Original publish date: September 13, 2018
155 years after the last cannon shot was fired in anger on the hallowed fields at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a dutiful volunteer keeps watch over the cannons located there. The Gettysburg National Military Park is 9.358 mi.² in size and features some 1,300 monuments and 400 cannons. It takes an army to maintain the monuments but there is only one angel left on the field caring for those artillery pieces, many of which saw use in the battle itself.
I ran into Barb Adams quite by accident in late June 2018, just a couple days before the 155th anniversary of the great battle. I was visiting Gettysburg with my wife and friends Kris and Roger Branch. I have recently taken up a new hobby of “etching” tombstones, plaques and monument faces at the many historic places I often find myself visiting. Etching is a fairly simple hobby that involves paper pencil and a little masking tape. If you, like me, ever traced a Lincoln penny with a pencil by rubbing the graphite over the surface of the coin, then you have etched too.
Roger Branch is a former U.S. Army artilleryman with an interest in cannons. Last year I found an “artsy” photo collage of the crest of Little Round Top which I gave to Roger. One of the photos was a close up of the muzzle from one of the big guns. Little did I know, that minor gift would set him on a quest to find that cannon, the very gun pictured in that old photographic display. Kris, Roger and I hit the battlefield at dawn in search of the many rock carvings made by soldiers still existing there. (Sleepyhead Rhonda stayed behind) I was determined to make a couple etchings if practicable. I also knew I wanted to make etchings of the Irish brigade monument along with the Hancock, Sickles and Lewis Addison Armistead wounding monuments. Especially since Armistead was the man I named my son Addison after.
Roger wanted to make an etching of the Alonzo Cushing marker at the bloody angle just yards away from the high water mark of the Confederacy. All of these we did and more. Etching can get into your soul and literally seep into your blood. Once you’ve been out etching, you notice that your fingers are covered with black graphite. It gets on everything you touch from that point on. Oh, it washes off easily, but somehow that sooty residue makes you feel authentic, especially when you’re on a battlefield.
Flush with excitement and caught up in the moment, our grimy little trio headed to the massive Pennsylvania monument in search of Roger’s cannon. We had checked all of the guns at the high watermark for comparison; to no avail. While checking the muzzles of the guns near the First Minnesota monument, it occurred to us that we could easily etch those muzzles. The guns are dated per time of manufacture, so the thought of getting one etching from each year (1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, & 1865) became our quest of the moment.
There we stood, three middle-aged graphite-stained 8-year-olds tracing our little hearts out. Kris held the paper taut like a spider web on a gutter spout. Roger traced away like a Hollywood makeup artist on an aging starlet. My job? To keep watch. Because we weren’t entirely sure we were allowed to do this. We were stretching the boundaries of our usual mantra: “Take nothing but pictures-leave nothing but footprints.”
Suddenly, a car pulled up and out stepped an athletic looking woman whose shirt, pants, shoes, wrists, fingers and elbows were be-dabbed with paint. She walked up to our sheepish looking little trio and for a few seconds we wondered if we were in trouble or not. Roger remained cool, calm and collected and never stopped etching. He remained focused and was determined to complete his task. Turns out, this handsome suntanned lady was Barb Adams and she was the keeper of the cannons.
We asked if we were in trouble, and she answered, “No, I just want to watch you do one.” Roger finished his etching as we chatted with Barb and she informed us of what she does every day. Her job is to maintain, clean and repaint every cannon on the Gettysburg battlefield. She knows them all by heart and maintains a detailed accounting of every gun on that field. Roger immediately pulled out his cell phone and asked, “Do you know where this gun is?” To which Barb answered, “Are you guys going to be here for a while? I can go check my book and let you know.”
She jumped in her car and drove back to her office, returning several minutes later with her binder identifying the location of her cannons. “Sorry guys, that gun is not on this field.” came Barb’s reply. To say we were crestfallen might be an understatement. Our spirits were lifted when Barb invited us to come visit the cannon restoration shop later that day. “I have to get permission from my boss first, but I don’t think he’ll mind,” she said. So off we went to spend our day trying to contain our excitement until 5:30 rolled around and we could visit what we were sure was going to be a magical place.
