For nearly 30 years, a captured German cannon sat beside the base of the Vance Monument in Pack Square. Then one night in 1942, it mysteriously disappeared. Here is its story.
In the early morning of Nov. 11, 1918, Company I of the 321st U.S. Infantry engaged in one of World War I’s final battles near Verdun in France. Veterans of the battle included Asheville residents Theodore Sumner and Leftwich Ramsey, who gave thrilling accounts of that day. They reported that three German machine gun nests targeted them; they threw themselves onto the ground to avoid the bullets of field rifles and cannon fire. Forty-seven men were wounded and fifteen killed during the fight. But during the battle, two platoons crept through a swamp until they reached one of the cannons and took possession of it. This helped the soldiers hold their ground until, an hour and a half later, all fighting ceased. The war was over.
The commanding officer, Col. Dan Adams of Old Fort, ordered the men to lift the 3,000 pound cannon out of the swamp and onto a wagon. Mules pulled it across France until it was eventually dismantled and crated to be shipped home with the soldiers. Army policy dictated that such equipment should remain in France. However, the cases went uninspected and so the cannon arrived safely at Fort Jackson, SC. The soldiers who brought it home were then mustered out of the army, leaving it behind. They didn’t forget the German cannon, though. When Col. Frank Halsted visited Asheville, former soldiers Sumner, Ramsey and Adams recruited him to accompany them to South Carolina to retrieve it. According to reports, Col. Halsted used the full authority of his rank to humble the young lieutenant serving as officer of the day at Fort Jackson. Subsequently, the cannon was transferred from a warehouse to a truck and then to the railroad car that brought it over the mountains to Asheville.
The men gave the captured German cannon to the city to serve as a monument to the heroes of the Great War. But how would the City of Asheville manage this unexpected gift? Clippings in the Pack Library Newspaper File Collection indicate that there was no consensus. An Asheville Citizen article from Aug. 19, 1920 reported plans were being made for a concrete base to support the cannon, but goes on to say that “details of the mounting have not been fully determined,” and “the exact location is yet to be decided upon.” An article published on February 24, 1922 referred to discussion of the cannon “precipitating volleys and salvos of debate.” “A permanent foundation is to be built somewhere, somehow, sometime,” but meanwhile, “the old gun has been standing in the rear of the courthouse yard, having been forcibly ejected from the shelter of the county garage several weeks ago.”
One year later, veterans groups took this “point of controversy” to the city commissioners and received approval to place the cannon on Pack Square. They had collected $1,000 to pay for its mounting. On April 23, 1923, a plan submitted by architect Arnold H. Vanderhoof was accepted. His design put the cannon at the base of the Vance Monument and was “constructed from gray stone of similar texture.” The installation was completed but apparently some rancor persisted. An article that appeared on January 19, 1924 reported that the final piece, a bronze tablet commemorating the soldiers’ bravery, was placed beside the cannon. However, there was no ceremony to mark the event “owing to the length of time that it has taken to erect the monument and also owing to the fact that a small sum to meet the expense of the mounting had to be raised.” It seems that a payment of $73.00 was due.
The German cannon sat on Pack Square facing down Patton Avenue for nearly three decades. After the controversy concerning its placement subsided, newspaper stories retold its history periodically, celebrating the heroism of the soldiers who brought it home. The cannon was a familiar sight to Asheville residents. But then it disappeared, twice.
The first time the cannon disappeared was in August, 1942. A newspaper article on August 26 reported that during the previous week, the cannon had been donated to the Buncombe County salvage committee. It was then taken to the army service command depot at Biltmore for shipment to a steel furnace. Col. Adams protested loudly, sparking “widespread debate,” which resulted in the return of the cannon to its base on Pack Square. The reprieve was short lived, however.
The cannon’s second disappearance was reported on October 29, 1942. In the dark of night, it was removed from Pack Square, never to be seen again. Who took it and where it went remain mysteries. However, a note left in its place reveals its probable fate:
Dear Folks of Buncombe County:
You won’t find me in my accustomed place in Pack Square today. The time has come for me to bid you farewell. My life’s story of heroic adventure is now a glorious tradition in this community. You all know me well. I am the old German cannon of World War I that occupied this spot of honor in your beautiful city for 23 years.
Although made in Germany I became a loyal American citizen. This is a wonderful country—the home of the brave and the free—and I love it more than anything else in the world.
That is why I am leaving you—never to return. There is another World War on, fellow citizens, and this time I am on your side. I am made of iron and steel and Uncle Sam needs me.
I have gone to join your boys who are fighting to preserve your freedom and way of life. They need me and I cannot fail them in this critical hour.
If we all do our duty we can save not only America but civilization itself.
Goodbye and God bless you all.
THAT OLD EX-GERMAN CANNON
Blog post by Laura Gaskin