Red Artillery Carriages Return To VMI

Spring 2001 - Vol 22, No. 2

LEXINGTON, Va. — Virginia Military Institute (VMI) officially rededicated the Cadet Battery during the annual Founder’s Day Parade last Veterans Day. The cannons that stand at the base of "Stonewall" Jackson's statue are one of the lasting symbols of alumni service to the nation.

Artillery reenactors of Reilly's Battery and the 2nd Virginia Cavalry, Co. C, Stuart Horse Artillery, pulled the four guns with four-horse teams in front of a crowd of 3,500 spectators and the 1,200-member Cadet Corps.

In 1848 the foundry of Cyrus Alger in Boston, Mass., cast the specially designed VMI Cadet Battery. The training gun tubes range in weight from 562 to 576 pounds, averaging 568 pounds, approximately 310 pounds less than the standard 6-pdr. cannon of the time. The Adjutant General of Virginia requested that the carriages be painted red with black metal parts so that whenever the cadets were on parade, the public would instantly identify the cannon as the VMI Cadet Battery. The cadets took special pride in their unique guns.

Maj. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson instructed artillery tactics with the red guns for 10 years prior to the Civil War. Many of Jackson’s most colorful moments at VMI relate to his command of the Cadet Battery.

Lacking horses to pull the pieces, Jackson would assign cadets to the task of draft horse. One day the professor noticed a cadet pawing the ground and snorting; Jackson placed the cadet on report for disruption in ranks. The cadet answered his infraction to the Commandant with a plausible explanation: “I’m a natural born pacer!”

On occasion, the cadets would secretly remove the retaining pin holding the wheel in place just to watch Major Jackson’s consternation when the wheel would fly off during maneuvers. Many of Jackson’s young students of artillery, like Stapleton Crutchfield and Joseph Carpenter, would become artillery officers in the Army of Northern Virginia.

The battery originally consisted of two 12-pdr. howitzers and four 6-pdr. guns, but one howitzer was lost during the warThe guns were issued to the Rockbridge Artillery and other units at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 and saw action at Falling Water, First Manassas, Savage Station and Malvern Hill. On May 14, 1863, the guns fired every half hour as a memorial tribute to their old commander, Thomas Jackson.

Removed from VMI after the Civil War by the U.S. Army, the guns were returned in 1876 after begin stored at the Washington Arsenal. The historic battery continued in service at VMI training cadets in artillery drill until being retired in 1913. Five years later, the guns returned once again to their training role when the modern artillery stationed at VMI was called away by the Army for use in World War I.

Last year’s restoration of the venerable VMI Cadet Battery was made possible by the generous support of  author Jeff Shaara. “Mr. Shaara’s commitment to this important project is a gratifying tribute to General Jackson,” said Col. Keith Gibson, Director of the VMI Museum.

All of the wooden parts were replaced with precision crafted pieces. All metal parts were repaired and painted to the original 1848 specifications. Cannon Ltd. of Coolville, Ohio, did the work.

Today’s visitors see the battery as Jackson saw it when he first arrived at the institute —  refreshed and ready to stand as a constant reminder of the heritage of the Virginia Military Institute.