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, September 16, 2016

Guns from Governor’s Island and the Old Gunhouse

On the morning of 15 Sept 1774, Bostonians were buzzing about the action inside their North Battery the night before.

As I described yesterday, British soldiers and sailors had entered that harborside fortification and spiked all the cannon inside. That ensured  that those guns, normally used by a local militia company, could not be fired at the Royal Navy ships in the harbor—at least not for a while.

Whig activist Joseph Palmer assured Robert Treat Paine that those cannons’ touch-holes were soon “drill’d” so they could be used again.

However, within hours Bostonians learned that the maneuver at the North Battery had been only part of the British military’s work the previous night. The Boston Post-Boy had to report, “the Cannon in the Batteries back of Governor’s Island were removed by the General’s Order.”

Gen. Thomas Gage had thus secured ten larger guns from a hard-to-patrol harbor island. Even with the North Battery cannon back in working order, British soldiers patrolling the North End made it hard for the locals to do anything with those guns. The general definitely seemed to come out ahead in that leg of the “arms race” to control local artillery.

However, another development that night never got into the newspapers. Merchant John Andrews explained in a letter to a Philadelphia relative:
Ever since ye. cannon were taken away from Charlestown, the General 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 [them] away through Frank Johonnot’s Garden.
Those two brass field-pieces were small cannon—probably only two-pounders, compared to six-, nine-, and twelve-pounders in the North Battery and on Governor’s Island. But because they and the Boston train’s other pair were bronze, they stood out from all the other militia cannon in Massachusetts. The Patriots prized them. Gage wanted them back.

Eventually, as I claim in the subtitle to The Road to Concord, those militia guns became the Four Stolen Cannon that Ignited the Revolutionary War.

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