Home Commentary The Way I See It: The Cannons on the Lawn

The Way I See It: The Cannons on the Lawn

People are asked to gather again on the Statehouse lawn August 3 for a School Rally as they did here to celebrate Juneteenth. Photo by J. Gregory Gerdel
Symbols change us. When you learn what something represents, you begin seeing the meaning behind it, instead of the thing itself. So how can I see a memorial as just a memorial? How can I see an eagle as just an eagle? 

This is where I end up, as I meander mentally and physically on my daily walks in downtown Montpelier. I stop by small parks to count the birds as they migrate hither and thither, to watch the flowers bloom and decay, and to think. One of my favorite spots is the Statehouse lawn. Last week, I saw a bald eagle fly over, and pointed the bird out to a dog walker. “Look up,” I said, and she responded with awe. Our national bird flying overhead feels special.

On that particular morning, as I lowered my eyes, I saw another American symbol that graces our capitol. They are blots to me, like tar spots on a maple leaf — the two cannons on the grassy embankment. They are steely, huge, and ugly.

The guns themselves are quaint reminders of our imperialist past and present. Giant cylinders placed on two identical pedestals, they point away from the capitol building at an angle, the line of imaginary fire just missing the building across the street housing the DMV. 

Plaques name them as “Steel Krupp guns from the Spanish cruiser Castilla, sunk by Dewey’s squadron in Manila Bay on May 1st, 1896.” They were given to the state by the US consul at Manila in 1902, shortly after the US fought a short and bloody war against Filipino revolutionaries.

Why were they donated to Vermont? Because John Dewey, the admiral in the naval action that saw the Castilla sunk, was born in Montpelier, purportedly in a house where the DMV now stands. 

I’ve read that when Dewey returned to Vermont after the Spanish-American War, he was feted by thousands as a hero. America was only just beginning to be a power on the global stage, and to have an important admiral come from our brave little state was something to celebrate. In fact, he’s the only admiral of the Navy. No one else has ever achieved that rank, due to a change in nomenclature in 1944.

So why is this a blot? Not because he came from Montpelier — he was kicked out of Norwich University for bringing sheep into the barracks, which deserves its own memorial, for the logistical accomplishment alone — but because the wars he fought, including at the Battle of Manila Bay, were ugly wars. Purportedly for the protection and for the independence of colonized masses, they could be more justifiably labeled as fronts for American expansionism, jingoism, and white supremacism.  

In the 1890s, yellow journalism bolstered American sentiment for war in the Caribbean, partially based on stories of concentration camps and repression of revolutionaries wanting autonomy. When the USS Maine blew up in Havana, off to war with Spain we went. Manila Bay, on the other side of the Pacific, was the site of one of three major battles that convinced the beleaguered Spanish empire to concede.

We won — we went to war to help the Filipinos and others under the Spanish yoke, amid resounding cries of “Remember the Maine” — and then we immediately turned around and fought the people we had helped, doing the same things as the Spanish. 

In the Philippine-American War that swiftly followed the Spanish-American War, the US set up concentration camps to control the population. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died, mostly due to disease. (Filipinos also committed atrocities against American soldiers).

The US also acted duplicitously. Dewey, for instance, worked alternately with both the Philippine revolutionaries and the Spanish, including holding a mock battle in which the Spaniards left Manila for the Americans to take it, to the exclusion of our Filipino allies. 

And when both wars were over, we didn’t leave. Rebellions continued for another decade. The US held the Philippines until 1946. We weren’t there for their independence, clearly. This was confusing at the time, too. Mark Twain wrote: “I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess.“

The guns on the lawn are a permanent memorial of “that mess.” But they signify tragedy, to me, not glory. The Castilla wasn’t even that great a prize. She was leaking, old-fashioned, anchored without a propeller, and wearing giant yellow and white peacetime stripes when she was used as target practice. At least 23 men died with her.

I feel sad when I see these guns. I begin to wonder: Is it worth mentioning their history to others? Few people know about this war. Why bring it up? I’ve thought about inviting Philippine officials over — a ceremony, words, poetry. But would that be enough? Or should we hire a crane and remove them? Erect a statue to something else? Put flowers in their bores?

I don’t know. But I think about it, every week, as I walk by, looking for a bald eagle, wishing I could see her as she flies for what she is — just a bird.