STILLWATER, N.Y. -- One of John Burgoyne's cannons is finally back where the British general and his redcoats lost it more than 230 years ago: the Saratoga Battlefield, scene of one of American history's most important battles.
After spending the past 40 years at a museum in Alabama, the cannon has been returned to the upstate New York landmark, thanks to a chance remark four years ago -- and some dogged investigative work by U.S. Army and National Park Service employees.
The rare, 555-pound artillery piece, known as a six-pounder for the weight of the ball it fired, disappeared in the early 1960s from a barn near the battlefield, officially known as the Saratoga National Historical Park.
"The long-timers here at the park had always heard about this cannon that was legendary among park staff," said Christine Valosin, the Saratoga park's curator.
Known in Department of the Army records as "Saratoga Trophy Cannon, Six-Pounder No. 102," the wayward relic from the Revolutionary War's Battles of Saratoga was tracked down to the Tuscaloosa Museum of Art. Acquired in the early 1970s by museum founder Jack Warner, a paper company owner and major art collector, the cannon had been on display for years.
In 2009, an Alabama man visiting Saratoga Battlefield remarked in the visitor center how the cannon on display there resembled one in a museum back in his home state. The Saratoga cannon he was talking about actually was another British six-pounder captured here in 1777 and loaned to the battlefield by a museum in Ohio. Longtime park Ranger Joseph Craig overheard the man's remark and passed the information along to park officials.
That set off an investigation involving historians, law enforcement in the Army and the park service. Valosin began compiling information that traced the cannon's history from its creation in 1756 at a foundry outside London to its surrender by the British when they laid down their arms on Oct. 17, 1777, 10 days after their defeat in the second Saratoga battle.
Many historians consider Saratoga the turning point of the war because the American victory convinced the French to join the fight against England, an alliance that eventually led to the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781.
After Saratoga, details of the cannon's travels get murky. Park historians believe American troops used the gun during the Revolution, and possibly during the War of 1812. It eventually wound up in the New York City area, where the cannon was displayed at Brooklyn's Prospect Park in the early 20th century. In 1934, the city loaned the cannon to the town of Saratoga for a public display commemorating the battles.
But the local display never happened. The cannon remained stored in the town historian's barn until his death in 1961, after which the gun made stops in nearby Saratoga Springs and Gloversville before being owned by private collectors in Connecticut and Florida and, eventually, Jack Warner, Valosin said.
As a trophy of war captured by the Continental Army, the U.S. Army still considered the cannon its property. After learning in 2009 where it was, Valosin sought the help of park service investigators and the Army's history experts to get the cannon back. A parks service investigator based in Atlanta was sent to Tuscaloosa to verify that the cannon on display was, in fact, one of the three remaining cannons Burgoyne took to Saratoga.
The cannon bore the No. 102 engraved by its British maker, along with the maker's name and a later inscription stating the gun had been surrendered at Saratoga on Oct. 17, 1777. When informed that they had a Saratoga cannon rightfully belonging to the Army, officials at the Alabama museum readily cooperated, she said.
"They were really interested in doing the right thing," Valosin said.
In late August, an art mover hired by the parks service delivered the cannon by truck to the Saratoga Battlefield, where it's on display in the visitor center. On Friday, the park held a brief ceremony to officially welcome it back "home." The Army has agreed to loan the cannon to the Saratoga park for at least two years, with extensions possible, Valosin said.
Park ranger and historian Eric Schnitzer first heard the local lore about the long-lost cannon when he started working at Saratoga in 1997. Today, he passes it every time he walks through the visitor center.
"I never thought in my wildest dreams that I'd see it," he said.