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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Monday, February 15, 2021

The Guns that Didn’t Bark

One of my big unanswered questions about the Battle of Lexington and Concord on 19 Apr 1775 is why the provincial forces didn’t deploy any of the cannon they had just spent months collecting and preparing for a fight.

The guns that James Barrett had been overseeing in Concord were probably unavailable after being rushed into hiding-places in other towns. But what about the rest?

We can assume that the men of Lexington and Cambridge, towns along the British route, didn’t want to see an all-out battle along one of their main roads, with houses and possibly civilians nearby. Better to hurry the redcoats along than to make them desperate and angry with artillery.

But what about Watertown, which had actually deployed two cannon on 30 March, according to a British army captain? Jonathan Brown was “captain of the train”—Watertown’s own militia artillery company. The town wasn’t on the regulars’ route but was close enough to reach the road from Concord with mounted cannon. But there’s no mention of the Watertown guns coming out.

What about Newton, where a shot from one of the two cannon John Pigeon had given to the town summoned the militia company on 19 April? Those men reportedly gathered beside the cannon and then marched off to confront the king’s troops, leaving their most powerful weapons behind.

Other towns had also formed artillery companies, but those men marched out with muskets. Lt. Edward Thoroton Gould reported hearing cannon used as alarm guns during the march west, but neither he nor any other British officer saw them.  

Indeed, out of the scores of Massachusetts militia units that mustered independently on 19 April, sometimes zealously and sometimes after long conversations among local leaders, I haven’t found any that brought out their cannon as well. I haven’t read even a mention of that as a possibility under discussion.

Uncounted numbers of veterans of the 19th of April left descriptions of that day, some immediately and some decades later. In 1775 there may have been pressure not to mention the province’s artillery because that would acknowledge the countryside had prepared for war. Eventually, however, men did speak of topics that had been politically awkward before. Yet no one talked about cannon.

One possible explanation is that those artillery pieces weren’t as ready for combat as people had been saying. Back in February, representatives from four towns described the four iron cannon as “Nearly Compleated,” but 99% done isn’t done, especially if you’re going into combat. Provincial records show people were still scrambling to finish equipping some pieces in late April and May.

In particular, militia officers may have felt they didn’t have enough gunpowder for an artillery engagement, and the supply they did have was better divvied out to infantrymen. Or they might not have had the horses necessary to drag iron cannon across country and into battle—which farmer was willing to risk his livestock? For that matter, did the provincials dare to risk the guns themselves when there was probably bigger fighting ahead?

I suspect another factor is that on 19 April the men of Massachusetts weren’t yet ready to make an all-out attack on the king’s soldiers. Did they really want to wipe out hundreds of their fellow subjects? Instead of halting and capturing the expedition, wasn’t it better to keep it moving back toward Boston? Like a dog chasing a car, the Massachusetts militiamen wouldn’t have known what to do with that column if they’d caught it.


David Churchill Barrow said...

“Young man, What we meant in going for those redcoats was this. We had always governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean that we should.” (Old militiaman decades later).
I think you have it right that cornering that moving column to blast them with artillery would be counterproductive to their objective - they wanted them GONE, OUT. Leave us alone. Don’t let the gate hit your backside on the way out. Also bear in mind that “flying artillery” tactics would not be perfected until the next century, thus cannon would have been of very limited use in keeping them moving. The roving bands of Yankee militia simply wanted to kill and maim enough of them so that venturing out of Boston again would be out of the question.

J. L. Bell said...

The "always governed ourselves" quote reportedly comes from an interview 67 years after the battle, first published fifty-two years after that. While I think that sentiment was definitely part of what animated the provincial militiamen after the Massachusetts Government Act, I think it also reflects hindsight sanding away other motivations and uncertainties from April 1775.

Unknown said...

I've read my share of John Keegan, but am still nowhere near as well read as Henry Knox. I know Private Knox wasn't on the Battle Road, but I wonder if he would have supported deploying artillery in a battle line that rarely stretched more than 100 yards for more than 15 minutes at a time? Seems cannon and their unwieldy carriages would have provided too easy a target for retaliation--the precise opposite of the colonists' (ultimately successful) strategy of dashing from tree to tree, stonewall to stonewall. All the other explanations also still apply (shortage of shot and gunpowder, premature "flying artillery" logistics, etc.)