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Preserving a cannon

Preserving a cannon

Legal wrangling of governor saves cannon from WWII scrap drive

February 17th, 2018 in Local News

Near the entrance of the Veterans Walk on the north side of the Missouri State Capitol is this Spanish cannon cast in 1769. The cannon was captured by the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War and has been on display in Jefferson City since 1901.

On the northeast side of the Capitol, visitors are greeted by a colossal Spanish cannon displayed near the entrance to the Missouri Veterans Memorial. Though impressive in both size and historical significance, few realize were it not for the legal wrangling of a former Missouri governor, this war relic would have been melted down for scrap during the Second World War.

As early as 1899, newspapers were reporting on discussions about gifting cannons captured during the Spanish-American War to cities in Missouri.

"Assistant Secretary of the Interior Webster Davis called at the war department yesterday and secured a promise from Secretary Alger that one of the largest and finest Spanish cannons taken in Cuba and Porto Rico (sic) would be given to Kansas City," the Current Local of Van Buren, Missouri, reported June 8, 1899. The newspaper added, "The secretary further promised Mr. Davis to give one cannon each to St. Louis and Jefferson City."

Captured by the U.S. Navy in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, a cannon arrived at the Missouri State Capitol on Sept. 25, 1901. The state of Missouri paid the freight from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Jefferson City, which cost $74 through the Missouri Pacific Railway Company.

"It is an eight-inch brass gun, twelve feet long, and cast in 1769," reported the Sept. 26, 1901, edition of the Springfield Missouri Republican. The newspaper further explained the cannon weighs 6,000 pounds and was given to the state "as a souvenir at the request of the last Missouri legislature."

Throughout the next several years, the Spanish cannon remained on display, surviving the great fire that destroyed the second state Capitol building in Jefferson City in 1911. The third Capitol was completed in 1917, and the cannon remained a stalwart exhibit on the grounds until the need for war material nearly brought its demise a quarter-century later.

In late summer 1942, newspapers throughout the state began featuring articles which discussed "several pieces of obsolete artillery ranged about the Capitol grounds, relics of former wars," according to the Sept. 16, 1942, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This collection included German artillery captured in WWI, a cannon used in the Mexican-American War, a Civil War cannon and the Spanish cannon.

During World War II, many communities held scrap drives to collect materials that could be used in constructing tanks and other war necessities. In Jefferson City, many organizations and individuals fully supported disposing of the artillery pieces at the Capitol to support the war; however, Missouri Gov. Forrest Donnell, who had a "lifelong passion for sticking to the letter of the law," wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wanted to first establish who owned the cannons.

The contestation of ownership came on the heels of a proclamation issued by the governor in October 1942 in which he stated: "The urgency for the campaign for scrap metal is exceedingly great. Our nation must have scrap to convert into war materials. Scrap which is otherwise useless can be remade into things which are useful and necessary for the successful prosecution of war."

The governor requested the attorney general research the matter and determine who held the title to each artillery piece. Their research found the five German guns to be state property and they were immediately ordered to the scrap pile, but the ownership of the other cannons remained in question.

On Nov. 24, 1942, the state Legislature adopted a resolution granting the state title to the three remaining cannons, which would then provide the legal authority to sell them as scrap.

Days later, the resolution was vetoed by Gov. Donnell, who stated the resolution was not one of the legislative subjects specifically designated in his proclamation convening the recent special session. The governor added, "(T)he State did not have the power, through such a resolution, to declare title to the cannons," the Houston Herald reported Dec. 10, 1942.

The veto might have had the effect of preserving the cannons, but two St. Louis men — Ross William Riley and Sidney Stearns — decided to drive to Jefferson City on Dec. 10, 1942, and load one of the legally embattled cannons on their half-ton truck to deliver to the scrap heap. The men, newspapers reported, found encouragement through an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch calling for the scrapping of the artillery pieces.

"But they didn't move the cannon," reported the Dec. 13, 1942, edition of the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, New York. "They called a wrecker. He called a cop and the minion of the law stopped the midnight scrap drive before it was well started."

The two initially were charged with grand larceny even though they never moved the cannon, but the Cole County prosecutor later reduced the charge to conspiracy to commit petit larceny.

There remains a Civil War cannon in possession of the Missouri State Museum, which is perhaps one of the three cannons surviving the scrap metal drive of World War II. The fate of the Mexican-American War cannon has been obscured by the passage of years; however, the Spanish cannon remains on display near the entrance of the Veterans Walk on the north side of the state Capitol.

"There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know," former President Harry S Truman said. Perhaps when people visit the Capitol to take in the many historical sites, they can gaze upon the aged Spanish cannon and realize how the actions of a governor decades past helped preserve this piece for perpetuity.

Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.