Not the big one, but one of many cannons on display at the Park
On this date in 1862, the Confederate army was retreating southward from Columbus. They may have left behind a Civil War relic hunter’s dream that ended up buried below a 40-foot dirt bluff at Columbus-Belmont State Park for 55 years.
That dream came true for Eddie Roberts. It took him 14 years and two tries. But the retired school teacher unearthed a 7,545-pound Civil War cannon that toppled off the Mississippi River bluff in a 1943 landslide.
The old ordnance has been a park feature ever since he found it in 1998.
The iron-barreled, Model 1829 Navy 32-pounder gun was buried 42 feet deep in the dirt. “We dug for three days before we found it,” said Roberts, who lives near Clinton, the Hickman County seat. The state park is in Hickman County.
Early in the war, the Rebels strongly fortified Columbus. They dug deep trenches, planted 140 cannons – mostly atop the bluffs – and blocked the river with a heavy anchor and mile-long chain. Confident Confederates dubbed their bastion “the Gibraltar of the West.” Like the anchor and short section of the chain, the cannon Roberts found was a favorite with tourists when the park opened in the 1930s.
He started hunting for the big gun in 1984. He dug unsuccessfully for it in 1991. He finally hit pay dirt, thanks to excavating equipment furnished by Tim Schwartz and his son, Jason.
Many people believed the cannon was a Confederate orphan, abandoned when the Rebels forsook their "Gibraltar." “But when the Yankees occupied Columbus [in early March, 1862], they used the town as a shipping point for captured Confederate cannons,” said Clinton historian John Kelly Ross. “They were shipped in and out of Columbus from all over. All we can say for sure is the lost cannon was here in 1865 when the war ended.”
Ross said the cannon’s discovery was “the most significant event for Columbus park since it opened.” There were vain searches for the cannon at least two other times, said John Adams, a longtime park manager.
The Schwartzes scraped out a hole 42-feet-deep, 24-feet wide and 40 feet long to help Roberts find the cannon. While the barrel survived the cave-in, the gun’s one-ton oak carriage did not.
Crews from the Civilian Conservation Corps – one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs for fighting the depression – built the gun carriage to exact Civil War specifications while they were helping construct the state park.
Roberts thinks he knows why nobody tried to retrieve the gun when it was lost. “World War II was going on, and people had their minds on that and not on some old Civil War cannon,” he suggested.
Roberts extensively surveyed the area before he started digging. In 1991, the Army Corps of Engineers supplied a dozer and a backhoe. “They dug down about 24 feet,” he remembered. “We didn’t have any luck. Then my permit to dig ran out, and that was about it.”
Unknown to Roberts, the last hole he had dug was on top of where he would find the cannon seven years later. “We were just not deep enough.” He used a powerful metal detector called a magnetometer to pinpoint the cannon in 1998.
-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org<blocked::mailto:email@example.com>..