Artistic License and the French Artillery Park at Yorktown, A Case Study

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Karl G. Elsea

It is common for artists to use “artistic license” when painting historic events including American Revolutionary War art. The problem is this practice also

aids inaccuracies persisting. Here is one case study of one picture involving an historic event that is presented by the National Park Service (NPS) at Yorktown. Please note the staff is helpful and the grounds are beautiful. As for the severity of the problem, the reader can decide after reading the information.

The following picture is from the field at Yorktown where the French Artillery Park was located. The picture illustrates the idea of what an artillery park was.

The problem is this picture contains a number of images that are wrong. For example, the carriages, wagons, carts, and limbers should be painted light blue. The French Army artillery had been painted light blue prior to 1750. There is a lot of confusion to this day concerning gun and limber carriage colors. This confusion may have been generated by a current belief there was one French artillery color. The French used the color of the items to assist which department owned the material. The French Navy department [Ministry of Marine] was responsible for the colonies, including North America, and their cannon were on red carriages with, in all most all cases, iron barrels. The French Quartermaster’s department had their wagons were painted a brighter red. The French Army artillery was painted light blue with bronze barrels. Thus, the French Army barrels shown should appear to be “brass.”

Continue reading “Artistic License and the French Artillery Park at Yorktown, A Case Study”

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:

Continue reading “Peter Carried a Cannon, The Real Story”

Patriot Field Gun Horse Harness

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Karl G. Elsea

When visiting Revolutionary War battlefields there are often replica field guns (sometimes with original barrels) on the grounds. What is often not shown is the equipment needed for the gun to get to the field. That movement required horse(s) and harness and a limber. An earlier article provided information on Patriot limbers. This article concerns the horse harness.


NPS Yorktown, Author’s photo. Original 4-pounder barrel on reproduction carriage

There are inventories and paintings that show British harness used during the war. Muller’s A Treatise of Artillery shows the horse harness hook-ups on British limbers for medium and heavy artillery, and it is somewhat unique. The British hook-up appears more restrictive as to horse size. The cart-saddle used by the British was ubiquitous. It seems reasonable that the Patriots would have used the same harness with the exception of the specialized hook-up hardware on the limber. The following part of a Philipp Loutherbourg painting of Warley Camp detailing a review in 1778 clearly shows the cart-saddle with chain on the thill horse and the rest of the British harness.

Continue reading “Patriot Field Gun Horse Harness”

Secrets of the Patriot Limbers

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Karl G. Elsea

When visiting Revolutionary War battlefields there are often replica field guns on the grounds. Not shown, in almost all cases, is the vehicle that pulled the gun to the battle – the limber. Though less “cool” it was essential.

Author’s limber and photo. Obsolescent British design with cart hook-up hardware modification

Today, there is no surviving original Patriot field gun limber from the American Revolutionary War. That is a problem when attempting to reproduce representative Patriot field gun limbers. The normal starting place, Muller’s A Treatise of Artillery, does not include information concerning British field (light) gun limbers. Muller’s Treatise only contains information on limbers for medium and heavy guns.

The absence of any original limbers is especially gulling because the Patriots had access to both obsolescent designs and the most advanced designs. The Hessian field gun limber was probably the most advanced limber design in 1776, and the Patriot forces captured six of them at Trenton on December 26, 1776. The Hessian limber design had three important improvements; firstly, the pintle (pin that connects the gun carriage to the limber) was behind the axle of the limber thus allowing a shorter turning radius and less likely damage to the gun carriage. Secondly, an ammunition box containing sixty rounds was on the limber. Thirdly, two wheel-horses were used instead of one thill horse thus providing twice the braking power. It would be interesting to know if the Patriots reproduced or incorporated those design elements.

Continue reading “Secrets of the Patriot Limbers”

Leveling, Pointing, and Elevating Field Guns

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Karl G. Elsea

If you want to know the process of how field guns were fired in a battle such as Trenton or Monmouth, watching the National Park Service or re-enactors fire a cannon, you will only get part of the story. Important parts of the procedure are almost always missing. Here is a more complete presentation of the process; and, how leveling, pointing (aiming), and elevating a field gun were performed.

Major William Congreve said it best in his instructional training works at the Royal Military Repository in the late 1700’s: “It is of the utmost Consequence to the Service to fire so as to do Execution, for Shot flying over the Enemies head only hardens them and discourages your own Troops.” “Rounds must never be fired with-out pointing the Gun carefully each time and paying great attention to the Elevation.”[i]

After the commands, unlimber piece (un-attach the gun from the limber), take off apron (remove the vent cover), take out tompion (remove the “plug” at the muzzle of the gun), the gunners would perform the following activity with-out a specific command. This was a critical function and is not usually shown when firing a gun. It was to level the piece. As stated in their training, “and which ever Wheel stands too high, the Earth must be loosened in the rear, and the Gun drawn gently back until the Bubble rest in the Center of the Tube.”[ii] The science was simple, the trunnions on the barrel must be level or the barrel will move in a non-vertical plane and thus be off target. Leveling the gun was of great importance. The Artillerist’s Companion 1778 states it was an artillerist’s function, “Quadrating a piece [barrel] mounted, is to see whether it be directly placed, and equally poised in the carriage, which may be found by a gunner’s instrument called a level or perpendicular.”[iii]

The following picture shows what was called the Gunner’s level or the Spirit Level. It was the quintessential instrument carried by gunners to level the gun. In a cylinder in the middle of the gunner’s level was a vial and when the trunnions are level the bubble in the vial will be in the middle. At that point the gun was leveled.

