Peter Carried a Cannon, The Real Story

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Karl G. Elsea

History can be fun; for example, when a war trophy in Sweden and the popular television series “Antiques Roadshow” can be combined to explain an American Revolutionary War legend. There are a number of books, articles, an actor impersonator, and even an U. S. Postal stamp from 1975 showing Peter Francisco carrying a cannon barrel to save it from falling into British hands at the Battle of Camden. Sadly, their stories of Peter carrying a barrel weighting 600 pounds, or even an amazing 1,100 pounds, are not close to true. Here is the likely story. The kind of barrel Peter actually carried is shown in the next picture. The barrel likely weighed between 200 and 300 pounds.

An original amusette is located at the Armémuseums’s magazine in Stockholm. This amusette was constructed in 1768 and captured by the Swedes in the battle at Berby in 1808. The following picture shows this amusette:

How we know what kind of barrel Peter carried is because a private collector came on the “Antiques Roadshow” television show with the original receipt signed by Col. George Wray for Ordnance captured by Lord Cornwallis’s army at the battles of Camden and Fishing Creek. The list includes, in Col. Wray’s handwriting, 2 brass, 2 Pounder, Ammusets [Amusettes], long. Col. Wray was probably the second most expert on European artillery in North Americas so his description of a captured gun as an amusette is significant.

This is how the amusettes likely got to Camden. When the Revolution began Virginia had to assess its military strengths and weaknesses. For example, at Yorktown there were fixed old heavy iron cannon facing the river.  An invading force need only flank the iron guns’ position to take them. So, Virginia needed some mobile guns to defend the rear and flanks of fixed positions. The word went out to purchase some light, mobile guns. Sometime between 1775 and 1780 Virginia agents in Europe succeeded in purchasing and delivering two amusettes to Yorktown and the Virginia State Artillery.

Then, in 1780, disaster struck. Almost all the Virginia Continental Line was lost at Charles Town, South Carolina and the battle at the Waxhaws. A new force under General Johann de Kalb had to be sent south. That force included the Virginia State Artillery. Later, General Horatio Gates took command as the force moved south.

The overall artillery commander of the force was Colonel Charles Harrison; however, he was not present due to a broken leg from a horse kick. Lt. Colonel Elias Edmunds was acting as overall artillery commander. The 1st Maryland Continental Artillery Company was commanded by Captain Richard Dorsey. This unit had two “brass” three-pounders and was assigned to the 1st Maryland Brigade. The 2nd and 3rd Maryland Continental Artillery Companies were commanded by Captain Anthony Singleton. This unit had four “brass” six-pounders and was assigned to the 2nd Maryland Brigade. The Patriot artillery force at Fishing Creek consisted of two “brass” three-pounders. Lastly, the Virginia artillery company had two “brass” two-pounders.

At Camden the Virginia artillery company was deployed between the Virginia and North Carolina militias, roughly 350 yards from the road, on the left side of the line of battle. This fighting position of the two-pounders was described by Col. John Christian Senf’s description of the line of battle, “on left 3 brigades of the North Carolina Militia …, two field pieces, The Virginia Militia of 700 men under Brig. Genl. Stevens.” This placement supports the story that Virginia militiaman Peter Francisco saved a cannon barrel and that he carried the barrel to the “safety” of the wagons.  Francisco was in the Virginia militia and beside the location of the Virginia artillery. It also fits with Lord Cornwallis’s after battle report that stated seven Patriot brass cannon were in the battle and “in one of which (wagon) was a brass cannon, the carriage of which had been damaged.” It is known eight brass cannons were deployed at the beginning of the battle, so the barrel returned to the wagons on the road was one of the two-pounders.

At the beginning of the Battle of Camden it is likely the two “brass” two-pounders were unable to fire due to part of the Virginia militia advancing, thus blocking the guns. When the Virginia and North Carolina militia fled their retreat caused problems for the gun crews. The British line likely volleyed during their advance, damaging at least one of the cannon carriages. At this point it is probable Peter Francisco moved one of the barrels from a two-pounder while some remaining crew moved the damaged gun carriage back to the wagon train. Thus, the legend began.

6 thoughts on “Peter Carried a Cannon, The Real Story

  1. John Foskett

    Thanks for the great photo and the interesting article. I didn’t know about amusettes on the American side. There appears to be some confusion in the primary records about the use of amusettes during the AWI by the Hessian Jagers. Some of the accounts suggest they were on carriages (similar to the 1 lb gun the Royal Artillery had at the time, which apparently never was brought over here from the UK), while others imply that they were “wall guns” manned by a 2-man team.


    1. Karl Elsea

      You are correct about there being some confusion concerning the use of the word amusettes. The English used the same name for their enlarged musket. The key is the designation as a “brass” two-pounder. That type gun was used by Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.


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