By Charles Shabica
At the northwest corner of the Winnetka Village Green lies an old bronze muzzle-loading cannon I discovered in 1971 when I attended my first July 4th celebration in Winnetka. According to my friend, long time Winnetka Historical Society member and veteran, Phil Hoza, the cannon may have been given to the Village by U.S. Admiral George Dewey.
A close inspection of the cannon shows a crest with the letters “FI” and a banner labeled “BERTY” on the top of the cannon barrel. “MANILA 2 DE AGOSTO DE 1828 Pr Drl BENITO DE LOS REY” circles the base ring of the cannon. “FI” likely refers to Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain from an earlier time in Spanish history. Benito de los Reyes was a Filipino foundry master who cast church bells and coins as well as weaponry during the early 19th century. This cannon was probably cast in Manila in August of 1828.
A plaque on top of the cannon reads: “This gun was mounted on the Defenses of Cavite Arsenal (at Fort San Filipe in Manila) which surrendered to Commodore George Dewey May, 1898.” According to a Winnetka Village Council resolution dated October 6, 1942, the Village received in 1901, as a gift from the Navy Department, a four-inch piece of artillery captured at Manila in the Spanish-American War. The Council voted to scrap the bronze cannon and a second cannon that had been on the Village Common, a WWI howitzer, “in order that the metal may be used for new War material.”
While the WWI cannon was scrapped in December 1942, fortunately the Village Council changed their minds about turning the bronze cannon into scrap metal. In a memorandum dated November 18, 1942 to Samuel S. Otis, Village Manager H.L. Woolhiser, wrote: “At the Council meeting Tuesday evening November 17 it was decided that the old Spanish-American War cannon at the Village Common, which was authorized to be sold for scrap at the meeting of the Village Council on October 6, should not be disposed of at this time until there is a greater need for scrap metal. However, it was decided that there is a danger that some scrap dealer might steal this cannon from the Common in view of the fact that it contains several hundred pounds of bronze metal and therefore the cannon should be removed from the Common and stored temporarily in a safe place at the Village Yard.” If, in fact, the cannon was moved to storage in 1942, it had made its way back to the park by 1968, according to WHS records.
The cannon is a symbol of American victory over Spain’s control of Cuba and the Philippine Islands. The Spanish-American War was precipitated by an explosion on the USS Maine in Cuba’s Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898 which resulted in the death of 260 American sailors. Although the Spanish were blamed for sabotage, there is some evidence that the ship blew up for other reasons. When the U.S. demanded that Spain give up control over Cuba, Spain declared war. The U.S. then declared war against Spain on April 25, 1898. George Dewey, then a Commodore, was commanding the USS Olympia near Manila Harbor in the Spanish-controlled Philippines when war broke out.
Still hurting from the Civil War and the “Long Depression”(1873-1896), Americans, both Northerners and Southerners, needed a reason to bring our country back together. A war against Spain was the antidote to our national malaise. The sinking of the USS Maine was a flag waived and paraded by William Randolph Hearst’s ”yellow journalism.”
It didn’t take the American fleet long to capture the Spanish garrison in Manila, especially as the flagship Olympia was fitted with modem breech-loading rapid-fire cannons. Many Spanish cannons were obsolete antique muzzle-loading guns and mortars (short range cannon) that were no match for the Olympia’s. The cannon on the Winnetka Green is an example. After ten weeks Spain was defeated.
According to the 1898 Treaty of Paris, the U.S. became Protectorate of Cuba followed by Proclamation of an Independent Republic of Cuba in 1902. Spain ceded control of the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico to the U.S. for $20 million. To complicate matters, the Filipinos objected to the terms of the Treaty of Paris resulting in the Philippine-American War of 1899 to 1902. Although the Filipinos were defeated, fighting continued for another decade and it wasn’t until 1946, following WWII, that the U.S. granted independence to the Philippines. In 1942, in solidarity with the Filipinos, the Village Council had considered installing a sign at the Village Green describing the mount (original wooden support for cannon) that had ”been painted black and will so remain until the yoke of oppression now resting on the Philippine people has been banished and freedom restored.”
There are a number of other antique cannons and two mortars captured by Dewey in Manila and displayed across the United States. They are located in Three Oaks, Michigan; Livonia, New York; Canton, Ohio; Saint Louis, Missouri and Washington, DC. Admiral Dewey must have been an adherent of the “spoils of war belong to the victor” principle.
According to a memorial plaque, adjacent to Dewey cannons at the Eisenhower Executive Building in Washington, “Admiral Dewey, the hero of the campaign, directed that the guns be sent to the United States National Museum (now the Smithsonian Institution).” From 1900 to 1943, there were 29 such pieces from the Revolutionary, Mexican-American and Spanish- American Wars displayed on these grounds. Many were dispersed to battlefields across the country while some were scrapped for the World War II effort.” And one made its way to Winnetka. Although it isn’t clear how it got here, the Village of Winnetka has cared for it well.