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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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

“Behold, the guns were gone!”

If you managed to read through The Patriot Schoolmaster to chapter 9, you would have found a scene of British soldiers going to a gunhouse, or small armory, in Boston to take away cannon, only to be stymied. It’s the sort of dramatic set-piece one expects to find in historical fiction but not in real life.

And yet this is what the Boston merchant John Andrews wrote to a relative in Philadelphia on 16 Sept 1774:

Ever since ye. cannon were taken away from Charlestown, the General [Thomas Gage] has order’d a double guard to ye. new and old gun houses, where ye. brass field pieces belonging to our militia are lodg’d: notwithstanding which, the vigilance and temerity of our people has entirely disconcerted him, for We’n’sday evening, or rather night, they took these from the Old house (by opening the side of the house) and carried away through Frank Johonnot’s Garden.

Upon which he gave it in orders the next day to the officer on guard to remove those from the New house (which stands directly opposite the encampment of the 4th Regiment [on Boston Common] and in the middle of the street near the large Elm tree), sometime the next night into the camp; and to place a guard at each end, or rather at both doors, till then.

At the fixed hour the Officer went with a number of Mattrosses to execute his orders, but behold, the guns were gone! He swore the Devil must have help’d them to get ’em away. However, they went to work, and brought out the carriages, harness, utensils, &ca., which they reposited in the Camp.

Its amazing to me how our people manag’d to carry off the guns, as they weigh near seven hundred weight apiece; more especially that they should do it, and not alarm the centinels. Am told their business was not executed above 10 or 15 minutes before the officer came as above.
Those four “brass field pieces belonging to our militia” which went missing in the middle of September 1774 are the “Four Stolen Cannon that Ignited the Revolutionary War,” per the subtitle of my new book, The Road to Concord.

Tomorrow evening at the Massachusetts Historical Society I’ll talk about who took those cannon out of Boston’s militia gunhouses, how they managed that feat, and what happened next. The event is free, and you can reserve seats here.

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