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, December 10, 2018

“He ordered powder casks to be filled with sand”

Here’s one last story of gunpowder and sand supposedly getting mixed up during the siege of Boston. It comes from the recollections of William H. Sumner (shown here), who wasn’t even born until 1780. He later became adjutant general of the Massachusetts militia, so he got to hear a lot of older men’s stories.

Sumner wrote down this account of the end of the siege about 1825, and it appeared in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1858:
In the following year, we took possession of Dorchester heights ourselves. At the time they were taken possession of, as I have received the impression from some person—whose name I do not now recollect—[Gen. George] Washington had but little ammunition. In order to conceal from the soldiers the true state of the army in that respect, he ordered powder casks to be filled with sand, and that several loads of them should be carried to the heights by the way of Roxbury, where the right wing of the army, under Gen. [John] Thomas, was posted. By this deception, the soldiers were satisfied that the army was in a condition to defend itself, notwithstanding the reports that the supply of ammunition was nearly exhausted.

After possession was taken of the heights, hogsheads were filled with earth, and so placed that they could be rolled down upon the enemy to break the columns, if they should dare attempt to march up the hill.
Again, this has no support from contemporaneous sources. Washington felt himself well supplied with powder by early 1776. Gen. Artemas Ward was overseeing the right wing of the army from Roxbury, with Thomas under him.

The Continental plan to defend their quickly built fortifications on Dorchester Heights definitely  involved barrels full of rocks, dirt, and/or sand. Washington even wrote a special note to Ward about that: “Remember [the?] Barrels.” Author and early-photography collector Joe Bauman just sent me an email quoting the aged veteran Simeon Hicks’s pension application as stating that “he assisted in filling Hogsheads & Barrels with sand to roll upon the British should they attempt to ascend.”

It’s conceivable, therefore, that some Continentals or members of the militia companies mobilized for that final push saw wagons moving barrels toward or onto the Dorchester peninsula and assumed they were full of gunpowder, only to learn later they were (to be?) filled with sand. But that’s not the same as Washington ordering barrels of sand to be trucked around to fool his own men.


Byron DeLear said...

John, your sand/gunpowder series was really great to read. Any insight into Gen. Nathanael Greene's order to use spears/harpoons instead of guns due to powder shortage during the siege? I believe McCullough reports on this in "1776."

Also, the barrels rolling down the heights seems hard to grasp in terms of an effective military defense; certainly, it might temporarily prevent ascending ranks from maintaining formation, but for how long? And wouldn't this strategy be also indicative of a shortage of powder, i.e. using rolling barrels in lieu of cannon shot, etc.? Are there any reports of this type of strategy being particularly effective in an assault like this?

J. L. Bell said...

American commanders discussed using spears and pikes as early as July 1775. Among the men said to advocate for the idea were Gen. Charles Lee, Gen. Horatio Gates, and Benjamin Franklin. Gen. Nathanael Greene reported on the number of spears in his brigade at one point, but I don’t see him as such a strong proponent. Those weapons were meant to make up for the Americans' lack of bayonets, not a lack of gunpowder.

The cannon on Dorchester Heights were meant to threaten the town and the shipping lanes. American artillerists might even have had trouble aiming them down the hill given the poor quality of American gun carriages at the start of the war. The Continental commander definitely saw rolling barrels as an effective, low-cost alternative, though of course they never got a chance to try out the idea.

J. L. Bell said...

The 1745 Introduction to the Art of Fortification mentions “Thundering Barrels,” filled with some sort of explosive and rolled down a breach at the enemy. There weren't any explosives in the Dorchester Heights barrels.