(Author’s Level and Photograph)

The next activity was sometimes required to point the gun and it also required the Gunner’s Level. The level could be used to place a noticeable mark indicating the top of the base ring and the top of the muzzle ring. These two marks constitute what was called the “centre” [center] line of the cannon. The activity of marking the “centre” line was performed immediately after leveling the cannon unless the points or the line were already marked on the cannon. This line on the barrel was called the “gun metal line.” On many of the guns of the period the metal line marks were discretely engraved into the design on the barrel. For example, on this patriot cast Byers’ gun the base ring line, touch hole, and liberty pole mark one end of the “gun metal line.”

After these tasks (leveling and marking) were complete the gun was ready for pointing (aiming).  With regards to the Patriot’s drill, there was a distinct difference between the primary source drills of William Stevens and Louis de Tousard. Stevens records that “Take Aim” happens after the command “Prime.”[iv] In Tousard’s drill “Take Aim” takes place before “Prime.”[v] There was a reason for these differences, and it depended on how the gun was primed. The use of a priming tube, whether tin, reed, or quill, could potentially block the sighting line. Tousard’s drill avoided this problem by sighting before the priming tube was inserted. It should be noted the centre line passed over the touch hole. It was noteworthy that the British drill specifically mentions pointing before the tube was inserted into the touch hole. The British drills for a six-pounder stated, “The man who serves the Vent … not put the tube in until the Gun is pointed.”[vi] With regards to Steven’s drill, the priming likely consisted of using powder to touch off the charge, thus the “take aim” command could take place after priming. Using powder only to prime did not block the sighting line. Tousard’s drill assumed tubes were used in priming. British and Patriots used tubes as the preferred manor in priming field guns.

(Author’s Photograph)

Last came the task of elevating the gun barrel. The need for proper elevation of the barrel was demonstrated by noting the psychological impact of cannon fire as shown in the following contemporary quote, “it having been often proved that Soldiers have been more alarmed and put in confusion, by seeing Shot hopping to them, than by having double the Number of their Comrades killed by their sides without seeing it.”[vii] That quote showed the importance for shot to land and bounce somewhat in front of the soldiers. Elevation was adjusted to accomplish that task.

For elevation the gunners would know their individual piece and the characteristics concerning how the various types of shot with varying powder charges would fall. The Officers would likely have some recordation measuring the needed elevation for the distance to first graze. First graze was the range at which the shot would first touch the ground. That recordation would allow the gunners to know what elevation to use for their barrel.

The gunners would also know what the dispart (half the difference between the diameter of the base ring and muzzle ring) was for their individual gun. Dispart was the key to understanding that aiming the gun on the centre line automatically elevates the barrel. Dispart could be quickly measured in the field by placing the vent pick into the touch hole until it reached the bottom, and then subtract that measurement taken at the muzzle from the bottom of the tube to the top of the muzzle ring. As noted above, when the cannon was aimed using the centre line (“gun metal line”) then the resulting cannon ball strike on level ground was called the “Common range.”  Common range was different from “point blank range” which was the distance when a cannon ball first touches ground when fired from a level barrel on level ground.

There was an exception to aiming and elevating the gun. The exception was if a gun were to be overrun. British training materials stated, “Case Shot may be fired as quick as the Dragropemen can draw the Gun up to its proper Position in the Interval again, which will allow the Non Commissioned Officer a sufficient time to direct the Gun nearly to the Center of the Enemies Battalion and give a pretty good guess at the Elevation.”[viii]


[i] Adrian B. Caruana, The Light 6-Pdr. Battalion Gun of 1776, (Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1993), 27.

[ii] Caruana,33.

[iii] T. Fortune, The Artillerist’s Companion 1778, (London: Whitehall, 1993), (Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1992), 9.

[iv] William Stevens, A System for the Discipline of the Artillery of the United States of America, (New York: William A. Davis, 1797), 68.

[v] Louis de Tousard, Artillerist’s Companion on Elements of Artillery, (Philadelphia: C and A Conrad and Co., 1809), 140-141.

[vi] Adrian B. Caruana, The Light 6-Pdr. Battalion Gun of 1776, (Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1993), 29.

[vii] Caruana, 27.

[viii] Caruana, 27.

The Other Great Artilleryman

Mention the words “artillery” and “American Revolution” and what name instantly pops into your mind? Henry Knox.

Rightfully so.

Yet, like George Washington, Knox needed competent officers under him to successfully organize, train, lead, and develop the artillery arm of the Continental Army.

Enter John Lamb.

John Lamb
John Lamb

Born on the first day of 1735 in New York City, he was destined to rebel. The reason he was even born in New York City was due to the fact that his father, a convicted burglar had been sentenced for deportation to the colonies in the 1720s.

His early upbringing saw him become a prosperous wine merchant and he quickly ingratiated himself into the burgeoning patriot movement by becoming an integral part of the Sons of Liberty in New York City.  Continue reading “The Other Great Artilleryman”

Henry Shrapnel – “The Modern Archimedes”

RevWarWednesdays-header

 

His last name jumps off the page, much like the term shrapnel usually does when leaving an artillery piece.

“Shrapnel” as defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “a projectile that consists of a case provided with a powder charge and a large number of usually lead balls that is exploded in flight” or more simply “bomb, mine, or shell fragments.”

Either definition brings to mind images of death, destruction, maiming, and killing for any military historian.

Henry Shrapnel
Henry Shrapnel

Yet, why is it attributed to Henry Shrapnel?  Continue reading “Henry Shrapnel – “The Modern Archimedes””