Monday, July 3, 2017

Photo of the Day: ‘Gettysburg Gun,’ Rhode Island State House

Two years ago this fall, on a short visit to Providence, R.I., I came upon one of the neatest little jewels in New England: the Rhode Island State House. I didn’t expect to find such a grand, stylish capitol in the smallest state in the Union—though I would have if I’d known beforehand that it was designed by the prestigious New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White in 1891-94.

But the surprises started coming at me as soon as I entered the building. On my left, in the North Portico of a structure meant for the peaceful debate and management of opposing ideas, was an imposing representation of what could happen when civility and compromise are no longer the order of the day: a brass cannon taken from the turning point of America’s bloodiest, most fratricidal war.

The cannon, known as "The Napoleon" during its lifetime, was last fired 154 years ago today, at the Battle of Gettysburg, and consequently is better remembered today as the "Gettysburg Gun." You can better understand why it was never used again when you notice the large cannonball stuck in its muzzle. 

The cannon went out of service at the worst possible time: early in the afternoon, Rhode Island’s Battery B unit was gearing ready for its midday meal when Robert E. Lee ordered the largest artillery bombardment witnessed in the Western Hemisphere to that time, meant to weaken and confuse Union lines prior to “Pickett’s Charge.”

The fourth gun of Battery B had sustained minor damage from two prior hits when another shell exploded. Two soldiers tending to the gun were killed, and a dent to the muzzle from the explosion necessitated that the gun be moved to the rear.

Early on, Gettysburg assumed such legendary proportions that anything associated with the battle became objects of curiosity, even reverence. So it proved to be with Battery B’s cannon, which remained on exhibit in Washington for around a decade after the battle, when it was finally moved back to Rhode Island. 

To my knowledge, it has left the State House on two occasions since then: in August 1962, when it was taken away for 24 hours to remove two and a half pounds of aging, highly dangerous black gunpowder that had been discovered, and in 1988, when it was brought back to the battlefield for the 125th anniversary of its last use.

The sight of the “Gettysburg Gun” filled me with wonder when I saw it. Since then, this relic has only accrued a meaning I could never have imagined at the time.

Like the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg, the turmoil surrounding Rhode Island’s Gettyburg Gun was the product of confusion, error, and a system that unexpectedly underperformed. Its outcome demonstrated that a democratic republic is also a near-run thing, a fragile point to be defended even when matters seem most hopeless, dependent on multiple people of judgment and heroism ready to rush to contain the damage from a breach.

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