American-Made Light Artillery in the Revolution

We have poured five swivels to-day all good and cast four Guns 6 pounders this week which I shall have Bored next week. John Reveley, manager of the Westham Foundry near Richmond, Virginia, 1780

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown historical interpreters fire a 6-pounder battalion gun.

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown historical interpreters fire a 6-pounder battalion gun.

During the Revolution both sides made extensive use of artillery.  At the beginning of the war the Patriots had almost no artillery of their own, but Washington used captured British guns from Fort Ticonderoga to drive the British out of Boston in 1776. The Americans eventually developed the capacity to manufacture their own cannon, and they obtained many of the guns they needed from France.  High-quality French siege artillery was the key to the great Franco-American victory at Yorktown in 1781.

For the Americans, however, the most useful artillery pieces were not heavy siege guns, but lighter pieces that could be moved quickly on field carriages.  Mobile field guns traveled with the armies and were used as anti-personnel weapons in battle.  Large numbers of light guns also were needed at sea.  America sent out hundreds of small privateering vessels, each armed with a few light guns, to prey on British shipping.  During the war several American iron foundries got into the cannon-making business, not just to support Continental and state military forces, but to meet the demands of the privateers as well.

One example of a cannon foundry that concentrated on the production of light artillery pieces is Virginia’s Westham Foundry located near Richmond.  By late 1779 the foundry had begun casting cannon for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Westham produced 4- and 6-pounder cannon as well as even smaller swivel guns.  All were cast-iron guns, and none weighed more than about 1,000 pounds. The guns were sought not just for land service with Virginia forces but also for equipping vessels in Virginia’s state navy.  The foundry produced ammunition for these guns as well, including cannon balls and grape and canister shot.

The Westham Foundry wasn’t unique.  Most states had at least one cannon foundry in operation during the war. The foundries certainly didn’t produce guns of the size and quality of the best British and French artillery pieces, and some of these foundries had serious quality control problems. Often American gun founders couldn’t get the raw materials they needed, and skilled labor was always in short supply.  Nevertheless, these fledgling enterprises went a long way towards meeting America’s basic artillery needs during the war and made the American forces less dependent on imported tools of war.


Phillis Wheatley – A Journey


Phillis Wheatley is depicted in the frontispiece of the book, "Poems on Various Subjects," published in 1773. A first edition of the book will be exhibited at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, planned for completion by late 2016.

Phillis Wheatley’s short life was marked by journeys – from freedom to slavery, from slavery to being the first African-American woman in the colonies to publish a book of poems, and from a renowned poet whose work was praised by George Washington and the Countess of Huntington to a tragic death from poverty and illness at the age of 31.

Phillis was born in 1753 in Senegambia in Africa and enslaved at age 7.  She was taken to America on a ship named the Phillis and purchased in Boston by a wealthy merchant and his wife, John and Susanna Wheatley.  Phillis was named for the ship that carried her across the Atlantic and for the family that purchased her.  John and Susanna were progressive for their time and had their oldest daughter begin Phillis’s education, teaching her to read and write.  When they recognized her talent and intelligence, she was taken from domestic work and educated further.  She could read Greek and Latin by age 11 and began writing poetry soon after.  Phillis’s style was strongly influenced by the classic authors she read – Homer, Horace and Virgil, among others.

In 1773 Phillis took a journey to England with Nathaniel Wheatley, the son of John and Susanna.  She was sent there for her health, and also because it was thought she might have a better chance of finding a publisher for her poetry in England than in Boston.  In England she met with several socially prominent people, including Selina Hastings, Lady Huntingdon, a religious leader to whom Phillis dedicated her book, Poems on Various Subjects, published in England that year.

Back in Boston, Phillis’s fame grew, and in 1775 she wrote a letter and poem to George Washington. In her letter she wrote, in part, “Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in.” The last stanza of her poem reads,

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, Washington! Be thine!

Washington invited Phillis to meet with him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachussetts, in 1776.  Later that year Thomas Paine published the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Phillis was still enslaved to the Wheatleys at this time.  When John Wheatley died in 1778, he freed Phillis in his will.  A few months later Phillis married John Peters, a free black grocer.  They had two sons together but lived in poverty.  Phillis could not find a publisher for another book, possibly because the war had become the nation’s focus. One son died, and her husband was imprisoned for debt.  Now ill and poor, and fully exposed to the racism of the time, Phillis was able to find work only as a scullery maid in a boarding house, which finished the destruction of her health. She and her infant son died of illness there in 1784, just 31 years after her journeys had begun in Senegambia.


