The San Diego Union of Wednesday morning, September 22, 1886, noted on page three, under Local Brevities: “The two twelve-pounder brass cannon for the U.S. Army post at this place arrived on the ORIZABA Sunday, accompanied by 1,000 pounds of powder.”1 Thus began the local saga of San Diego’s famed Napoleons — two Civil War era cannons that would play witness to military and civilian life in San Diego for more than a century. The Union went on to report:
The air will be made resonant when a foreign vessel spreads her sails in the port hereafter. A thousand pounds of grapeshot and shell are expected soon. The guns are to more perfectly equip the garrison. Lieutenant Benjamin is the officer in charge, while Sergeant Whiteman will be Non-com. officer. The giant weapons were mounted [on their carriages] at the foot of Fifth Street and taken to the barracks. The cannon without the carriage weighs 1,400 pounds. A salute will be fired at sunrise and sunset.
It is reasonable to assume that Lt. Benjamin got his Napoleons and powder and shot safely to the San Diego Barracks at the foot of Market Street, at a site presently marked by California Registered Historical Landmark No. 523. This site was home to the cannons for the next twelve years, until they were moved to Ballast Point at the harbor entrance in 1898, at the beginning of the Spanish-American war. For the next several years the Napoleons were fired nightly, despite complaints that the noise frightened the horses.2
What is a “Napoleon”? Historically, guns of this type go by a variety of names including: “Gun-Howitzer,” “Light 12-pounder” and “12-pounder Gun, Model 1857,” however they have been best known as “Napoleons.”3 Developed in France in 1850 as a result of a requirement initiated by Emperor Louis Napoleon III, the initial goal was to design a field artillery piece of medium weight of 12-pounder caliber (4.62 inch bore diameter) capable of using both shot and shell. The U.S. Ordnance Department thought this would be a fine artillery compromise, and so it was. The Federal Napoleon turned out to be a better piece than either of its predecessors. It subsequently went through several modifications, such as lengthening the barrel and eliminating the “Dolphins” or lifting handles and other ornamentation before standardization as “Model 1857.”
These guns are not “brass” but rather “bronze” or “gun metal,” being a mixture of 90% copper and 10% tin, with a variance of no more that one part tin, according to ordnance and artillery instruction manuals of the period.4 This time-proven formula made for a tough, resilient metal able to withstand the repeated severe shocks of black powder exploding in the breach.
A brief description will be helpful in appreciating this famous piece of ordnance. The U.S. piece weighs slightly more than 1200 pounds and was fired with a service charge of 2-1/2 pounds of black cannon powder, giving a range of 1686 yards. It is approximately six feet long, is bored 63.6 inches deep and 4.62 inches in diameter, which is about the diameter of a solid cast-iron ball weighing twelve pounds. This allows for “windage” which is the space between ball and bore, eliminating a “tight fit” which is highly undesirable upon discharge. The muzzle has a slight swell and the face is marked. The breach (rear) has a knob in the center called the “cascabel” or “cascable” and slightly forward of weight center are two round trunnions or “ears” machined to fit the carriage cheeks for elevation of the piece. Aiming is done by an iron-leaf front sight and a pendulum hause rear sight, weighted to keep it perpendicular. This is removed from the rear sight bracket after aiming and before firing.
This field piece was usually fired by inserting into the touch hole a friction primer with a small wire loop which was pulled by a six-foot lanyard. The gun is mounted on a wood and iron carriage and hitched behind a limber drawn by four or six horses. With skilled gunners it is capable of being brought into firing readiness from a full gallop in remarkably short time, especially when under fire. It was deadly in the wooded country in which much of the Civil War was fought.5 It could fire solid shot, shell, and spherical case with equal facility, and “loaded with canister against personnel at a quarter-mile it was downright vicious,” according to reports from the field.6
Their record led the chief of Ordnance to write on 4 July 1864: “No instance has occurred during the war … of the 12-pounder bronze gun having worn out or of its bursting.”7 This is indeed high praise, considering the proclivity of most cast-iron guns to burst and injure or kill their own gunners.
