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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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

How Malden Managed “Our Cannon”

On 21 Apr 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety officially set up its artillery regiment by sending for Richard Gridley, Scarborough Gridley, and David Mason, three of the top four officers in that unit.

At the same time the committee voted “That the field pieces be removed from Newburyport, and deposited for the present, in the hands of Capt. [John] Dexter of Malden.” That brought those guns closer to the siege lines. Dexter was told “to conceal the cannon committed to his care.”

Three days later the committee felt cautious enough about provoking further fighting to resolve:
That the inhabitants of Chelsea and Malden be, and hereby are, absolutely forbidden, to fire upon, or otherwise injure any seamen belonging to the navy under the command of Admiral [Samuel] Graves, unless fired upon by them, until the said inhabitants of Chelsea and Malden receive orders from this committee or the general of the provincial forces so to do.
But two days after that the committee rescinded that resolution and voted:
That the inhabitants of Chelsea and Malden be hereby desired, to put themselves in the best state of defence, and exert the same in such manner, as under their circumstances, their judgments may direct.
The war was on. And indeed, there was a fight off Chelsea on 27-28 May.

As for the cannon in Malden, that story got picked up in Deloraine Pendre Corey’s History of Malden, Massachusetts (1899). For a little the guns were hidden “in the hay in Captain Dexter’s barn,” but pretty soon everyone in Malden knew they were there. Then the townspeople started to prepare to use them.

On 13 June, the Malden town meeting voted “That some part of the Town’s stock of powder be made up in Cartridges for the Cannon to be used upon necessity.” Three days later, on 16 June, two men were sent to the army’s headquarters in Cambridge to “request that a person be sent to view our cannon, & advise where to make an Entrenchment, for our own defence.” The field-pieces that had arrived in Malden less than two months before were now “our cannon.”

Then came the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June. The British lines moved closer to Malden, and the Royal Navy was probing the Mystic River. People grew more nervous. Two days after the battle Malden voted “That Capt Daniel Waters be desired immediately to prepare ye cannon in this Town for use.”

As instructed by their neighbors, Waters and Ezra Sargeant went to the provincial congress “for direction in using the artiliry in this Town, &…orders to enlist a sufficient number of men to make use of them if necessary, & also to request some assistance from the army for our defence in our very dangerous situation.”

But by this time the provincial congress had already enlisted as many men as it could. It was shoring up the whole siege line and worrying about protecting the long Massachusetts shore as well. All they could offer Malden was free rein:
the inhabitants of the town of Maiden be [directed] to make the best use of their artillery they can, for their defence, in case they shall be attacked by the enemy, and that they make their application for assistance to the general of the army [Artemas Ward], who, doubtless, will furnish them with such detachments from the army, as they shall judge necessary and expedient.
Townspeople built earthworks near the landing place for the Penny Ferry from Charlestown, shown at the upper right of the map above. They prepared the houses near that site with “apertures” to shoot out from. And they waited.

COMING UP: Floating batteries.


Charles Bahne said...

A reminder that, in the 1700s, the town of Malden included the present city of Everett. So it included the north bank of the Mystic River, directly across from Charlestown. The Penny Ferry landing was by the present site of the Encore Casino.

Frank Russell said...

And it also included Melrose and the southern part of Wakefield. Capt. Dexter's land was situated north of the Medford Road (Pleasant Street) and covered most of what is now the west side of Malden and extended up into the highlands, to what is today the Middlesex Fells (then referred to as the Charlestown wood lots. So Dexter had plenty of places to hide the cannon. Many Malden folk enjoyed walking through Dexter's woods so he apparently did not stop folks from entering onto his land so its no wonder they discovered the hidden cannon. Mary Moody Emerson in particular mentions she was fond of such walks this in her diary.