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, March 28, 2010

Contending for Cannon Balls

On Friday I quoted a letter from July 1775 describing how American troops in Roxbury reacted to a British artillery barrage: “most of the cannon shot were taken up and brought to the General.—It is diverting to see our people contending for the balls as they roll along.”

Why would people “contend for the balls”? The memoir of artist John Trumbull, a young Connecticut officer during the siege (shown here in a 1777 self-portrait), offers an answer. Describing the time before the Battle of Bunker Hill, Trumbull wrote:

Nothing of military importance occurred for some time; the enemy occasionally fired upon our working parties, whenever they approached too nigh to their works; and in order to familiarize our raw soldiers to this exposure, a small reward was offered in general orders, for every ball fired by the enemy, which should be picked up and brought to head-quarters.

This soon produced the intended effect—a fearless emulation among the men; but it produced also a very unfortunate result; for when the soldiers saw a ball, after having struck and rebounded from the ground several times, (en ricochet,) roll sluggishly along, they would run and place a foot before it, to stop it, not aware that a heavy ball long retains sufficient impetus to overcome such an obstacle. The consequence was, that several brave lads lost their feet, which were crushed by the weight of the rolling shot.

The order was of course withdrawn, and they were cautioned against touching a ball, until it was entirely at rest. One thing had been ascertained by this means, the caliber of the enemy’s guns—eighteen pounds.
I’ve seen several historians describe provincial soldiers chasing down cannon balls or getting hurt doing so, and those who cite sources all point back to Trumbull. But I can’t find the “general orders” that Trumbull recalled, the “small reward” offered, or an example of a soldier getting wounded as a result. So I wondered if Trumbull’s memory was exaggerating.

But that Roxbury letter shows that soldiers were chasing cannon balls as they rolled, and taking them to a general. In addition, Elias Nason’s 1877 history of Dunstable contains this short anecdote from the Bunker Hill battle:
While Isaac Wright was sitting exhausted on a bank in front of a house in Charlestown, a cannon-ball came rolling along so near him that he could have touched it with his foot, and on being asked why he did not stop it, he said, “I then should have returned home with only one leg.”
More evidence that some new soldiers thought it was a good idea to stop rolling cannon balls with their bodies. But Wright, who was about twenty-one years old, already knew not to try.

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