There were 1,156 Federal Napoleons made and the lineage of San Diego’s two guns is precise. In the north, all Federal Model 1857 guns were made under contract with five privately-owned foundries: Ames Mfg. Co.; Cyrus Alger & Co.; The Revere Copper Co.; and Henry N. Hooper & Co., all of Boston. Fifty were made by M. Greenwood of Cincinnati, Ohio.8
The Revere Copper Co. contract of June 1863 was for forty-six cents per pound,9 [a common method of buying ordnance] which make the Revere Napoleon cost about $485.00. This was a real bargain for the time considering the cost of metal, and foundry and machine work — especially boring a 4.62-inch hole over six feet long in tough bronze. As they stand today, the market value of the cannons is in excess of $60,000 each, but their unique role in San Diego’s past history places them beyond price, literally our own “national treasures.”
Understanding cannon markings is the key to accurate identification. All Federal ordnance was required to be marked as follows: the government number usually known as the “Registry Number” or presently as “Ordnance Number”; the initials of the Inspectors’ name; the year of fabrication; the weight of the tube in pounds [Lbs.]; and the initial letters for the name of the founder or the foundry, all marked on the muzzle; the foundry number or “rimbase” number stamped on the rimbase of the right trunnion; and a large “U. S.” stamped or engraved on the top of the gun at about it’s balance point. The British marked their guns with a “Broad Arrow”; Americans used a large “U. S.” It might be added here that Revere alone among the five foundries did not use initials but stamped “REVERE COPPER CO.” in 3/16th inch high letters on the muzzle. The distinctive ornate “U. S.” used by Revere had boxy 7/8 high letters with Maltese Crosses for periods. Cyrus Alger’s “U.S.” is 9/16 and Hooper’s 3/4 inch high, both in a modified Roman type.
“El Justin,” the first gun restored, has its foundry number “290” stamped on the right trunnion collar. It weighs 1213 pounds and was accepted by the U.S. Ordnance Department on August 26, 1863, by the Chief of Ordnance Thomas Jackson Rodman, who assigned the gun Number 289, one of one hundred Napoleons he accepted that date from the Revere Copper Company.10 The travels and wartime adventures of these guns from their initial acceptance until their arrival in San Diego are unknown and presumably untraceable so far as unit or battle involvement in the Civil War. Presumably they were shipped from the Benecia Arsenal, in San Francisco Bay, on the side-wheeler Orizaba.
Prior to their arrival in San Diego, thus far the only known U.S. field artillery, other than General Kearney’s two 12-pounder mountain howitzers, and those brought by Col. Philip St. George Cooke and the Mormon Battalion, were two 24-pounder bronze howitzers stationed here during the first part of the Civil War. These were also brought down from the Benecia Arsenal,11 perhaps by the U.S. Third Infantry Regiment of the California Volunteers, and were set to guard the harbor entrance. Presumably they were never fired in anger here. A survivor of their visit is a 24-pounder iron “case” shot dredged up from the harbor floor off Coronado. Defused, it is in the cannon ball collection of the San Diego History Center.
The exact date the Napoleons first “spoke” in San Diego has not yet been determined, but when and how they spoke was extensively and humorously described by San Diego Union reporter Jerry MacMullen on January 31, 1965 in his article “Guns that Put the Sun To Bed.”12 Archival photographs suggest they were first fired south toward Coronado, at the bay edge, across Market Street [“H” Street] from the Barracks — about where the northeast corner of the old San Diego Police Station parking lot is today.
Later photographs tend to locate the firing platform at the bay edge, now mid-intersection of Pacific Highway and Market Street, muzzles pointing west over the water toward Point Loma and away from all buildings. Jerry MacMullen also described one mishap that occurred when a gunner left a ramrod in the barrel and fired it between the masts of a Chinese junk anchored in the bay. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
In 1889-90 there was some local opposition to the guns’ firing. A few folks called it a nuisance, but the commanding officer of San Diego Barracks, Capt. Delaney, “E” Company, 9th Infantry Regiment, advised all interested parties that he fired the sunrise/sunset guns because there was a specific Act of Congress that told him to do so, and all complaints should be directed to the Secretary of War and/or Congress.13
Sometime around the May 23, 1898, the Napoleons were brought around the bay to Fort Rosecrans, and specifically to the end of Ballast Point to protect the newly laid electrically-controlled mine field in the channel entrance during the Spanish-American war. A souvenir of that operation was a rust-encrusted 12-pounder iron cannon ball found in the archaeological dig at Fort Guijarros in the summer of 1981, and now residing in the care of the San Diego Historical Society.