The Alexander Scammell Affair

This was the severest blow experienced by the allied army throughout the siege: not an officer in our army surpassed in personal worth and professional ability this experienced soldier. — “Light Horse Harry” Lee

Redoubt Number 10

Alexander Scammell rather than Alexander Hamilton might have led the October 14, 1781, assault on British Redoubt No. 10 at Yorktown, depicted in a 20th-century watercolor by Arthur Shilstone, had he not died a week earlier of a gunshot wound.

As the allied American and French army approached the outskirts of Yorktown in late September 1781, a little-known incident occurred that exposed the bitter feelings many American soldiers felt toward their opponents.  About sunrise on the morning of Sunday, September 30, Lt. Colonel Alexander Scammell of New Hampshire led a scouting party to reconnoiter the British outer defenses.  Somehow Scammell got separated from his picket guard and found himself surrounded by a group of Banastre Tarleton’s loyalist dragoons.

Exactly what happened next may never be known.  By his own account Scammell surrendered and was being led away when another dragoon rode up, drew a pistol and shot him from behind.  By afternoon Cornwallis’ surgeons had treated his wound and released him on parole.  Scammell was taken to the American hospital at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, but there his condition worsened.  Scammell died on October 6, the highest-ranking officer killed during the Siege of Yorktown.  Even if he had been an obscure lieutenant, the news of his “treacherous” shooting would have caused outrage, but Scammell was no ordinary officer.

Scammell was a veteran of all of the major campaigns in the north and had established a reputation as a brave and inspiring leader of men – at Yorktown he was in command of a detachment of light infantry.  He also was a member of George Washington’s inner circle, having once served him as an aide-de-camp, and was one of the few officers who could make Washington laugh with one of his humorous stories.  To the Americans, his shooting was one more example of the British behaving as villains.  When he published his memoirs some years later, Tarleton denied that Scammell had been wounded after surrendering but claimed instead that Scammell was “attempting to retreat.”

Had he not been shot, it is possible that Scammell, one of Washington’s favorites, would have been selected to lead the storming of British Redoubt No. 10 on October 14, not Alexander Hamilton.  The taking of Redoubts 9 and 10 enabled the Allies to quickly complete their second siege line, which forced General Cornwallis to surrender on October 19, 1781. Without the resulting glory and fame gained from this dramatic action, Alexander Hamilton might not have gone on to become such an important figure in the new nation’s history.


Witness to War:  Writings of Baroness Frederika Charlotte Riedesel

I saw the whole battle myself, and, knowing that my husband was taking part in it, I was filled with fear and anguish and shivered whenever a shot was fired….

Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow, Baroness von Riedesel

Portrait of Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow, Baroness Riedesel, 1829, oil on canvas, painted by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.

These words, written near Freeman’s Farm, New York, by Frederika Charlotte Riedesel on September 19, 1777, come from a journal that chronicles the Battle of Saratoga and other experiences of a German baroness during the American Revolution.  Frederika was the wife of Major-General Friedrich Riedesel, Baron of Eisenbach and commander of German troops from the duchy of Brunswick hired by the British to fight the rebellious colonies.

What was this German noblewoman doing near the front line during the American Revolution?  “It is the duty of a wife to forsake all and follow her husband,” she wrote.  So in May 1776, accompanied by her four-year, two-year and ten-month-old daughters, this irrepressible woman left Brunswick for England and then Quebec to join her husband.

In August 1777, Friedrich was attached to the forces of British Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne.  Burgoyne had devised a plan to gain military control of the strategically important Hudson River valley and divide New England from the southern colonies, making it easier to end the rebellion.  Burgoyne’s forces successfully crossed Lake Champlain from Quebec, captured Fort Ticonderoga, and confidently advanced toward Albany, New York.

Frederika and her children joined other officers’ wives who followed at some distance behind the first line of advance.  Frederika wrote about Burgoyne’s small tactical victory at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm in September and his retreat at the Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7, a turning point in the American Revolution.  She also documented her own harrowing experiences in her journal.

When we marched on I had a large calash [light carriage] readied, with room for myself and the three children and my two maids; thus I followed the army right in the midst of the soldiers, who sang and were jolly, burning with the desire for victory.

