The Cannon in Court Square


While I was roaming through the Lauderdale Library, searching for photos of the floods of 1927 and 1937, I came across photographs that were not flood-related, so to give you a bit of reprieve from the river, I thought I'd share one of them with you. I hope you don't mind.

It's a nice shot of the massive old cannon that once guarded the northwest corner of Court Square — the popular downtown park that, over the years, seems to have acquired just about everything except the courthouse it was designed for.

At any rate, despite our involvement in the War Between the States, this fine old cannon was actually a relic from the Spanish-American War. I managed to turn up an old newspaper story that says the gun was placed in the park in 1917. The photo above clearly shows a date of May 1901 on the base of the gun, but that base wasn't original. It was manufactured by the Memphis Trades and Labor Council to hold the gun. They did a fine job, I think.

The cannon was a downtown conversation piece, and the subject of many photographs and postcards, until 1942, when city leaders decided that Court Square was safe from invaders, so they consigned it to a World War II scrap-metal drive. Another old newspaper article (oh, the Lauderdale Mansion is piled high with these things) noted that the piece was mostly brass and weighed more than 3,000 pounds, so melted down it would make quite a few rifle cartridges.

It didn't go without a skirmish, however. The veterans who donated the piece in the first place — I had their names scribbled down on a scrap of paper somewhere, but now I can't find it — weren't too happy that it would end up on the scrap heap. But they quickly changed their minds. In fact, a fellow named Fred Bauer Sr., who was past-president of the Spanish-American War Veterans, told a reporter, "While we value this trophy, which was captured in the Spanish-American War, the war veterans are willing to give it up to help our nation win the present war."

Did you notice how he said that? This gun wasn't an American piece at all, it seems, but one that was taken from the enemy during (or after) a battle. Just how and where we acquired it, though, he didn't say. Oh well ...

That wasn't the only piece of artillery to be donated to the war effort. Memphis, it seems, was fairly bristling with big guns before World War II, and they all went into the melting pot, or wherever these things went to be recast into something more modern. We also lost the original Civil War cannons and mortars that faced the river in Confederate Park, a cluster of guns that stood atop the Indian mound in DeSoto Park (across the street from the Metal Museum), another pair that guarded the Doughboy Statue in Overton Park, and a dozen cannons displayed here and there in the National Cemetery. The cemetery guns alone weighed more than 70 tons, so that was a significant contribution to the war effort, though a loss for later historians.

Still, if we hadn't won the war, those historians might not have jobs.

Luckily, the Lauderdales — being Swiss and therefore neutral citizens — were not asked to donate the family collection of artillery, and a formidable grouping of howitzers still stands on the front lawn of the mansion, where we keep the pesky neighbors at bay.


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Famed Memphis trivia expert Vance Lauderdale answers reader questions weekly here on his blog!

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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