By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
It sits there at Dieterich’s Liberty Memorial Park arch like a silent sentry.
Its jet-black cannon barrel aimed toward the northwest – some joke it’s on target for Teutopolis, but even in its prime, any round fired would have fallen well short of Wooden Shoes territory. The effective range of this artillery piece was only 6,600 yards.
Its odd shape and size leave some visitors to the park scratching their heads. It doesn’t resemble Civil War cannons with their curved breeches and flared muzzles. But it doesn’t look very modern with its smaller size, wooden wheels and lack of cranking or aiming devices.
It’s a little big gun that produces a lot of questions.
Actually the 3.2-inch breech-loading field gun on display at Dieterich links the nineteenth century with the twentieth, thereby, making it a rare piece of artillery. Photographs of old rounds from the gun look much like modern artillery shells and those rounds could be very deadly.
“It was one of the first guns made after the Civil War that used a brass cartridge,” said Kip Johnson, Dieterich High School history teacher and history researcher. “You could sure load it fast by loading it through the breech. It was an interim artillery piece between two eras.”
This type of cannon, tied to a line of Hotchkiss artillery in the 1800s, would be used in Cuba during the Spanish American War. It was also used against Filipino revolutionaries during the insurgency after American forces took over the Spanish colony in 1898. These cannons saw action during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900 when the Chinese tried to expel foreigners from their country.
Smaller versions of this type of artillery were lined up against Sioux Indians during the short-lived fight at Wounded Knee in 1890 – what many Native Americans today consider a massacre by the Seventh Cavalry regiment in revenge for the battle of Little Big Horn of 1876.
Just how this artillery came to be part of a Veterans Memorial in Dieterich, complete with a memorial wall and large bell, is a story that starts nearly 100 years ago when the United States military was clearing out obsolete military equipment from arsenals and military posts.
“The government was clearing out its stock and cannons were offered to towns across the country to go into parks or cemeteries as military memorials. All the municipalities had to do was write a letter and ask for delivery of the cannons. The towns had to pay for the shipping. That’s how some of these military parks or memorials became common in the country,” Johnson said.
The 3.2-inch gun arrived in Dieterich on Jan. 12, 1922. The shipping cost was very slight, even though the cannon tube itself weighs 810 pounds. One source places the cost at less than $22, but Johnson thinks it might have been higher. Still, the cost was a bargain for Dieterich, considering one military collector tried to buy the cannon for $10,000 decades later.
Village officials decided to place the cannon at Liberty Park. They learned some basics about the cannon’s origins from engravings on the mouth of the barrel, still visible today.
The tube was made during 1889 at the Watervliet Arsenal in Watervliet, New York. It was the 24th tube of its kind made at that arsenal.
The original carriage and the wooden wheels were probably made at the Rock Island Arsenal of Illinois. Wooden wheels would still be used on artillery up into World War I with horses or mules pulling artillery as they had for centuries.
The gun delivered to Dieterich opened at the breech — or end of the cannon tube — to allow for loading a shell and then quickly extracting it after firing. This was a very modern innovation for the 1880s.
Loading cannons at the mouth of the cannon tube could take more time with several steps to be followed through swabbing or wetting down the tube, then ramming in the powder bag and then the round. The round was either a solid cannonball, an explosive shell or grapeshot, which was a metal canister filled with metal balls turning a cannon into a giant shotgun that ripped attacking troops apart.
This long loading process could be dangerous. There might be hot embers in the tube. A round might go off too early if the powder ignited and the loader might lose an arm or worse.
In addition, the new American artillery of the 1880s worked to reduce the effects of recoil. This is when the artillery piece would move back from its firing position after the round was fired. This required rolling the cannon back before starting the loading process again.
Metal braking devices were applied to the wheels of the cannons like the one at Dieterich. Those devices were either removed before delivery or lost somehow on the cannon that ended up in Effingham County.
The brakes were designed to solve the recoil problem, but they also earned an interesting nickname for the cannons. The brakes caused the guns to hop in the air when fired and soldiers started calling them “Grasshoppers.”
Placed in the park not far from where it rests today, the cannon soon had children hopping on it like it was an eccentric piece of playground equipment. It also became the focal point for imaginary battles by Dieterich children, Johnson said.
“Children would crawl on it or they would put cans in it like they were loading. Before it was restored, they pulled a lot of junk out of it. There was even a bird’s nest in the tube,” Johnson said.
There is no need to worry about any test firings nowadays by wannabe gunners. The tube and breech are modified to prevent any firings.
When a group of Dieterich residents decided to build the Dieterich Community Veterans Memorial, it was decided to include the old cannon as well. The old arch dated back two years after World War I when the community honored veterans of Dieterich Machine Company G, which traveled to France and all the soldiers and officers came back after the war ended.
Funds were raised for the restoration and the dedication was held on Memorial Day in 2001. Plaques now honor the Veterans Memorial committees for their efforts to honor all Dieterich veterans of all wars and eras.
The cannon still attracts a lot of attention since it has been gussied up.
“Every once and awhile, someone will float in town and look over it. They’ll read the plaque. I let the kids know about it in my history classes. It’s pretty special. Dieterich is a pretty special little town. It has a lot of history,” Johnson said.
But there is still one unanswered question about the Little Big Gun: where did it serve during its years with the Army? Johnson conducted some painstaking research and consulted with Ken Bauman, a military historian in Michigan and expert on old artillery. But Johnson came up snake eyes on where the cannon had fought or was stationed. He has not given up though.
“I’d like to find information from records where some of the gunners are talking about their tubes. Maybe one might mention ‘Old No. 24’ on how it fired or how it kicked up. We know it has been fired from the condition of the tube. We just don’t know if that was for target practice or in a battle,” Johnson said.
Someday, we might know more about the old cannon keeping watch over Dieterich’s military legacy.