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, July 01, 2011

Killed “by running after cannon-shot”

I’ve written in the past about American soldiers trying to chase down British cannonballs for a reward. While it’s clear they did that, I couldn’t find contemporaneous confirmation of John Trumbull’s statement in his memoir that soldiers in the siege of Boston hurt themselves trying to stop balls before they stopped rolling.

I recently found an example of some kind of casualties during that activity. On 7 Aug 1775, Gen. George Washington’s military secretary Joseph Reed wrote to his brother-in-law Charles Pettit:
The enemy having more ammunition to sport than we have, divert themselves every day with cannonading our lines, but with very little effect, except where the imprudence of some of our own people exposes them to danger. Two were killed at the lines last week, by running after cannon-shot.
Did those men get in the way of the balls? Or did they recklessly expose themselves to enemy musket fire, or bursting shells? Alas, they’re not around to tell us.

(Photograph above of the Royal Irish Artillery at an event in Exeter, New Hampshire, by Roger H. Goun via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)


RFuller said...

Spent cannon balls, rolling along the gound, still contained enough energy to do a lot of damage to the hapless individual who thought he could cheat physics by stopping the ball's progress with his foot.

Two sources referencing the Napoleonic era, where the artillery was much the same as in 1775:

"Artillery fire was another matter. Even a very near miss with a
round-shot could cause bruising: in the Peninsula, Captain Carthew of the
39th found his legs go 'black as charcoal' after a ball passed between them.
A direct hit could cut a man in two: in 1814 a shot struck Sergeant Major
Thorp of the 88th in the chest and 'whirled his remains in the air'. Limbs
could be carried clean off. In his first action in 1799 Ensign Colborne saw
a man lose his leg: 'The poor fellow screamed so, and seemed in such agony,
that I hoped I should never have my leg carried off.' At Waterloo Private
Steel of the 73rd lost a foot to a cannon-ball that seemed to be rolling
gently along the ground: these were always more dangerous than they seemed.
He supported himself on his stump, yelled 'Damn you! I'll serve you out for
that,' and fired his musket at the advancing French."

Richard Holmes, Redcoat (HarperCollins, London,2001), 255.

"The principal projectile of guns was the 'roundshot', a solid iron ball
discharged with low elevation, which would strike down anything in its path,
and unless hitting very boggy ground would then rebound and bounce onwards,
continuing to ricochet until its propulsion was spent. Roundshot at the end
of their career would roll along the ground like a bowl, leading one officer
to compare Waterloo to a giant cricket-match, the rolling balls tempting a
steady player to drive them back with his bat! Even at this stage they were
lethal: for example, in Holland in 1814 one rolled towards Lieutenant
Stowards and Ensign Chapman of the 37th, who were walking arm-in-arm; it
carried off a foot from each man. It was claimed that even the wind of a
roundshot could cause severe injury: for example, Lieutenant John
Winterbottom of the 52nd claimed to have been wounded at Redinha in March
1811 by the wind of a shot, which although it never touched him caused an
extensive bruise on the hip which turned into a deep wound when the flesh
sloughed away."

Philip J. Haythornthwaite, The Armies of Wellington (Arms & Armour, London, 1996), 109.

J. L. Bell said...

My question is whether anyone in the siege of Boston actually “thought he could cheat physics by stopping the ball's progress with his foot.” John Trumbull wrote as if so many men did that the generals had to issue new orders. But I haven’t found those orders, or reports of those particular injuries.