116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
If you were going to steal a cannon, how would you do it? Cannons, after all, are not generally associated with larceny. For starters, they’re hard to fence or pawn.
But the real question when it comes to stealing a cannon might be: Why would you do it?
Let’s look at the history of a cannon — a howitzer, to be precise —that sits inside the Veterans Memorial Building on May’s Island in Cedar Rapids.
From the battlefields
The howitzer’s early history is described in the “History of Linn County,” published in 1911:
When soldiers were about to return home from the CIvil War, they sought to carry back mementos of the long struggle.
Company E of the 12th Iowa Infantry Regiment chose as its trophy a mountain howitzer near Philadelphia, Tenn. The Union cannon had been captured by the rebels and re-captured by Union troops.
Some members of Company D of the 12th Iowa Regiment then, by means known only to the soldiers, laid claim to the cannon.
Homer Morehead, a soldier from Cedar Rapids, got the cannon to Davenport, and the Cedar Rapids City Council got it to Cedar Rapids.
The 200-pound cannon was fired as part of Cedar Rapids’ celebrations for a number of years, including during the presidential campaign of Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. When the cannon was damaged, it was taken to the shop of John Meehan for repairs, where it was stolen.
When the cannon was stolen, a note was left behind, saying the cannon would be returned and fired when a Democrat was elected president.
In 1885, when Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat elected since the Civil War, the howitzer resurfaced — fully repaired and ready to go — in the alley behind Meehan’s shop.
Area Republicans apparently made sure it was not, in fact, shot off to celebrate Cleveland’s victory.
It was fired, however, on Tuesday, April 28, 1896, during a gathering of thousands of veterans of the Civil War.
There was, as the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette reported, an incident that day: “…[T]he carriage gave way as the gun was discharged, and the whole affair was tumbled over backwards several times. The men who manned the gun ran as they never did from the rebel battery.”
The reporter then dryly noted: “It might be proper to mention that it is doubtful whether Blacksmith Meehan will get the job of repairing it.”
By 1935, the howitzer was on display in the Veterans Memorial Building. At some point, it was placed in storage — and then it vanished around 1960.
It was AWOL until 2000 when it was donated to the local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Incredibly, after the donation, the cannon went missing once again, leading to a legal tussle over the tricky issue of ownership. The veterans ended up with the cannon and, in 2003, returned it to the city.
The cannon was displayed in front of the stained glass window designed by Grant Wood to honor area veterans.
That might have been its permanent home had the Cedar River not inundated the Veterans Memorial Building in 2008. The howitzer disappeared from the public eye again.
Out of sight, out of mind
Happily, the cannon hadn’t been stolen this time -- just set aside.
The howitzer was tucked away in a third-floor office of the Veterans Memorial Building following the flood. It stayed there, gathering dust, until it was shown to Teri Van Dorston, who had recently become the museum manager for the Veterans Memorial Commission and Building, in 2013.
The cannon had not been sent for conservation with other flood-damaged artifacts, and so Van Dorston did what she could to get it cleaned up for display.
See it now
The howitzer now sits in one of the galleries in Veterans Memorial Building as part of a larger exhibition.
It still needs a little TLC -- someone filled in an inscription with a Sharpie, for example -- but we’re hopeful that will be the only reason the howitzer ever goes traveling again.
High school senior Jessica Cline wins awards for historical research and presentation. Her dad, writer Rob Cline, does not. They write this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: HistoricalClines@gmail.com.