Colonel George Ruhlen, USA Ret., a past-president of the Historical Society, in an article for the October 1959 issue of the Society’s Quarterly, describing Ft. Rosecrans, states, “The mine field was protected by two smooth-bore muzzleloaders of Civil War vintage,” and that “The two guns now ornament the Headquarters building at the fort.”14 So it is reasonable to assume that the guns were moved about 1898 to the parade ground where they sat, complete with limbers, and were used for saluting batteries, as a surviving action photo shows one gun being fired. The Napoleons spoke well and on command from the parade field until the 1930s when they were dismounted from their carriages and mounted on concrete pedestals on either side of the steps to the post commander’s residence.15
According to Donald M. Robinson, “Joe Sanka, the fort Maintenance Engineer, took the guns off their carriages and gave one carriage to John Davidson at the Serra Museum and the Army still has the other.” This accounts for the “discovery” of one carriage sans wheels on the portico of the Serra Museum in 1978 by the San Diego Cannoneers.
At a still later unknown date, presumably late 1930s, the guns were moved by the Army and mounted on their concrete pedestals at the entrance to the Fort Rosecrans Headquarters building. The exact place they sat on the sandstone caps is discernible today. There they proudly guarded the entrance, and while not fired, they were cherished, polished, and cared for regularly. In 1956-57, the Army decided to terminate custody of Fort Rosecrans and since the National Park service was unwilling to add the fort to Cabrillo National Monument for care and custody, the Army agreed to turn over the Fort and everything in and upon it to the U.S. Navy.
In 1947, Donald M. Robinson, as Superintendent, re-opened the Cabrillo Monument. At that time the site occupied less than one acre. Much of the site’s improvements and enlargements, such as the Visitor’s Center and parking lot, are testimony to the Superintendent’s perspicacity and persistence. Robinson, a man with a genuine feeling for conservation — historical, natural, and otherwise — quickly surmised the potential and probable disappearance or destruction of these two guns should the Navy not appreciate their historical value.16 In late 1957, before the transfer became effective, December 31, 1957, Superintendent Robinson approached Colonel Fred Walter, the last Commanding Officer of Fort Rosecrans, as he was exiting his office. “Col. Walters, if you have no other plans for these two guns, can I have them to mount at our Visitors’ Center?” Answer: “Hell yes! Take them and get them the hell out of here!” In less than fifteen minutes, with the help of Joe Sanka, they were gone!17 The National Park Service and Department of Interior were not interested in enlarging Cabrillo Monument boundaries to include even Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.18 As a result of the Park Service’s disinterest, Robinson chose to store the gun barrels until a more appropriate time. He hid them in the recesses of Battery White, under special use permit for storage to the Park Service, on a now-secure Navy base.
In 1963, Robinson was transferred to Crater Lake National Park where later that year he received a phone call from a young Army lieutenant who had stumbled upon the hidden guns and found a note attached: “Before removing, contact Supt. Don Robinson.” The lieutenant called to asked permission to have the guns to mount at the Army Reserve building at Admiral Baker Field in Mission Valley. Robinson agreed to “LOAN, NOT GIVE” the Napoleons to the Army.19 They were subsequently mounted on wood pedestals at the entrance to the Army Reserve Center. There they sat, deteriorating, for eighteen years, on rotting, tilting wooden pedestals, their bores full of water, candy wrappers and Coke cans. Most hideous of all, someone had taken a coarse disc-sander to the bronze and then spray-painted these historic guns with cheap gold paint. This ill-considered “gilding” soon turned an obnoxious, scaly black.
About this time,  an ad hoc committee of local muzzleloading black powder cannon owners, calling themselves “The San Diego Cannoneers” became aware of the cannons and their condition, and became involved in the retrieval and restoration of the guns. These cannoneers also discovered the rusting remains of one cannon carriage on the portico of the Serra Museum and determined that this pile of rusting metal and rotting wood was indeed one of the two original Napoleon cannon carriages.
