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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Friday, December 07, 2018

John Brown’s Gunpowder for Sale

Yesterday I quoted a story from Elkanah Watson describing a trip to Medford with gunpowder for the Continental Army during the siege of Boston.

Watson’s memoir didn’t specify a date for that mission. We know from contemporaneous sources that Gen. George Washington was confident about his army’s gunpowder supply until 3 Aug 1775. Then suddenly Massachusetts officials told him that their reports showed what gunpowder they had collected without subtracting the powder that the army had used.

Immediately after that bad news, Washington wrote to the Continental Congress and regional governments asking for more powder. He issued sharp orders that Continental soldiers should not to fire their guns unnecessarily. (He did not, however, spread rumors to British informants of having 1,800 barrels of gunpowder on hand, as biographer James T. Flexner claimed.) More powder started to arrive, enough so that by September the commander was ready to propose an attack on the British Boston.

Elkanah Watson’s employer, the Rhode Island merchant John Brown (shown here), entered this story with a letter dated 3 November:
I having a Vessel arrived at Norwich [Connecticut] from Suranam which having brought a Small Quantity of Powder Viz. Forty four Cask Containing a Half hundred Each, I thought it proper to acquaint you thereof, but I am at a loss to determin which may be best for the General Cause for it to go to the Camp or to be Sold out here, so that People in General may be better quallified to Defend the Sea Coast…
With a postscript written the next day:
Since the above, Our General Assembly has applyed for the Refusel of the Powder. and if they Give the price which will make it as Good to me as tho the money had bin Layd out in mello. Viz. 6/ per ¶ Ct, must Give them the prefference.
The response came from Stephen Moylan, the Continental mustermaster general just elevated into the role of Washington’s acting military secretary. He wrote on 8 November: “As the powder you mention to have Imported, is disposed of, I have nothing to say thereon.”

More than two weeks later, on 21 November, Brown wrote again to say he hadn’t heard back from the general. Either Moylan’s letter never arrived or Brown decided to pretend it hadn’t since he still had powder to sell after all: “This is to Offer you One Ton of good Pistol Powder at Six shillings per pound here.” That was 50% more than Washington had paid for powder from another supplier in late October.

Moylan responded:
in your Letter of the 21st you make an offer of one ton of good Pistol powder at 6/per pound The General Will take it tho it is a most exorbitant price, he is willing to encourage the importation of that necessy article.

P.S. There are two Companys orderd from your quarter to this place, Governor [Nicholas] Cooke will inform you when they march you will please to Send the powder under their Guard in a Coverd Waggon shoud they have Set out before this reaches you must get a few of the minute or militia men of your Colony to guard it to this place
Brown presumably sent that gunpowder in December. It’s conceivable that he entrusted the shipment to his teen-aged apprentice Watson, who recalled having made such a journey with “six or eight recruits.“ Indeed, an escort of militiamen, if they were indeed men, might have made Brown more comfortable sending young Watson.

However, even if this was the mission Watson described, it’s clear that he exaggerated the details in his memoir. The army’s gunpowder supply never dropped to “four rounds to a man,” even at the crisis point in August, and that crisis was well past by December. Brown offered a ton of gunpowder, not “a ton and a half.” And the merchant didn’t “immediately forward” the powder to Cambridge once his ship arrived; he played two potential customers off against each other for a couple of weeks in order to get his high asking price.

Elkanah Watson may well have delivered gunpowder to the American lines for his master. But as to whether he supervised the shipment, met the commander-in-chief at his headquarters, or learned anything about barrels of black sand in the powderhouse, I suspect some of those details were embellishments to make the memory more interesting.

TOMORROW: A myth built on top of a myth.

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