Friday, November 26, 2010

The Double-Barreled Cannon

Chain shot was introduced to warfare in the 1600's by the French navy. This is two cannonballs or other projectiles connected by something, such as chain. The French used it to rip down the masts of enemy boats, to great effect, such that it became a common feature of naval warfare.

During the American Civil War, John Gilleland of Athens, Georgia tried to being the chain shot to land combat, with the one and only double-barreled cannon. It looked like any other cannon, except, well, double-barreled. It worked by placing a cannonball in each barrel, connected by a length of chain. If you wished to use it like a normal cannon, you could do that too; there were three fuses in back: one for each barrel, and then one for both together.

In April 1862, on Athens' north side, it was ready for a demonstration.

Now, the intent of the double-barreled cannon was to help cut down on the North's manpower advantage over the South. The South knew it had to do that much extra damage to the North, or else they were going to lose a war of attrition. The hope was to fire the cannon, cut a wide path of chaotic destruction, and advance through the havoc that had been wrought.

And to the cannon's credit, that is exactly what it did.

To its detriment, it did it a little too well.

The chain refused to stay connected no matter how many times they tried to fire. The cannonballs would come out, spin around wildly, and at some point the chain would always break, sending the cannonballs in two different directions of doom. One eyewitness of the first firing noted that the shot "plowed up about an acre of ground, tore up a cornfield, mowed down saplings, and [then] the chain broke, the two balls going in different directions." Another firing saw the chain break immediately, with one ball taking out the chimney of a nearby cabin, and the other turning a cow into hamburger. Some reports- unverified- claim there to be a handful of human deaths; in any case, the spectators all headed for the hills.

Well, Gilleland was happy with it. He sent it to the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia, who sent it back, begging to differ.

It didn't remain totally out of combat, though. It saw a bit of airplay. After the failure as a weapon, it was moved to the Athens town hall as a signaling device. It got to signal in August 1864, late in the war. It, according to one account, was moved a few miles north of town, loaded with canisters, and fired sans chain.

This time, it had the proper effect. It turned out that if you took the chain out of the equation, the cannon fired just fine. Too late to save the gun's legacy, but good enough to win the day. The Northern troops saw what was getting fired and ran for their lives. After all, those crazy Confederates have a freaking double-barreled cannon.

Who knows what that thing's capable of?!

At least, that's one account. Other accounts disagree, saying that no canisters were fired, or that it was some other, normal cannon that did it and this story was just concocted to save the gun's reputation. In any case, the North did come into Athens in 1865, and disabled the damn thing just in case. It currently sits back at Athens town hall, used occasionally for ceremonial purposes.

Still pointing north.

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