Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historians Karl G. Elsea and William W. Welsch. Short bios of both historians are at the bottom of this part.
The purpose of this article is to further investigate General George Washington’s Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River in December, 1776, with added emphasis on the role of the artillery and horses This is the result of discussions and collaboration between the two authors.
In an earlier article published by The Journal of the American Revolution, the second author posed the question of just how difficult was the crossing. Given the weather, the river conditions, the expertise of the crews, and available original sources, this remains an unanswerable conundrum. However, new research is able to provide a better understanding of the challenges posed in crossing the cannons and horses.
In calculating the number of horses needed to move the artillery, authors have been initially tempted to use the numbers provided from John Muller’s Treatise on Artillery. Muller (about 1757) wrote that “A 3 pounder requires but 1 horse, a 6 pounder 2, a 12 pounder 3 of the light [field artillery] sort.” That quote assumed roads as they were in England and Europe, and relatively flat and firm, dry surfaces with well-fed and conditioned horses. Those conditions do not apply well for Revolutionary War America.[i]
There is a primary source that states a three-pounders was pulled by at least 2 horses. John Greenwood, a fifer in the 15th Continental, recorded “the ball … struck the fore horse that was dragging our only piece of artillery, a 3-pounder.”[ii] This was important information because a three-pounder gun could be pulled by a single horse according to Muller. Because the weather was rainy and sleety, with the ground becoming muddy, an extra horse was required. That Patriot three-pounder gun had at least two horses.
There were old expressions that give important insight into what a horse could pull. For example, “on flat, firm ground a horse or mule can pull its own weight ten hours a day, every day.” Also, “on rough ground a horse can pull half its weight with large wheels.”[iii] While those expressions offer what a well-fed horse could accomplish, we have no way of assessing the condition of the army’s horses, given that forage was a constant problem.
There was another issue concerning horses pulling in harness. Not all of their effort can be applied to the load being pulled. If there was more than one horse pulling a gun, then they were harnessed in tandem in America. The horse between the shafts for the limber was called the thill horse. In tandem the horse in front of the thill horse only had 3/4 of its draught applied to the load. If there was a horse before that one, then only half of that horse had the draught apply to the load. If there was a fourth horse in tandem, then only 1/4 of the draught can be applied. More than four horses in tandem provided no gain in pull and might make pulling harder. For example, cresting a hill with the Fore horse on down side and the Thill horse on the rise side of the hill would result in the forces being against each other.
There was another problem, if the ground was rough or muddy then one must reduce the draught for all the horses by half. If a horse had a rider, then that horse’s ability to pull a load was reduced by half.
A typical Colonial farm horse available for pulling battalion guns in Colonial America was probably between 14 and 15 hands tall and weighed between 850 and 1,000 pounds. Large draft horses like the Conestoga were not used on battalion guns, they were reserved for large wagons.
It seems very reasonable that each gun in Washington’s force had an extra horse added due to the conditions of the ground. With the information presented above, the following presents the math for a light six-pounder guns as used by Hamilton and Forest.
The “old” six-pounder (Armstrong design 1736) with carriage and limber and everything with which to utilize the gun weighted about 1,800 pounds. Adding 24 rounds of ready fixed ammunition adds 202 pounds for a grand total of 2002 pounds that must be pulled.[iv] The “old” six-pounder would normally be pulled by two horses according to Muller. The thill horse would provide about 1000 pounds of draught and the fore horse about 750 pounds for a total of 1750 pounds of draught with 2 horses. As the math suggests, there was a shortfall in draught (2002 vs 1750) which means that the horses would likely wear out in less than 10 hours of work. The shortfall noted could be significantly greater when the condition of the ground was considered. With the thill horse and two fore horses added as a pair, then an additional 750 pounds of draught was available (for a total of 2,500 pounds of draught). Because the army was moving by a road then the horses in front of the thill horse did not have to be in tandem and could be added as a pair. This calculation demonstrates the six-pounder likely had an additional horse. The calculations would be similar for the howitzers. That means the six-pounders, the four-pounders, and the howitzers each had three horses and the three-pounders each had two horses.
