How did Revolutionary War cannons from Charleston end up in St. Louis?

These cannons in Lafayette Park in St. Louis are believed to have once graced the frigate Actaeon, which ran aground off Sullivan’s Island in 1776.

In June 1776, just a week before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the British moved on Charles Town, determined to make an example of the rebellious colonists.

While Maj. Gen. Henry Clinton’s troops attempted to cross Breech Inlet onto Sullivan’s Island, Admiral Sir Peter Parker led a fleet of nine ships toward the harbor.

Among the Royal Navy’s ships was the brand new, 120-foot frigate Actaeon. Its captain, Christopher Atkins, was itching for a fight. Historian Terry Lipscomb says Atkins had vowed to give the “fanatic scoundrels a good banging” for their ingratitude toward the mother country.

But he would never have the chance.

The day would go down in South Carolina history — Col. William Moultrie and Fort Sullivan defended the harbor gallantly as the British cannonballs bounced off the fort’s palmetto-log walls. Clinton’s men could not cross the treacherous inlet.

It was a disaster that kept the British out of Charles Town for four years.

Atkins and the Actaeon never even saw action.

Early in the battle, Parker ordered the Actaeon and two other ships to attack Fort Sullivan from the rear. But the British sailors knew nothing of the local shoals and quickly ran aground. The other ships eventually floated free, but the Actaeon had to be abandoned, the crew setting her afire as they retreated.

The Actaeon disappeared, apparently lost forever.

And then, more than 130 years later, three of her guns showed up in a St. Louis park.

Local marine archaeologist Ralph Wilbanks set out in search of the Actaeon more than a decade ago.

He and adventure novelist Clive Cussler thought they might have found a piece of the ship during their 1981 search for the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, but Wilbanks wanted to be sure.

Some people believed that Fort Sumter had been built atop the bones of the old British ship, but Wilbanks figured it lay somewhere east of the fort. During his search, Wilbanks identified a half-dozen possible targets, but found nothing definitive.

Eventually, Wilbanks and Fort Sumter historian Rick Hatcher remembered some old news clipping that claimed three cannons from the Actaeon were in St. Louis park. This led Wilbanks to Wardwell Buckner, president of the Lafayette Park Conservancy, who confirmed three guns allegedly from the ship had been there since 1897.

If that wasn’t enough, one of them was a short cannon called a carronade.

These guns, built by a Scottish ironworks, allegedly were not even developed until 1778 and used in British ships until a year later.

So how was it on a British ship in South Carolina have one onboard — and how did it end up halfway across the country?

In 1887, a British steamer hit something on its way into Charleston Harbor that ripped the copper from its prow.

The U.S. Engineer Corps, in town building jetties for the harbor channel, sent a diver out to investigate. He found a pile of cannons just below the surface, which engineers eventually recovered and piled up on a Charleston dock.

The Corps used some of the cannons for the jetties, but Buckner found evidence that three of them were sold at auction to members of the Military Officers of the Loyal Legion of the United States — a group formed in the wake of President Lincoln’s assassination to preserve U.S. military heritage.

The Loyal Legion had a large collection of historic artifacts in its St. Louis headquarters, some of it artifacts from the Civil War, some of it much older.

A decade later, the Loyal Legion donated the cannons to the park, and Buckner’s group takes care of them to this day. The carronade’s metal is in bad shape, a result of more than a century immersed in saltwater. The group has plans to have the carronade conserved — but not in South Carolina.

“We might not get it back,” Buckner jokes.

Newspaper accounts back up the story of the cannons’ journey from the Atlantic Ocean to Charleston and on to St. Louis, but how did an anachronistic cannon get into the mix?

Wilbanks and Buckner believe that this carronade was a prototype, one lying around the shipyard where the Actaeon was built, and it was grabbed by Atkins.

To date, however, the bones of the Actaeon have not been positively identified. Wilbanks believes there are bits and pieces of it out there, but if there was any sizable wreckage he fears it was covered by the jetties.

Finding the cannons was enough for now.

“Shipwrecks are never where they’re supposed to be,” he says.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com