Pioneer Struggles: Civil War cannon saved, again

Neponset AmLegion members Tom and Mike Weeks guide the removal of a confederate cannon captured during the civil war. Mark Bowen is operating the loader tractor. His great, great uncle served with the 27th ILL. Inf. Regiment and was wounded in the battle

History needs a caretaker, and the old Neponset cannon has found one. For more than a 120 years, the old civil war cannon sat on a concrete pedestal in front of the village hall. It had seen two world wars, roaring 20′s, depression, roaring 50′s, Vietnam, men on the moon, a black president and many Neponset parades.

But time has taken its toll on the crumbling concrete and the Neponset American Legion Post 875 has stepped up. Just like the city fathers did in the 1890s. The original wooden field carriage had rotted beyond repair so 40 years after the capture, concerned Neponset citizens saved it for another 120 years.

The smooth bore, Confederate cannon was in one of the first battles in the Civil War. According to the brass plaque, “Captured at Belmont, Missouri by the 27th Illinois Infantry, November 7, 1861.” Sitting in front of the Neponset village hall, it had already seen the end of the civil war, reconstruction, economic depression, the Spanish American War and many Neponset parades.

Neponset (1855) and Annawan (1853) weren’t just sleepy little farming towns. They were brand new towns, both moving to new sites to take advantage of new railroad opportunities. The original pioneers and their log cabins still dotted the townships. But new homes and businesses were even more common.

In less than 10 years all that changed. On April 12, 1861, shots were fired upon Fort Sumter, South Carolina, that caused a patriotic wrath of the northern people. Three days later our government responded with a call to arms.

Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power in me vested by the Constitution, and the laws, have thought fit to call forth, and hereby do call forth, the militia of the several States of the Union, to the aggregate number of seventy-five thousand, in order to suppress the rebellion and maintain law and order” – April 15, 1861.

Joseph W. Merrill came to Neponset from New England in 1856 and a few months later became the postmaster. Joseph brought his political beliefs with him from the East. He was passionate about abolishing slavery in our country and I’m sure his ideals touched a lot of folks in early Neponset.

Many churches in town were active in the Underground Railroad which helped free runaway slaves. Some folks would have called him an abolitionist. The whole county was boiling with this issue. As postmaster he knew all the local people and kept up with local and national news.

Joseph W. Merrill spearheaded the recruiting and raised a company of men for Co I, 27th Ill. Vol. Inf., from mostly from Neponset and Annawan. He was elected captain as were other officers and sergeants and the unit was mustered into federal service Aug. 10, 1861.

The original plaque celebrating the civil war cannon captured 161 years ago. The plaque will be displayed with the restored cannon.

Kewanee Paper, dated Sept. 7, 1861, page 4. “The ‘Union Guard’ Neponset, J.W.Merrill. Capt. commanding, left for Camp Butler, near Springfield on August 26. We are informed that there are certain harpies (protestors) about Neponset that actively opposed Capt. Merrill’s effort to raise a company. If this is true, which we have no doubt, we would advise the patriotic people of Neponset to try out the new state law to punish persons interfering with the enlistment of volunteers. We presume there would be less objection if Merrill had been going into the ranks as a private. We think these creatures are more worthy to serve the state- at Joliet State Prison.”

On April 22, 1861, a war meeting was held in the Annawan Baptist church and three Elders made their speeches. A national request had been made for troops and at the close of the meeting, it was decided to raise a company for the war.

Fifty-three men volunteered on the spot. But when the Annawan company offered its services to the government, it was rejected, as the six Henry Co. Regiments were full.

Nearby Neponset in Bureau County, was recruiting for the 27th Illinois Infantry Regiment, Company I. They all enlisted as privates. (A civil war infantry company was 100 men, commanded by a captain. A regiment was 10 companies, commanded by a LtCol)

Three months later with little training and old muskets, the 27th IL. Inf. Regiment received its baptism of fire at the Battle of Belmont, Missouri, 6-7 November 1861. A little-known officer was called from civilian life to command the Western Army. It was Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s first test also and his first victory. There was to be eight more major engagements for the 27th during the next four years.

Grant chose to attack Belmont, Missouri, a ferry landing and tiny hamlet of three shacks, directly across the river from Columbus, Kentucky. Grant’s Expeditionary Command numbered more than 4,000 officers and men, and was organized into two brigades under Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand and Col. Henry Dougherty, two cavalry companies and an artillery battery.

On November 6, escorted by the gunboats USS Tyler and USS Lexington, the command loaded onto six steamboats and left Cairo, Illinois.

When they reached Belmont, Grant found Camp Johnston manned by a small Confederate force supported by an artillery battery. He decided to attack to keep the Confederates from reinforcing across the river.

Confederate Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk had about 7,000 troops guarding Columbus, Kentucky. When he learned of Grant’s movements, he assumed that Columbus was their primary objective, and that Belmont was a feint. He ordered 2,700 men under Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow to Belmont, retaining the rest to defend Columbus.

At 8:30 a.m. Nov 7, Grant’s force disembarked at Hunter’s Farm, three miles north of Belmont, out of range of the six Confederate batteries at Columbus. The Columbus heavy water batteries featured 10-inch Columbiads and 11-inch howitzers and one gun, a 128-pounder Whitworth rifle, the largest in the Confederacy.

He marched his men south on the single road, clearing the obstructions of fallen timber. A mile away from Belmont, they formed a battle line in a corn field. The line consisted of the 22nd Illinois Infantry, 7th Iowa Infantry, 31st Illinois Infantry, 30th Illinois Infantry, and 27th Illinois Infantry, intermixed with a company of cavalry.

The Confederate battle line, on a low ridge northwest of Belmont, from north to south, was made up of the 12th Tennessee Infantry, 13th Arkansas Infantry, 22nd Tennessee Infantry, 21st Tennessee Infantry, and 13th Tennessee Infantry.

Grant’s attack drove in the Confederate skirmish line and for the remainder of the morning, both armies, consisting of green recruits, advanced and fell back repeatedly. By 2 p.m., the confederate lines began to collapse.

That is when the 27th swept around the enemy left flank charged into the 13th Tennessee Infantry and Watson’s artillery battery. The confederate artillery battery was commanded by an 1847 West Point graduate, Major Daniel Beltzhoover from Louisiana.

He was ordered to remove his six guns from the battle line and reposition back to the Mississippi river. 45 horses were killed and one gun was abandoned. Both Major Beltzhoover and the 27th Infantry adjutant reports confirm the captured cannon!

But a captured cannon is not a souvenir you purchase at a battlefield gift shop. Killed in action was private Charles Russel- Neponset and private Thomas Aldrich- Tiskilwa. Wounded in action was private Lasley Barton- Annawan, private Liewellen Bigelow- Neponset and corporal William Bowen- Neponset.

Corporal Bowen was in charge of the unit’s 12 sharpshooters. They were assigned to secure a bridge after the main assault, where he was wounded. It is only fitting that the current generation, Mark Bowen, operated the loader-tractor that carefully lifted the cannon off its 120-year cement home.

Mark also has his great-great uncle’s pocket watch carried during the civil war. He has restored the family cabin (1846) and is the president of the Neponset Historical Society. The Neponset American Legion stepped up to this restoration journey as a small tribute to all service men and women who have worn our countries uniform.

LtCol Dick Wells (retired) has an economics degree and master’s degree in military history and is a property owner on the Great Sauk Trail. His great-great-great grandparents came to Annawan Township in the 1840s. He has always been interested in pioneer history and has been reading several first-person accounts. This is the 12th article in the series Pioneer Struggles.