In 1642, Italian gun maker Antonio Petrini conceived a double barrel cannon with tubes joined at 45° firing solid shot joined together, by a length of chain. This was the year of the “Great Rebellion“, the English Civil War, when King and Parliament raised armies to go to war – with each other. Petrini’s idea must have looked good to King Charles I of England. Imagine, a weapon capable of slicing through the ranks of his enemies, like grass before a scythe.
The idea was to fire both barrels simultaneously, but there was the rub. Wild ideas occur to the imagination of imperfect combustion, and a chained ball swinging around to take out its own gun crew. The King himself was mute on the subject and went on to lose his head, in 1649. Petrini’s manuscript resides to this day in the tower of London. There is no documented evidence that the weapon was ever fired, save for the designer’s own description of the ‘Grandissima Ruina’ left behind, by his own splendid creation.
Two-hundred years later the former British colonies across the Atlantic, were themselves embroiled in Civil War.
In the early days of independence, the Confederate Congress enacted a measure, allowing local cities and towns to form semi-military companies for the purpose of local defense. As the very flower of young southern manhood was called up and sent to the front, these “home guard” units often comprised themselves of middle-age and older gentlemen, and others for various reasons, unable to leave home and hearth.
Augustus Longstreet Hull was born 1847 in “The Classic City” of Athens Georgia, and enlisted in the Confederate Army on September 8, 1864.
After the war, Hull worked twenty-seven years as a banker before publishing the Annals of Athens, in 1906. In it, Mr. Hull writes with not a little biting wit, of his own home town home guard unit, Athens’ own, Mitchell Thunderbolts.
“From the name one might readily infer that it was a company made up of fierce and savage men, eager for the fray and ready at all times to ravage and slaughter; yet such was not the case, for in all their eventful career no harm was done to a human being, no property was seized and not one drop of blood stained their spotless escutcheon.
Named for one of it’s own private soldiers, the Mitchell Thunderbolts were not your standard military company. These guys were “organized strictly for home defense” and absolutely refused to take orders. From anyone. They recognized no superior officer and the right to criticism was reserved and freely exercised by everyone from that “splendid old gentleman” Colonel John Billups, down to the lowliest private.
General Howell Cobb sent the future United States Senator Captain Middleton Pope Barrow to Athens in 1864, to inspect the Thunderbolts. Having no intention of submitting to “inspection” by any mere stripling of a Captain, Dr. Henry Hull (Augustus’ father) “politely informed him that if he wished to inspect him, he would find him on his front porch at his home every morning at 9 o’clock“.
John Gilleland, 53, was a local dentist, builder and mechanic, and private soldier in good standing, of the Mitchell Thunderbolts. Gilleland must have liked Petrini’s idea because he took up a collection in 1862, and raised $350 to build the Confederate States of America’s own, double-barrel cannon.
Measuring 13 inches wide by 4-feet 8½” inches and weighing in at some 1,300 pounds, this monstrosity had two barrels diverging at 3° and equipped with three touch holes, one for each barrel and a third should anyone wish to fire the two, together. It was the secret “super weapon” of the age, two cannonballs connected by a chain and designed to “mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat.”
Yeah. As Mr. Petrini could have told them, the insurmountable problem remained. In an age of hand-lit sputtering fuses and hand packed (to say nothing of hand-made) powder, even a millisecond difference in ignition will give one ball a head start, to be measured in feet. How to simultaneously fire two conjoined weapons remained a problem, even for so elite an outfit, as the Mitchell Thunderbolts.
The atmosphere was festive on April 22, 1862, when a crowd gathered to watch Gilleland test the Great Yankee Killer. Aimed at two poles stuck in the ground, uneven ignition and casting imperfections sent assorted spectators scrambling for cover as two balls spun wildly off to the side where they “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“.
On the second test, two chain-connected balls shot through the air and into a stand of trees. According to one witness, the “thicket of young pines at which it was aimed looked as if a narrow cyclone or a giant mowing machine had passed through“.
On the third firing, the chain snapped right out of the barrel. One ball tore into a nearby log cabin and destroyed the chimney, while the other spun off and killed a cow who wasn’t bothering anyone.
Gilleland considered all three tests successful, even though the only ones truly safe that day, were those two target posts.
The dentist went straight to the Confederate States’ arsenal in Augusta where Colonel George Rains subjected his creation to extensive testing, before reporting the thing too unreliable for military use. Outraged, an angry inventor wrote angry letters to Georgia Governor Joseph “Joe” Brown and to the Confederate government in Richmond, but to no avail.
At last, the contraption was stuck in front of the Athens town hall and used as a signal gun, to warn citizens of approaching Yankees.
There the thing remained until August 2, 1864, when the gun was hauled out to the hills west of town to meet the Federal troops of Brigadier General George Stoneman. The double-barrel cannon was positioned on a ridge near Barber’s Creek and loaded with canister shot, along with several conventional guns. Outnumbered home guards did little real damage but the noise was horrendous, and Stoneman’s raiders withdrew to quieter pastures.
There were other skirmishes in the area, all of them minor. In the end, Athens escaped the devastation of Sherman’s march to the sea and the Confederate superweapon weapon was moved, back to town.
Gilleland’s monstrosity was sold after the war and lost, for a time. The thing was recovered and restored back in 1891, and returned to the Athens City Hall where it remains to this day, a contributing property of the Downtown Athens Historic District. Come and see it if you’re ever in Athens, right there at the corner of Hancock and College Avenue. There you will find the thing, pointing north, at all those Damned Yankees. You know. Just in case.