- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2000

A 1,238-pound cannon once fired by Union troops sits on the battlefield at Petersburg, Va., again, just four days short of 136 years after Confederate soldiers seized it in a bloody battle.

There was no fight this time.

Historians from the Petersburg National Battlefield Park yesterday brought a 788-pound cannon, known as a Napoleon, in a pickup truck to Fort Washington along the Potomac River to trade for the bigger gun.

Two men in dark-blue Union uniforms stood with James Blankenship, wearing an authentic, grungy Confederate uniform, as the two units of the National Park Service made the trade.

But physically, it looked more difficult.

During the Civil War, six horses typically were used to haul the bigger gun, called a 12-pounder because it fired 12-pound iron cannon balls. The horses had no trouble maneuvering the gun all day, said Ranger Blankenship, historian for the Petersburg park.

Back then, the brass gun was kept highly polished, but artillerymen were unconcerned about scratching it as they rammed shots into the muzzle for firing at enemy targets 1,000 yards away.

Yesterday, a gasoline-powered loader started to pick up the cannons with steel forks. Park rangers stopped the loader. They didn't want the forks to scratch through the green patina on the long-unused weapons.

After a scratch-proof fabric hose was attached, the loader made the exchange. As the 12-pounder was lowered into the bed of the pickup, the truck sank low over the rear tires.

"This has always been a problem to the service, to get equipment back to where it was assigned [in history]," Park Ranger Don Steiner of Fort Washington, Md., said.

"This will be the only cannon in our collection that is documented to have been used during any of the Petersburg campaigns," said Ranger Chris Calkins, historian at the Virginia park.

On Aug. 25, 1964, Union troops were destroying the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg when they were attacked by Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill's Confederate Corps.

Like most weapons of the Civil War, the Union's 12-pounder disappeared as it was hauled away to do battle elsewhere. After the war, "Guns just sat in warehouses," Ranger Steiner said.

Fort Washington played virtually no part in the war, but nearly three years ago, Ranger Steiner and other staff found the 12-pounder as they reviewed artillery and equipment stored at the fort in southern Prince George's County, Md.

Ranger Steiner said that from a serial number, the 12-pounder was traced to the Reams Station battle.

About that time, he learned that the Confederates used smaller cannons called Napoleons, or 6-pounders. And Fort Washington had one.

Now Fort Washington has two, although it plans to send one 6-pounder to the Vicksburg Battlefield Park, which has none, because the guns were made there.

The remaining 6-pounder will be put on display at Fort Washington along with other military exhibits of the defensive role the fort has played in U.S. history.

On a bluff overlooking the Potomac, where it was built to stop warships headed for the nation's capital, Fort Washington once could be seen from Alexandria, Va., and the District of Columbia.

"We knew our country was safe as long as we could see the garrison flag over the fort," Ranger Steiner said. "Fort Washington was the only fortification ever constructed to defend the capital."

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