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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Monday, January 21, 2013

How Many Cannon Did Washington Have in 1775?

On 20 Oct 1775, Col. Richard Gridley of the Continental artillery regiment presented his commander-in-chief, George Washington, with an “Inventory of Ordnance and Stores necessary for the present Army, supposing it to consist of twenty thousand Men.”

At the bottom of that sheet was a section headed “Ordnance, Shot, and Shells, now in Camp.” That listed:
24 pounders, 5; shot, 449.
18 pounders, 6; shot, 260.
12 pounders, 2; shot, 149.
9 pounders, 3; shot, 1,175.
8 pounder, 1.
6 pounders, 2.
5 1/4 pounders, 4; shot, 1,134.
4 pounders, 7; shot, 1,475.
3 pounders, 9; shot, 3,079.
2 1/2 pounders, 2; shot, 1,009.

Total number of cannon, 41.
Total number of shot, 8,730.
Carriages, ladles, rammers and sponges, &c., complete.

10 inch mortars, 3; shells, 374.
8 inch mortars 2; 8 inch howitzers, 3; shells, 452.
7 inch brass mortars, 2; shells, 641.

Total number of mortars, 10.
Total number of shells, 1,467.
With beds, carriages, and implements, complet.
That was more than a month before Capt. John Manley captured the British ordnance ship Nancy with brass cannon and mortars aboard, and three months before Col. Henry Knox, Gridley’s successor, returned from Lake Champlain with more heavy cannon.

I quote this inventory to refute the common idea that Washington’s army had no artillery until Knox came back. It had dozens of cannon, including some that shot balls as large as any from Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga. Of course, like any good general, Washington wanted more.


Jimmy Dick said...

If I recall correctly the Continentals were critically short of gunpowder which made those cannon next to useless. I don't have my Ferling text for the exact details and while going through your gunpowder references here on this site I see the shortage didn't last too long. It does show how ill prepared American colonists were for a war and really gives an idea as to just how crucial French aid would be in the upcoming years.

EJWitek said...

The problem for Washington was not that he didn't have cannon but that he was short of gunpowder and had little confidence in his army. The army was also deficient in large mortars. Washington had to put his artillery into a position where they threatened the British Navy in the harbor and the British Army gun emplacements in the city; and he could only do that if he took Dorchester Heights. Once the colonists occupied the heights and put cannon and mortars in fortified positions,the fleet had to withdraw. Without the British fleet, Howe couldn't sustain his army.
Knox brought with him lead flints and, most importantly, 14 mortars, to include a couple of 13 inch mortars, which matched the best the British had.
Washington's anxiety about his army and their capabilities were displayed during the diversionary bombardment to take Dorchester Heights. Colonial artillerymen managed to burst 2 13 inch and 3 ten inch mortars through "inexperience."

Byron DeLear said...

So the questions that pop up for me are:

How many cannon did the Continentals have at the time of Dorchester Heights / March '76 (after Knox etc)

And how many cannon did the British have in Boston not including naval?

The shortage of gunpowder is well known -- continentals prepared wooden harpoons during early stage of siege just in case of another British massed attack over the neck ala Breed's Hill pushback potentially repeating the reason for retreat at the battle of Bunker Hill over the entire area. Of course British were exceedingly hesitant to mount another massed assault after Breed's Hill carnage -- what a surprise for them, the Continental “rabble” being so committed -- one of the bravest and most harrowing episodes in American history.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the real bottleneck for the American army was gunpowder. The colonial governments and smuggling gradually built the supply up from the low point in early August 1775.

There were two infusions of ordnance for the Americans: the Nancy capture in December 1775 and Knox’s return in January 1776. As a result, the Continentals had more than twice as many cannon and mortars in March 1776 than six months before.

The British had many more guns, especially if we add in the Royal Navy’s warships. Indeed, the royal troops left dozens of cannons behind, spiked or otherwise damaged, they had so many to spare.

Anonymous said...

Just an aside: after the 13-inch mortar called the Congress burst, it was repaired, the barrel reinforced with metal hoops. Peter Mackintosh -- the subject of the first short biography in my e-book "Don't Tread on Me: Photographs and Life Stories of American Revolutionaries" -- was proud all his life of his work to repair it. His pension application says, "The general circumstances of this app.t's service were as follows viz during the first term thereof he worked all night at Cambridge hooping a brass mortar which had been taken from the enemy by Capt Manly. Gen. Washington himself came to the shop to give direction about the work." -- Joe Bauman

Derek W Beck (Author of a Forthcoming Book on Revolutionary Boston) said...

