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Jim Bales

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

One of the things I enjoy when researching the history of an item or person are all the connections and links to other interesting history.  The other day I was asked about the cannons that sit by the Memorial Auditorium.  When I was a child in the early 60s I can remember playing on those cannons sitting in front of the old City Hall there at 7th and Washington, almost in the same location they are sitting today.   I had come across an article or two about the cannons but couldn't quote from them so I decided maybe I had better look them up. 

According to a news article in the Wellington Daily News, Feb 3rd, 1961, the cannons were originally used by General Winfield Scott, pictured here.  Nicknamed "Old Fuss and Feathers,” he served on active duty as a general longer than any other man in American history.  The cannons were used throughout the war with Mexico from 1846 to 48. They were later stored in a federal arsenal somewhere in the south and in March 1861 a month before the Fort Sumter attack confederate sympathizers broke into the arsenal and stole the cannons along with other guns small arms and ammunition.  They were used at the battle of Philippi, West Virginia by the Confederate forces under the command of Col George A Potterfield, who incidentally, also fought in the war with Mexico. The battle of Philippi West Virginia was little more than a skirmish or rout with 3000 Union troops invading and running off 800 Confederate troops. There were no fatalities and few injuries, but it was the first organized confrontation of the Civil War. Because it was considered a Union victory, General George B. McClellan's career was propelled forward and allowed him to advance in the union leadership and become a prominent Union General. The cannons were recaptured by Union forces commanded by General McClellan during the battle of Cheat Mountain West Virginia on September 12 and 13th of 1861, and remained in Union service throughout the rest of the war.

In June of 1909 the GAR, James Shields Post no 57 held a meeting, J M Thralls previously had read where a Civil war cannon had been given to a city in the east and had come up with the idea that Wellington should also acquire a Civil War memento.  B.F. Michaels reported that he had contacted a General Black with the War Dept. and was told that Wellington could indeed have a Civil War Relic in the way of a cannon by request and if Wellington paid freight to transport the cannon.   By the end of the meeting donations to pay for the freight had been raised and the request was submitted the next day.  As usual the government gears move slowly, and 6 yrs later on Jul 15th of 1915 2 cannons were unloaded and hauled to the Prairie Lawn cemetery where one was to be placed at the North and one on the South end of the G.A.R. Memorial Circle in the cemetery.  The legal possession of the cannons was donated by the war Department to the Grand Army of the Republic, (GAR), James Shields post number 57, here in Wellington and signed for by quartermaster of the post Mr. D.W. Quimby. They resided there in the cemetery until 1961.  GAR held its last formal meeting in the spring of 1933 and at that time they turned over all of its property and records, including ownership of the cannons, to the Women’s Relief Corp, (WRC) an auxiliary to the G.A.R, which was active up into the mid 1960s. 

While the practice of decorating the graves of soldiers occurred before the Civil War it became fashionable during and after the Civil War. There are documented incidents of southern women decorating the graves of their fallen Confederate men as early as 1861.  In 1865 a New York newspaper ran an article about missionary women and blacks cleaning up and decorating a Union soldiers prisoner of war camp cemetery in late May, and the cultural practice of decoration Day was started. In 1868 the grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans from the Civil War, petitioned a national order that the last Monday of May be decoration Day for their fallen soldiers.  The Confederate veterans also had a day set aside to commemorate their fallen dead. These two days were later merged into the memorial day observance that we have today which include all soldiers fallen in battle, veterans and family members who have gone before us. 

Wellington did not exist during the Civil War but was founded and built by several veterans of the war.  As these veterans of the Civil War died and were buried in our cemetery it became popular to memorialize our fallen veterans with a Memorial Day event.  the earliest reference to a Memorial Day event in Sumner County that I could find in the Wellington  papers was May of 1882.  When L. M. Lange, Post Commander for Upton Post No. 27 of Caldwell  G. A. R., Invited  all “comrades” of Sumner, Sedgwick and Cowley counties to participate in a camp fire at the opera house.  A respectful cordial invite was also extended to all Confederate soldiers to attend.  Special reduced rates for railroad transportation for those wanting to attend, was offered. 

Wellington soon started their own celebrations and by 1890 they had become fairly large events.  The May 23, 1890 Wellington Monitor Press outlined the May 30th days events.  The Post, in Uniform were to assemble at the Grand Army Hall at 9 AM.  At 1 o'clock sharp all comrades, soldiers, Women’s Relief Corp, and Sons of Veterans will walk in procession to the Methodist Church for services to start with music by the band at 1:30.   A call to order by Union Veteran Capt. Judge John G Woods, followed by invocation by Rev Beatty, singing of the glee club, Reading of orders from headquarters, Call of honor, Oration by Judge G. A. Huron of Topeka.  Then a march to the cemetery, where decoration of the graves was performed, and a memorial sermon was given by Rev W. H. S. Keyes of the Presbyterian Church.

