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The Wars of the Blue Whistler
Old West Magazine     Spring 1985
In 1846, the foundry workers at Springfield, Massachussets could never have forseen... The Wars of the Blue Whistler     by Martin Cole

One pre-dawn morning in 1911, while El Paso, Texas, was still asleep, an unobserved automobile backed up to an old Civil War cannon in the City Hall Plaza. The tail piece of the familiar landmark was hurriedly tied to the car's bumper. There was a muffled, "Let's go," and the famed Blue Whistler was whisked off to fight another war - a war across the border in Mexico.

Before it rattled away. The Blue Whistler, a 12-pounder howitzer, was already celebrated in fact and legend. It has served under two flags and avoided fate several times. Perhaps this sojourn into Mexico to fight with Madero's army would be the denouncement of a long, strange career.
The Birth of the Blue Whistler
The chronicle of the Blue Whistler begins in 1846 at the N. P. Ames foundry in Springfield, Massachusetts. Under contract to fulfill an order according to specification in Army Ordnance Manual 1841, the firm cast in brass a series of barrels 53 inches long of certain configuration. Something about barrel No. 39, perhaps a slight imperfection within the four and one-half inch bore, caused at the moment of discharge a distinctive whistle as the projectile hurled through the air. This characteristic apparently was of no serious concern; otherwise, ordnance inspectors would not have accepted the piece.

That the whistling cannon would be amusing to the artillerymen who fired her was a foregone conclusion. So it was little wonder that she became known as the Blue Whistler while doing garrison duty at Fort Craig, New Mexico.
Serving the Union in the American Civil War
In time, war clouds on the horizon heralded a bitter conflict between non-slavery and slave states. With the out-break of the Civil War. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, gave his attention to the vast western territories and California. He had little doubt that if the few feeble Union forts strung along the Rio Grande were subdued the Confederacy could extend its domain to the Pacific Coast. As a transcontinental nation the Confederacy would have great prestige in Europe. Furthermore, gold from California mines would largely underwrite the cost of war. President Abraham Lincoln, however, was also aware of the fort's precarious situation. To meet the threat of the Confederacy he stationed General E. R. S. Canby with an army of 3,800 at Fort Craig - and just in time, for the Confederate force of 2,300 Texan volunteers under General H. H. Sibley was marching north from El Paso, Texas.

The battle began on the morning of February 21, at Valverde, near Fort Craig. Sibley's position was located on the east side of the Rio Grande where deep ravines and exposed lava beds, offered a favorable defense. To reach Valverde, it was necessary for the Union troops to cross the river.

A cannon duel preceded the crossing. As the rumble of cannons echoed over the water, the whistle of one cannon could be heard by anyone who listened intently. Captain Alexander McRae and his McRae's Light Battery of 12-pounders, including the Blue Whistler, succeeded in dislodging a Confederate battery, thus making possible a safe crossing. Thereafter, he attempted without success to dislodge a Texas regiment.

During mid-afternoon the Confederates began a flanking maneuver. General Canby hastily ordered McRae's battery, together with New Mexico volunteers under Colonel Kit Carson, to a forward position. Too late, it was discovered they were sitting almost on top of an enemy battery hidden in an old river bed only 100 yards away. Discovery came when Texan artillery swept the Federal troops with a round of canister. A Texan infantry unit; giving a sustained rebel yell, charged over the river bank. The ill-trained New Mexico volunteers, facing fire and bayonet for the first time, panicked and fled, leaving McRae and his men to their fate.

McRae's men, firing a double-shotted volley, repulsed the charge. The Texans regrouped in the river bed. Another volley of canister from the Confederate position followed. Again the Texans charged. Again McRae's double-shotted volleys repulsed them. On the third charge, the Texans had the presence of mind to drop to earth when McRae's artillerymen applied fire to the cannon's touch-holes. Thus, they were spared the ordeal of direct fire. The courageous artillerymen met the Texans in brief hand-to-hand fighting. Captain McRae was slain on the barrel of Blue Whistler. While his blood was running out, Major Lockridge of the Texans likewise fell across the barrel. By now perhaps a hundred dead and wounded of both the Blue and Gray were piled around the battery. At that moment Union cavalry came to the rescue. McRae's survivors left the field of battle, leaving the 12-pounders to be taken by the enemy.