I'm obviously behind on your blog, but I had bookmarked this one when you wrote it, wanting to come back to it. Upon reading it, I was very suspicious. In my own book research, I've seen much to the contrary. For instance, the couple of War Councils Washington holds on whether to attack Boston in part dissuade Washington on the account of lack of cannon and gunpowder (recalling this from memory, don't hold me to it). Also, Washington says to Knox in ordering him to Ft. Ticonderoga: "the want of them [the cannon] is so great, that no trouble or expence must be spared to obtain them." Why would Washington say this? And why did he need so few additional pieces if he had as many as reported above? It seemed suspicious to me. If true, I imagined it was due to the long American lines, and they had not enough to really provide coverage of Boston. But it didn't seem right.

I finally researched this, and I believe the information you have is out of context. (Which is easy to do, believe me, I feel for you! Your own blog has often forced me to go back and fix my own manuscript, which is why I bookmarked this posting in the first place, expecting I'd have to do so again.)

The sources for your post are in the Papers of George Washington, available in various forms, but I use this source from Univ of Virginia. In looking up the Oct 20, 1775 information, it appears in this database in two forms: 1) the letter from Col. Gridley, and 2) the enclosure itself, that you quote, as a separate item.

First, the entirety of the first (the letter) (the comment box here doesn't allow me to properly format, so I'll do this):

====================BEGIN LETTER======================

From Colonel Richard Gridley

Cambridge October 20. 1775

The foregoing Inventory of Ordnance & Stores are what I judge to be absolutely Necessary for this Army: Many Small things are omitted being Mentiond, as the Company of Artificers can make them, and many things can be supply’d by the Neighbourhood if wanted: It is impossible to give an Exact List of what may be wanted on all occasions: I have endeavour’d as much as the time woud permit, to Collect the Essential Matters for the Army; which are humbly Submitted by Your Excellencys Most Obedt Humbe Servt
Richd Gridley Chief Engineer

=====================END LETTER=======================

Notice the key words in the first sentence: "The foregoing... are what I judge... Necessary", not 'what we have' or 'what we counted'. (And besides, as you no doubt recall, Washington couldn't even get an accurate return of how many men he had, so it's hard to imagine he could get an accurate count of how many guns he had.)

I then checked the enclosure of the same, a separate entry in the database above, the one your information comes from. It begins: "Inventory of Ordnance & Stores necessary for the present Army Supposing it to Consist of Twenty Thousand men."

Thus, the enclosure confirms my interpretation of the cover letter.

Conclusion: This was not an inventory list, but a wish list.

As many don't read the comments, you may wish to consider a new post on this subject.

Kindest Regards,

J. L. Bell said...

The posting above quotes the version of Col. Gridley’s report in American Archives. Since then, a better transcription of the same document became available at Founders Online, and can be read here.

The document indeed starts out as a wish list for an army of 20,000 in the coming year, which was the topic of Washington‘s conversation with Continental Congress delegates that October. However, the section i quoted is headed, as stated above, “Ordnance, Shott & Shells now in Camp.” That inventory wasn’t hypothetical; it was what Gridley’s regiment actually had on hand.

That’s why this list of cannon is so haphazard, with so many different sizes of guns in odd numbers. If Gridley had been making up a wish list, he wouldn’t have asked for just one eight-pounder, requiring balls that wouldn’t fit in any other gun. He would have dropped that and asked for another nine-pounder to make an even four.

Derek Beck said...

Ah... I see I did not read the enclosure far enough... my apologies.

But I remain suspicious: how could there be so many guns and yet Washington thought "the want of them [the cannon] is so great, that no trouble or expence must be spared to obtain them"?

Do you think my theory of the American lines being too long to mount an offensive and also defend the lines as being the reason?

Or do you have an alternate theory?

I guess I'm going to have to tweak my manuscript yet again... thanks! haha. It'll be on the "docket" for the next minor update.


J. L. Bell said...

Washington was a master at writing letters and orders that suggested the Continental Army was in terrible, dire need of something—gunpowder, cannon, shoes, men, loyalty, &c. That didn't mean that the army was really about to run out, but a good commander always wants more resources.

In this case, I suspect Washington was also anticipating the possibility that the New York Provincial Congress or the commanders along Lake Champlain would say they needed those guns as part of the Canada campaign. He made a preemptive argument that it was very important to bring those cannon to Boston now rather than keep them in New York just in case. Plus, he was giving Knox a “blank check” to hire teams and men as he thought necessary.

Finally, I think Washington really did have a "great want" for those guns. They helped to double the Continental firepower outside of Boston. Months of waiting and the impending departure of much of his army had probably convinced him that heavy cannon were the only things that could break the stalemated siege. And they did help to make the British military evacuate earlier than Gen. Howe planned.

Derek Beck said...

Thank you for your feedback and insights!

J. L. Bell said...

Pleased to hear that you're back at work on your book!

Derek Beck said...

Thank you sir! Hopefully things will go swiftly, and you'll get advance notice when so.