Within the confines of history live stories. That’s what history is an abundance of, really: stories. Those stories are what can make history so compelling and so mesmerizing that it can leave any person starry-eyed. That being said, often times there are stories of embellishment, but as history has taught us, some of those tall tales have a shroud of truth to them. In the story of SGT Christianson, PVT Tumbleweed, and the Devil, one certainly would think to themselves that the story is too incredible to possibly be true. However, immediately chalking up a tale to the impossible is not appreciating the work of an author to their true worth. Likewise, it is not in any way appreciative of history to dismiss a story simply because of its awesomeness.
The Context of Time
The story makes several references as to its date of publication and the time frame of its sequence of events. I found no evidence of who wrote the story, or where it was originally published.
The story clearly references a time when the Clock Tower on Rock Island Arsenal, now dubbed Building 205 – home of the Rock Island District Army Corps of Engineers – was newly established. With the first stone of Building 205 (or Storehouse A, as it was originally known) having been first laid down sometime in 1862 or 1863, the story of course took place after this. The history of Rock Island Arsenal also includes the Rock Island Prison Barracks which were present from 1863 to 1865. Storehouse A was likely completed sometime between 1865 and 1867. The mention of Abraham Lincoln’s soon-to-be assassin (John Wilkes Booth) implies this is before his death in April of 1865. As a result, it is likely that this story took place in the midst of the summer of 1864 – possibly August. More justification is provided in further details mentioned below.
The mentioning of auto traffic, and the astounding prediction of the American flag over France and “far away” islands (Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii, for example) suggest the author at least must be addressing the topic on the other side of World War I and the Spanish-American War. Likewise, it is likely the article was composed after World War II due to the nature of classifying the cannon as a road hazard. As such, the most likely date of publication would be between 1943 and 1945, when the Arsenal’s workforce was at its peak.
The 1943-45 timeframe assumes the late SGT is not a fortune teller. To entertain the idea of this potential, if we assumed that he in fact was able to predict the future, the mention of the 1903 fire that destroyed several shops, as well as the hydroelectric power dam, indicates the story must be published post 1903. The mention of traffic hazards suggests that the author’s telling of the tale must still be on the other side of 1908. As a means of appreciation, the estimation using these presumptions would date the account to 1910-1920.
The reader should feel free to decide, but to keep these thoughts in mind.
The Sacred Object: The Cannon
The story references that a cannon with its muzzle pointed towards the earth below marks the site of where the SGT had broken the heel of the Devil. There is, indeed, a cannon at the juncture of which the author describes that splits Rodman Avenue from Rock Island Avenue. The cannon is located just outside of an old guard shack that still has part of the gate intact today. The boundaries of the installation have since moved beyond this and encompass both Building 205, the Annex, the Naval Annex, and several other ancillary buildings. The cannon is situated approximately 30 feet to the west of the shack, however.
Historically, cannons have been used to mark the gravesite of an important person, such as a General, or well respected service member. However, they have also been used as sign posts for gates and entries into installations. In the case of the cannon at Rock Island Arsenal, this is likely the case. Indeed, this cannon is not the only one that is used as a sign post. However, it is by far the largest cannon to be wedged in the ground, and is slightly off kilter.
The author specifies that the cannon at the time of writing was painted black and yellow to warn traffic of the hazard on the side of the road. It is possible that the cannon was struck at some point, either in the service of being a gate, or a side-road object. It would then make sense for the cannon to be clearly marked for motorists. The cannon’s current scheme is black, indicating that it has not been a hazard for some time. This also lends evidence to when the story was written, as the increase in traffic would mean that the author is writing post 1908, when the first mass produced automobile was put on the market.
The cityscape that is described in the story is relatively accurate. It is important to note that the wagon bridge in the story is not the 1856, nor the 1868 railroad bridge that crossed the main channel of the Mississippi River. A wagon bridge would not cross this channel until 1872. Instead, the wagon bridge being described is the bridge that spans the southern channel, known as Sylvan Slough, that crosses from Rock Island to Arsenal Island. This wagon bridge was situated at an angle, veering southwest (~200 degrees) to northeast (~60 degrees). The current bridge carries (as the previous one carried) Fort Armstrong Avenue, which passes by Building 205 – where the good SGT was supposedly keeping watch.
Having walked the approximate trail, it would take around six minutes from the start of the wagon bridge to the Davenport Gate (the closest gate to the location of the cannon) jogging. It would take an additional two minutes if PVT Tumbleweed approached the single access to the bridge from the south, and four minutes from the north.
“How fares the Arsenal?”
We are treated to this a few times in the story of SGT Christianson. Likewise, we also see mention of “her citizenry.” The fact of the matter is that at the time the story supposedly would have taken place, Rock Island Arsenal would have only had one incomplete building to call its own. The prison barracks on Rock Island were not associated with the Ordnance Corps, and likewise were not part of Rock Island Arsenal. Even if the story took place in an abnormally warm spring of 1865 (which it wasn’t), Storehouse A would still only be mostly complete. It is difficult to establish where this pride in the Arsenal comes from, therefore.
As for the citizenry of Rock Island Arsenal, at the time the story took place, only officers who were employed for watch over the prison barracks and a few soldiers on sentry duty for the Arsenal itself would have been residents there. D.B. Sears, and the Davenport family had since moved from the island, leaving only a military presence and captive presence. These would only be temporary residents as well.
In 1867, BVT BG Thomas J. Rodman would be brought to Rock Island Arsenal, where he would establish his plans for a grand arsenal. Up until this point, the arsenal was merely one of three separate locations for a national arsenal within the Union. The notion of “pride in the Arsenal”, therefore, likely would not begin until Rodman arrived on the island in 1867.
With there being no records of a SGT Christianson, nor a PVT Tumbleweed ever having been tasked to Rock Island Arsenal, the story falls apart rapidly. No gravesites on the post are isolated – save for COL D. M. King, and BVT BG Thomas J. Rodman’s graves. Ignoring that fact, many other factors contribute to the unbelievable nature of the story. The description of the 1903 fire is certainly one to raise question with. By the time of the 1903 fire, the area that now makes up the Greater Quad City area had been well industrialized and a well-defined population was present. Three newspapers serviced the region. The fact that no accounts mentioned the events as such should be a giveaway – especially considering the interest and importance of the Arsenal in the local area.
That being said, Sylvan Island does sit abandoned today. It is accessible openly for hikers and the public. People frequently find scraps from when Republic Steel Works was present on the island.
In addition, the cannon’s presence does not seem to quite fit the location of the guard shack that sits behind it. This likely allowed these stories to grow in some form of credibility as well. This coupled with the existence of caves that run under the west side of the island, where local Sac and Fox tribes believed a “great spirit” dwelled, certainly spurred the imaginations of storytellers.
However, at the end of the story, this sadly remains just a story. Regardless of how absolutely “‘Muricuh” a red, white, and blue cannonball destroying Hell is, such a notion is the work of fiction. So goes the tale of SGT Christianson, PVT Tumbleweed, and the Devil.