The Gettysburg cannon shop is located just off Confederate Avenue on the outskirts of the Lutheran seminary. You wouldn’t even know it was there unless someone (like Barb) gave you directions. Our little group, now joined by Rhonda, entered the shop and were immediately transformed back to 1863. The shop is littered with all things cannon. There are barrels, carriages, limbers, wheels, and parts of every sort. Guns, howitzers 3 inch ordinance rifles, 10 pound parrots, and 12-pound Napoleon’s; Wrought Iron, Bronze, and Cast-Iron; Smoothbore’s, James and Whitworth’s; 6 pounders, 10 pounders, 12 pounders, 14 pounders, 20 pounders, 24 pounders, and 3-inch ordinance rifles. Truly, an artilleryman’s dream.
Barb guided us through every step of cannon restoration, carefully explaining what it took to keep her guns in perfect order. This was heady air we were breathing. Terms like breeches, swells, trunnions, rimbases, chambers, astragals, base rings, vents, bores, girdles, chambers, cascabels, knobs, wadding, windage and calibre seeped into our heads like sand through an hourglass. Barb Adams knows every inch of these guns.
She explains that the cannon restoration program was started by the “Friends of the National Park” at Gettysburg over 20 years ago. Barb spends her days, especially in summertime, on the un-shaded, boiling hot fields of Gettysburg. “I try to get out there early, before it gets too hot and the buses start rolling in, ” she says. “I love talking to people, especially schoolkids, but I never seem to get enough work done because I get wrapped up in talking about cannons.”
Barb’s routine is a patient one. Each cannon, when removed for restoration, is taken back to the shop where it is sandblasted and the carriage refurbished. “The wood wears down quickest and we have to replace the wooden carriages and the spokes of the wheels most often. It takes two months just to get each gun to my paint room.” Barb continues, “Each cannon gets two coats of primer, two coats of green paint and two coats of black paint. Anywhere two pieces of metal meet has to be caulked to keep moisture out.” Add to those duties that Barb also paints the white letters on all of the coal black battery markers and itinerary plaques found scattered throughout the battlefield, and you can tell she has her hands full.
I wondered, how did a distinguished looking lady like Barb get started in this meticulous business? “It was my husband’s dream to paint a cannon. Just one cannon. Somehow, one cannon turned into all of them.” Barb explains that she met her husband, John Scott Adams of the Washington Post, on the battlefield July 1st, 1998. The couple was married in 2001 and John died in 2002. In her previous life, Barb was a nurse from Rochester, New York, which seems fitting for someone who cares so lovingly for the cannons on the Gettysburg battlefield. “I was a fan of Lincoln and that’s what brought me to Gettysburg. I met John here and he told me he had always wanted to paint a cannon, which I thought sounded interesting. So we did. That’s how it all started.”
Sixteen years later, Barb is the only volunteer caring for the cannons full-time. She’s at it everyday, weather providing, with her ancient brown metal folding chair, coffee can full of paintbrushes, paint rags, paint cans and, pardon the pun, an abundance of patients. “You’d be surprised how much wear and tear these big guns take.” Barb says. Besides schoolkids climbing all over them and overzealous reenactors incessantly rubbing / leaning on them, Barb says squirrels cause a lot of damage. “Squirrels sharpen their teeth on the wooden carriages and even on the metal parts like the rings, axles, knobs and necks of the guns. If you look close you can see their little tooth scratches.”
Barb explains that while there are many good part-time volunteers that sometimes help her in her task, it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what still needs to be done. “At any given time, there are 30 to 40 cannons waiting to be restored.” she says. When asked who will take over when she decides to hang it up, Barb forlornly replies, “I don’t know. I’m the only one left. There just doesn’t seem to be an interest anymore. I tried giving it up once, and answered the phones at the desk for two weeks, but then I said that’s enough of that and headed back out to the battlefield. Luckily, there are other people just as passionate as I am about these cannons. You should talk to Bruce Vanisacker, he lives in your neck of the woods near Monroe Michigan. He knows everything about the history of these cannons.”
Well you didn’t have to tell me twice. I can talk to an expert from the adopted hometown of General George Armstrong Custer? Yeah Boy! I called him straightaway. Although it is a 7 hour drive from Monroe to Gettysburg, Bruce seems to know every inch of that battlefield like the back of his hand. Like Barb, who is 435 miles away, Bruce knows every gun on that field. He knows where every gun is placed, which ones have been restored and which ones are waiting. Bruce created a large wall map hanging just inside the door of the cannon shop featuring hundreds of tiny red and blue cannons designating their condition.
