When one thinks of December 1776 in American Revolutionary War history, one’s mind immediately goes to Washington crossing the Delaware River and the Battle of Trenton, fought on December 26th. Historians refer to that engagement as the beginning of the “Ten Crucial Days” that culminated with the American victory at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777.
However, days prior, American militia under Colonel Samuel Griffin fought an engagement with Hessian troops under the command of Colonel Carl von Donop. The actions occurred on December 22 and 23, 1776. Although the American forces were pushed out of their positions, the end result was the occupation of Bordentown by Donop and his troops, approximately 10 miles from their fellow Hessian comrades at Trenton.
To discuss these engagements, collectively known as the Battle of Iron Works Hill, Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes historian Adam Zelinski to “Rev War Revelry.” Zelinski is a writer and published historian and has worked on various projects with the American Battlefield Trust and the American Revolution Museum in Philadelphia. He will also speak on some exciting news coming out of the Iron Works battlefield too.
Emerging Revolutionary War looks forward to you tuning in, this Sunday, at 7 p.m. EST on our Facebook page as we discuss another component of the 1776 campaign season as we prepare for our inaugural bus tour of the Trenton and Princeton battlefields next month (only 4 tickets left!). If you can’t make it on Sunday night, you will be able to find it later (along with all our videos) on our YouTube page.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historians Karl G. Elsea and William W. Welsch for thefinal installment of their three part series
The v. Lossberg Artillery detachment:
Bombardier Conrad Volprecht was about 44 years old with over 27 years of service. He led the v. Lossberg artillery detachment consisting of another bombardier, 13 gunners and 3 matrosses, with two three-pounder guns and associated horses, harness, and limber.[i]
Over two years after the battle and being a prisoner Bombardier Volprecht gave testimony that indicated the sequence of battle for his detachment was roughly as follows: First went to field, second fired north, third ordered south, and fourth got stuck in the mud till the end of the battle. There is a problem though, the sequence that better fits the data from the battle was as follows: first went to field, second ordered south, third fired west, and fourth got stuck in the mud.
John Adams wrote “Facts are stubborn things. They cannot be altered by our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions.” In studying firsthand accounts of the battles in the Revolutionary War they are sometimes not correct or even true. For example, there is an enjoyable firsthand account (written many years later) by a patriot Sergeant White (The Good Soldier White) that is often quoted in accounts of the battle. Parts of his story are no doubt true. The problem is that when Sgt. White states he was with “Lieut. Munroe, our late President of the U. States” and “I was the first that reach them [cannons],” and “They had all left it, except one man tending vent,” those specific parts of the story cannot be true. Hessian Lt. Englehardt would not have time to do all that he did and then cross the Assunpink bridge before the Jagers if artillery men from Sullivan’s column were that far up King Street. Facts from the battle mean that part of that story does not work.
The most important place in all the 13 states fighting for independence on December 26, 1776 from 8:00 am to 9:00 am was the long, narrow bridge over the Assunpink creek. It was held by Hessian Sergeant Muller and 18 men. Sgt. Muller was about 50 years old with about 32 years of service. The importance of this place was not fully realized by the Hessians, but the Patriots knew it had to be closed, and General Washington had two full brigades, Sargent’s and Glover’s, tasked with taking, as quickly as possible, and then holding the bridge.
At about 8:03 am Patriot General Sullivan was about one mile from Trenton center along the River road when he attacked the outlying Jager pickets. General Sullivan had the artillery fire several canister shots at the Jagers. This firing also served as a signal to General Washington so he would know his other wing was attacking. It was to be recalled that General Washington started his attack about 8:00 am on the Pennington road and he also was about a mile from Trenton center. This cannon firing was also a signal to General Ewing so he knew when to start his distraction. General Ewing heard the three cannon shots and he quickly followed with his guns and howitzers firing ten shots from across the Delaware River. General Ewing kept up his firing until he could make out that Patriots were approaching. The v. Knyphausen regiment was forming on Second Street and was the logical unit to resist any attack coming from the River Road.
Volprecht’s detachment with its two guns followed Lt. Fischer’s detachment east on Fourth Street from the Methodist church into the field north and east of the Quaker lane. Lt. Fischer’s detachment was falling back from its earlier engagement and picked up the v. Lossberg detachment as it passed by. It took longer for the v. Lossberg artillery detachment to prepare for the battle because the horses had to be collected, harnessed, hitched, and the guns limbered. Fischer testified that the “cannon were unhorsed, and the horses unharnessed and brought back again into the stable” from the cancelled early morning patrol.[ii] For the morning patrol the horses had been hitched and guns limbered at 4:00 am but the patrol was cancelled so the men/horses/limber/guns were brought back to the Methodist church and waited for sunrise to unhorse.
The infantry of the v. Lossberg and Rall regiments followed Volprecht’s detachment into the field. It was in this field that these two regiments would form a line for battle. While waiting for the v. Lossberg regiment to form Volprecht was ordered by Lt. Weiderhold, “Artillery men, come here with the cannon” meaning they were to join the v. Knyphausen regiment.[iii] The v. Knyphausen regiment was on Second Street heading to the open field just east of Trenton and away from the Assunpink bridge. Volprecht and his v. Lossberg artillery detachment moved south on Quaker lane, linked up with the v. Knyphausen regiment, and set up his gun position facing threats coming from Trenton. The following map presents Trenton as it was in 1776.[iv]
While this was happening on the Hessian side, the right wing of the Patriot forces was moving east on River Road. General Sullivan rushed two of his brigades toward the Assunpink bridge. Neil’s battery with Sargent’s brigade and Sargent’s battery with Glover’s brigade made it to the bridge and across. Glover’s brigade with Sargent’s battery continued along the Assunpink creek to cut off possible exits for the v. Knyphausen regiment. St Clair’s brigade was moving east on Second Street with Moulder’s (three four-pounders) and Hugg’s artillery (two three-pounders).