Mr. James Moss, the Executive Director of the San Diego History Center, sensitive to the Cannoneers’ endeavors, gave them the remains of the carriage. In the summer of 1978, the Army Reserve unit commanding officer, Colonel Robert Penner, AUS. Reserve, was approached with the request for the short-term loan of one tube so that the carriage could be restored, the gun refurbished and returned to the Reserve unit in firing condition, and be more prominently displayed, to the benefit of the Army and local history. The gunners informed the Army unit of these guns’ historical importance but were unable to persuade the colonel to cooperate in a program of historical conservation and restoration. Early in 1979, the Reserve unit removed the guns to their maintenance garage area, where they were tossed like junk. Covered with steel cable, dust and old tires, the cannons lay awaiting rescue.
In the fall of 1980, Wayne Kenaston brought John L. Vandegrift, the U.S. Navy Base Public Relations Officer, historic background material including a deposition from retired Supt. Don Robinson verifying his role in the guns’ history. Included was “present condition” photographs, sufficiently depressing for Vandegrift to initiate actions to return the guns to the custody of the United States Navy. Arrangements were made on behalf of the Navy for the use of a flatbed truck equipped with a hydraulic crane and, with a small working party, they retrieved the gun barrels from their dirty, dust-covered “prison.”20
Once “liberated,” gun No.289 was off-loaded at Battery White, whence it had left eighteen years previous; and, the other barrel was taken to the foundry at Naval Station, San Diego for possible use in making a mold from which duplicates might be fabricated. Unfortunately, this did not prove feasible because of size, weight, and cost constraints at the foundry.
The San Diego Cannoneers, with the help of Navy Sub Base Seabee personnel, began their restoration of No.289, working out of Battery White, through the winter of 1980/81.21 The Cannoneers reconstructed the cannon carriage using what original hardware they had, replacing rotten wood and fabricating the missing metal parts. After uncounted hours of careful hard labor, the new carriage was finally completed.
Before the gun was mounted, however, on the morning of February 14, 1981, the Cannoneers loaded gun barrel No.289 onto the bed of a pickup truck. Fully braced and sandbagged, it was driven to the south beach of Ballast Point. There it was checked, swabbed, and loaded with a 1/2 pound of cannon powder and fired for the first time in approximately seventy-five years.22 The roar of gun was joined by the cheers of the Cannoneers and Navy personnel. The motto of the San Diego Cannoneers: “Old cannons should be cherished, polished, and fired” was at last fulfilled.23
By tradition every bronze cannon should have a name, and so No.289 was named “El Justin” in honor of the Commanding Officer of the San Diego Navy Base — Justin E. Langille III, because of his involvement in its retrieval.24 “El Justin” was officially accepted by the U.S. Navy on March 22, 1981, when it was fired for public display for the first time since it restoration, at the third annual Re-enactment of the Battle of San Diego Bay.
The second cannon was fully restored by July 1989, and fired in sequence with “El Justin” at a change-of-command at Sub Base, San Diego. The only visible marking on this gun is it’s foundry number (“1144”) on the right trunnion. It was founded by Cyrus Alger & Co., (indicated by its high foundry number), weighs 1206 pounds, and was recently determined to have been inspected and accepted by Thomas J. Rodman on July 22, 1962, who assigned it Ordnance No.106.25
Under a contract date March 15, 1862, Cyrus Alger made 56 guns at a price of forty cents per pound. This price increased to forty-six cents per pound for the Revere Napoleons by March 1863 — perhaps because of Civil War inflation, the need was greater for more guns sooner, or the scarcity of copper.26 Since the only inspectors at the Alger foundry were Joseph Pearson Farley, – “JPF”, and the illustrious Thomas Jackson Rodman, – “TJR”, this gun, because of the date it was accepted would have had the initials “TJR” engraved on the muzzle, along with the date “1862”; “C.A. & Co.”; “1206 Lbs.”, but those markings have long-since worn away.27
As it was necessary to supply the growing Union armies with cannon which were reliable, foolproof, and easy to manufacture, it was not long before the Napoleon became the favorite piece of artillerymen on both sides of the conflict. However, the repeated discharge of canister cans expanded and wore out the softer bronze of the tube as they exited the bore at the muzzle.
