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 06, 2018

Elkanah Watson’s Story Built on Sand

This week The Atlantic published Amy Zegart’s article “George Washington Was a Master of Deception.”

Most of the examples are from the Revolutionary War when Washington was trying to fool the British commanders about his military capacities and plans. That was, of course, normal behavior for eighteenth-century generals, not to mention generals today. Even people who want to believe Mason Weems’s “cannot tell a lie” myth don’t begrudge Washington those untruths.

One particular example caught my eye:
After a summer of skirmishes around Boston, rebel gunpowder was nearly gone; Washington’s soldiers had enough only for nine bullets per man. To hide this potentially fatal weakness from the British while he scrambled to get supplies, Washington ordered that fake gunpowder casks be filled with sand and shipped to depots where they would be spotted by British spies.
The citation for this claim points to Elkanah Watson’s memoir Men and Times of the Revolution, published posthumously in 1856. This anecdote comes a passage in which Watson (shown above) discusses his apprenticeship to the Providence merchant John Brown:
On the 3d of July, 1775, Gen. Washington assumed the command of the forces then besieging Boston. He found an army animated with zeal and patriotism, but nearly destitute of every munition of war, and of powder in particular. Mr. Brown, anticipating the war, had instructed the captains of his vessels to freight on their return voyages with that article. At this crisis, when the army before Boston had not four rounds to a man, most fortunately one of Mr. Brown’s ships brought in a ton and a half of powder. It was immediately forwarded, under my charge, to headquarters at Cambridge. I took with me six or eight recruits to guard it.

I delivered my letter to Gen. Washington in person, and was deeply impressed with an emotion I cannot describe, in contemplating that great man, his august person, his majestic mien, his dignified and commanding deportment, the more conspicuous, perhaps, at that moment, from the fact that he was in the act of admonishing a militia colonial with some animation.

He directed a young officer to accompany me, and superintend the delivery of the powder at Mystic [Medford], two miles distant. Whilst delivering it at the powder-house, I observed to the officer, “Sir, I am happy to see so many barrels of powder here.”

He whispered a secret in my ear, with an indiscretion that marked the novice in military affairs, “These barrels are filled with sand.”

“And wherefore?” I inquired.

“To deceive the enemy,” he replied, “should any spy by chance look in.” Such was the wretched appointment of that army upon which rested the hopes of American liberty.
Like a lot of stories in Watson’s memoir, this one makes him look important. He was entrusted with ferrying a ton and a half of desperately needed gunpowder to the Continental lines. He had an audience with Gen. Washington himself (and weathered it better than that “militia colonel”). He was privy to the vital secret of the fake powder, but also wise enough to realize that telling the secret was “an indiscretion that marked the novice.” And all when he was only seventeen years old!

Then Zegart paints Washington as even more tricky than Watson did. The memoir said the powderhouse was kept full “should any spy by chance look in.” The Atlantic article says the commander knew the barrels of sand “would be spotted by British spies.”

The result is a great little story, but I haven’t found any support for Watson’s claim. Filling many barrels with sand and transporting them to powderhouses would have required a lot of people. The army would have needed a way to tell the barrels of sand apart from the barrels of genuine powder. And none of the people involved in this operation would have had any reason to keep that secret after the end of the war. Yet no one mentioned it until Watson wrote fifty years later.

TOMORROW: The contemporaneous record.


Donald Carleton, Jr. said...

If I'm not mistaken, sand would be heavier than the equivalent volume of black powder, meaning that those barrels full of sand would have been a real drag to schlep around....

J. L. Bell said...

A standard container of gunpowder weighed a hundred pounds, so at that scale people might not have noticed the difference. It’s interesting that there were contemporaneous fears about gunpowder being mixed with sand, but I haven't found any actual examples.