It was a terrible bombardment, and I was more dead than alive … Little Frederika, was very much frightened, often starting to cry, and I had to hold my handkerchief over her mouth to prevent our being discovered.

The greatest misery and extreme disorder prevailed in the army.  The commissary had forgotten to distribute the food supplies among the troops … more than thirty officers came to me because they could stand the hunger no longer.

My children lay on the floor with their heads in my lap.  And thus we spent the whole night.  The horrible smell in the cellar, the weeping of the children, and, even worse, my own fear prevented me from closing my eyes.

Eleven cannon balls flew through the house, and we could distinctly hear them rolling about over our heads.  One of the poor soldiers who lay on the table, and was just about to have his leg amputated, had the other leg shot off by one of these balls … I was more dead than alive …

My husband often wanted to send me to the Americans, in order to put me out of danger, but I told him it would be worse than anything I had had to bear heretofore to be with people to whom I should have to be polite while my husband was fighting them.

I was the only one among all the women whose husband had not been either killed or at least wounded, and I often said to myself, ‘Should I be the only lucky one?’

I tried to divert my mind by busying myself with our wounded.  I made tea and coffee for them, for which I received a thousand blessings.

On October 17 the capitulation went into effect … while driving through the American camp I was comforted to notice that nobody glanced at us insultingly, that they all bowed to me, and some of them even looked with pity to see a woman with small children there.

After Burgoyne’s surrender on October 17, 1777, Frederika and her children accompanied Riedesel into captivity. When the war officially ended in 1783, they returned home to Brunswick. Encouraged by her husband, Frederika published her journal and letters about the American expedition shortly after his death in 1800. Her engaging journal reveals the life of a compassionate, courageous, and resourceful woman and provides a unique glimpse into the American Revolution.

Source: Barnoness von Riedesel and the American Revolution. Translation and introduction by Marvin L. Brown, Jr. with assistance of Marta Huth. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia, by The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. 1965.

A new Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation video explores women’s roles during the American Revolution:

Breaking News From Virginia:  Colony Declares Itself “Independent of Great Britain”

On August 7, 1776, readers of the one of Scotland’s leading newspapers, The Edinburgh Evening Courant, learned that Virginia had taken the final step on the road to independence.  By this time, of course,   the Declaration of Independence already had been adopted in Philadelphia.  However, since it took a month or more for news to cross the Atlantic, no one in Britain would know about it for another few days.  It was not until August 10, 1776, that the news of the July 4th Declaration of Independence would reach Britain, and subscribers to The Edinburgh Evening Courant had to wait until August 21 to read the full text of the Declaration in their newspaper.

The news of Virginia independence reached Britain first because Virginia acted before the Continental Congress did on this issue.  The Fifth Virginia Convention passed a series of resolutions in late May and June, 1776.  These resolutions rejected all aspects of British authority and gave the Commonwealth of Virginia a new form of independent government.  Virginian Richard Henry Lee then urged the Continental Congress to follow Virginia’s lead.   The Continental Congress took his advice, finally declaring independence for the 13 colonies on July 4, 1776. 

A copy of the August 7, 1776, edition of The Edinburgh Evening Courant is the recent gift of a private donor to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and is intended for future exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, replacing the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown in 2016.

A copy of the August 7, 1776, edition of The Edinburgh Evening Courant, the recent gift of a private donor to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, is intended for future exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, replacing the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown in 2016.

‘American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’ Artifacts
Showcased in Jamestown Settlement Exhibition  

eagle-pommel saber

This sword scabbard is inscribed with the year 1776 and the name of its owner, William McKissack, a Continental Army officer from New York. The silver pommel is in the form of an eagle, which over the course of the Revolution became one of the symbols of the new United States.

An American-made eagle-pommel sword dating to 1776 is one of 60-some objects destined for exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown now on display at Jamestown Settlement history museum in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution.”  The special exhibition, which opened March 1 and continues through January 20, 2014, examines the lives of Revolutionary War-era descendants of people associated with 17th-century Jamestown, the first capital of colonial Virginia, using the artifacts to illustrate their stories.

