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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Monday, March 24, 2014

Half a Royal Artillery Cartridge Pouch

Occasionally I trumpet about finding some obscure account of the Revolution or new link between documents. I don’t do much work with artifacts of the period (the powder horns I’ve studied are basically documents in conical form). But the same thrill of discovery applies to that side of historical study.

Joel Bohy is a specialist in military artifacts for the Skinner auction house, and he’s been assembling objects for an upcoming exhibit at the Concord Museum and the Lexington Historical Society. Recently Joel told this story:
In November 2010, I was at the Arlington Historical Society, studying the events of April 19th, 1775, that sparked the Revolutionary war in America. The Museum Director asked me if I was interested in seeing a British belt which had purportedly been taken on April 19th during the British retreat through West Cambridge, MA (now the city of Arlington). As soon as she opened the box, I realized it was not a belt, but a Royal Artillery cartridge pouch flap and strap, missing the leather pouch, wooden cartridge block, and brass insignia. [Joel’s reproduction of such a pouch appears above.] . . .

I knew that there were four of these pouches from the 1770s extant. One had been donated to the Charleston Museum in the 1950s and could also be traced back to April 19, 1775. Another appeared at the Gettysburg Antique Arms and Militaria show in 2009. There are also two examples in England, one at the National Army Museum, and another at the Royal Artillery Museum. Now I had uncovered the fifth. But where were the missing pouch, block, and brass insignia?

I found a clue on the back of the strap. A note written there stated that the pouch had been taken from a dead British soldier on April 19, 1775. (Records indicate that no member of the Royal Artillery unit was killed that day. A soldier may have tossed the pouch aside during the hasty retreat back to Boston.) The note also explained that in 1856, George Gray, a member of the First Congregational Church of West Cambridge, had cut the brass tabs and buckles from the pouch strap. These had been placed into a box with other objects related to the church’s history, and the box was buried during a ceremony on July 4, 1856. After more research, I learned that the church had burned in the 1970s, and a lead box filled with artifacts had been found. Did the pieces cut from the strap survive the fire?
Click on over to Skinner for the end of the story.

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