J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, April 01, 2011

“Twenty tons of powder lately arrived”

As I started this series of postings about George Washington’s reaction to realizing on 3 Aug 1775 that the American army had far less gunpowder than he’d thought, Boston 1775 reader Charles Bahne reminded me that one high-ranking American claimed to have told the British that their besiegers had far more powder than they really did.

In a letter addressed to Maj. Edward Cane of the 43rd Regiment (copy shown at left), this man wrote:

Twenty tons of powder lately arrived at Philadelphia, Connecticut & Providence. Upwards of 20 tons are now in camp. Salt petre is made in every colony. Powder mills are erected and constantly employed in Philadelphia & New York.
However, that’s not our missing evidence for a disinformation campaign directed by Gen. Washington because:
  • That letter was dated 23 July, before the depth of the shortage was known.
  • Those “20 tons” would have filled about 400 barrels. According to Gen. John Sullivan, the official inventory from the Massachusetts Committee of Supplies before August was “four hundred and eighty-five casks” collected, so the letter might truly have reflected how much powder the Americans estimated they had after the Battle of Bunker Hill.
  • The man who sent that letter was Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., head of the American medical corps and paid agent for the British.
  • When Washington learned of the letter in October, he didn’t thank Church for misleading the enemy; he had Church locked up for treasonous correspondence.
No one believed the explanation for the letter that Church gave to the Massachusetts legislature:
that the only motive he had in writing was the publick good; that he took care to exaggerate our strength and firmness, with a view to dishearten and intimidate; that he particularly enlarged his accounts of our ammunition, at a time when an attack might have proved fatal, on account of the scarcity of that article; and that he was induced to the practice of art and dissimulation, which in such cases he thought admissible, by the hopes of obtaining intelligence from his brother[-in-law John] Flemming, who was much devoted to Administration, which would serve the general cause — as he had before gained information of importance by such means, which be had employed much to our advantage.
So Church claimed to have been trying to fool the British, but the numbers he sent were based on the Americans fooling themselves. Washington wasn’t fooled by Church’s claims—but in this case the doctor may have been telling the truth about his basic motivation.

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