206 years ago next week, on September 10, 1813, the British brig General Hunter was captured after the Battle of Lake Erie. That battle deserves more attention, which I’ll try to offer on another day. This story is about the journey a pair of cannon took from the banks of the River Carron in Falkirk, Scotland to their current home near the banks of the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The guns are of course inanimate objects, but darn it they’re surely survivors.
Once a part of the arsenal on the brig Hunter for the British, captured and turned to service for the Americans on the brig USS Firefly, the cannon saw service in the War of 1812, the Second Barbary War of 1815 before being retired from active duty and sold with the Firefly to a wealthy merchant from Portsmouth named John Peirce. The guns were on two of the Peirce merchant ships before finally becoming a family heirloom, donated and placed in their current location more than a century ago. As Portsmouth changed they were moved closer to the building to where they are now.
I’ve come across the guns a couple of times while walking through Portsmouth. And I’ve done a double-take each time. The ships they were in are long gone, and so are a succession of crew and wealthy owners who once valued the utilitarian efficiency of these weapons. Today they’re no longer lethal, instead standing permanently at attention, muzzles buried in the earth, as tourists, drunkards and businesspeople alike drift past, oblivious to their violent history.
They flank the entrance to the Portsmouth Athenaeum, itself a curiosity in this modern world. The building is almost as old as the guns, and they guard it like older twin brothers might protect a younger sister. Saved from anonymity by the plaques proclaiming their role in the Battle of Lake Erie. But they’d only part of their story. Imagine all these cannon have witnessed, and the stories they could tell.