Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The westernmost casualties of Vicksburg?

Downieville is one of the best preserved of the enduring California Gold Rush towns, and one of the northernmost of the Mother Lode mining camps, situated on Highway 49 at the confluence of the Downie River and north fork of the Yuba River. It is the seat of Sierra County, and was named for Major William Downie, a Scotsman who was the town's first mayor (a historic marker in town claims that Downie promised to throw a bag of gold dust into the street if they would name the town for him).

Upper Sardine Lake, and Sierra Buttes
(photo Aug. 5, 2012, by DW)
My first Sierra camping trip was on the North Yuba, just south of Downieville, and for the first time in many, many years I returned to the area last weekend for a brief visit. Nearby Sardine Lakes and the Sierra Buttes are even more beautiful than I remembered.
I had forgotten about "Cannon Point," however, a memorial to Company K of the Sixth California Infantry (National Guard), formed in 1863 and headquartered in Downieville. Last Sunday I made a point to photograph the spot.

This cannon arrived in Downieville on July 1, 1862 (the same day as the culminating battle of the Seven Days Campaign, at Malvern Hill outside of Richmond), purchased by a Downieville surgeon. The 12-pounder was hauled out for ceremonial occasions, and sadly was the source of some casualties among the Sixth. A "premature discharge" (already you're wincing) killed two men in May of 1863. I've read at least two sources now (no doubt one copying the other) which have described the occasion of the accident as a celebration of the capture of Vicksburg, but the fact that it occurred on May 27, 1863, over a month before Vicksburg surrendered, indicates that someone published an error that has subsequently been perpetuated on the internet (and will continue to be until the end of time, or the end of electricity).

All sources I've encountered thus far, though, are in agreement that two men were killed. To wit, this source, quoting a newspaper account:

"By the premature discharge of a cannon fired in honor of the capture of Vicksburg, from the bluffs below town, Lieutenant M. M. Knox and Second Lieutenant William A. Donaldson were horribly mangled and killed. Knox was blown down the declivity two hundred feet, while Donaldson had his eyes blown out, his wrists torn off, and was otherwise mutilated.” 
 The account of the accident is related in, History of Plumas, Lassen and Sierra Counties, California, Fariss and Smith, 1882, page 461.


DW@CWBA said...

Another great post, David. Thanks. I always enjoy reading your 'California connections' writings.

Did you happen to copy down any identifying markings on the cannon? I bet Craig Swain would love to know that stuff.

dw said...

I could not find any markings at all on the cannon, but have queried a local historical society about it.

James F. Epperson said...

It could have been fired in response to the news that the city was besieged; it is also possible that the news of the siege beginning got morphed into "the city has been taken."

dw said...

Jim, that's quite possible. The May 19 and 22 assaults on the Vicksburg defenses would have been known on the West Coast by then (and the beginning of the siege, as you mentioned).