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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Sunday, February 14, 2021

“Two peices of Cannon Brought From Watertown to ye Towns”

The 3 Feb 1775 petition to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety about eight iron cannon can’t answer the question of what happened to those guns.

Did the congress assume control of them and add them to their other weapons? Or did they remain under the control of the four towns that had undertaken to equip them for use?

Or did the congress and the towns come to some sort of compromise, in which the towns continued to assume responsibility for those guns but expected the province to pay for the work eventually?

We don’t appear to have enough records from two of the four towns to provide definite answers. For Lexington, Alex Cain has written:
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. Records from December 1775 through the remainder of the war do not mention the cannons.
The Weston town records show no payments related to cannon in 1775. In March 1776 the town treasurer’s account for the preceding year includes 12 shillings “Recd. of Capt. Samel. Baldwin for the Use of two Guns Belonging to the Town,” but that price suggests those were muskets, not artillery.

On the other hand, we know there were mounted cannon in Watertown on 30 March. On that day, Col. Percy led troops in a march that was part springtime exercise, part an attempt to get the provincials used to seeing redcoats come through their towns. Capt. John Barker wrote in his diary:
The 1st. Brigade marched into the Country at 6 oclock in the morning; it alarmed the people a good deal. Expresses were sent to every town near; at Watertown about 9 miles off, they got 2 pieces of Cannon to the Bridge and loaded ’em but nobody wou’d stay to fire them; at Cambridge they were so alarmed that they pulled up the Bridge.
Lt. Frederick Mackenzie noted that march, as well as another on 10 April: “The 38th. and 52ed. Regiments marched out this Morning as far as Watertown.” Later, just after the war began, he wrote: “The 38th & 52ed Regiments marched once to Watertown, which indeed occasioned some alarm, and Cannon were fired, bells rung, and expresses sent off, to give the alarm.” So not only did the Watertown militia company have two cannon, but its men could move, load, and fire those guns, and the British army knew about them.

As for Concord, we have the documentation from James Barrett of what ordnance and other material he was storing for the provincial congress. That included:
Two peices of Cannon Brought From Watertown to ye Towns
Eight Peices of Cannon Brought to ye Town by Mr Harrington
Four Peices of Brass Cannon & Two Mortar from Col Robertsons [sic—Lemuel Robinson]
Thus, when Barrett wrote this note, he controlled two iron cannon secured by William Molineux in 1774, sent out to Watertown, and then sent on to Concord for mounting. But he also had the Boston train’s four brass cannon, the two mortars that James Brewer claimed to have smuggled out of Boston, and eight more guns from some guy named Harrington (which is a whole other mystery for me). And in March more ordnance arrived from Salem.

No wonder James Warren wrote to his wife Mercy from Concord on 10 April: “This Town is full of Cannon…” A royal spy specified there were twelve cannon mounted around the Concord courthouse under twenty-four-hour guard, three 24-pounder siege guns in the courtyard of the prison, plus the brass field-pieces from Boston back at Barrett’s farm.

In mid-April, after warnings from Boston, Barrett and his family and neighbors began to move those artillery pieces even farther away. Four cannon reportedly went to the neighborhood of provincial congress receiver-general Henry Gardner in Stow. But four remained behind in Concord at the courthouse, according to Gen. Thomas Gage’s local informant. I suspect those were owned by the town, and it didn’t want to let them go.

I still don’t know who Gage’s spy was, but one candidate is Duncan Ingraham, the merchant captain who had retired to Concord a couple of years before. As described back here, his son had sold four iron cannon to Molineux in October 1774. Those comprised half of the artillery pieces that the 3 Feb 1775 petition discussed. In other words, there was a 50% chance that the pair of cannon assigned to Barrett had come from Ingraham. Had the captain spotted what he still considered his own property rolling through town?

Once again, my thanks to Joel Bohy of Bruneau & Co. and Antiques Roadshow for sharing the document from the Massachusetts archives that added new clues to this inquiry.

TOMORROW: The cannon that didn’t bark.

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