18 pound Confederate Cannon called ‘Whistling Dick’
There are several artillery pieces used during the Civil War that have famous nicknames. There is the famed Federal siege gun called the ‘Swamp Angel’ at Charleston, South Carolina. Brigadier General William Pendleton who was a pre-war preacher named his four cannons after the four gospels of the Bible. There is also the famed ‘Widow Blakely’ of Vicksburg fame. There was another artillery piece at Vicksburg with a nickname and that piece was called ‘Whistling Dick’.
‘Whistling Dick’ wasn’t that large of a piece, it was small in comparison with the 150 pound Armstrong and other siege guns. It was too heavy to be used in field service. Although there were 20 pound field pieces and even 32 pound field guns, ‘Whistling Dick’ was heavy for an 18 pounder. The iron cannon was rifled and had reinforced bands on the back to prevent the tube from exploding when fired. It had been built at Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond.
The gun would gain fame because of a whistling sound the oddly rifled weapon caused the shells to make in flight. The weapon was originally a model 1839 smoothbore cannon that was later rifled. It became a legend when Union veterans at post-war reunions would claim to have been narrowly missed by fire from ‘Whistling Dick’. There have been many theories on why the shells made a whistling sound after the gun was rifled, but no one today can be sure what caused this phenomenon.
‘Whistling Dick’ served more as a psychological weapon than a true threat to Federal forces. It interrupted Ulysses Grant’s canal digging operation when he tried to bypass Vicksburg. Although the chances of ‘Whistling Dick’ hitting someone was minute, it caused slaves and soldiers Grant used for digging to run for cover. It is also rumored to have caused severe damage on Federal dredging machines.
The ironic part about the famous Confederate artillery piece is the fact that it was served by a company of Louisiana Cavalry. These cavalrymen were well disciplined and learned to handle ‘Whistling Dick’ rather well. They have been credited with sinking the Federal ironclad U.S.S. Cincinnati. The most amazing part about this particular cannon is the fact that it served well throughout the siege of Vicksburg and following the surrender of that river fortress it disappeared. There is no evidence today of what happened to this famed Confederate artillery piece that earned the nickname ‘Whistling Dick’.
Excerpt from my upcoming book “Die Like Men”: Shy’s Hill action at Nashville
Me standing at the spot where the following occurred
Brigadier General Thomas Benton Smith was young, just twenty-six years old. He was a striking man, tall and attractive to the ladies. He thought about Tod Carter, his assistant quartermaster who’d been killed back at Franklin. Tod had always kidded him about sharing a few ladies with him.
Like General Gordon, who’d been captured at Franklin, Smith had graduated from the Nashville Military Institute. He’d become a railroad conductor after graduation. People just didn’t seem to understand that he liked to ride trains.
The rain was coming down in torrents now. Like his men, he was cold, tired, and hungry. They’d gotten little sleep last night. At the moment, Smith was frustrated over his position. They’d been placed here in the dark on the crest of this hill. Instead of being on the military crest, they were on the actual crest itself. What all this meant was, when the Federals advanced, they couldn’t fire on them until they came over the ledge just twenty yards in front of his position. This situation made his line extremely weak.
Brigadier General Thomas Benton Smith
He had cannons, but they couldn’t depress their muzzles to fire on the advancing Yankees until they were on top of them. It wasn’t his fault either, but that wasn’t any consolation to him at the moment. Ector’s Texans had occupied the position in the dark last evening. They hadn’t even bothered to throw up breastworks or place abatis in front of the lines. His brigade had been brought up here later in the night, and they’d had to dig all night to be prepared. By the time it had gotten to be daylight, he realized the fragility of his situation, but by then it was too late. Bate had instructed him to throw up breastworks. He had told Smith that the entire position of the army may rest on his brigade on top of this hill.
The ground had been frozen last night and made the digging difficult. To add to the problem, he had very few picks and shovels. Most of his men were forced to dig with their bayonets. Others would sneak out into the dark and gather branches and logs. They threw anything that would stop a bullet into their breastworks. Rocks were piled up and covered over with dirt. All night long he had listened to the enemy voices in the cool night air near the base of the hill. He could see their fires through the trees.
His adjutant, Captain Jones, and James Cooper, one of his aides, walked up. Cooper said, “Sir, a six-foot man could get within twenty feet of our works, and we wouldn’t know it.”
Captain Jones added, “This is the poorest position we’ve ever been placed in.”
“I agree,” Smith replied, “but it’s too late to change our dispositions now, gentlemen.”
“That’s not all the good news, sir,” Cooper jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the rear. “Cheatham has ordered off Ector’s brigade. That’s the only reserves we have, and we keep stretching the line left. We ain’t much more than a skirmish line now.”
Smith shook his head, making no reply.
Cooper added. “I’m sure, when darkness gets here, we’ll be ordered to retreat. By the sound in our rear, we may already be surrounded.”
Major General William Brimage Bate
He looked to his right and noticed how thin Finley’s Floridabrigade had become. Ector’s Texas brigade had been pulled out of line about an hour ago to go face Wilson’s cavalry on some knoll in their rear. He and Strahl’s old brigade had been forced to extend their already thin lines to cover the gap Ector’s men left behind. He thought about poor old Otho Strahl. He was a good man. He’ll be severely missed. Strahl’s brigade and Smith’s were all Tennesseans fighting for their homes.
By the sound of the firing behind him, he wondered if his brigade would see any fighting at all. It was becoming unnerving. The Federal cavalry was definitely getting in theirrear, and he began to wonder if they wouldn’t be forced to surrender without a fight. The firing in rear of their position soon stopped. He wished he knew what was happening.
Suddenly, Thomas Smith’s world erupted in flame and smoke. Federal batteries to the west and north of the hill all opened fire at once. It felt as though they were concentrating their fire on Smith’s one brigade. It probably felt that way to everyone on the hill. With that much artillery being poured on this hill, it could only mean one thing—an infantry assault was coming.