Bruce’s expertise is in the repair and manufacture of broken or damaged cannon parts. A dedicated tool and die maker who makes the 45-mile (one way) commute every workday, Bruce can cast any artillery replacement part in a flash. He visits Gettysburg on average three times a year and has for the past quarter century. He is a walking textbook of Gettysburg artillery. Bruce notes that in 1916 there were 410 cannons, which he calls “tubes”, placed on the field. Attrition brought that number down to 370 by 2002 “counting cannons damaged by vehicles or trees falling on them.” Bruce says that cannons were largely ignored until 1896. Bruce recalls how 8 cannon tubes were taken from storage and traded away to other parks for other items to add to the Gettysburg NPS Museum. “The carriages were in pretty bad shape so it seemed like a good idea at the time. In the 1930s one cannon was removed from the field and sent down to the Stones River Battlefield. It had the name “Murfreesboro” carved in the barrel so we sent it home.” says Bruce.
He explains how most of the ordinance stacks (cannonballs and parrot shells) were removed in the late 1970s / early 1980s. “The only original stacks left on the field are located on Benner’s Hill. There are a couple stacks at the Confederate High Water Mark, but I believe those are cast in bronze and not original ordinance. The High Water Mark does have the earliest tubes on the field though, place there in 1892. I have records showing that 60 original 24-pound field howitzers were shipped to Gettysburg in the 1890s. They were left laying in an open field for 3-5 years before being mounted.” Bruce states that before the age of battlefield preservation at Gettysburg, there were howitzers being used as flagposts on parts of the field, muzzle up with the “flags sticking out of the tubes. We had two cannons stolen back in 1968 and 1972 and they were never recovered. But one of those was a replica, so…” Bruce states that since the artillery restoration program began in 1996, “We started pulling tubes off 10-12 at a time for restoration and repair. When those were finished we’d pull another 10-12 off and replace them with the restored tubes.”
I couldn’t resist asking Bruce about the range of firepower used on the field during those three hot days back in 1863. “The best example I can think of is that the Union was using 10 pound parrot guns and three-inch ordinance guns placed on top of Cemetery Hill. Those guns could easily hit the tree line on Seminary Ridge 3/4’s of a mile away. They could fire over a mile but were most accurate at 3/4’s distance. The most common ordinance was canister shot. Like a coffee can filled with golf balls that was deadly at 400 yards or closer.”
Bruce can’t say enough good things about Barb Adams. He worries that hers is becoming a lost art. And, that there is no one to replace her. “There is absolutely no one to take over when she leaves. No one with the enthusiasm and pride that she has. It’s more than a hobby to her, it’s a labor of love. She is so humble that I don’t think she realizes how truly talented and valuable she is to the Gettysburg battlefield.”
On our last morning at Gettysburg, we revisited the crest of Little Round Top to drink our morning coffee atop the ridge and watch as the fog rolled in over Devil’s Den. About 30 yards away from the rock where the life-size statue of Union General Gouverneur K. Warren stands (the only rock on the entire battlefield visitors are forbidden to climb) rest the cannons known as “Hazlett’s guns”. This is truly hallowed ground. Here alongside these guns Brigade commander Stephen Weed fell mortally wounded, and when Lieutenant Charles E. Hazlett knelt to hear the General’s dying words he, too, fell mortally wounded.
Roger decided to check and see if one of these cannons, some of the most famous Union cannons in the history of the Civil War, might be the one from his photo. We were stunned to find that the object of our search had been right under our noses the entire time. Roger found his cannon and we immediately left the summit in search of Barb Adams. We found her at the bloody angle painting one of Cushing’s guns. She was elated at the news, saying, “I thought we were looking for a 6-pound gun, those are 10 pounders up there. See, YOU taught ME something new.” No Barb, YOU taught us everything we know. And what of her husband, the cannon man John Scott Adams? Barb wears his wedding ring on a chain around her neck. Meaning that, although he’s been gone for 16 years now, he’s still with his bride Barb… cleaning cannons on the Gettysburg battlefield everyday.