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Training and Education Command

United States Marine Corps
Weapon of wars past on display at Depot museum:

By Cpl. Jon Holmes | | August 14, 2009


Surrounded by remnants of a time long past stands a cast-iron relic – a weapon used in a defining moment in America’s history – the
Revolutionary War.

The artifact — which fired 12-pound shot ­— weighs more than 3,000 pounds and saw combat before the U.S. Marine Corps even existed.

The cannon was discovered by private individuals on property near the Whale Branch River, said Bryan Howard, the Depot archaeologist at the Parris Island Museum. They contacted the museum to help identify it and subsequently donated it to the museum for public benefit.

What they discovered was a unique piece of history.

The cannon is a 12-pounder cannon, likely of British manufacture, said Howard. However, since the trunnions were destroyed to prevent the cannon from being used by the enemy, its exact origins are a mystery. It is certain though, that it was made before the
Revolutionary War.

The cannon, due to its mysterious history, has sparked curiosity in the museum’s staff.

It’s a very unique piece from the revolutionary period, said Stephen Wise, the Depot
museum curator.

Something that makes this cannon stand out among other artillery pieces is its rich role in America’s battle
for independence.

“The cannon was part of a small artillery battery that protected a ferry crossing between Port Royal Island and the mainland,” said Howard, from Boulder, Colo.

“Because of its location on the opposite side of the river from Port Royal Island, we believe the battery was part of the American defense line around Port Royal Island
in 1779,” he added.

Howard believes this cannon was a part of the battery Gen. William Moultrie mentioned in a letter dated July, 1779. The battery’s mission – keep the British contained as best as possible to Port Royal Island when they occupied it in June of that year.

The cannon was an effect weapon due to its large assortment of ammunition which could be changed depending on its target.

“A 12-pound cannon fired a projectile about 4 ½ inches in diameter,” Howard said. “It could have fired a variety of shots depending on the intended target. Solid shot was intended to damage passing ships and was likely the primary ammunition of this gun as it was a coastal battery.”

There are several other ammunitions which could also be used with
the cannon.

Other ammunition it could fire includes shell, which is a hollow round shot filled with gunpowder and equipped with a fuse. When it explodes, it rains shrapnel down on the enemy, Howard explained. It could also fire a ball and chain, which would be fired at a ship’s rigging to cut it in half. The museum has examples of all three ammunitions
on display.

The cannon had many possible uses, however, the degree of combat action the canon saw is not known.

“It was probably imported long before the revolution, and then seized by patriots when the war broke out,” Howard explained. “It almost certainly was fired a number of times, but we have no way of knowing its history before it was abandoned. It could have been fired at passing British barges in the river, and it could also have been used anytime during the war prior to
its abandonment.”

The battery’s abandonment spelt certain doom for the cannons’ future.

“When the battery was abandoned, it was buried after being rendered permanently inoperable,” Howard said. “The trunnions, lugs on the side to mount it to a carriage, and cascable, the round knob at the rear used for elevation, were both knocked off. The vent hole, which is how the cannon is fired with a fuse, was plugged with a spike, which was cut off flush with the surface so it could not be removed. When they left the gun behind, they intended it would never be fired again.”

The cannon was lost to Americans for more than 200 years before being found.

“It was initially found by local residents who uncovered a small section and then reburied it,” Howard said. “They later called me at the museum to help identify it. After talking to the landowner, I excavated it on my own using standard archaeological techniques to preserve any data.

During excavation, it could be seen that the cannon was buried in a narrow trench just behind the battery’s earthen walls. After it was uncovered and recorded, volunteers from the Parris Island Historical and Museum Society removed it and brought it to the museum where it underwent stabilization treatment before it was put on display.”

What makes this cannon out of the ordinary is the amount of work put into it before
being abandoned.

“What makes it interesting is the effort someone went to make sure it was never used again,” Howard explained.

And although the cannon itself is an amazing, historically- rich discovery, it is miniscule compared to the history of
its site.

“The cannon itself is interesting,” Howard said. “But not nearly as archaeologically important as the earthworks where it was found. The site itself, if properly researched archaeologically and historically, will tell us a lot more about soldiers’ lives during the Revolution than the cannon will.

“If our theories are correct, this is a very rare site,” he said. “Surviving earthworks from the Revolutionary War are extremely rare. We thought at first this might be an early confederate defense using an old cannon, but the artifacts recovered, of which there were very few, point to the battery being an 18th century site. Had it been a Civil War battery, we’d expect other artifacts of that date also and there were none other than one case shot, which might be Civil War era, and it appeared to have been fired at the battery from a passing union gunboat.”

The cannon can be seen at the Parris Island Museum in the Local History Exhibit and is open to the public

“It’s not common to have such an artillery piece in a museum,” said Wise, from Toledo, Ohio. “Many were melted for metal in past wars. Having a cannon from this area during the Revolutionary War makes it unique.”
It’s fascinating.”

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