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 27, 2011

“No other end is answer’d, but to waste Ammunition”

Yesterday I quoted from James T. Flexner’s biography of George Washington about the commander-in-chief’s response to the gunpowder crisis of early August 1775: “…he leaked word to the enemy (which their intelligence eagerly gobbled up) that he had eighteen hundred barrels of powder. He started a rumor in his own camp that he was almost embarrassed at having so much…”

Flexner’s citations for that paragraph pointed to two sources. One is a set of letters and orders that came from headquarters in the following days, which say nothing about spreading rumors to the British. The letters are all pleas to nearby governments and the Continental Congress to send more gunpowder as quickly as possible.

It’s true that the general engaged in a little subterfuge in ordering the army to conserve the powder it still had. On 4 August he issued these general orders:

It is with Indignation and Shame, the General observes, that notwithstanding the repeated Orders which have been given to prevent the firing of Guns, in and about Camps, that it is daily and hourly practised; that contrary to all Orders, stragling Soldiers do still pass the Guards, and fire at a Distance, where there is not the least probability of hurting the enemy, and where no other end is answer’d, but to waste Ammunition, expose themselves to the ridicule of the enemy, and keep their own Camps harrassed by frequent and continual alarms, to the hurt of every good Soldier, who is thereby disturbed of his natural rest, and will at length never be able to distinguish between a real, and a false alarm.

For these reasons, it is in the most peremptory manner forbid, any person or persons whatsoever, under any pretence, to pass the out Guards, unless authorized by the Commanding Officer of that part of the lines; signified in writing which must be shewn to the Officer of the guard as they pass. Any person offending in this particular, will be considered in no other light, than as a common Enemy, and the Guards will have orders to fire upon them as such. The Commanding Officer of every regiment is to direct, that every man in his regiment, is made acquainted with Orders to the end, that no one may plead Ignorance, and that all may be apprized of the consequence of disobedience. The Colonels of regiments and commanding Officers of Corps, to order the Rolls of every Company to be called twice a day, and every Man’s Ammunition examined at evening Roll calling, and such as are found to be deficient to be confined.

The Guards are to apprehend all persons firing Guns near their Posts, whether Townsmen or soldiers.
In other words, Gen. Washington gave the Continental soldiers every reason not to fire off their guns for no reason except the real reason: the army had to conserve powder until the Congress could supply more.

That might count as disinformation, except that those general orders were:
  • designed more to keep a secret than to spread false information, and
  • not really aimed at the enemy.
So we still don’t have a source for a deliberate disinformation campaign.

TOMORROW: Flexner’s secondary source.

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