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, July 12, 2021

The Board of War and Ordnance’s Rattlesnake

Another place we see snake symbolism in Revolutionary America is the seal of the Continental Congress’s board of war and ordnance, adopted in 1778.

We don’t know who designed this emblem, but I imagine the conversation went something like this.

“All right, gentlemen, as you asked, I added the breastplate and the Liberty Cap to pile of weapons and the drum and the flags. So this is the final, right?”

“Yes, that’s good, but we had another idea!”

“Of course you did.”

“We want to add a snake!

“A snake.”

“A rattlesnake! Like on those Pennsylvania militia drums, and that flag Mr. Gadsden brought.”

“If I added a rattlesnake to that pile, wouldn’t that look like no one in his right mind would try to pick up those weapons? Isn’t that the wrong message for a Board of War and Ordnance?”

“The rattlesnake doesn’t have to be on the weapons. It could be somewhere else.”

“There isn’t really room—”

“Oh, we’re sure you could fit it in somewhere.”

And the resulting design, complete with flying rattlesnake, is still in use by the Department of the U.S. Army today.

It’s not always clear in modern versions of this seal that the snake is a rattler. However, as this Revolutionary War document bearing the seal shows, the rattles were originally distinct. They probably numbered thirteen.

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