Tomorrow when the canons rumble at Blakeley State Park to celebrate the 155th anniversary of the battle there, re-enactors will be joined by a gun that witnessed the end of America’s darkest days.
Researchers believe that the cannon not only was captured on that battlefield, but that it may have fired the last shot on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay.
Also on Saturday, the grandson of the man who ordered that shot to be fired will be there to welcome the cannon home.
Kerry Gossett, a Civil War enthusiast, said after months of tracing shells, paperwork and stories, he and the gun’s owner, Ken Knoll, were able to track the gun’s path through the war as well as find the descendants of the man who commanded its unit.
Edward Tarrant, leader of Tarrant’s Artillery Battery, was captured at Blakeley and after his death was buried in his hometown of Tuscaloosa. Gossett found his descendants, who still live in Tuscaloosa.
The call to Tarrant’s modern-day family was an emotional one.
Gossett said, the man asked, ‘I’m going to be able to touch the gun my great grandfather actually served with?’
After the call Knoll, said, “We are bringing these people back to life. It is just amazing.”
The cannon’s journey back to Blakeley happened by accident when Gossett met Knoll at a Civil War collectors show in Tennessee.
Knoll was searching for information about a rifled canon with 15 grooves that he had purchased. He wanted to know where the gun was captured and thought Blakeley might be the place. Gossett was intrigued and offered to help in the search.
Gossett knew shells had been discovered at Blakeley that had 15 grooves. The detail was significant and unusual. But, it didn’t prove that this exact gun had served at Blakeley.
The men also had a second clue, the trunnion, on the side of the cannon, was stamped with the name of the foundry where it was cast: Skates & Company, 1861. The stamp also indicated the gun’s serial number: 1.
Skates & Company, also known as Mobile Foundry, was one of only a few foundries in the south that was casting cannons shortly after war erupted.
“Early in the war the south had captured a couple arsenals but they weren’t up and running and most arsenals were for storage, not producing arms,” Gossett said. “So the South was scrambling to find foundries that would cast cannons.”
Skates & Company usually produced steam boat river parts, boilers and artillery shells. The company, did however, cast four cannons, two from brass and two from iron. Most guns were made with five to nine lands and grooves inside the barrel. Knoll’s gun, however, had 15 grooves, making it distinctive. The grooves were etched into artillery shells as they fired from the cannon, and can still be found at battlefields today, making it slightly easier to track where the gun had been fired. The grooves also make the artillery shell spin, making it more accurate.
In its last heaves of fire, Tarrant’s Battery unleashed a devastating volley of gunfire upon the Union, using eight heavy pieces to defend their position. The men surrendered on April 9, 1865. They were exchanged at Vicksburg, Miss., on April 28, 1865 and were surrendered finally with the Dept. of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana at Citronelle, Alabama on May 4, 1865.
Luckily for Gossett and Knoll, the armies kept precise records. Though many have been lost to time, they were able to find a list of guns captured at Blakeley. Only one gun could possibly fit the description, but it was the wrong caliber and the Union description didn’t match the gun.
But still, the federal report listed the position of the guns at Blakeley and the men knew where the shells with 15 grooves had been found. They even checked where on the battlefield units had been captured. Every detail pointed to the same place. Every detail suggested that Knoll’s cannon was captured at Blakeley.
Still, they couldn’t confirm it.
The men searched records for other battles the gun may have served in. They searched for shells found buried in the aftermath. They could find none, except for at Blakeley.
“We we’re pretty sure the gun was captured at Blakeley. Now we were trying to prove it,” Gossett said. “It was like searching for the Holy Grail. We enjoyed doing this. It was a blast.”
Then, they found it. The men came across an article in Confederate Veteran Magazine, published from the end of the war through the early 20th century. Edward Tarrant, the son of the commander of Tarrant’s Artillery Battery, who had also served in the unit, wrote about their capture at Blakeley. The Union, he wrote, broke through Redoubt Number 4. The sergeant turned their James Rifle toward the line and fired at the North. This, Gossett said, was probably the last shot on the Eastern Shore.
Knoll knew immediately, that was his gun.
Another detail that left historians scratching their heads was the caliber listed for the gun. When it was cast, the gun fired a 6-pound shell. But at some point it was refiled because bronze is a softer metal and would have needed to be worked on. When the men refiled it, the caliber became larger, making it a 12-pound caliber, and altering any future written records of its whereabouts.
“Not only did it have distinctive grooves but it was an odd caliber for the Confederates to have. That makes it a very distinctive gun,” Gossett said.
Despite the unusual details, the men’s search was a shot in the dark.
“This is incredible. It is very unusual to be able to track down a specific gun to a specific unit. It was really a shot in the dark when we started,” he said.
The men wrote a full history of their search that will be published in an upcoming edition of North South Trader’s Civil War magazine.