The Parrott Guns

parrottgun

They rest on either side of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument like decorative bookends, and you would hardly know in passing what remarkable instruments of war they were. They arrived in the Village on August 13, 1897, almost two years after the completion of the monument. They were a gift of the federal government, with the freight ($39.40) paid by the local Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) post. First placed on limestone stands to match the monument, they were later mounted on authentic wheeled carriages built by Charles Rounds.

Specifically, our two resident cannons are 30-pound Parrott Guns. The tube of each gun is 11 feet long and weighs 4,200 pounds. Too heavy to be moved during a battle (each requires a team of eight horses), these were siege guns, wheeled into emplacements and brought to bear on fortifications. The 30-pound Parrott Gun was used by Union armies to besiege Confederate forts and fortified cities across the south, most famously at Vicksburg, Mississippi; Port Hudson, Louisiana; and Fort Macon, North Carolina.

They take their name from their inventor and manufacturer, Robert Parker Parrott, the superintendent of the West Point Foundry from 1836 to 1867. Our two cannons were made there, just across the Hudson River from West Point, in a cluster of brick buildings whose fires glowed red through every day and night of the Civil War. You can see the identifying initials RPP and WPF engraved on the muzzle face of each gun.

Even without the initials, the Parrott gun is easily recognized by the thick band of iron wrapped around its breech. This reinforcing band, at the point of greatest force, enabled the gun to be made of iron, rather than bronze. The Parrott Gun could thus be manufactured quickly and cheaply. It was a boon to the Union.

Parrott Guns were also known as Parrott Rifles because of their rifled bore, five grooves running the length of the barrel with a right-hand twist. The grooves spun the projectile so it flew with a spiral motion, traveling farther and hitting the target with more power and accuracy.

The “30-pound” designation refers to the weight of the projectile the gun fired. The West Point Foundry made 10-, 20- and 30-pound Parrotts. The 30-pound Parrott fired two kinds of shells, each about 4 inches in diameter and 10-12 inches in length. One type was 30 pounds of solid iron and was known as a “bolt.” The second type was hollow and packed with a matrix of black powder and lead balls, called case-shot. A fuse exploded the case-shot in the air or on impact. The solid bolt was used to destroy walls and other artillery pieces. Case-shot was intended for gun crews and troops.

Fully elevated, the 30-pound Parrott Gun could send a projectile almost four miles. Upon its return to earth, the 30-pound shell could pass through masonry walls, even solid stone. And the gun was accurate. At a range of a mile and a half, gunners could place three out of four shells within ten feet of their intended target. As the Confederacy learned in North Carolina.

The siege of Fort Macon, a coastal fort on the Outer Banks, had been dragging on for more than a month when the Union artillery arrived for the final assault. Most notably, three 30-pound Parrott Guns were emplaced a mile from the fort’s outer walls. On April 26th, 1862, the Union guns opened fire and the Confederate guns returned the barrage. Early in the day, the rounds from the Parrotts were carrying over the fort, but by noon they had found their range. A single round hit three of the fort’s largest guns in succession, knocking two out of action, killing three men and wounding five more. The parapets were soon swept clear. Shot passed through solid stone stairways and masonry walls, wounding men inside.

Because the fort had been built by the Union, the Parrott gunners knew the exact location of the powder magazine. They began concentrating fire on the wall that shielded 10,000 pounds of gunpowder. When it began to crumble, the fort’s commander, Col. Moses White, realized he was one round away from leading a band of angels. The white flag went up and the age of masonry fortifications came to a end.

Today you can buy Parrott shells dug up from the mud of Vicksburg, Port Hudson and the Carolina coast. You can see Parrott guns in parks and battlefields. Of the 30-pound Parrotts, 198 are known to survive. Two sit quietly in Lake View Cemetery. I don’t know where they’ve been, or what they’ve done. But I know what they were capable of, and I look on them with respect.

* * *

“Parrott Guns,” Chelsea Telegraph and Pioneer, October 3, 1863; “The Confederate Defense of Fort Macon,” Paul Branch, Ramparts, Spring 2001; Union Drummer Boy Civil War Artifacts; “The Patriot and The Parrott Rifle,” Eric Ortner; The Encyclopedia of Civil War Artillery. My thanks as always to the Skaneateles Historical Society, and to Tristan Whitehouse for holding the other end of the tape measure.

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