A typical colonial period ferry (flat) designed to carry a large farm wagon to market, as would be case at McKonkey’s and Johnson’s ferries, would typically be about 48 feet long and 9 feet wide. A light six-pounder gun with three horses (fore horses in a pair) would be almost 40 feet long. Same for the 5.5-inch howitzer. The track of a six-pounder would be 4 feet, 8 inches leaving some room on the side(s). A three-pounder gun with 2 horses (thill and fore) would be about 35 feet long. With that information one can see that each gun would require a trip on the ferry, and there would be some space along the side(s) for some artillerymen and/or horses.
At least seven artillery ammunition carts had to be used – one for each artillery company. In addition, Forest’s artillery company needed an additional cart because he had two types of cannon, and thus a cart for each type of cannon. It may be that Moulder also required two ammo carts to carry adequate ammunition for his three guns. Each cart with horses would require about 24 feet, so two carts could be taken on a ferry.
Thus, Knox’s artillery would require eighteen ferry trips to move all eighteen cannons, one for each cannon and team. Two trips required on a ferry for the four ammo carts (two carts per ferry) associated with Greene’s column (Forest, Hamilton, Bauman). Three trips required on a ferry for the five ammo carts (two carts per ferry) associated with Sullivan’s column (Sargent, Neil, Hugg, Moulder).
|Company||Number and Type Cannon||Ferry Trips|
|Forest||Two 6-pounder guns Two 5.5-inch howitzers Two ammo carts||2 2 2|
|Hamilton||Two 6-pounder guns One ammo cart||2 1/2|
|Bauman||Three 3-pounder guns One ammo cart||3 1/2|
|Sergeant||Two 6-pounder guns One ammo cart||2 1/2|
|Neil||Two 3-pounder guns One ammo cart||2 1/2|
|Hugg||Two 3-pounder guns One ammo cart||2 1/2|
|Moulder||Three 4-pounder guns Two ammo carts||3 1|
[i] John Muller, A Treatise of Artillery the second edition (John Millan, Whitehall, London, 1768), 178.
[ii] John Greenwood, Revolutionary Services of John Greenwood of Boston and New York, 1775-1783, 40-41. “the first intimation I received of our going to fight was the firing of a 6- pound cannon at us, the ball from which struck the fore horse that was dragging our only piece of artillery a 3-pounder.” Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/revolutionaryser00gree/page/38/mode/2u
[iii] First author’s grandparents (paternal and maternal) farmed with horses in early 1900’s. Grandparent that farmed in Blue Ridge Mountain’s foothills and clay mud taught these expressions. The reader may find references to a horse pulling 1.5 times its weight on a road. That reference assumes roads with firm surfaces and includes, in its averaging of 1.5, roads with asphalt and concrete from more modern times.
[iv] Adrian B. Caruana, The Light 6-Pdr. Battalion Gun of 1776, (Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1993), 14.
Karl G. Elsea graduated with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Va. Tech. and a MBA from UNCC. Son, daughter, and I participate in Revolutionary War reenactments. Have ridden horses most of my life. Was a coxswain in the U. S. Coast Guard and earned the Trident. Taught disadvantaged youth at a juvenile detention center. Own horses and pull a bronze four-pounder cannon and limber for living history.
William M. Welsch, a retired administrator at Montclair State University in New Jersey, is the current and founding president of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond, and co-founder of the Congress of American Revolution Round Tables. He is a tour guide of Revolutionary War battlefields, frequent presenter and author of multiple articles on the Revolution. His interest areas include the Revolution in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the generals of the Continental Army. Welsch served in the United States Marine Corps and is married with two daughters and five grandchildren.
3 thoughts on “Christmas Night, 1776: How Did They Cross? The Horses:”
Impressive analysis! I suspect that it required considerable effort to load and secure the horses. Do you know how long each trip across the river required? In any event, it is no wonder that the operation was behind schedule.
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Thanks for your question. Part 2 of the article will give you the data. The artillery and “other” horses started about 6:00 pm and ended about 3:00 am. Part 1 covers what the artillery needed and Part 2 covers cavalry and officer horses. Karl
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Very interesting! The difficult logistics involved in just completing the crossing makes this legendary event even more impressive. Great work!
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