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  Feature on Battle of Cannon. Topic: CIVIL WAR
Written by Rich Wallace in May, 1998


On May 25, 1998, we will once again gather on Memorial Day to honor those who gave their lives in defense of our country. Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was first observed on May 30, 1868. This year, Civil War re-enactors will participate in the parade and the wreath laying ceremonies. It will be a tangible reminder of our county's role in that war. History books unfold the story of the Civil War and its many battles in great detail. Although Shelby County gave much to the war effort, it was spared as the scene of any bloodshed. Not by much, however. A drama was played out on the streets of Sidney in September of 1864 that nearly cost the life of the Democratic candidate for Vice President of the United States. This is the story of what has come to be known as the ‘Battle of the Cannon.’

From the time the first shots were fired to begin the Civil War, mclementvalllandigham.gif (88375 bytes)ost Americans believed the conflict would be over in less than 90 days. Early Confederate successes, however, created the somber realization that it would be a long war. As the fighting dragged on into 1864, and the number of casualties mounted, a significant amount of anti-war sentiment developed in parts of the North. Mercer County was a known center of anti-war activity. By the fall of 1864, after three long years of battle, the anti-war movement had gained a fair amount of popular support. The country's chief anti-war activist was Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham of Dayton (photo at right). He led a movement known as the 'Copperheads' (so named because of the Indian heads cut from Indian head pennies they wore on their lapels).

Vallandigham was a highly controversial character. From the beginning of the war, he was an outspoken pacifist. To the Republicans in Congress, he defiantly stated: "Money you have expended without limits, and blood poured out like water. Defeat, debt, taxation, and sepulchers--these are your only trophies." While running for the Democratic nomination for governor of Ohio, he urged soldiers to desert the army. As a result of his statements, he was tried and convicted by a military tribunal of treason in the spring of 1863. His sentence: delivery through enemy lines into the hands of the Confederates. Vallandigham later disappeared, and surfaced in Canada, reminding one of the travel plans of a 1960s Vietnam War protester.

Vallandigham was back in Ohio by the summer of 1864. People had not forgotten. Lincoln said, in reference to him: "Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of the wily agitator who induces him to desert?" One can only imagine the degree to which Vallandigham was hated by the Union soldiers. The presidential campaign of 1864 shaped up to a major test of Lincoln's policy on the war. The Democrats nominated George McClellan for president and George H. Pendleton, a close friend of Vallandigham, for vice-president.

Amid this highly charged atmosphere, plans were laid by local Democrats for Pendleton and Vallandigham to speak in Sidney on September 24, 1864. A crowd of several thousand people turned out for the event. That same day, by coincidence, a regiment of Union soldiers from Michigan was in Sidney, having stopped here to change trains. The regiment had been discharged from service in Kentucky.

The 11th Michigan Volunteer Infantry had seen plenty of action during the war, and had survived heavy fighting at Stones River, Mission Ridge, Chicamauga and Atlanta. The boys were ready to return to their homes. All that separated them from their families was the next train.

Col. Melvin Mudge was the surviving senior officer of the 11th Michigan during the war years. Unfortunately for Vallandigham, the event in Sidney was not the first time the troops of the 11th had encountered him. The battle of Stones River was one of the fiercest battles in the western theater of the war. Just after the battle, the 11th Michigan was assigned to guard duty, with Mudge in charge. He received a secret order at 2 o'clock in the morning for his men to transport Vallandigham, who had just been convicted of treason, across enemy lines to live with the Rebels.

Many years later, Mudge recalled: "None of my detail knew who they were guarding until the next day... The feeling was so bitter against him... I remember the next morning, when the army was informed by the morning papers, the murmur and indignation of the troops that he had been permitted to pass through our lines." That is the reason, Mudge remarked later, "...why the 11th Michigan, above all others, should not have been at Sidney..."

The 11th had been mustered out of the army about a month before, and when the regiment crossed the Ohio river, the amount of control the officers exercised over the men was tenuous, at best. After traveling to Indianapolis, the men changed trains and journeyed to Sidney, where they were slated to catch a northbound train for Sturgis, Michigan. Just outside of Sidney, the train stopped so that Mudge could consult with his quartermaster, whom he had sent ahead to check on transportation arrangements in Sidney. The worried quartermaster reported that of all people, Vallandigham was scheduled to speak in Sidney that very afternoon on the same platform with Vice- presidential candidate Pendleton. Mudge knew there would be trouble.

The Democrats in Sidney, looking forward to hearing the distinguished Democratic speakers, were unaware of the potential powder keg that was headed to Sidney from the west, in the form of the 11th. The Michiganders arrived in Sidney at 9 am on September 24. As Mudge cautiously unloaded his men from the train onto the platform, he learned that they could not catch a northbound train until 4 PM. Seven hours in town with Vallandigham and Pendleton was a recipe for disaster. The regimental history of the 11th Michigan records that the editor of the town's Republican newspaper, the Sidney Journal, met the men of the 11th, invited them to lunch served by the young ladies of Sidney, and reminded the soldiers to cheer for Lincoln during Vallandigham's speech.

