It may have been a 30-pounder Parrott Rifle, but to the Civil War soldiers at Cumberland Gap it was “Long Tom.”
Both Union and Confederate forces wanted to be in command of Cumberland Gap and of the Pinnacle during the four years of the Civil War. And, Long Tom was an important element in controlling the strategic location. Brought to the Gap by the Confederates, the cannon would become a part of the Union effort when the Federals had possession of the passageway. Each side claimed Long Tom twice during the period from 1861 to 1865.
Alternately referred to as a rifle, a cannon, or a rifled siege gun, it weighed 2.1 tons and with its carriage weighing 2,300 pounds required ten horses to pull it. Invented by Robert Parker Parrott in 1861, Long Tom was destined for a place in history and for a prominent place as an American legend.
Soldiers left their initials on the walls of Gap Cave (formerly Cudjo’s), and at least one of them left a drawing of “Long Tom” that is still visible to visitors to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Almost one hundred years after the rough drawing by a soldier, another artist illustrated the story of Long Tom in a magazine published by the State of Kentucky. The artist depicted soldiers helping force the cannon over the cliffs.
It was during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and considerable evidence points to the time of the Civil War, that “Cumberland Gap” was composed by a soldier in Kentucky. In that folk song there is a verse related to soldiers letting Long Tom drop over the cliffs.
Following the war, veterans returning home and visitors traveling through the Gap would talk about the battles of the war with specific reference to Cumberland Gap and the value of Long Tom in the battles. Some of the tales were likely embellished, but the legend was begun early and it lasts to this day.
Books that have incorporated references to Long Tom and that have influenced the continuation of the legend include The Wilderness Road (1949) by Robert L. Kincaid and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (2014) by Martha Evans Wiley.
In the fall of 1965, William B. Provine was featured in The Tennessee Historical Society Journal with a major article titled “The Legend of Long Tom at Cumberland Gap.”
Shortly before the Provine story, in the early 1960s, Long Tom was featured in a series of radio stories broadcast by radio stations in the Blue Grass State. These vignettes were collected by an advertising firm in Louisville on behalf of Kentucky’s Division of Tourist and Travel Promotion and provided yet another venue for the continuing legend.
The International War Veterans Poetry Archives includes a poem, “Long Tom,” by Faye Sizemore (2004).
She refers to the legend of a “…mighty Long Tom, a giant cannon used in the Civil War.”
For visitors to the Cumberland Gap National Park, there are many reminders of the Civil War battles including three cannon in place to help young and old alike focus on the importance of the Gap in the war and on the legend of Long Tom. The cannon are located at Fort McCook and Fort Lyon on the Pinnacle and at the Park’s Visitor Center.
These references more or less scratch the surface of recorded historical material. But, they remind us that the legend lingers for today’s population and for future generations as well.
William H. Baker, Claiborne County native and former Middlesboro resident, may be contacted at [email protected]