Civil War Cannons Do Disappearing Act
Since 1994, Bruce Stiles has coaxed towns from Nebraska to New Hampshire to sell their Civil War cannons -- iron and bronze sentinels that have graced cemeteries and parks for a century or more.
His success in obtaining dozens of muzzleloaders for private collectors in Pennsylvania stirs unrest wherever he goes, but usually after the fact. Weeks or even months can go by before residents realize their veterans’ memorial has been whisked away.
The sales patter went like clockwork in this central New York village last summer. In a form letter, Stiles offered $10,000 for a 1,700-pound barrel that had sat undisturbed since 1901 on a concrete pedestal at Groton Rural Cemetery.
Left outside, it would someday rust beyond recognition, Stiles asserted. Better to have it acid-washed, sandblasted, repainted and displayed at a museum near Pittsburgh that is open to the public free of charge.
Some cemetery trustees didn’t know what they had -- a Parrott naval cannon, one of only 78 known survivors from the 1861-65 war. Still, despite being strapped for cash and haunted by bankruptcy for half a century, the association didn’t bite.
Stiles next barraged secretary-treasurer Juanita Griffin with calls. “I just got tired of running to the phone and having it be him again,” she said. Within weeks, he sweetened the offer to $15,000 and threw in a replica cannon that he valued at $5,000.
All along, Stiles advised that negotiations be kept under wraps. As he has told other cemetery custodians and town boards across the country, he didn’t want residents getting riled up. Now he voiced another reason: If people knew how valuable it was, the cannon would be at great risk of getting stolen.
“Once we realized that, then we were concerned about theft and not saying a lot to the public about its value,” said association president Mary Flang.
The 12-member board approved the new offer and, within days, the cannon was gone. Few villagers seemed to notice. Only this spring, when they heard that another rural New York town had sold its cannon to Stiles, and then paid a steep price to get it back, did this village of 2,500 people awaken to its loss.
As it turned out, the cannon didn’t belong to the cemetery association.
In the half-century after the Civil War, about 12,000 obsolete cannons were donated to towns and veterans’ groups. Many were melted down in scrap-metal drives during the world wars; fewer than 5,700 survive. At least 560 of them, Union and Confederate collectibles valued from $20,000 to $200,000, are in private hands. Half a dozen collectors have each bought 20 or more.
Stiles, 52, a businessman from Emmaus, Pa., works on commission for Kenneth Watterson, a retired manufacturing executive whose 5-year-old museum next to his home in Venetia near Pittsburgh boasts 26 cannons, howitzers and mortars -- the nation’s second-biggest private collection.
Watterson’s Civil War Artillery Museum opens by appointment only, drawing a few hundred visitors a year. He’s thinking of lending his estimated $1-million-plus collection to a museum in Virginia but won’t say if the move was triggered by his divorce or by howls of protests he raised this spring in Upstate New York.
Cannons have quietly vanished from at least nine small towns throughout New York since 1998. But few of the sales created the sort of ruckus that ignited in Kendall near Lake Ontario in March, putting collectors under an uncomfortable spotlight.
Although many Civil War ordnance pieces were loaned out by the federal government, the ownership trail has been muddied in a few hundred cases by surplus sales of cannons to businesses that later resold them, said Wayne Stark, who maintains a “National Registry of Surviving Civil War Artillery” and has authenticated cannons for both municipalities and collectors.
“I like to see the stuff stay where it is -- if it’s being maintained,” Stark said.
But Stiles, in an angry defense of his activities when he responded to repeated Associated Press phone calls, said, “All we want to do is preserve the cannons. We’re not doing anything wrong. The people that are neglecting them are doing the wrong thing, the people who are letting them rust, the people who are letting them get vandalized and stolen.”
As for ownership uncertainties, he asserted: “It’s who’s taken care of the cannon for the past decades that’s the owner.”
For Ben Jones, a local Air Force reservist preparing for deployment in Iraq, it’s not that simple. “They’re not buying them from a junkyard or an antique shop; they’re buying them from cemeteries. I collect militaria myself, but I don’t go desecrating graves to get it,” he said.
Jones joined hundreds of protesters in Kendall after the town board quietly sold its 816-pound, cast-iron cannon for $15,000. Watterson sold it back for $27,000, charging $5,000 for a now unused replacement built in Georgia. The extra costs were covered by a New York state grant.
The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, which is trying to drum up support in Congress to quell bartering in cannons, noted that a 2003 law makes it a federal offense to “injure or destroy” armed forces’ monuments on public property or transport them across state lines.
In 2002, a history teacher discovered that two bronze Napoleons in Summit Hill, Pa., were replicas when he sent pupils on a muzzle-rubbing trip. Lawyer Carole Walbert proved the cannons belonged to the borough, not an American Legion post that sold them in 2000 for $70,000, and forced Watterson to return them last year.
Cannons were gifts “subject to recall by the U.S. government,” said Walbert. “If cannons have been donated to a municipality or veterans’ group, they can’t be taken by collectors, in my opinion.”
At $8 an hour, the cost of having two men mow the grass at Groton Rural Cemetery all summer nudged the cash-starved caretakers to sell their long-silent treasure. If a cemetery association declares bankruptcy and a town takes over, mowing is required just three times a year, said Flang, the cemetery association president.
“It would not be long before markers would be overgrown,” she said. “It would not be a memorial to anybody that was buried up there.”
Although the cannon’s worn brass plaque had stated that “this gun [was] loaned by U.S.,” nine months went by before most residents realized a replica had replaced the original.
“Now that I know, I certainly don’t want a replica,” said Athena Kaladros, co-owner of the Red Door Coffee House. “That insults my intelligence.”
Army veteran Tom Conger, 60, added, “The point is, it’s been there for years and years and it should continue to be there. Why is it a piece of material that someone should be allowed to sell for a personal gain?”
In fact, a search of historical records by a Groton real-estate attorney, Jim Henry, determined the cannon wasn’t the association’s property. The cannon was bequeathed to a veteran’s post, and the circular plot where it stood was donated to the town in 1901.
Henry wrote Watterson asking that he return the cannon. Watterson agreed on the condition that he get $23,000 -- the $15,000 he paid, plus $5,000 for the replica, plus a $3,000 commission. He refuses to take the replica back, Henry said. The association is seeking donations.
Left behind in other cannon-less towns, meantime, is smoldering resentment.
“New York is an easy target -- these collectors know darn well they’re going to quadruple their profits,” said Shirley Goerlich, 68, a historian in Sidney, 70 miles southeast of Groton. That town’s cemetery sold its two Confederate flank howitzers to Watterson in 2000 for $35,000.
Their absence from a hilltop plot that Civil War soldiers built by hand “has always been a thorn in my side,” Goerlich said.
In third grade, she recalled, the first local World War II hero came home in a coffin and her school “walked all the way to the top of Prospect Hill Cemetery.” Although her toes pinched in new patent-leather shoes and her ears pounded from a 21-gun salute, the nobleness of the occasion never left her.
“I looked at those big cannons and I felt so safe,” she said. “And I thought, ‘These are the people who protect us, and we must always honor them.’ ”