The story behind the world’s only double-barreled cannon

When Sweetums and I visited Athens, Georgia, we loved the bustling downtown located beside an entrance to the massive campus. Although Athens had the feel of a college town – with lots of clubs, restaurants and green spaces – it is also home to lots of quirky history.

First, we visited The Tree That Owns Itself (We have one in Alabama, too. Click here to read about both trees).

Treethatownsitself wiki
We were in Athens in winter so the Tree That Owns Itself was sort of pitiful looking, at right. I included a photo from Wikipedia of the tree in spring.

We also went to the famous R.E.M trestle. Click here to read my post about the R.E.M tour.

Then we went to see the world’s only double-barreled cannon, on display on the lawn of the historic city hall. This interesting piece of artillery is the only one of its kind in the world. Invented during the Civil War, the gun turned out to be a disappointment. Here’s the story:

The cannon was designed by John Gilleland, who built it at a local foundry in 1863. At the time, Athens residents were preparing for attacks by Union forces. Obviously, Gilleland intended his double-barreled cannon to wreak maximum havoc on enemy forces.

To do this, the cannon was loaded with two balls that were connected by a chain, according to historical markers at the site. The intent was for the balls and chain to spin upon firing and cut down opposing forces. It sounds pretty gruesome and, if it had worked, it would have been quite deadly. Well, it did result in one fatality – an innocent cow died during an 1862 test firing when the cannonballs went all wonky. The key to the weapon was that the balls must shoot simultaneously, a goal Gilleland was unable to attain. Without a way to control the trajectory of the ammunition, the cannon was a failure.

GA 15 cannon
The double-barreled cannon on the lawn of City Hall in Athens, Georgia, is the only one of its kind in the world. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)

The Athens-Clarke County website said, “A contemporary who witnessed the firing reported that the projectile ‘had a kind of circular motion, plowed up an acre of ground, tore up a cornfield, and mowed down saplings. The chain broke, the two balls going in opposite directions; one of the balls killed a cow in a distant field, while the other knocked down the chimney from a log cabin. The observers scattered as though the entire Yankee Army had been turned loose in that vicinity.’”

In most cases, a failed weapon never used in battle would have been dismantled and perhaps repurposed. Thankfully, many years after the war, the cannon was given to the City of Athens, where it has been a tourist attraction. It has also been featured by “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

Athens, Georgia’s 1904 City Hall was one of the prettiest we’ve seen. The artwork on the lawn is called Spirit of Athens and an eagle tops the dome. (Photo by Wil Elrick/Permission Required)


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