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Historic Stonington Cannon Finds New Home on Cape Cod

At once a thrilling historical mystery and a connection to Stonington’s rich past, this is one fascinating story. A must-read, folks!

Charlie Hauck, V-P of the Falmouth Historical Society and the Society's Executive Director Mark Schmidt get ready to load the cannon into a pick-up truck. Photo courtesy Stonington Historical Society
Charlie Hauck, V-P of the Falmouth Historical Society and the Society's Executive Director Mark Schmidt get ready to load the cannon into a pick-up truck. Photo courtesy Stonington Historical Society

A British cannon from the War of 1812 or Revolutionary War relic?

From the Stonington Historical Society:

The Stonington Historical Society handed over a very old cannon (maybe older than originally believed) Saturday to a historical society on Cape Cod as part of that group’s plans to commemorate a bombardment of their town by a British warship during the War of 1812.

Acquired by Stonington in 2000 from the Kendall Whaling Museum (now part the New Bedford Whaling Museum), the cannon was one of five recovered in 1981 from the bottom of Buzzards Bay, just west of Cape Cod. The cannons were presumed to have been jettisoned by the 18-gun HMS Nimrod while trying to navigate shallow waters.

Later, the HMS Nimrod joined in bombarding Stonington Borough from August 9 to 12, 1814. The two-year-old Cruizer class brig sloop was part of the squadron that included the HMS Ramillies (74-gun ship of the line), HMS Pactolus (44-gun frigate), HMS Dispatch (22-gun brig), and the bomb ship Terror.

The HMS Nimrod was one of many Royal Navy ships that took part in the blockade of New England and Long Island Sound. The Nimrod captured or destroyed a number of American privateers in 1814. The vessel also attacked Falmouth (January 29), Wareham (June 14), as well as Stonington. The greatest damage was suffered by Wareham, where 225 British soldiers burned a new cotton factory and also burned or heavily damaged many vessels, including 17 from Falmouth that had gone upriver to hide.

When an underwater archaeological investigation in 1981 sponsored by the Kendall Whaling Museum discovered five cannons, a carronade (a short-range cannon) and other debris off Round Hill, Dartmouth, Mass., it was assumed that the objects had come from the Nimrod, which had recorded grounding in that area. The Kendall Museum eventually gave a cannon to each of the three places that the Nimrod had attacked.


Recent investigation, however, casts doubt on this provenance, with some scholars believing that the cannons are too old to have come from the Nimrod and more likely date from the Revolutionary War era. Moreover, the Battle of Stonington took place after the supposed dumping of the cannons in the spring of 1814.

When David Schloerb (today a path breaking researcher at MIT) and the late Henry Kendall (a Nobel prize winning physicist) recovered the cannons on behalf of the Kendall Museum, the cannons had to be kept submerged in a non-corrosive vat of salt water with an alkaline additive because, once out of water, the cannons would quickly rust and deteriorate. The Falmouth Historical Society, the oldest such organization on Cape Cod, has maintained its cannon in such a vat ever since, though the solution has been altered and carefully monitored over the years. Wareham’s Nimrod cannon was similarly displayed inside the local library, until recently transferred to the town hall. Of the two cannons received by the New Bedford Whaling Museum in the Kendall collection, one is on display at the Northeast Maritime Institute in Fairhaven, Mass., also submerged in a tank of treated water. The other, unfortunately, has completely disintegrated, according to Senior Maritime Historian Michael Dyer of the NBWM.

According to the Falmouth Historical Society, in January 1814, the commander of the Nimrod sent a message demanding that the town surrender its two small brass cannons, or else. Local lore says that Falmouth’s response was, “If you want our cannons, you can come and get them, and we will give you what’s in them first.” Whatever the wording, the town refused to surrender, and the British retaliated. No one was killed or injured, but several of Falmouth’s buildings still proudly bear the scars of cannonball fire, including a building that used to be a restaurant called “The Nimrod.” The restaurant liked to claim that a hole in the wall in the men’s room was made by one of Nimrod’s balls, but local historians take a dubious view of this story.

“We like to say that the British never got our cannon, but we got one of theirs,” according to the Falmouth group’s website.

The three-pounder acquired by Stonington was restored in time for the Battle of Stonington’s 190th anniversary commemoration in August 2004. After being stored at Dodson Boatyard for a time, the cannon was sent to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. It took four years of treatment to relieve the weapon of its corrosive build-up. In the process two cannon balls and powder were discovered inside. With great care, all traces of powder and the cannonballs were removed. The surface was then carefully cleaned with scalpels, pneumatic chisels and dental picks, after which it was given an electrolytic bath and dried in a special hot air chamber. The cannon was then coated with a solution to make it rust-resistant.

In May 2004 the cannon came back to Stonington and was stored at Howard Park’s workshop at the Four Starr Gallery at the Velvet Mill. Mr. Park created a reproduction gun carriage for the cannon. All of this work was done through the great generosity of volunteers and donors, especially Christopher Houlihan, who worked with the Maryland laboratory; Michael Davis, then president; Robert Snyder, Doug Currie, and Mr. and Mrs. James Coker.

Despite the extensive treatment, however, the cannon was too fragile to be exhibited out-of-doors, and given its weight (1,800 pounds), finding an indoor space in any of the Historical Society’s buildings proved impossible. It has stayed in storage for the past eight years.

The Falmouth group has carefully maintained its cannon in a special water bath, which is checked regularly for exact ph balance and maintained in what is called “wet” storage in their “cannon shed.” The cost of fully restoring Falmouth's cannon, as Stonington did nine years ago, is now considerable.

The prospect of acquiring Stonington’s cannon in the meantime became increasingly appealing to Falmouth. The two historical societies began discussing the possibility several years ago and an agreement was ironed out: The cannon restored by the Stonington Historical Society will be publicly exhibited indoors at Falmouth.

The Falmouth Historical Society has a two-acre campus across from the Town Green. It includes a new Education Center, which contains climate-controlled artifact storage. The museums are open mid-May through December and welcome nearly 15,000 visitors a year.

The transfer of the cannon took place Saturday Jan. 18 at the Stonington Velvet Mill, where the cannon has been in storage. The Stonington Historical Society's president, Rob Palmer, and Howard Park hander over the cannon to representatives from Falmouth, including the group’s vice-president, Charles Hauck. Palmer and Park have been invited to attend the Falmouth group’s commemoration of the bombardment of their town on Tuesday, January 28.

 

The Stonington Historical Society, Inc., founded in 1895, seeks to preserve, interpret, and celebrate the history of Stonington. In addition to presenting programs and exhibits, the Society maintains three sites open to the public: the Old Lighthouse Museum; the Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer House, a National Historic Landmark and the home of the discoverer of Antarctica; and the Richard W. Woolworth Library, a research archive of local history. From more information on these sites and the Society’s programs, exhibits, and collections, visit the Society’s web site, http:/www/stoningtonhistory.org, or call the Society at 860-535-8445.

 

 

 

 

 




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