Restoring a Confederate Civil War cannon may sound difficult … and it is. Folks say the first step is the hardest. In this case, it was the easiest as the Neponset community wanted to celebrate and preserve their local history.

Locating someone to properly restore 161-year-old, 900-pound cannon, however, would take some research and luck. The Amish craftsman in Arthur, Illinois, was considered. They had the skillset but did not have a historical perspective. It would have farm wagon wheels and many compromises in design element.

A wagon restoration outfit in South Dakota also was considered. A cannon carriage was out of its normal business model and the estimate reflected this fact. Casting about the internet, landed the Historical Ordinance Works near Atlanta.

Tom Bailey, owner and operator, has done work for the National Park Service and Military Museums at Fort Benning, Fort Knox and many others. They have completed WWI trucks, WWII halftracks and all types of artillery beginning with the Revolutionary War. In fact, they are working on the NPS contract for 10 Model 1841 6-Pounder field carriages. The Neponset project would fit nicely as No. 11. They found the perfect contractor.

Their luck continues as Bailey was on a business trip to Rock Island in April and made time to visit Neponset. After seeing the project and hearing the history, he said he would be honored to take on the restoration. A local sawmill operation cut the Barren Grove Timber Co. 125-year-old, white oak into slabs.

Both donated their time and material. Cliff Stetson donated his trailer to deliver the project to Georgia. Unfortunately, the donated white oak slabs exceeded the moisture content and are being kiln-dried for another cannon project. The Historical Ordinance Works mission statement includes “preserve military artifacts to honor those who have served their country.” No compromises in material or workmanship are accepted.

Tom Bailey, Historical Ordinances Works, Georgia and Gary Miller, Neponset Legion post commander discuss a restoration of their civil war cannon.

There was a town rumor they couldn’t raise the $10,000 and the old confederacy would reclaim their cannon. There was even talk of reactivating the 27th Infantry with Neponset volunteers to take their cannon back. The rumors proved false and the bill was paid in full, without incident.

Once the M1841 cast-iron cannon was freed from its 80-year concrete prison, it was hoped it would give up its history. But no markings or clues were found. We can confirm that two brass cannons were captured at the Battle of Belmont on Nov. 7, 1861, by an Illinois infantry regiment.

They were part of Confederate Major Daniel Beltzhoover Watson’s Battery. The brass cannons were marked R. Lee and J. Davis and are now at the West Point Museum. We also can confirm the Brennan Cannon Foundry in Nashville, Tennessee, had a fire in the fall of 1861 and left six rough castings in the rubble.

A confederate invoice sent the castings to Whitfield, Bradley & Co. in Clarksville, Tennessee, to finish the manufacturing. We know a Brennan cannon was in Neponset for July 4, 1862, by way of the Cairo Military District.

Provost Marshall, Major Joseph W. Merrill (former Neponset postmaster) who presented the cannon as a recruiting tool and to celebrate his new promotion. The first clue in the cannon time void is from the Bureau County Republican dated July 10, 1862, page 4, column 2, article said it “was captured at Fort Donaldson or Shiloh.”

So, we have about six months to fill in. What fits? The February 1862 Fort Donaldson Battle in Kentucky ended with a Union victory with 12,000 confederates and 71 cannons captured. Included were four marked “Brennan” but no mentioning of unmarked captured cannons.

For three days in early April, Major General U. S. Grant won a huge battle at Shiloh, Tennessee. More than 110,000 men engaged and 23,746 were killed or wounded, 956 Confederate soldiers were captured and there was no mention of cannons.

According to the Tennessee Civil War Centennial Commission, Captain Arthur M. Rutledge (West Point, Class of 1837), commanded the First Tennessee Artillery and had four M1841 cannons and two howitzers all marked “Brennan.”

The unit consisted mostly of Irish immigrants working on the Nashville Railroad before the war. The Brennan cannons performed well. Confederate Brigadier General S. A. Wood also spoke of Rutledge’s Battery holding in check large masses of the union infantry pressing his right flank. Farther north, Major General John Pope and our 27th Illinois Infantry Regiment was engaged at the Battle for Island No. 10 that resulted in 4500 men and 109 cannons captured.

Rodney Bennett, Clifford Stetson and Tom Weeks loading oak and cannon for restoration in Georgia.

Most of the artillery seized were large caliber types, but field pieces may have been included in the bounty. No confirmation of an unmarked cannon here, either. The Neponset cannon’s exact unit, wartime service and details of capture remain a mystery. A Confederate diary or an unpublished unit history may provide the answer to future historians.

Mike Johnson, Neponset High School, Class of 1964, first published the Neponset cannon was not at the Battle of Belmont in the Neponset Centennial book. He followed up with many trips to Illinois State archives and even a trip to the Belmont battlefield.

The 1850s Neponset postmaster pulled some levers (and rank) to get the cannon to Neponset. The November 1861 battle was the first combat trial for the 27th Illinois Infantry and the first challenge for a new Commanding General. More important, it first tested the resolve of communities like Neponset, Annawan and Tiskilwa as the killed and wounded in action lists come to their doorsteps.

The Civil War was to last another three years. I’m certain there were protests from the larger towns like Princeton and Kewanee that felt they were more deserving of a war trophy. The Neponset cannon will be forever “The Belmont Cannon.”

Today, with the vision of the Village officers, the Neponset Park Improvement Committee and the local American Legion post, the Belmont cannon has been properly restored to celebrate “all those who have served.” It will be rededicated on Memorial Day, May 29, 2023.

Lt.Col. Dick Wells (retired) lives on the Great Sauk Trail, Neponset. This is his 14th story in a series called Pioneer Struggles he began writing in 2020. His next focus will be on local soldiers who died and survived the Civil War Andersonville POW camp. There will be a Neponset cannon dedication story too.