The white oak has been a symbol of strength in the United States. Its wood has helped to make America strong with our early navy and for our ancestors to construct their homes and barns to help make America the world’s breadbasket. You may have some of that antique oak wood in your home right now! The white oak has been used for war, be it with the navy or to construct implements of war.
Stand in nearly every town in the United States and you will find somewhere an artillery piece. These may be from the 20th century but some date to the 19th century to help celebrate their town’s veterans. Many of these same pieces dot America’s most hallowed grounds, the battlefields where iron, lead and blood were spilled to help shape our history. The white oak tree was central to these guns.
Not just any white oak tree was to be used though. During the antebellum period the ideal white oak tree grew in dark soil mixed with stones and gravel at the edge of a forest and on the side of a hill. The ideal time to fell the tree was in July or August with harvesting to be completed in December. The bark would be cleared and the timber would be reduced to what pieces would be needed by sawing or splitting. The pieces would then be stacked and restacked underneath a shed which allowed air to circulate over all pieces so they could dry. Due to the sizes of the pieces kiln drying was not practical. After the pieces dried they would be fashioned into what was needed.
White oak was the preferred wood to be used to make the carriages for the artillery and its limbers. Its strength could accommodate not only the weight (some artillery tubes weighed over 1,400 lbs) but could also stand up to the stress of firing the guns themselves. There is a lot of physics at work when firing a 10-20 pound piece of iron up to two miles. Metal was used to reinforce the carriage and did ring the wheels allowing for extra strength. The wood itself would also be painted an olive color to stand up to the elements better. Walnut wood was also used, typically in crafting the ammunition chests. While oak was also the preferred wood to use during the Revolution but those carriages could also be made from maple, chestnut or walnut with beech and elm being used for the wheels.
The original wood that is used is very rare to find. The carriage would have had to be preserved away from the elements following our nation’s earliest conflicts. When the parks were set aside to commemorate the great battles of the war or their veterans honored with a place in town squares the carriages were original. Over time they deteriorated, most Civil War carriages had fallen apart by the 1890s, and there was only one recourse: make a metal carriage. After all, it was only for display! Those parts of the carriage that were metal were painted black as they had always been and the metal parts that were originally wood were given an olive green paint job. The gun looked no different to the public and would now last much longer.
Not all of the guns are newer. Many of the tubes that the carriages hold date to the Civil War but not all of them do. So how can you tell? It is simple. On the muzzle should be information stamped into it. This information includes the year of manufacture, the inspector’s initials, the weight, its manufacturing number and the manufacturing location. If you see these you are looking at a real Civil War-era cannon! So the next time you find yourself driving past a cannon pull over and have a look, you might just be able to impress someone.