These memorial services changed somewhat with the times and in 1909 included  an automobile motorcade parade, led by Col C J Garver on horseback, down main street then east on Harvey out to the cemetery.

The next segment of the canons history becomes very entertaining and almost initiated another Civil War.  In the latter part of 1960 the city of Philippi WV made a request to the City of Wellington and  to  Alan Farley, chairman of the Kansas State Civil War Centennial commission,  to give back the cannons to Philippi in an "act of goodwill". Philippi offered to replace the cannons with wooden replicas and a brass plaque commemorating the transaction.  It was getting close to the centennial anniversary of the Civil War and Philippi felt they had rights to the canon as they were used in the battle for the city. The WRC's response was a strong “NO” and it was backed up by Mayor Elmer Holt and the whole Wellington City Commission, as well as the Sumner County commissioners and  Wellington's Russell post number 168 of the World War I veterans.

Stewart Newlin, previous editor of the Wellington Daily News attended a US editor’s trip to Ontario in 1961.  While on this trip he met and had several discussions about the cannons with an editor from Richwood W.V.  by the name of Jim Comstock who published a weekly paper called “The West Virginia Hillbilly Times”. In one of his editorials in his W.V. publication, he discussed how “Kansas had purloined their two cannons and one night they would be along to steal them back.”    While this might have been just some editorial smack talk, there must have been more to it as Mr. Farley sent Wellington City Commision a copy of his reply to WV, and advised the City Commission that “steps should be taken to protect the cannons from being taken”.  During the Feb 28th Wellington City Commission meeting presided by Mayor Holt, it was decided to relocate the cannons from the cemetery as soon as possible, to be placed in front of the city hall, one on each side of the entrance on the corner of 7th and Washington. Upon disbanding of the Women’s Relief Corps in mid 1960’s ownership of the cannons was transferred to the City.

In 2000 the possession of the cannons was again threatened when a group from Oklahoma tried to claim that the cannons were once part of Capt. David Payne's  memorial and should have accompanied his body when it was moved to Oklahoma in 1995.  While the local chapter of the GAR did erect a nice monument for Capt. Payne, he was buried at a different location in the cemetery and the cannons were never part of it.

For me there is a professional connection for me to this battle and these cannons that I did not know until researching.  History is just a passion and a hobby for me, my daytime job is as a Physical Therapist. For a time I worked for Wesley Rehabilitation Hospital, working with amputees and coordinating with orthotic and prosthetics providers, one of these being a large company called Hanger orthotics. This battle documents the first time amputations were performed during the Civil War.  One was on a young cadet student and one was a young Confederate engineering student. This engineering student was not satisfied with the usual amputee peg leg so, he went back to Virginia where he designed and built a better prosthetic limb for himself utilizing some barrel staves and a hinge mechanism. This prosthetic limb worked so well that during and after the war he was commissioned to build more limbs for amputee veterans.  His company grew into one of the leading orthotics and prosthetics manufacturers in the world today. His name was James Edward Hanger.

Another mystery I would like to solve is occasionally I come across a postcard picture of the Memorial Auditorium, probably circa 1930s, that shows a World War I canon sitting to the south side of the building. I have so far only found one newspaper reference to it as a captured WWI German cannon.  I am wondering where that canon went to? Any Ideas?

Sources for this article come from documents on file in the archives of the museum and numerous articles from Wellington Daily News.   With information referring to the GAR dating from articles in the 1880’s, information on the cannons from 1909 through the 20s, and then from 1960 on.

The Wellingtonian, Thursday, May 28, 1882

The Wellingtonian, Thursday, june 1, 1882

The Wellington Monitor, Friday, May 23, 1890

The Wellington Monitor, Friday, May 30, 1890

Wellington Daily News, Monday, May 19, 1902

Wellington Daily News,  Fri, June 18, 1909

Wellington Daily News, Tuesday, May 28, 1912

Wellington Daily News, Thursday, May 28,1914

Wellington Daily News, Monday, June 1,1914

Wellington Daily News, Thursday, July 15, 1915

Wellington Daily News, Wednesday, March 8,1961

Wellington Daily News, Wednesday, March 11, 1961

Wellington Daily News, Friday, July 7, 1961

Wellington Daily News, Tuesday, July 18, 1961

Wellington Daily News, Wednesday, June 11,1969


Many times in this article and on the video done with Caleb Johnston at SUTV I refer  ownership of the cannons to the GAR, then WRC and finally with the City of Wellington due to references to ownership in past newspaper articles.  But in reality these organizations are more like stewards of the cannons. Thanks to Jeremy Jones and some information from a file down at the city offices, ownership of the cannons still resides with the US Government. Loan of the cannons is contingent on maintenance of their condition and that they be displayed in front of city buildings or memorials.