A Brief Histrionic Sketch of the Parrot Gun

by "the Unknown Historian" (Mal Stylo)

Here is the true behind-the-scenes story of the development of one of the deadliest cannons of the Civil War: the dreaded Parrot Gun.

In the late 1840's, an exotic bird craze swept the United States. Parrots and parakeets were imported by the thousands and thrived in the hospitable North American clime. By 1855 the bird rage had begun to wane and many parrot owners, bored with their pets, simply released them. Ere long, the major cities of the East - especially Washington City - were so infested that citizens dared not venture outside save but they carried a large protective umbrella or parasol.

Events reached a crisis state when General Winfield Scott, unable to dodge as quickly as younger, more nimble officers, was "parroted" outside the War Department on January 11, 1855 (the Third Maryland will reenact the 140th anniversary of this event in 1995; plan to attend). The bespattered commander-in-chief quickly drafted "Special Order 19" which read in part:

"...the Ordnance Branch shall post haste develop a mobile gun capable of clearing the air of these denizens, scores at a crack, with but a single shot."

Two models were speedily developed: a ten-pound parrot gun for medium and small birds, and a twenty-pounder for the parrots brought back from Florida as souvenirs by tourists. Many of these latter birds had been flushed down toilets by their owners where they thrived in sewers and grew to a right monstrous size (especially in New York City).

So serious was the parrot problem and the need for the Parrot Gun that thousands were cast with no real test of the guns or the concept. On March 12 1856, a six gun battery of Parrots blazed away at the parrots and parakeets congregated on the roof of the Capitol building. A few sleeping birds were hit but the principle result of the fusillade was to cause construction of a new domed roof to be commenced on the Capitol, which was completed in 1865. Remembering Gen. Scott's order to fell "scores at a crack," and because of the effect of the shells on the structure under fire, the gunners soon dubbed the missiles "crackers" and preceded each salvo with cries of "Polly 'wanna cracker?"

Cannister was tried with scarcely more success. While more birds were hit, the damage to buildings and bystanders from ricocheting grape-shot was, if anything, more severe. The 10 and 20 pound-Parrot guns were quickly put into storage and forgotten by all but a few wounded people and clients of several Washington City lawyers who had filed class action suits.

Miraculously, that summer the parrots (the birds, that is) flew back to South America. It seems they were homing parrots after all. They left behind, besides several shot-up buildings, tons of feathers which were quickly put to use by the Army in the M1858 Dress Hat, where they were dyed black and used as plumes. The side fastening device for the hat, often mistaken for a spread eagle, is in fact a spread parrot and is a tribute by the Army to an implacable foe.

As for the other Parrots (the guns, that is), with the coming of the Civil War some officers of the "Old Army" remembered them and their devastating effect on people and buildings, and sometimes parrots (the birds). Might they not also devastate the Secesh? They did, and Yankees too, when captured and turned on their former owners. Thus was the Parrot Gun - conceived for use in one national crisis, and used in another - used in the Civil War.

For more information on Parrot Guns, consult Lard's Collector's Encyclopedia of the Civil War. This excellent book also discusses the horse artillery version of the Parrot Gun, the Parakeet Gun.