The Bronze Cannon at the VMI Parapet

John Amrhein

John Amrhein, maritime historian, at the VMI parapet

At the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, there are two mammoth-size bronze cannon of French design which were cast in the late seventeenth century. They have a very unique story which separates them from the smaller caliber guns which are mounted with them at the VMI parapet.  The history of these cannon includes a remarkable tale of a third cannon that never made it to VMI. The cannon had been salvaged from the bottom of the Pamunkey River in 1816 by some enterprising treasure hunters who had employed a diving bell. After it was recovered, the Commonwealth of Virginia seized the cannon.

Virginia loses ancient bronze cannon to treasure hunters

The bronze cannon were a gift from France during the American Revolution. While they were being unloaded at Cumberland on the Pamunkey River, one fell in the water. The others were safely landed. At the end of the war there were six that were transported to the State Armory in Richmond. The cannon recovered in 1816 by Captain Gilbert Chase was a thirty-two pound caliber gun cast in 1686 and weighed 5,240 pounds. It was ornately decorated in hand-carved motifs and emblems.  When the gun was raised, the local magistrate recognized its value for not only its weight in bronze but also it was a relic from the American Revolution.  After it was arrested, the case was tried in the Superior court of Chancery by Philip Nicholas, the Attorney General.

Maritime Law

When it comes to salvaging shipwrecks and property lost at sea, maritime law has always favored the salvor until recent times. This ancient law of the sea would reward the finder or salvor for their efforts while sometimes returning lost property to the original owner. In modern times, when a salvor discovers a shipwreck, he is usually forced to defend his claim against a state or federal government asserting their sovereign prerogative to all shipwrecks. But in the case of Nicholas v Chase, decided in Richmond, Virginia in 1817, the Commonwealth of Virginia lost.

Out of the six cannon delivered by France, only two survived which are displayed at VMI. The others were melted down during the civil war.

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