Left to right, Brandon Bies, Andrew Bentley, Jim Burgess, and Jason Edwards, all with the National Park Service’s Manassas Battlefield National Park, dismantle two Civil War cannons that were donated to the Manassas Battlefield . (Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post)
The two bronze cannons had been given to Army Captain A. Van Horn Ellis, of Company I, and with a battle brewing outside of Manassas, Virginia, he and his men were to bring them from Washington Navy Yard at the battlefield 30 miles one way.
They were elegant pieces of Navy artillery, with an anchor badge probably stamped on the barrel. But they weighed 1,200 pounds each, had three wheels, and weren’t designed to be pulled by horses.
So, for several days in the sweltering summer heat of 1861, the men of the 71st New York State Militia dragged them by hand through the rugged countryside of Virginia to the Battle of Bull Run on July 21.
There, in the chaos of the Civil War’s first great battle, the weapons were lost to the enemy.
On a rainy day last week, at a National Park Service maintenance garage in Manassas, experts used a motor hoist to lift the bronze cannons of two newly acquired Navy artillery pieces from their iron carts. forged to prepare for restoration.
They too were elegant. Both had an anchor badge stamped on the barrel. And one carried the caption “12 Pdr Boat Howitzer 1856” and “USNY Washington”.
They had been sitting outside the Old Fairfax County Courthouse since about 1904, until they, along with a memorial to a Confederate officer, were removed last November by order of supervisors of the county.
Now the park service is wondering if these might not be the same guns Ellis returned to where they were abandoned 160 years ago next month.
“I think it’s fair to say it’s possible,” said Brandon Bies, the superintendent of Manassas Battlefield National Park.
The Battle of Bull Run in 1861 was a disaster for the Union Army, which fled the field in panic, abandoning the equipment as it ran. Among the booty that fell into the hands of the victorious Confederates were the weapons of Ellis, left in the enormous post-battle traffic jam.
Park Service historians said they didn’t know what happened to them after that.
But Manassas Battlefield National Park museum specialist Jim Burgess believes “it is highly unlikely” that these are the same weapons the park service is set to restore.
“They are basically the same type. . . presented to the 71st New York Militia, ”he said last week.
He said records show one of the guns, while manufactured at the Navy Yard, was assigned to the USS Lancaster. And little documentation is available for the other.
Last year, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted to remove the Civil War Memorial, flanked by two howitzer cannons, which stood outside the old courthouse. The weapons were turned over to the National Park Service. (John McDonnell / The Washington Post)
“There are differing opinions on the story, the likelihood, that sort of thing,” Bies said last week. “We certainly cannot, at this point, conclusively prove that either one was present in the battle.”
“Part of the really cool part about this is that they’re rare, and we were able to buy two of them,” he said.
Only 51 of these boat howitzers are known to survive. The plans are to restore the weapons and place them on the Bull Run battlefield.
“We know exactly where” Ellis’ guns were, Bies said. “So to put two of a rare weapon type. . . [and] to match what was there in that place is a very nice opportunity.
The battle of 1861 – the first of two at the site during the war – was a legendary fiasco for the Union.
Hordes of picnickers and VIPs – complete with umbrellas and opera glasses – traveled on horseback and wagon from Washington to see what they were sure to be a big show, a triumph for the North and the only battle of the war.
The 71st New York had left the Navy Yard on July 16, carrying the guns given to it on July 8 by their designer, John A. Dahlgren, who was in command of the yard, Burgess said.
A dozen men may have been needed to drag each weapon, he said. And other men in the company had to take ammunition. “Thirty miles in the July heat,” he said.
They reached the battlefield around 11 a.m. on July 21 and were positioned on Matthews Hill, Burgess said. Their two guns joined 18 others who beat the retreating Confederates.
Assuming the battle was won, the brigade to which the 71st was attached obtained permission to withdraw and rest. Two men from Company I were killed and two others were injured. (Ellis was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg two years later.)
But then Confederate reinforcements arrived. The Green Union soldiers panicked and the rout began. The terrified Yankees blocked the return routes to Washington, along with picnickers and fleeing politicians.
A northern lawmaker, US Representative Alfred Ely from New York, was captured by the rebels and was nearly shot by an enraged Confederate officer who pointed a gun and shouted, “I’m going to blow your brains out!” “
The 71st rejoined the retreat, still cluttered with cannons, and headed along the macadamized Warrenton toll freeway – now Route 29 – towards Centerville, Burgess said.
But when he reached the narrow suspension bridge over a stream called Cub Run, the span was blocked by an overturned wagon and other debris.
The banks of the stream were too steep for the cannons to pass, so they stayed.
Burgess said it is not known which Confederate team obtained the guns, where they could have been used later, or even if they survived the war, which ended in 1865.
Forty-three years after the battle, on the rainy Wednesday of June 1, 1904, a nine foot high granite marker commemorating the death of John Quincy Marr, one of the first Confederate casualties of the war, was unveiled on the old palace fairfax green court.
Marr had been killed in a skirmish on June 1, 1861.
Onlookers have crowded into the courthouse because of the weather. One speaker praised the South’s role in the war. After dinner, former US Senator Eppa Hunton, who as a young rebel officer had fought in Bull Run, spoke.
The two guns may have been in place at the time of the unveiling or were installed a few years later. Bies said they appeared on the site in a postcard from around 1916. It is not known exactly where or how they were acquired.
The unveiling took place at the height of construction of the Confederate Lost Cause monument in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and was reported in newspapers across the country.
Three more Confederate Courthouse monuments were unveiled in Virginia the same year, and six the following year.
But 116 years later, following last year’s nationwide protests against racial inequality and the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, a wave of Confederate monument removals have taken place across the country.
On November 5, the Marr Memorial and the two cannons flanking it were withdrawn.
“Monuments are statements of our values,” said Fairfax County Supervisor Dalia Palchik, a Democrat. “This monument does not reflect the values of our rich and diverse community. “
The monument was donated to a local historical society.
The Park Service has expressed interest in the guns, knowing the guy’s connection to battle.
Others wanted them too, including the Navy, Burgess said. “We were afraid we wouldn’t get them,” he said.
But the Park Service won and received the weapons in March.
Last Friday they were taken apart, possibly for the first time in over a century.
The gun barrels are still in good condition, but the iron wagons are not, Bies said. A conservator should start treating the metal to remove rust and old paint.
Park Service experts removed the bolts holding the barrels to the carts. They carefully hoisted the barrels and rolled the cars back. The barrels were then lowered onto padded wooden pallets.
“Everything went well,” said Jason Edwards, Park Service maintenance team leader. Now the task was to get them out on the field for the anniversary of the battle next month.
“It’s going to be really, really great to watch,” he said.
The weapons are expected to be unveiled on Matthews Hill at 10 a.m. on July 17.
Antonio Olivo of the Washington Post contributed to this report.