By John Hart, Jr., Director
Legend and lore are sometimes the only pieces of information an object has to tell a contemporary audience. The concept of recording provenance is common practice with museums, but for some objects, sadly, their history is not well-documented so museums must rely on stories passed down through the years in some cases.
There are a number of stories behind these twin brass guns at Norwich University. A popular report tells of them at Gettysburg, in addition to two others. As the story goes, two were captured or lost and two found their way to Northfield, Vermont. However, try as the museum might, no information to back up this story can be found, except to show that similar cannons were used throughout the Civil War.
Another story, which is much more plausible, insofar as it has some evidence to back it up, is that in November 1850 the Vermont legislature authorized two field pieces for use in field drills at the university. According to William Arba Ellis’ Norwich University: 1819–1911, these arrived in the summer of 1851. Later, in November 1852, two heavier cannons were provided by the legislature and these arrived in the summer of 1853. The latter two were “spiked” to make them inoperable in 1906. Ellis reports them being housed in a shed on campus in 1911. No weights or ordnance sizes are provided in the text, but the James Cannons themselves are stamped 1850. Given their size, they are likely the two cannons presented in 1853. Further evidence suggests supports this as each cannon has a re-tapped touch-hole, used to ignite the powder charge.
And one more legend passed down by alumni: The Dale Gallon painting, For Distinguished Gallantry, presents similarly sized cannons as the James Cannons being fired at the Battle of Trevilian Station with Edward Williston (NU 1856) in command. According to this legend, Gallon used the James Cannons at Norwich in the painting; both the painting and one of the James Cannons are currently displayed side-by-side in the gallery for 200 Years—200 Objects.