell prematurely detonated in the Widow’s barrel blowing the last two feet off. The Confederates chiseled the ragged breech smooth, and the Widow Blakely continued to give good service, through the end of the siege; although, at a slightly shorter range.
Enter our second gun, the more mysterious of the two, “Whistling Dick” was a rifled banded 18 pounder by all accounts. This in itself is curious, in that 18 pounder is not a common designation for Civil War era cannon. The old prewar standards for smooth bore cannon were 6, 12, 24, 32 etc. Rifled cannon, a new invention in the 1860’s, complicated the field even more. They were sometimes referred to by their bore diameter 3”,9”, 11” other times by weight of projectile 10#, 20#, 64# etc. finally, to totally confuse things, smooth bores were converted to rifles. I suspect “Whistling Dick” was one of the latter. The gun’s name came from the peculiar whistling sound its shells made as they flew through the air. If you think about it this gun must have made a truly unique sound, for there were hundreds of shells whizzing through the skies around Vicksburg at that time. A certain mythos grew up around Whistling Dick, some claimed it was the gun that sank the Ironclad USS Cincinnati, and when the Union Army at last marched into Vicksburg, they began to search among the many surrendered Confederate cannon for this particular gun. When they finally located the gun, they sent it north as a souvenir, it sat on the Campus of U.S. Military Academy at West Point for over 90 years, and then one day they sent it back to Vicksburg. For you see they did not have the right gun, the gun that sat on the West Point Campus for over nine decades was not “Whistling Dick” it was “The Widow Blakely” they had the wrong gun. What became of the notorious noisy cannon, the night before the surrender, the gun crew quietly rowed the gun out on to the moonless darkness of the Mississippi and tipped it over the side into the deepest part of the main channel. Once safely back ashore they made a solemn vow to never tell a soul. They would surrender, but Whistling Dick never would. Finally, many decades later the last survivor revealed the truth on his death bed.
Today the Widow Blakely frowns once more from the heights ready to protect Vicksburg once more if it is ever attacked by a hostile towboat, or river excursion passenger liner, and what of Whistling Dick? His whereabouts are unknown to this day. The last unbowed Confederate still lurks somewhere in the murky depths.