It once played a loud, fiery role in the combat between Confederate and Union forces at Fort Fisher.
But the relic of North Carolina’s history has waited silently in front of the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh’s Bicentennial Plaza recently, wrapped in gray plastic sheeting and ringed in bright caution tape.
After it is unveiled Tuesday, museum Director Ken Howard hopes the artifact will serve as a clue to the cultural wealth the building behind it has to offer.
The item, a cannon that was used by the Confederate Army at Fort Fisher during the Civil War, will rest on a concrete plot in front of the museum’s entrance. Howard said it’s an appropriate entry piece, because it represents a pivotal period in North Carolina’s past.
“If you think of something you put in front of a museum that says, ‘We’re history,’ what do you think of? For me, it’s a cannon,” he said.
“The connection for us is that it’s a Confederate cannon that was captured in the Civil War. Now we’ve brought it back to North Carolina to display.”
Called the Blakely Cannon, the weapon was manufactured in 1862 by Fawcett, Preston and Co. in Liverpool, England. The Confederate Army stationed the cannon at Fort Fisher to protect commerce vessels, called blockade runners, as they traveled along the shoreline past waiting Union ships. The runners delivered supplies from Bermuda or Nassau to the Confederate forces.
The gun was used to defend the crew and supply load of one such vessel, the Hebe, that ran aground. But the U.S.S. Minnesota and other Union gunboats overtook the Confederates defending the Hebe, and on Aug. 18, 1863, they captured the cannon and shipped it to Washington, D.C., as a trophy.
The cannon sat in a Navy shipyard for decades, until the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras requested it for a display involving the U.S.S. Minnesota. When museum staff realized that the cannon had not been aboard the ship during the time period on which they were focused, they got in touch with their colleagues in Raleigh.
The N.C. Museum of History secured a five-year, renewable loan on the artifact and sent it to East Carolina University, where a preservation group spent months cleaning and preparing it.
After working through layers of paint and rust, the team made an exciting discovery, said Jennifer French, objects conservator at the N.C. Museum of History, who coordinated with the team at ECU. A previously undiscovered maker’s mark on the weapon’s carriage waited underneath the grime, filling in details about the cannon’s origin.
“It allows people to see what it was like,” French said.
The cleaning also made clearer an inscription on the cannon commemorating the capture.
“It’s a good indication of what we are,” French said. “The cannon reflects that outside of our four walls.”