Because the New Mexico volunteers failed to support McRae, the battle was lost. The Confederate victory, in turn, made it possible for Sibley to continue northward and capture Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Sibley's main objective, however, was to capture Fort Union Ordnance Depot to resupply his troops from the military stores there. The objective was thwarted by the timely arrival of Colorado Volunteers on a forced march from Denver. Strengthened, the Federals moved south and engaged the Confederates in two days of fierce fighting at Glorieta Pass and Apache Canyon. When Sibley's supply train was destroyed, his command became utterly disorganized. It was every man for himself. The sick and wounded were abandoned. Demoralized Texans straggled southward toward the sanctuary of El Paso. Those who did not die enroute arrived more dead than alive. This disastrous rout ended the Civil War in the west. The forts along the Rio Grande were never threatened again.
Capture by the Confederacy
When Blue Whistler and companion cannons involuntarily changed flags at Valverde, they came under the command of Captain Trevanion Teel. He promptly took them on the northward campaign. What was noticeable, and remained noticeable was that the blood of one or both fallen officers had fused into the hot barrel, staining it. From captured artillerymen at Valverde, Teel learned this particular cannon was affectionately called Blue Whistler. While other cannon may have remained nameless, Blue Whistler continued to live in fame among the Confederates.

In spite of added fire power from the captured cannon, the Confederates were turned back at Glorieta Pass and Apache Canyon. When the hard pressed, retreating Teel reached Albuquerque, he was faced with no other choice but to abandon the captured 12-pounders. He decided not to let them fall into Union hands. Instead, he buried the barrels. On a cold March night, he and a detachment of men dug a shallow trench in a corral. There, four of the 12-pounders were lowered and covered. The dirt was soon tramped by hooves that would obliterate signs of the digging. The four other cannons were buried nearby at San Marshceell.
Recovery of the Blue Whistler
Time passed. The shameful war ended. Those who survived began building a new nation. While the memory of conflict remained indelible for most veterans, few looked back to recall it except on occasions. It was not until August, 1889, that Teel had occasion to look back nearly 30 years. When he did it set in motion the recovery of the buried cannon.

It was a long train ride from Kansas City to El Paso; Trevanion Teel, now a successful lawyer, was returning from a legal trip. On the same train was Charles Crawford, the "poet scout" of Union army fame. To pass the time, the two veterans began reminiscing about the war.

"By the way, Teel," said Crawford, "weren't you mixed up in burying some of our cannon?" When Teel told of how they were hidden away, Crawford asked, "Do you think you could still locate the spot where they were buried?" "I feel confident I can," replied the former Confederate Officer.

The upshot of the conversation resulted in the two men's meeting in Albuquerque. They were given permission by city officials to dig and claim the cannon. Teel discovered the corral no longer existed. Although the character of the land had changed considerably, still certain landmarks offered clues to the cannon's location. "Dig here," he told a helper.

The earth was quickly turned but no cannon were found. "All right, now try here," said Teel, indicating a place six feet away. Shovels struck metal. Moments later the cannon were lifted to the surface. Crawford wanted one cannon presented to Saint Joseph, Missouri, his hometown, and his request was complied with. Denver received a cannon as a memorial to the Colorado Volunteers whose timely presence saved the West for the Union. Albuquerque accepted a gift of another.

Regarding No. 39, Teel stated, "I am going to keep this cannon. The Federal soldiers called it Blue Whistler, because of a peculiar sound it made when discharged, and the Confederates adopted the name."
Blue Whistler becomes a McGinty Cannon
Newspaper stories of Albuquerque's celebration of Teel's find prompted the McGinty Club of El Paso to wire Teel. Would he make the Blue Whistler available to the club, the telegram petitioned.

The McGinty Club, mainly a musical band replete with colorful uniforms, gave concerts at the Plaza, played for funerals and weddings, and welcomed important visitors. It had had the distinction of welcoming President Benjamin Harrison and President William McKinley. The Blue Whistler could be a companion piece to the 6-pounder mountain howitzer owned by the McGinty Club. Two cannon, instead of one, would add emphasis to celebrations and especially the mock battles held on the Fourth of July.

Yes, replied Teel. In due time, the Blue Whistler, remounted on a carriage, was presented with appropriate ceremony.
The McGinty Cannon goes to Mexico
Again time passed. Shortly after the turn of the century it was obvious "the good old days" of the McGinty Club were nearing an end. In 1901 the band made its last full-dress appearance. The Blue Whistler was given a new home at the City Hall Plaza where it remained an object of passing interest, until March 17, 1911. During that dark night it was spirited away.

"General belief is that insurrectos have El Paso's historic cannon," declared the El Paso Herald the following day.

