Cannonball

What could be better than a cannon with two barrels? After all, there are double-barreled shotguns and twin-barrel derringers. This was what John Gilleland had in mind when he designed a cannon with two barrels.

Gilleland, a builder and part-time dentist, was a private in a home-guard unit composed of men too old to be in the regular Army. Based on his design, a two-barreled cannon was forged in Athens, Georgia, in 1862.

It featured three touchholes – one for each barrel and one for firing both barrels at the same time. The cannon balls were linked together by a 10-foot chain, the idea being that with the chain flying out along with the two balls, a wider path of destruction could be inflicted upon enemy infantry.

Building a two-barrel cannon is one challenge; making sure it worked is another. So in a field near Athens in April 1862, Gilleland set up his cannon. A crowed of curious onlookers assembled to see this newfangled “secret” weapon, which held out the promise of turning the tide of the war in favor of the South.

The first firing was pretty much a disaster. One ball left the muzzle before the other,  causing them to adopt a somewhat erratic, circular course. According to witnesses, the two projectiles tore up about an acre of ground, slashed through a cornfield, and knocked down several small trees. Eventually, the chain broke, sending the balls flying in opposite directions.

A second test firing had much the same results as the first. On the third attempt, the chain broke almost immediately, permitting each ball to travel on its own course. One destroyed a chimney on a nearby cabin, and the other killed a cow, blissfully munching in a pasture. Several upright posts, which had been erected as a target, remained undamaged.

Though a casual observer might have decided the test was a complete failure, Gilleland felt otherwise, declaring the test firings an “unqualified success.”

The cannon was then sent to the Confederate arsenal in Augusta, Georgia, where it was extensively tested. Arsenal personnel determined that the cannon was not practical due to the variable powder burn rates of the two charges resulting in an unpredictable outcome. The cannon was returned to Athens and placed in front of the town hall to be used as a signal gun.

Enraged, Gilleland sent angry letters to the governor of Georgia and the Confederate government in Richmond, demanding that his cannon be reconsidered for service. Despite his protestations, the double-barreled cannon was never adopted by the Confederate Army. But that didn’t mean it never saw action.

When a 3,000-strong Union army, led by Gen. George Stoneman, approached Athens in 1864, the cannon was fired to alert town folks. Armed men quickly assembled and soon began hauling two cannons and the two-barrel artillery piece up a ridge to face the union troops. The double-barreled cannon was loaded with two balls (no chain). A four-shell barrage was launched at the approaching troops; the Union forces quickly withdrew.

Sometime after the war, the cannon was sold and its whereabouts were lost. However, in the 1890s, the historical cannon was accidentally located at a junk shop. It was brought back to Athens where it was restored. There it remains today, resting in front of city hall. The twin-barreled cannon is pointing north, just in case …

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