Work is under way on the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which will replace the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown by late 2016 with expanded exhibition galleries and outdoor living-history areas offering a renewed perspective on the entire Revolutionary period, from the beginnings of colonial unrest to the early years of the new nation.  The artifacts featured in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution” – a sampling of those to be exhibited in the new museum – include furnishings, weapons, nautical items, documents and commemorative objects.  Among them are the eagle-pommel sword, a trunk that belonged to a shipbuilder for the Continental Navy, an official portrait of King George III in coronation robes, and a first edition of the poems of Phillis Wheatley, the famous African-American poet.

George Washington – Conserving an American Idol

February 22, 2013, marks the 281st anniversary George Washington’s birth. As an icon of American history, Washington symbolizes many things to many people, and for well over 200 years, he has been represented in paintings, prints, sculpture, decorative objects and other artistic media. 

In 1786, three years after George Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, the Virginia General Assembly resolved to honor him with a “monument of affection and gratitude” by commissioning a life-size statue of the “finest marble and best workmanship” to be exhibited in the new state Capitol Rotunda in Richmond. American ambassador to Paris, Thomas Jefferson, recommended Houdon, a French neoclassical sculptor, and Houdon insisted upon traveling to Virginia to study George Washington for the statue.

At Mount Vernon, Houdon executed wet clay life models and a plaster life mask. These served as models for the statue, created between 1786 and1795. Houdon portrayed Washington as a modern Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who left his land to fight for his country and, after victory as a general, returned to his farm as a man of simplicity and peace.

Washington wears his military uniform but carries a civilian walking stick. Behind him is a farmer’s plowshare, but his left hand rests on a bundle of rods called fasces, a Roman symbol for unity and government authority. In Roman iconography the fasces rods surrounded an ax, but Houdon adapted this for American usage by forming the bundle from 13 rods, representing the 13 unified states, and adding arrows in between that likely refer to American Indians or the idea of America as a frontier.  Colonial leaders looked back to ancient Rome as a model of democracy and virtue.  Thus, Houdon brought to life the idea of great power existing in harmony with democracy.

 Considered by contemporaries to be the best living likeness of George Washington, there was a great demand for copies of the statue, especially in other public locations. The Virginia General Assembly decided that reproduction of the likeness would allow them to share it with other institutions. In 1853 the Assembly granted William James Hubard the exclusive right to make copies of Houdon’s masterpiece. Six of Hubard’s bronze copies are known today, but this may be the only surviving plaster rendition. This rare plaster version was bought for $2,000 from Hubard’s widow to grace the Hall of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol, where it stood for 80 years, from 1870 to 1950.

Newly conserved, this rare icon in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection can be seen in the “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution” special exhibition at Jamestown Settlement from March 1, 2013, through January 20, 2014.  Ultimately the statue will be placed at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, replacing the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown by late 2016.  The amazing conservation process is documented in a short video.

Jacob Ellegood, a Virginia planter who remained loyal to Britain, is depicted in the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’s Witnesses to Revolution Gallery.

Jacob Ellegood, a Virginia planter who remained loyal to Britain, is depicted in the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’s Witnesses to Revolution Gallery.

American Loyalists Get No Respect

Welcome to All About the Revolution. Our topics range from historical insights to updates on plans for the next generation of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. We encourage your thoughts and reactions to each post.

Lots of people on both sides of the American Revolution didn’t think much of Loyalists.  Patriots persecuted them, driving them from their homes and confiscating their property.  Even though thousands of Loyalists fought for the King in America, the British government never thought the Loyalist contribution to war effort was large enough.  The British army in North America resented the fact that it had to allocate scarce manpower for the purpose of protecting Loyalist civilians.

Here are some contemporary perspectives on Loyalists:

“filthy grovelling vermin, formed only to be trampled upon by tyrants” – The Virginia Gazette, January 15, 1774

“Damnation to Tories and Success to American Liberty” – Patriot toast, 1775

“How can you be called friends of the King if you won’t venture anything for the right cause? Look at your Opposition Party: they abandon wife, child, house, and home, and let us lay waste to everything.  They fight without shoes and clothing with all passion, suffer hunger, and gladly endure all the hardships of war.  But you loyalists won’t do anything!  You only want to be protected, to live in peace in your houses.  We are supposed to break our bones for you, in place of yours, to accomplish your purpose.  We attempt everything, and sacrifice our own blood for your assumed cause.” – Captain Johann Ewald, German officer serving with the British Army in America, 1781