The Blue Whistler was indeed appropriated to aid Francisco Madero's insurrectos in attempting to dislodge President Porfirio Diaz's government troops at Ciudad Ju醨ez. Since the days of the Civil War, muzzle-loading guns had given way to breech-loading, and cannon balls were no longer used. But these drawbacks were of little consequence for Mexicans fighting for idealistic reforms.

To set the stage for the Blue Whistler's participation in the Madero revolution, the not-so-neutral United States unofficially permitted overt aid by American sympathizers in El Paso, Douglas, and other border towns. In El Paso, Dr. Ira J. Bush was the prime mover of American-Mexican intrigue. Sometime previously he had entertained Governor Abraham Gonzales of Chihuahua. The governor remarked, "We could use that gun if we had it in Mexico."

When Gonzales gave his blessing for the Madero revolution, Bush recalled the chance remark. With the help of Mrs. Monroe Harper, former wife of Major Teel, and her son Albert Hatcher, they "liberated" the old field piece. For a few days Blue Whistler was hidden in a barn. Black powder was needed for the howitzer and was obtained in a shipment from Denver. When it arrived, Blue Whistler was taken apart and loaded on the bed of a wagon. Added was a covering of hay and the household effects of a poor Mexican family. Completing the guise was the Molina family perched on top of the load. They were stopped several times by American militiamen patrolling the river road. The perfunctory searches failed to reveal the hidden cannon. After smuggling Blue Whistler across the Rio Grande, Molina wired Dr. Bush, "The baby has arrived."

Madero's ragtag army was made up mainly of Pancho Villa's insurrectos, and the soldaderas of General Pascual Orozco. While Madero's force numbered some 3,000, only two cannon supported the ranks. Aside from the Blue Whistler, Villa had an ancient Krupp field piece. The artillery was entrusted to a Frenchman. A reporter described him as, "a dainty little chap who wore a pair of kid gloves."

Before the revolutionary army closed in on Ciudad Ju醨ez, it first had to reduce strongholds at Ojina and Camargo. This was accomplished with relatively little effort after Blue Whistler and the Krupp pulverized defensive adobe walls. Ciudad Ju醨ez, however, was more formidable. The garrison commanded by General Juan Navarro was strongly fortified, and armed with French machine guns.

At great risk, thousands of El Pasoans witnessed the battle raging in full view directly across the Rio Grande. American homes were peppered by stray bullets, and five Americans met their deaths in this manner.

One reporter described the scene. "The rebels moved in no formation whatsoever, just an irregular stream of them, silhouettes of men and rifles . . . . They would fight awhile and then come back to rest, sleep and eat, returning refreshed to the front."

Regarding the two-cannon bombardment, he wrote, "A shot struck the Federal's water tank in their barracks, a lucky hit which destroyed most of the defenders' water supply and which had much to do with the fall of the town."

Did the Blue Whistler fire the decisive round? Perhaps. At least it's a 50/50 assumption.
After the Mexican Revolution
When the smoke of war cleared away and Diaz was dethroned, the peace of Mexico was assured for the time being. It was then the Blue Whistler came back to El Paso with all the honors of a conquering hero.

On the afternoon of August 18, 1911, the veteran field piece of two wars, adorned with Mexican and American flags, and pulled by two pair of mules, approached the international bridge. Accompanying the Blue Whistler were two companies of Mexican soldiers, together with bugles and drums, led by General Orozco and staff. Midway across the bridge the contingent halted before the mayor and dignitaries of El Paso. As townspeople of both nations looked on, General Orozco paid a glowing tribute to the part played by the Blue Whistler. The soldiers presented arms, and the formal presentation was made.

An automobile replaced the pulling power of the mules; the procession drove to the City Hall Plaza, and the Blue Whistler was home again, its mission completed. It remained there until 1936, when it was moved to the Texas College of Mines, not the University of Texas at El Paso.

Unfortunately while on display there, it was the object of a student prank. It was stolen, hitched to a car, and taken on a wild ride. It's carriage broken, the barrel was relegated to basement storage where it remained until 1961.
Mr.Cole obviously was unaware of the September 24, 1942 presentation of the McGinty 6-pounder cannon to the Big Scrap Drive - vrw Then it was presented to the new Eastwood High School on McRae Boulevard, named for Captain McRae killed on its barrel.

Aware of McRae's dramatic death and the history of Blue Whistler, the students adopted a Civil War motif for their band, and called themselves "Eastwood Troopers." A fitting and meaningful school spirit has been built around Blue Whistler. Thus the venerable relic remains an object of esteem and affection.
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