One hundred and fifty years ago, a 12-pound field howitzer was a fearsome weapon. Today, a working replica of the Civil War-era cannon stands on one corner of Robert Mercer’s property, the topic of an occasional joke with the neighbors and the fulfillment of Mercer’s longtime dream.
One hundred and fifty years ago, a 12-pound field howitzer was a fearsome weapon.
It was not particularly accurate, but it didn’t have to be. When it blasted a load of grape shot into an onslaught of charging soldiers, its aim was precise enough to get the job done.
“It was a gigantic shotgun — devastating to charging troops,” said Pekin resident Robert L. Mercer. “It mowed ’em down with every volley. Those troops had to be the bravest human beings that ever lived.”
Today, a working replica of the Civil War-era cannon stands on one corner of Mercer’s property, the topic of an occasional joke with the neighbors and the fulfillment of Mercer’s longtime dream.
The 69-year-old East Peoria native was a young teenager when he started collecting antique guns. Over the years, he also has enjoyed hunting and motorcycle racing, but his fascination with firearms persisted.
Late last year, Mercer was at the home of a Peoria collector, looking to buy more antique guns, when he learned that a replica howitzer barrel was available. The Peoria collector had made the barrel but found it to be so much trouble that he gave up without even starting to build a carriage for it.
Mercer thought hard for several weeks before deciding to buy the barrel and take on the rest of the project.
“I’ve always wanted a full-scale cannon, and I figured this was the only way I was going to own one,” he said.
And, yes, it was a lot of trouble.
There are no surviving carriages for the 1862 Confederate field howitzer, Mercer said. He pored over the military ordnance book from that era, which contained the specs for the weapon.
“They really got particular,” he said. “They said that all the woodwork should be made out of winter-cut white oak.” White oak cut in the summer tended to crack, he explained.
Mercer bought his winter-cut white oak last April from a sawmill in Green Valley. The main beam weighed 700 pounds.
“My two sons and I propped the wood on some stumps, took the ordnance book out, drew it up with a magic marker and started sawing and planning,” he said.
As sawdust accumulated in Mercer’s backyard, the cannon carriage emerged. Curious neighbors stopped by for a look and vowed to be there when he fired the cannon.
“For three months, I worked on it a little every day — sometimes all day,” Mercer said.
He had time for the project because his work as a self-employed floor coverer dried up and virtually forced him into retirement.
In early August, Mercer finished the trail spike and called the cannon complete. He hauled it to the nearby VFW post and blasted a few loads of wet sand and pea gravel over a neighboring cornfield. His labors came to a climax with a satisfying boom and billows of smoke.
Mercer said his wife, Marty, probably would have preferred that he find another hobby.
“I didn’t get a bunch of encouragement from her, and she’s probably thrilled to death that I’m done with it,” he said.
Mercer’s unexpected retirement means that his dream of cannon ownership may be short-lived.
Bit by bit, he’s been selling off his collection of antique guns in order to get by. Now he wants to sell a motorcycle too, but the cannon will have to go on the market if the cycle doesn’t sell.
Civil War buffs have told Mercer that his handiwork is authentic enough to use in re-enactments, although there are slight flaws in some sizes and the nuts are hexagonal instead of the authentic square. “At $7,500, it won’t last,” Mercer said. “There are a lot of re-enactors that would like to get a cannon for less than $12,000.
“I built the cannon to keep, and I can’t afford to keep it,” Mercer said. “It just about makes me cry.”
“It was worth the work,” he added. “The first time it went off, I was totally elated. To have a full-scale cannon is like a dream that’s been fulfilled.”
“I’d like to keep it in my front yard.”
Pekin Daily Times