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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Thursday, April 21, 2011

“With two balls each time, and with well directed aim”

J. W. Hanson’s History of the Town of Danvers (1848) prints part of a speech that that veteran Gideon Foster delivered when laying the cornerstone of that town’s Revolutionary War monument (shown at right) in 1835. Foster described how his militia company had marched on 19 Apr 1775:

I was then 26 years of age. About ten days before, I had been chosen to command a company of minute-men, who were at all times to be in readiness at a moment’s warning. They were so ready. They all assembled on the very spot where we are this day assembled:—they all went; and in about four hours from the time of meeting, they travelled on foot (full half the way upon the run) sixteen miles, and saluted the enemy. This they did most effectually,—as the records of that day most clearly prove.

I discharged my musket at the enemy a number of times (I think eleven,) with two balls each time, and with well directed aim. My comrade (Mr. Cleaves of Beverly) who was then standing by my side, had his finger and ramrod cut away by a shot from the enemy.

Whether my shots took effect, I cannot say; but this I can say, if they did not, it was not for the want of determined purpose, in him who sent them.
I first took note of this passage as yet another example of someone shooting two balls at once, as likely happened at the Boston Massacre. Some folks have said it would be foolish to try to shoot two balls from a flintlock musket; all I can say is that men of the eighteenth century did it.

After the British evacuation, Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke billed Massachusetts for treating:
Nathaniel Cleaves of Beverly
wounded in Lexington Battle
To Amputating his finger, sutures &c
To 5 dressings Do.
Holyoke’s treatment lasted from 20 April to 24 May, and cost 12 shillings.

While the Danvers men traveled on foot, Cleaves rode from Beverly. We know that because he asked to be reimbursed £12 for his lost horse, saddle, and bridle. He got £2.12s.

And speaking of Beverly, I’ll repeat the announcement that on Monday, 25 April, at 9:30 A.M., I’ll speak at that town’s library on “The Lost and Legendary Riders of April 19th.” I’m afraid that Cleaves doesn’t make the list.


Brett said...

You can shoot two balls easily from a musket, they were almost all smoothbores, shotguns by today's standards and were often loaded with shot when hunting. The musket balls used were frequently loose fitting to make loading faster and easier.

When loaded like this you can't easily carry the musket around while loaded unless you use wadding on top to hold the balls in place, but when you are just loading and firing you can skip the wadding, drop the balls down, tamp it with the ram rod to make sure they went all the way down and then fire.

Loading two balls is much less accurate than loading one tighter ball, again like a shotgun the smaller balls spread out unpredictably, but when firing in a line of men a mass of inaccurate balls going at the enemy is still bound to hit some of them. The drill of the period was focused on the speed and volume of fire rather than the accuracy.

J. L. Bell said...

Several years ago one of the basic cable television channels was producing a program on the Boston Massacre, and the issue of firing two balls from one gun came up. The program’s firearms expert apparently pooh-poohed the idea. Meanwhile, I was sending primary sources from March 1770 showing British regulars loaded that very night with “a brace of balls.” Since then my ears prick up whenever I see more evidence from the eighteenth century of the practice.

In the Massacre, accepting that most of the soldiers had two balls in their guns helps to explain the number of casualties, and the firing pattern of the balls that killed Crispus Attucks and wounded Edward Payne.

It’s notable that in his speech Foster emphasized both firing two balls and taking aim, even though a brace of balls isn’t as accurate as one.

Brett said...

You would certainly still aim, but all you are doing is trying to get it into the area. With a single ball on the first shot from either my Brown Bess or my Charleville I can can hit a plate sized target at seventy yards or so with some consistency. With a smaller ball or a couple of balls I can likely hit a man sized target, but it is luck where it will hit. The balls could go high or low.

When we shot competitively with muskets we set up a line of man sized targets and fired as a line. We counted any hit on the targets as a score and as a line we could get a good number of hits, but after the first few shots the balls start to go all over. By the time we have fired eleven shots we are hitting the targets on either side of where we are aiming and the hits can be all over.

Now we were firing at boards that were not firing back at us and are sportsmen, not real soldiers so take all that with a grain of salt but the physical elements of what is going on are the same. More balls at close range will likely run up casualties, but I think the effectiveness in real battles would drop off when volleying at range as the balls scatter more.

Charles Bahne said...

I guess that Nathaniel Cleaves is a lost rider of April 19, just not a legendary one.

J. L. Bell said...

I think we should give credit for being “lost” where it’s due, to Cleaves’s horse.

Robert S. Paul said...

Now I want to fire a brace of balls next time I take the Bess to the range.

If I do, I'll let you know if I die from it.

Brett said...

Just remember to use smaller balls, not the size that needs to be rammed down, they should just drop in. Two tight balls rammed home might not kill you, but I suspect it would be pretty unpleasant.

RFuller said...

The recoil alone from firing two musket balls on top of a military charge in a Long Land Pattern Musket will be punishing enough. The accuracy suffers, too. I don't recommend trying this at home. Ask me how I know!