ATHENS, Ga. — Sitting outside of the Athens-Clarke County City Hall in downtown Athens, Ga., is a local curiosity that has attracted and intrigued visitors to The Classic City for years.
The Double-Barreled Cannon was the brainchild of Dr. John Gilleland, a dentist from Jackson County, Ga., and a member of Mitchell’s Thunderbolts. Built in 1862 at the Athens Foundry and Machine Works, the Double-Barreled Cannon is today little more than a bookmark in history and a rather unique relic.
The cannon was designed to fire two cannonballs connected by a chain so as to “mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat.” According to an account from Johnson Garwood published in the May 1, 1908, issue of the Weekly Banner newspaper of Athens, Ga., the cannon was tested on a site along Newton Bridge Road, but since the two barrels did not have the same range, the chain broke in mid-air.
According to some sources, one of the cannon balls killed a cow in a field nearby.
“The gun was loaded and the balls rammed home, with the chain connecting them. The signal was given and the lanyard pulled,” according to an account Lucian Lamar Knight retells in his book Georgia’s Landmarks, Memorials, and Legends: Landmarks and memorials.
“One ball went out ahead of the other, snapped the chain, which flew around and diverted the course of the missile into the standing pines,” according to the story. “The other shot went wide of the mark, and the poles which represented the hostile army stood uninjured. The experiment was a failure. The cannon was taken from the field and was only used in after years to celebrate Democratic victories.”
The theory behind Gilleland’s was not new. But, it was a new concept for a weapon intended for use in battle.
“The gun was intended for the use of chain shot. While the use of chain shot in naval warfare for the cutting of sails and rigging of sailing vessels was an old idea, this gun involved a new principle,” according to a 1915 article in Confederate Veteran, Volume 23. “In the old method the two balls chained together were fired from the same barrel and circled round each other in their flight.
“In this gun the two balls, chained together, were to be fired at the same instant, one from each of the two barrels set at slight angles to each other,” according to the Confederate Veteran article. “As the balls separated, the chain would be drawn tight; then they would travel parallel to each other, the chain between, like an immense scythe, cutting down a whole row of troops.”
According to a number of sources, including books and newspaper accounts, the cannon was not used in battle. But, according to the Confederate Veteran article, the cannon was used during a skirmish, but not as originally designed.
“It was used in only one skirmish. That was when Sherman in his march through Georgia sent Stoneman and his raiders to burn Athens,” according to the Confederate Veteran article. “Then the old cannon on the hills three miles from town helped to beat them off. In that skirmish it was loaded with shell without the chain, but it was not accurate.”
Following the Civil War, the cannon was displayed for some time, then apparently lost. The relic turned up in a junk shop before circa 1897, and city officials purchased the cannon, according to an article in the Jun. 16, 1901, edition of the Athens Daily Banner.
The cannon was moved to its perch on the northeast side of Athens City Hall in 1922. It continues to point in a northward direction, presumably in case of a future invasion from that direction.