Napoleons are bored, as previously mentioned, to 4.62 inches diameter, but this second barrel is worn at the muzzle to over five inches. This strongly suggests that it has indeed seen heavy battle-duty, firing canister, (which are sheet-metal cans usually holding 28 1.5-inch iron balls or 148 .69-inch lead balls.) Gas pressure and inertia caused the can to jam and wedge outward, producing the taper observed.28 Major General Grant advised Major General Halleck, on August 11, 1863 that “…many of the pieces have been fired over three thousand times.”29 It is reported that the shotgun effect was particularly deadly and turned smoothbores into murderous weapons at optimum range.
On neither tube was the large “U.S.” observable on top of the guns between the trunnions, probably because of light engraving and metal wear over the past 130 years, and most especially because of Army disc-sanding of the surface. In 1989 the Cannoneers prevailed upon San Diego County’s foremost gun engraver to re-engrave the appropriate “U.S.” markings on top of each barrel. He did a beautiful job gratis, remarking while sitting astride the tube, that these were the largest guns he had ever engraved.30
For eight years Number 106 (foundry # 1144) resided in the dark recesses of Battery White on the Submarine Base. It was at last fully restored on June 24, 1989, by the San Diego Cannoneers and the Navy Seabees.31
“El Justin”s restored brother needed a name, something simple yet meaningful. “Big John” was selected. It was a fitting tribute to four “Johns” who had so much to do with bringing about this historical reconstruction project: Commander John Calvin Hinkle, USN Ret., former Sub Base Commanding Officer; Juan Pedro Bertran, founder and first president of Casa de España, who adopted the Re-enactment of the Battle of San Diego Bay, from which so many endeavors such as this have come; for John Gierhart, one of San Diego’s foremost cannoneer-historians, leader of “B Battery,” re-enactor of the Battle of San Pasqual, but recently deceased at age 42, who was known among his comrades as “Big John”; and for John L. Vandegrift, who in the GREAT CANNON CAPER, “stole those guns fair and square” in the first place and returned them to the Navy so we can all enjoy and appreciate these “pieces” of history.32
In recent years “El Justin” and “Big John” have had new careers under the care, custody and protection of the Navy Submarine Base Cannon Team. The cannon have become a fixture at important military and civic functions and local cannon shoots, moving about on their own “Two-Gun” trailer painted Navy blue and gold.
Perhaps “El Justin’s” most spectacular performance was it appearance on Sunday evening August 31, 1981, when it “accompanied” the San Diego Symphony Orchestra at Southwestern College Athletic Stadium in the “1812 Overture Solonnelle.” The conclusion of this work is scored for sixteen cannon shots and, amidst glorious fireworks, the stadium appeared to be “under fire.” The first ten shots were made by fireworks mortars, and the last six shots were electrically fired from the podium from cannon owned by local cannoneers, each increasingly larger and louder. When “El Justin” fired the final shot to the accompanying mass fireworks rockets, it sounded like a ringing direct hit on the stadium. The cheers were deafening and the audience, giving a standing ovation, could not even see the orchestra or the audience on the field for all the smoke. From the standpoint of public acclaim, certainly this was a high-water mark in the long history of gun No.289.
The Napoleons were displayed at the August 1993 sailing of the Star of India. The U.S. Navy recently made a permanent loan of the guns to the Maritime Museum Association of San Diego. It is expected that they will be prominently exhibited at the new relocated Maritime Museum scheduled for the Broadway Pier, and used in the Museum’s outreach program.
San Diegans can again be as proud of their own Napoleons as they were the day the guns arrived here September 19, 1886, and know that better care will be taken of them for the next hundred years, and that they will continue to be cherished, polished, and fired.
1.San Diego Union, 22 September 1886, 3.
2.Elizabeth C. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego and of its Founder Alonzo E. Horton (San Diego: San Diego History Center, 1979), 71.
3. Warren Ripley, Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War (New York: Promontory Press, 1970), 26.
4. James C. Hazlett, M.D., “The Napoleon Gun,” Military Collectorand Historian 15 (Spring 1963): 1-2.
5. Ripley, Artillery and Ammunition, 27-28.
6. Grape (or grape-shot) was not used, as it was primarily a ship-board and fortification ammunition and was ineffective with light field artillery.