No sooner had the men disembarked, than the train from Cincinnati carrying Pendleton and his cohort arrived from Dayton. Immediately, a cannon was fired in honor of the speakers for the day. At the first report of the gun, Mudge's men surrounded him saying, as he later recalled, "That cannon is being fired in honor of Vallandigham. For God's sake Colonel let us charge that battery." Mudge struggled to keep control of his men, assuring them that he would take charge of the situation.

The Democrats in the town remembered things differently. In editorials that appeared in the Shelby County Democrat on May 26 and July 28, 1893, the editor commented that the people of Sidney were receiving the Vice-presidential candidate in "a proper and orderly manner. Mudge led the (soldiers) in cheering for candidates to whom they knew the crowd in town that day were politically opposed, and tried to provoke that crowd by calling for groans for one of the prominent speakers." Some of his men were "intoxicated."

As the speakers prepared to ride to the place where the assembly was being held, the soldiers, armed with their weapons, lined the street where the carriage was passing. As the speakers went by, the men commenced firing squibs and blank cartridges, with the real possibility of a bullet or two being mixed in. Col. Mudge recalled "I did not think the carriage could pass the line, and the occupants survive."

Mudge quickly bolted in front of his men, shouting "Now boys three cheers for Lincoln, now groans for Vallandigham." His men took off their hats, and thus stopped loading their rifles. At the same time, with a nod of his head, he directed the driver of the carriage to take a right turn down a side street, avoiding the rest of his regiment. By this act, Mudge felt he had saved the lives of Vallandigham and Pendleton.

Before his men knew what had happened, the carriage deposited the two frightened men into the interior of one of Sidney's hotels. Members of the Michigan regiment recalled searching the hotel from top to bottom, not finding the two, and thinking they had escaped out the back. Disaster had been narrowly averted. Outside, frustration and anger among the Union soldiers was building.

At the same time, the cannon was still booming at the railroad depot. Mudge marched his men to the other depot, to wait for the next northbound train. In doing so, the 11th passed the depot where the cannon was still firing. As they marched by, a number of the soldiers broke ranks, surrounded the cannon, dismantled it quickly, and seized two nearby flag stands.

There was a young industrialist named Philip Smith in Sidney at the time of the war. He was in the foundry business. Smith's foundrymen had cast a 500 pound cannon. It is unclear if the piece was to be used for engagements or for purely ceremonial purposes. In any event, it was Smith's cannon that had honored Vallandigham, and it was Smith's cannon that was now in mortal danger of being kidnapped.

Mudge addressed his men, telling them that he had no love for the traitor Vallandigham, but " a defender of this country and its laws, I cannot and will not allow you to engage in any mob violence here today." Telling them that committing any outrages In Sidney would hurt Lincoln's chances for reelection, Mudge concluded: "We must not make martyrs of these men. You have already captured their cannon, of which I neither approve nor disapprove."

Those present from Sidney remember these events somewhat differently. In later accounts, the local version went as follows: The soldiers quickly rushed to the hotel, and demanded Vallandigham's surrender. More than two thousand local citizens immediately rallied outside the hotel, armed, and waited for the soldiers to attack. Mayor S.B. Walker rushed to the scene, and urged the Union boys to put down their arms. Everyone was relieved. Everyone except Philip Smith. He had not succeeded in the competitive foundry business without forging a determination never to lose. He wanted to get his cannon back. It is safe to say that as far as Philip Smith was concerned, the great Ohio-Michigan rivalry had just begun.

The Democrat reported the rest of the story almost thirty years later in its May 26, 1893, edition. Smith and a friend, Frederick Martz, traveled to Sturgis, Michigan to take back the cannon. Shortly after word of their arrival in town spread, members of the disbanded 11th nearly mobbed them. Still determined, Smith sought refuge in the law. He hired a local attorney and obtained a court order entitling him to his cannon. As he left his lawyer's office, Smith observed a team of horses and a rider, dragging his cannon behind them coming down the street. Smith and Martz dashed off in pursuit, and arrived shortly at the shore of the local lake.

They watched helplessly as the Michiganders dumped the cannon off the back of a boat they had rowed a quarter of a mile out in the lake. After the departure of Smith and Martz, the local soldiers hired a diver to retrieve the cannon from the water. According the memoirs of Daniel Rose, a veteran of the 11th Michigan, it was used in local Fourth of July celebrations, weddings and reunions for years afterward, until it burst during a celebration in Centerville, Michigan in 1891.

An article in the Shelby County Democrat on May 26, 1893, reported on the demise of the cannon. It ended with this statement: "Mr. Smith is of the opinion that he is entitled to a piece of the gun, and will endeavor to get it." Thus ended Sidney's only brush with hostilities in the Civil War.

11thmichiganvolunteerinfantryflag.gif (52098 bytes)
This is the flag of the 11th Michigan Volunteer Infantry.


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