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The Mysterious Reappearing Cannons

Yankee Monkeyshines during the Retreat from Alexandria

When the United States Navy fleet was trapped above the Red River rapids at Alexandria in 1864, Bailey’s Dam had to be built to raise the river level enough to get the gunboats back down over the falls. In addition to raising the water level, the gunboats were also lightened to ease the trip. This lightening was done by removing as much “unnecessary” weight as possible from the boats. In the case of the ironclads, much of the weight removed from the boats was in the form of their iron armor plate and some of their older cannons.

According to official reports, these cannon were “destroyed.” Most of them probably were.

But recent discoveries of additional records by the Red River Waterway Commission’s Gunboat Decklog Project indicates that not only were some of these guns not destroyed, they may actually have later been used by the Confederate Army.

On May 10, 1864, while the sailors were engaged in removing armor plate from the sides of the boat, the USS Pittsburg log recorded that two 8-inch shell guns of 63 hundredweight (cwt), register numbers 349 and 357, along with four 32-pounders of 42 cwt, register numbers 222, 233, 248 and 259, had been put ashore at the head of the rapids near Alexandria – along with a large amount of ammunition for these and other guns. A letter from Captain W. R. Hoel, commander of the Pittsburg, dated June 7, 1864, assured his superiors that all six of these guns had been destroyed.  

            But in 1873, both of the above mentioned 8-inch guns, and the 32-pounder number 222, were sold at Mound City, Illinois. How and where these guns were recovered, or how they made their way from Alexandria to Illinois is unknown. But these supposedly destroyed guns were sold for salvage some nine years later. Apparently, the guns had not been destroyed at all, but had only been dumped in the river.

            The most likely scenario for the return of the guns would involve their salvage by the Confederates after the Union army and Navy left the area on May 14. It was reported that Fort Randolph had “four 8-inch smooth bore pieces” mounted in February of 1865, and when the two forts at Pineville surrendered in June of 1865 they held fourteen guns “of various calibers.” Could some of these guns have been from the Pittsburg?

Any guns in Red River that could have been recovered by Union troops after the war would have been much more desirable to Confederate troops during the war, and therefore more likely to have been raised by the Southerners. There were far too many citizens in the area in May, 1864, for the dumping point of any cannon to have remained a secret. Until a list of cannon surrendered at the Pineville forts should surface, the question will remain open to debate. But the most likely answer seems to be that, yes, the Union Navy probably provided some of the big guns for Forts Randolph and Buhlow.

The Gunboat Decklog Project should continue to shed new light on these and other Red River happenings as more logs are transcribed and examined.


Information provided by Steve Mayeux and Wayne Stark, 2002