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The Cannon of San Andreas

Photo by Sal Manna, 2005.

In late 1889, Chickamauga Post 149 of the Grand Army of the Republic, the national organization for Union Civil War veterans, was chartered in Burson, Calaveras County, California. As the first G.A.R. post in the county, in 1890 it sponsored the area’s first Memorial Day observance. The post also quickly built a meeting hall on Burson Road and became the center for other veterans’ activities in the county, including paying for the burial of indigent soldiers and holding graveside ceremonies not only for Union Civil War veterans but for soldiers and sailors who served during other periods. After selling its hall, the post moved to Valley Springs and then back to Burson before finally settling in San Andreas in 1897.

On June 15, 1912, the Calaveras Prospect reported that Congressman John Raker had introduced a bill in the Sixty-Second Congress that the Secretary of War “deliver to the City of San Andreas, California, two condemned bronze cannon, mounted on carriages for use at Chickamauga Post 115 [the post number was in error and should have been listed as 149], G.A.R. the same to be subject at all times to the order of the Secretary of War.”

The bill passed and the Prospect announced on January 11, 1913 that condemned brass and bronze cannon would be distributed from the Benicia arsenal to various Northern California G.A.R. posts–San Andreas, Placerville, Auburn, Nevada City, Downieville, Newcastle, Redding, Columbia, Anderson, Corning, Suisun and Martinez. No carriages would accompany the cannon but the War Department would provide a blueprint illustrating how to mount the cannon on masonry foundations.

The cannon designated for the San Andreas post were mountain howitzers designed to propel a 12-pound shot. Both were 1841 models cast by the Ames Manufacturing Co. of Chicopee (Springfield), Massachusetts, founded by Nathan Peabody Ames, which made cannon beginning in 1836. They were two of 237 cannon made by Ames. The cannon with government registration #24 was cast in 1844 and weighed 777 pounds. The cannon with registration #78 was cast in 1847 and weighed 790 pounds. James Wolfe Ripley was the initialed inspector (JWR) on each cannon. The cannon were on the East Coast during their early years and probably saw service during the Civil War.

Congressman Raker took up the matter of transporting the cannon from Benicia to their final locations with the Southern Pacific Railroad. While the result of that negotiation is unknown, what is certain is that the cannon arrived in Valley Springs via the Southern Pacific in late December 1913 or early 1914. They were then retrieved from the depot and trucked to San Andreas by Fred Winkler, among whose duties was the maintenance of the Peoples Cemetery. It is thus likely that the cannon were intended from the beginning to be displayed at the cemetery, where a Soldiers or G.A.R. Plot had already been established.

The cannon were temporarily deposited, however, in the rear of the Masonic Hall (also called Fraternal Hall). One probable reason is that just before the cannon arrived, the post’s charter was withdrawn by the G.A.R.’s Department of California and Nevada. The membership had dwindled as the old soldiers died or moved away, often to veterans’ homes elsewhere–a situation that was true across the country. More damaging though was the fact that those at the helm of Post 149 were judged incapable of continuing to run the organization. In June 1913, G.A.R. authorities recalled the post’s charter. So the cannons languished.
Still active and well run, however, was the Chickamauga Relief Corps, the post’s ladies auxiliary. This local branch of the Womans Relief Corps (initially identified as #65 but later as #106) was formed immediately after the veterans post. “The San Andreas Womans Relief Corp,” wrote the Prospect on April 4, 1914, “have resolved to raise and contribute a fund sufficient to erect a permanent monument to the memory of our soldiers by mou(n)ting in the soldiers plot in the cemetery, by the plan proposed by Judge Reed and under his superintendency, the two large brass (sic) cannon which for the past three months have been lying in the rear of Fraternal hall.”

The women succeeded and on December 25, 1915, the Prospect proclaimed that “the cannon donated to the local G.A.R. Post some years ago have at last found a fitting home…the Woman’s Relief Corps took up the matter, and have at last secured their placement in the G.A.R. Plot at the People’s Cemetery. The guns are finely mounted on a cement base, the work of N.J. Cavagnaro…The cement work by Mr. Cavagnaro is well done, and elicits praise from all who have seen it.”

Other than an attempt at theft in the ‘60s, which prompted the cannon to be buried in concrete up to their trunnions, their position was undisturbed until the late 1990s. In 1997, they were moved approximately 15 yards to a more prominent position overlooking the Soldiers Plot. The Calaveras County Historical Society also refurbished and remounted the cannon, placing the 1844 cannon to the south and the 1847 cannon to the north. On July 24, 1997, the cannon were fired for perhaps the first time in the 20th century.

Later that year a plaque was placed at the cannon, incorrectly stating that they were “displayed in Burson by the Grand Army of the Republic, until moved to San Andreas in the early 1920’s.” More accurately, however, the plaque also noted that the cannon monument was “dedicated to the veterans of Calaveras County.”

In September 1998, the 1847 cannon was stolen from the Peoples Cemetery. The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department retrieved that cannon from a pond in Mountain Ranch in July 2005. In October 2005, the County removed the 1841 cannon from the cemetery with the objective of relocating both cannon. Two years later, the cannon were incorporated into a new veterans’ memorial in the plaza of the Government Center in San Andreas. Unfortunately, and ironically, while acknowledging by name the Calaveras County citizens who had perished in wars beginning with World War I, no Civil War soldier was similarly honored. The history of the cannon presented at the memorial was also incorrect. Nor has there been any recognition (as of this date, December 2007) at the People’s Cemetery, overlooking the Soldiers Plot, of the original location of the cannon or veterans’ memorial. A better conceived memorial, more prominently displaying the Cannon of San Andreas, with an accurate history presented to the public, and a memorial at the Soldiers Plot, may someday truly honor the veterans of Calaveras County.

As of the last known inventory (2002), the Cannon of San Andreas are:

  • Two of only 99 Civil War era cannon publicly available for viewing in California.
  • Two of only 86 Ames cannon in existence anywhere in the country; more than half of the originals having been used for scrap metal during World War I and II.
  • Two of only eight Ames cannon available for public viewing in California (others are at Fort Scott and Fort Point National Historic Site (San Francisco), the California Military Museum (Sacramento), Irvine Park (Orange County) and Downieville).
  • Two of only nine cannon sent to G.A.R. posts in 1913 that are still in the same town as originally granted (the others being Auburn, Columbia, Downieville and Placerville).

Sources: Calaveras Prospect (1890-1915); “Known Surviving Civil War Cannon” (Wayne E. Stark, 2002); “The Cannons of Calaveras County” (Essays by Carl Anderson, 1992, 1993); Stockton Record (1998); “Proceedings, G.A.R. Department of California and Nevada” (June 1913); “Las Calaveras” (Calaveras County Historical Society, 1997, 2005); (Jack Melton, Jr.); Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (Kirby Morgan, Harry Harland)