7. Ripley, Artillery and Ammunition, 28.
8.”The Federal Napoleons,” Military Collector and Historian 15 (Winter 1963): 103; and “The Napoleon Gun,” 15 (Winter 1966): 109-119.
9. Ibid., 105-106.
10. Ibid., 104.
11. Hubert H. Bancroft, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft (San Francisco: The History Company, 1890), vol. 7, History of California, 468-472.
12.Jerry MacMullen, “Guns That Put the Sun to Bed,” San Diego Union, 31 January 1965.
14.George Ruhlen, Col. USA (Ret.), “Fort Rosecrans, California” San Diego Historical Society Quarterly 5 (October 1959): 63-64, 66.
15.Personal communication, 1984, and Oral Interview, San Diego Historical Society, 1979, pages 6 and 7.
18.Superintendent Robinson successfully obtained a 90-day stay-of-execution of the destruction of the two 16-inch coast defense rifles at next-door Battery Ashburn, installed during WWII. These fifty-foot historic and irreplaceable guns of San Diego’s defense were nevertheless cut up for scrap, rather than being included within the adjacent Cabrillo National Monument.
19.D.M. Robinson, personal communication.
20.Personal communication, John L. Vandegrift, 1980/81.
21.The conservation and reconstruction of these guns could not have been accomplished without the fullest cooperation of the Navy Sub Base Commanding Officers, especially the leadership and unstinting support given by Commander John C. Hinkle.
22. The powder bag was picked, the friction primer inserted and, with great anticipation, it was test fired by John L. Vandegrift. The second shot was fired by Commander Hinkle with one pound of powder, and the report was heard around the bay.
23.About this time those most involved in the retrieval and reconstruction of the gun were given bronze belt buckles by Cmdr. Hinkle, with a bas relief Napoleon, and reverse engraved: EL JUSTIN-SUB-BASE SAN DIEGO-GREAT CANNON CAPER1980-1981.
24.It has been humorously reported the greatest contribution to this “caper” was that Admiral Justin E. Langille III was “on leave” at the time, although he had expressed great support for this retrieval project.
25.Cyrus Alger & Company, also known as the South Boston Iron Works, was the most prolific gun founder of the time and had been making bronze cannon for the government since 1836.
26.Military Collector and Historian, 15 (Winter 1963): 103-108.
27.W. Ripley best gives the description: “As a Lieutenant in 1844-45, Rodman developed the “Rodman Process” of casting large cast-iron ordnance vertically and cooling the casting from the inside by means of water-cooled pipe in the center of the pour, from which patent hundreds of large caliber Federal guns were manufactured, even up to 20-inch bore, weighing over 56,000 pounds.
28.Military Collector and Historian, 15 (Winter 1963): 116.
30.Ron Collings was one of England’s top gun engravers, doing beautiful gold inlay work, including some presentation pieces for the royal family, and now living near Vista, CA.
31.Only by the strong leadership and interest of Capt. Philip Klinthworth, and the financial aid of the Navy was this gun restored, using new hardware, wood, and wheels, from Eaglehead Arsenal. All the parts were laid out at Battery White and the carriage assembled and the gun “married” to the carriage in one very long rewarding day by the Cannoneers and Seabees.
32.”Piece” is an artilleryman’s name for a cannon or gun, large or small.
John L. Vandegrift, Capt. USMC (Ret), is a former fighter pilot and World War II veteran. He was involved in space capsule recovery with the Air Rescue Service and public affairs for Grumman Aerospace during the Apollo project. He served for twelve years as Deputy Director for Public Affairs for the San Diego Naval Base, where he became involved with the retrieval and restoration of San Diego’s “Napolean” cannons. He is presently involved in volunteer work at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.
Wayne Kenaston, Jr. is a local insurance agent and long-time member of the San Diego History Center. He founded the San Diego Cannoneers in 1976, which re-enacted the “Battle of San Diego Bay” (1979/81). He has served as an advisor on the restoration of the Old Town Plaza cannon “El Capitan, and “El Jupiter” from Fort Stockton–now restored and displayed at the Serra Museum. Mr. Vandegrift and Mr. Kenaston were instrumental in the retrieval, restoration, and display of the “Napoleon” cannons.