Authorities mystified by stolen Civil War cannon

It was routine stuff — as routine as a search for stolen goods can be, anyway. The deputies began an inventory, starting outside a Spalding County house: a Dodge pickup truck reported stolen from Cobb County; a 53-foot trailer brimming with fireworks, taken from Alabama.

They moved inside, where deputies came across a wooden box, maybe 6 feet long and a foot wide, too heavy to move. The top was off. They knelt.

Old bronze greeted them. It shone green in the light. The deputies looked more closely: It was a Civil War cannon barrel, battered with use, adorned with an eagle.

In finding the box, the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office likely solved one mystery, but created another.

Namely, whose cannon is it?

State officials say the gun belongs to Georgia. Atlanta representatives say it belongs in the city. Wait, say federal officials; the cannon could be the property of the U.S. Army. And then there’s Arkansas, where the weapon once helped train cadets in the art of war.

In the past few weeks, representatives of each government has telephoned the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office, asking after this aged piece of bronze worth as much as a suburban starter home. Each spoke to a 26-year-old lawman who, until recently, didn’t give the Civil War much thought.

“I was never a history enthusiast in school,” said Spalding sheriff’s investigator Josh Pitts. “But I’ve learned a lot in the last month.”

A tortuous history

The recovered cannon’s trip to Georgia began more than 150 years ago in Boston, where the Cyrus Alger Co. produced 12-pound howitzers. They were the killing machines of their time, capable of hurling cannonballs three-quarters of a mile. The Arkansas Military Institute accepted this one, Alger cannon No. 9, in 1851, records show.

The Civil War came 10 years later. The institute’s cadets rushed to war, taking along their howitzer. They lost it in a battle in Virginia, records in Arkansas indicate.

The story then shifts to Georgia. In 1887, state officials delivered four cannons, one with an eagle on its barrel, to the city. Atlanta officials had asked for inoperable cannons to display at Fort Walker, a redoubt atop a hill on the park’s southeastern edge. In 1863, it had guarded the city. Today, it guards a playground in Grant Park.

Michael Hitt, a Roswell police officer and Civil War enthusiast, is certain the barrel found in Spalding County once stood guard at Grant Park. Over the years, some of the park’s artillery were swapped out. But the cannon with the eagle, he says, remained in place, even as it and the other guns suffered as much damage as they may have sustained in battle. Visitors climbed atop them and scratched names on them. “They even rolled them around,” said Hitt.

By 1984, the cannons were in sorry shape, vandalized, their wooden carriages in danger of collapse. Hitt restored them.

He repainted the cannons, caissons and other items the correct colors. He also recorded each gun’s identifying characteristics. The barrel of one, he noted, bore an embossed eagle — proof that it came from the Arkansas Military Institute. It was nicked and banged from hard use, and it had lost the knob at the barrel’s base, just like the one recovered in Spalding.

In the late 1980s, the city finally moved the cannons from the old redoubt. Two went to the Cyclorama, the Battle of Atlanta display at Grant Park. The city stored a third at City Hall East, where it was stolen but later recovered.

And the eagle cannon?

Object of desire

When he heard about the cannon discovered 40 miles south of Atlanta, Steve McAteer was intrigued. Director of the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History in Little Rock, he’s busy planning a sesquicentennial observance of the Civil War. Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the 1861-1865 conflict.

His museum’s records track the old Arkansas cannon as far as Virginia, where it was lost in battle. McAteer does not know how it wound up in Georgia, but knows where he’d like it to be.

“I would love to have it,” said McAteer, who’s been in contact with Spalding officials. He doesn’t think he can get the cannon permanently — proving ownership after so many years, he said, would be difficult. But he’d like to borrow it for an extended time.

“Whoever does get it, I’d like to talk to him,” McAteer said.

David Carmichael, who heads the Georgia Archives, believes the cannon should stay in Georgia. He’s also spoken to Spalding investigators.

“All I can tell you is, we’re involved to see if we can establish ownership,” Carmichael said.

City and federal officials also took notice. Atlanta’s director of cultural affairs started making phone calls. So did a representative from the U.S. Army Donations Office in Warren, Mich.

Pitts’ message never wavered: “You bring me the [proper] paperwork, and it’s yours.”

A sheriff’s investigator since June, Pitts got a crash-course in old weaponry with the help of “Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War.” In the book’s pages, he learned about the Boston cannon-maker, Alger.

He got on-site lessons, too. A Henry County historian who inspected the cannon suggested that Pitts had hot property. “He said this was not a cannon that would be in anyone’s private collection,” Pitts said. He sent a memo out to police departments nationwide, “and didn’t hear a thing.”

Still, it’s hard to keep quiet about a cannon, and word got around. When he heard about it, Hitt visited the sheriff’s office in Griffin. He took one look at the barrel, missing its knob, and knew. “That cannon came from Grant Park,” he said.

But how did it wind up where it did?

Hot property on ice

The suspect on whose property where the cannon was found Feb. 8 is John Adam Caldwell. He’s 20 — too young, investigators say, to have stolen the cannon years earlier. Caldwell, whom investigators have charged with receiving stolen goods, is a student at Griffin Tech. His major: criminal justice.

Pitts, who hasn’t closed his investigation, isn’t sure how the cannon got from Atlanta to Spalding County. Atlanta officials are just as befuddled.

“We know where it came from,” said Camille Love, who heads the cultural affairs division of the Department of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs. “What we don’t know is all the particulars as to what happened to it.”

She agrees with Hitt that the gun came from Grant Park. Thieves either stole it from a monument, or swiped it while the barrel was in transit to a city storage facility, she said. “This happened so many years ago that we’re not able to shed light on it,” said Love.

This was not the work of a lone crook. The barrel weighs 780 pounds. Spalding cops had to enlist six inmates to load it on a truck, which took the weapon to “the barn,” the building where the sheriff’s office keeps evidence. There the tube shares space with two dusty motorcycles, a dozen illegal gambling machines and the sheriff’s Christmas decorations.

It’s easily the priciest thing in the drafty structure. The eagle emblem, one Civil War dealer said, means the cannon is extremely rare — one of a few Arkansas guns that still exist. He estimated it could fetch $200,000, maybe more, at auction.

On Friday, Love said she planned to file a police report in Atlanta: Stolen. One (1) cannon, made in 1851. Or something like that. Then she will present it to Pitts, said Love, and bring the cannon that stood guard over picnickers and tourists back to Grant Park.

Until he gets that report, Pitts guards a piece of history. He’s proud to do it, too. The old gun, silent for more than a century, speaks to him.

“This once guarded us,” said Pitts, a Georgia native. “I’ll probably never discover another cannon in my career.”

About the Author