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, September 19, 2016

Cannon to Reappear at Grotonfest, 24 Sept.

One of the events of this Saturday’s Grotonfest will be the Groton Historical Society’s unveiling of a Revolutionary-era cannon.

The Groton Herald and Nashoba Valley Voice have both run stories about local curator Earl Carter’s work restoring that iron cannon and building a (naval) carriage for it. The Herald’s online story includes a photograph of the markings on the gun, including the royal monogram.

However, in relaying Carter’s understanding of the cannon’s history, the Herald story raises questions:
The cannon was captured when the British gunboat H.M.S. Diana, fitted with four cannon and swivel guns, sailed up Chelsea Creek from Boston Harbor to engage Colonial forces. Exposed to heavy gunfire, the British were forced to abandon Diana at about 10 pm. When British Lieutenant [Thomas] Graves abandoned Diana, he transferred his men to HMS Britannia, which was successfully towed to deeper water. Unmanned, Diana drifted and ran aground on the Mystic River side of the Chelsea coast, tipping onto one side.

American forces, including the eight Groton Minutemen, commanded by Asa Lawrence, boarded the Diana and removed four cannon, one of which is pictured on the front page of the paper. Other American forces rapidly removed everything of value, including other guns, rigging, sails, clothing, and money. They laid hay under the stern to serve as kindling, and the vessel was set on fire at about 3 a.m. to prevent it from falling back into British hands.

Twenty days later, these same four captured cannon were deployed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Three of the four cannon were lost in the battle, with this one cannon remaining in American hands. Immediately following the battle, a great amount of the armament and gunpowder, including this cannon, were taken to Col. [James] Barrett’s farm in Concord for safe hiding from the British. But, soon, the British learned of this hiding place and sent a large contingent to confiscate these military stores.
The same narrative appears in the video accompanying the Valley Voice article.

However, the “large contingent” of British soldiers sent to confiscate weapons at Barrett’s farm arrived on 19 Apr 1775, one month before the fight over the Diana and two months before the Battle of Bunker Hill.

In addition, the Massachusetts artillery regiment got six cannon onto the Charlestown peninsula during Bunker Hill and lost five—all “4 pounders,” according to Lt. Richard Williams of His Majesty’s 23rd Regiment.

Neither newspaper story lays out the historical documentation for that narrative—which, of course, is not what newspaper stories usually do. But I hope there are clear answers to these questions:
  • What size is this iron cannon? What other physical evidence does the gun itself carry? 
  • What paper trail traces the cannon from the Diana into the New England army and through the war? In researching The Road to Concord I found that Col. Richard Gridley’s Massachusetts artillery regiment did a lousy job with paperwork, and the Continental Army not much better when it came to tracking individual guns.
  • When does this particular cannon surface in Groton records? The town had an unusually active, document-loving local historian in Samuel Abbott Green (1830-1919). I found no mention of a local Revolutionary cannon in his books, even in the section of his Groton during the Revolution that discusses how the Massachusetts Committee of Safety assigned “four six-pounders” to the town on 15 Apr 1775. (It’s not clear the committee had time to ship those guns to Groton before the war began.)
There were cannon in Groton as early as 1808 because the town had its own militia artillery company. In that year (according to Green in his Natural History and the Topography of Groton) the Federalist Columbian Centinel reported that the town’s Independence Day celebration had been spoiled by partisan feuding within the company:
Capt. [James] Lewis [1761-1828], of the Groton Artillery, (a demo[crat].) tho’ courteously invited to appear with his company to celebrate the day, which gave our country birth, not only meanly denied Lieut. [Solomon] Carleton [1773-1856] and his company the use of the cannon on the occasion, but unsuccessfully endeavored to dissuade many from the celebration.
That gathering toasted the “Concord Artillery” instead. Even more specific, at a Lawrence Academy ceremony in 1854, Abbott Lawrence (1792-1855) shared a youthful memory of “the Groton artillery, with their two enormous guns—three pounders.”

According to the Valley Voice, “In 1972, the Groton Historical Society re-discovered [the cannon] behind a building near Lawrence Academy. Someone had built a miniature outdoor display…[but] the barrel was covered in vines ‘30 to 40 years old’.” So the cannon’s provenance seems clear for the last fifty years, at least.

4 comments:

G. Thomas Fitzpatrick said...

I can see that the caliber is quite important in helping to pin down the gun's provenance. But wouldn't it be just typical if it turned out to be neither a 3-pounder, nor a 4-pounder, nor a 6-pounder?

J. L. Bell said...

I sense there were a lot of “irregulars” in the early American artillery corps.

This one has some markings on it which could help to identify it—if anyone bothered to note down those markings and keep the notes.

Anonymous said...

Did your visit to Groton offer any revision to your opinion about this cannon? Is the research as flawed as you indicated? Perhaps a few words about what you found.

J. L. Bell said...

I went out to Groton for this event and had a long talk with Earl Carter. I saw:
1) what is definitely an iron four-pounder produced for George III's military.
2) a beautifully recreated naval carriage, all the ironwork done by hand.
3) no documentation linking the cannon to the siege of Boston, or provenance extending back before the 1970s or so.

I urged Earl to write up his research. He's got a large library of material about Groton, so it's possible he has sources I haven't been able to find. But at this point how a George III-era cannon—and it's definitely a George III-era cannon—got to the town is still a mystery to me.