John Gilleland developed a revolutionary double-barreled cannon meant to sweep Union infantry off the field.
On a spring morning in April 1862, a number of men gathered in a field near Newton’s Bridge on the north side of Athens, Georgia, to witness a demonstration of a weapon that they believed would revolutionize the art of warfare. Rolled into position was a newly forged cannon ready for test-firing, one that everyone present could clearly see was no ordinary cannon.
Forged at the local Athens Steam Company and mounted on a regular carriage, the new gun was 4 feet 8 1/2 inches long and nearly 13 inches wide. Although a trained eye might have noticed that the cannon was slightly wider than a normal gun of that size, it did not look all that abnormal until one examined the muzzle end. There, two side-by-side 3-inch-diameter bores stared back at the observer, rather like a giant double-barreled shotgun. The breech end was also abnormal; it had three touchholes, two permitting each barrel to be fired independently and one in the center allowing both barrels to be fired at once.
Its inventor, 53-year-old John Gilleland–an Athens carpenter and cabinetmaker before the war and now a private in the Mitchell Thunderbolts, a homeguard unit composed of men too old for active service–prepared the new gun for firing. Several of the spectators milling around the gun had contributed to its financing. Thirty-six men, many of whom belonged to the Thunderbolts, had raised a total of $350 through a subscription fund. Its casting at the foundry had been personally supervised by Thomas Bailey, a longtime Athens resident and member of the Thunderbolts.
A target of several upright posts was erected a short distance away. Gilleland, with the help of others, rammed balls of solid shot, connected to each other by a 10-foot length of chain, into each barrel. An excess length of chain was allowed to drape down toward the ground between the two barrels. The men gathered behind the gun as Gilleland approached the breech, attached a lanyard to a friction primer and carefully inserted the primer into the center vent.
Gilleland had designed his new weapon to fire mainly “chain shot,” two cannonballs connected by heavy chain, intended to mow down large formations of enemy troops like so many acres of wheat. Gilleland’s concept was not as impractical as it might have seemed. Chain shot had been used routinely in naval warfare as far back as the 1600s. It was invented by the French, who preferred to incapacitate opposing ships by knocking down and destroying their masts and rigging during pitched battles, as opposed to the British preference of pounding the hulls of enemy ships with shot aimed at the waterline to stop and sink them as quickly as possible.
The common procedure with chain shot was to load two balls connected by a chain into a single cannon barrel, fire it off, and watch the twirling projectiles shred the enemy’s sails or wrap around and bring down their huge masts. Eventually, the use of chain shot became a common naval procedure, perfected by the Spanish.The outbreak of Civil War hostilities renewed efforts to find a successful method for using chain shot in field artillery. Various inventors submitted plans and prototypes to both the Union and Confederate governments, including forked cannons, but the strange-looking weapons proved impractical or else failed to produce the desired results.
Gilleland had read many newspaper stories and accounts of experienced troops returning to Athens after major battles; he realized that although the Confederate armies were often quite effective in the field, they suffered from a lack of manpower and were easily flanked by greater numbers of Union troops. In an effort to equalize the manpower situation, the Athens inventor set out to design a cannon that would bring down large numbers of enemy soldiers at one time.
The design that Gilleland settled on was a double-barreled 6-pounder, cast in one piece with a 3-degree divergence between the two bores that would fire the projectiles at a slight angle away from each other. Thus the projectiles, fired separately but simultaneously, would pull the chain taut between them as they hurtled across the battlefield, somewhere between waist- and chin-high, cutting down troops like a giant scythe.
At the first test-firing, observers watched intently as Gilleland stepped up to the cannon and gave the lanyard a hard yank. First one barrel and then the other thundered into action. The cannon jumped violently in recoil and spewed its connected shot erratically across the field, missing its intended target. “It [came out in] a kind of circular motion,” reported one eyewitness, “plowed up about an acre of ground, tore up a cornfield, mowed down saplings, and [then] the chain broke, the two balls going in different directions.”
Undaunted, Gilleland recharged the barrels and rammed more connected shot into each. Again the weapon was touched off, and again the twin barrels grudgingly bellowed, blasting the chain shot across the horizon and into a thicket of pine. “[The] thicket of young pines at which it was aimed looked as if a narrow cyclone or a giant mowing machine had passed through,” reported another witness.
Several more firings were made in an effort to synchronize the barrels. Primed again and loaded with more shot, the gun again was touched off. This time the chain snapped immediately. One ball tore into a nearby cabin, knocking down its chimney; the other spun off erratically and struck a nearby cow, killing it instantly.
The gun had begun to demonstrate its desired effect–wanton killing and destruction–but not to the degree that the men had hoped. “When both barrels did happen to explode exactly together,” complained a witness years later, “no chain was found strong enough to hold the balls together in flight.”
Gilleland nevertheless considered the test-firings a success. Some of the investors were not so sure. The cannon was sent to the Confederate arsenal in Augusta, Ga., for further experimentation. After lengthy testing by Colonel George W. Rains, commandant of the arsenal, the cannon was sent back to Athens. In his report to the Confederate secretary of war, Rains judged that Gilleland’s new cannon was not usable, since the balls created different levels of friction and the gunpowder charges burned at different rates.
Gilleland was incensed and fired off several angry letters to the Confederate government in Richmond. Unable to get the government to adopt the gun or to perfect its performance, Gilleland contacted Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown and tried to solicit his interest. That, too, failed.
The gun remained in front of the Athens town hall for use as a signal device in the event of enemy attack. In August 1864, when citizens learned that Brig. Gen. George Stoneman’s Federal troops were approaching, they moved the cannon three miles out of town to the hills above Barber’s Creek. There, on August 2, Gilleland’s double-barreled weapon was positioned on a ridge in the bottom tier of several cannons rolled into place by Lumpkin’s Artillery Company. Both barrels were loaded with canister. Upon the approach of Union troops, who greatly outnumbered the homeguard units, a four-shell barrage was fired, and the enemy quickly withdrew from the area.
The cannon saw no other action after that skirmish. It was moved back to town and sat in front of the town hall for some time. After the war, the gun was sold, and its whereabouts remained unknown until it was relocated in the 1890s and restored to its original condition. Today, the double-barreled cannon is on display in the City Hall Plaza in downtown Athens