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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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Two Small Cannon in Lexington

In Chapter 7 of The Road to Concord I described how several towns in Massachusetts moved toward establishing their own small artillery forces in the months leading up to the Revolutionary War. After all, what traditional New England town is complete without artillery?

I included every such town I’d come across, which wasn’t easy. While the book was in proofs, Gary Gregory of the Edes & Gill Print Shop told me how he’d recently moved to Westboro and saw a cannon mentioned in its records. So I quickly confirmed that fact and squeezed it into an endnote.

I don’t claim that The Road to Concord lists every Massachusetts town that looked into buying cannon or training with artillery in the seven months after the “Powder Alarm.” Assembling such a list would require searching every town’s local history and town-meeting records, most unpublished, since there’s no central source for that information. Alas, I didn’t have the time or the grad students to do that work.

I focused on the towns close to Boston, as shown on a map in the book. Gen. Thomas Gage had received intelligence about some of those guns, and a British officer had even seen one at the Watertown bridge in early 1775. I think that adds a new layer to the British expedition to Concord—those regulars were potentially marching into the mouths of cannon.

But that map doesn’t note big guns at one significant location: Lexington. In October author Alexander R. Cain shared his findings about that town’s artillery at his blog, Historical Nerdery:
Some of the guns, mostly iron cannons, were taken from coastal defenses around Boston and sent to Watertown. While there, two of the guns caught the attention of Lexington. Its residents quickly pressed the selectmen to acquire a pair of cannons for the town.

On November 3, 1774, the town selectmen relented and announced the issue would be addressed at the next town meeting. Specifically, “Upon a request of a numbre of Inhabitants to see if the Town will fetch two small pieces of cannon from Watertown, offered by said Town for the use of the Company in this Towne.” . . .

At some point after November 28, 1774, it received the two guns from Watertown. “Voted…that the Selectmen receive the two pieces of cannon with their beds [from] the Towne of Watertowne and give receipts for the same on behalf of the Towne.” By late February, 1775, Thomas Robbins of Lexington was already making ammunition cartridges for the guns. On February 27th, the town “Granted an ordere to pay Mr. Tho Robbins 1/9 in full for his trimming the (balls) & providing baggs to put them in.”

Unfortunately, what became of the guns after February 1775 is unknown. Lexington’s town meeting minutes from the Spring of 1775 were stolen years ago.
The records of a 17 October town meeting in Watertown refer to “pieces of Cannon now lodged in the Town,” suggesting that inhabitants hadn’t bought those guns, just found themselves in possession of them. That explains why Watertown offered Lexington two of those cannon the next month. (Yankees don’t give way expensive goods that easily.)

Watertown kept two cannon for itself. And Cambridge had one gun, of unknown origin. Is it simply coincidence that the Charlestown shore battery had contained five cannon in 1770, and all the guns from that battery had vanished early in September 1774? Coming from a battery might explain why the Lexington guns still had “their beds” attached.

Simply possessing cannon wasn’t enough, though. Lexington needed to spend £40 to buy field carriages to make its two guns useful in battle. Towns also had to pay for artillery tools and ammunition like Thomas Robbins’s cartridges, and militiamen had to train to fire those guns safely. That process required time and expense. It looks like none of the towns who had moved to create artillery companies had their cannon ready on 19 Apr 1775. At least, no town deployed artillery against the British army that day.


Jim Padian said...

The size of the cannons you mention would be helpful. Also whether they were iron or bronze. My Lexington research did not surface any mention of cannon assigned to the militia.

J. L. Bell said...

Sometimes the record doesn't offer complete information about such cannon. In this case, I'm certain that the Lexington cannon were iron since there are sources indicated the four brass cannon from the Boston train were the only brass cannon in the Massachusetts Patriots' hands at the start of the fighting.

As for size, that's an interesting question. The Lexington records call these guns "small." When in 1770 Capt. John Montresor examined the Charlestown battery, a possible source of those guns and three others, he said it contained five eighteen-pounders. An eighteen-pounder doesn't seem small by Massachusetts militia standards.

Finally, there's an important distinction between cannon that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress gathered and then assigned to different militia regiments in 1775 and cannon that towns collected on their own. In Newton, for example, a local gentleman named John Pigeon donated two cannon to the town, which then voted to mount them. Although Pigeon eventually became part of the Massachusetts committee on supplies, he wasn't acting in that official capacity, and those cannon don't appear in the Provincial Congress records.