Hessian Bombardier Volprecht testified that he fired his gun five times and the other gun fired one time.[v] One of those six shots hit the fore horse of one of Hugg’s three-pounder guns as they advanced in support of Patriot St. Clair‘s brigade. John Greenwood, a fifer in the 15th Continental, recorded that one of Hugg’s guns had the fore horse shot by a Hessian three-pounder gun, ”the ball from which struck the fore horse that was dragging our only piece of artillery, a 3-pounder. The animal, which was near me … was struck in its belly and knocked over on its back. While it lay there kicking the cannon was stopped.”[vi] That was the only hit scored by the Hessian artillery that day. St. Clair’s brigade with Col. Stark’s infantry in the lead applied great pressure causing the v. Knyphausen regiment to pull back farther east. Volprecht’s artillery detachment pulled back with the regiment.
As the Hessian artillery detachment pulled back east disaster struck both guns. Volprecht had been ordered into a valley without the ground being checked. Both guns got stuck in the mud. The rest of the battle the men of the artillery, with some aid from nearby infantry, was spent trying to extract the guns from the mud. One gun was extracted just before the surrender, the other gun was extracted after the battle was over.
Mud ended the third artillery engagement. The battle at Trenton was over. The Patriots had a great victory. What is shocking was the limited number of shots from the Hessian artillery. The Rall artillery detachment fired twelve solid shot and one grape, the v. Knyphausen artillery detachment fired “seven or eight shots,” and the v. Lossberg artillery detachment fired six shots.[vii] These few shots lend support for how quickly the Patriots won the Battle of Trenton.
[i] William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1898), 388
[ii]Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 337
[iii] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 277
[v] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 277
[vi] 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
[vii] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Morristown National Historical Park, ML, The Affair at Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, English Translation, ML 341
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historians Karl G. Elsea and William W. Welsch
The v. Knyphausen artillery detachment:
Lieutenant Friedrich Fischer was about 37 years old and had about 20 years military experience. He was the senior artillery officer in Trenton. For administrative purposes he saw to the needs of the men, and horses, and equipment for the artillery in Trenton. However, for tactical considerations he was a detachment commander to two three-pounder field guns and crews and horses and equipment assigned to support the v. Knyphausen Regiment. He was to follow their orders unless overridden by the Brigade leader, Colonel Rall. Lt. Fischer never made it to his assigned regiment. The reason was the rapid advance by the Patriots on all fronts.
Each regiment of the Hessians as they came to Trenton in mid-December was assigned a significant building, usually a church, to form its “center of gravity.” The v. Knyphausen regiment was assigned the Presbyterian church, the Jagers were assigned the Old Stone Barracks, the v. Lossberg regiment the English church, the dragoons were assigned the Quaker meeting house, and the Rall regiment several taverns. The Artillery was assigned the Methodist church at the northeast corner of Queen Street and Fourth Street. Thus, the artillery horses, harness, and limbers were at the Methodist church for the three detachments. Three of the neighboring houses to the Methodist church each contained the men for an artillery detachment.
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historians Karl G. Elsea and William M. Welsch.
The Rall Artillery Detachment:
It is well known that the Battle of Trenton saved the American Revolution from defeat. What is not well known is the story of two of the three Hessian artillery detachments and the description of their field guns. This series of articles tells the story of the three Hessian artillery engagements at the First Battle of Trenton. These three fights largely determined the victory for the patriots.
The field guns used by the patriots in the artillery engagement at Trenton were fairly well documented. The Patriots used British Armstrong design M1736 six-pounders, British commercial iron four-pounder barrels on Patriot designed carriages, and the Common Pattern British designed three-pounders (looked like scaled down six-pounders).
The Hessian three-pounder field guns were primarily designed to be beautiful, symmetric and fill both the roles of field (light) artillery and garrison (medium) artillery. The “brass” barrel was one caliber (caliber was equal to 3.01 English inch) thick at the breech, one half caliber thick at the muzzle, and was twenty calibers long from breech ring to muzzle. This symmetry came at a price, namely, the barrel alone weighted over 700 pounds. As a comparison, the 1776 designed British Congreve three-pounder barrel had a weight of 212 pounds and was 12.4 calibers long while the “Common” pattern three-pounder barrel used by the Patriots was 287 pounds and 14.5 calibers long.[i] This flaw in the Hessian guns concerning the weight required four horses to pull each gun and made each gun more vulnerable to sinking in mud. Field guns were supposed to be” light,” something these Hessian guns were not.
Part 1 of this article showed that a total of 23 ferry trips were required to move all of Knox’s artillery men, guns, horses, and carts across the Delaware River. In addition, there were other horses needed for the march to Trenton. Many of the likely 35 horses associated with senior officers and aids could fit in with the above 23 trips at a rate of a couple per trip, especially the ferry with only one cart.
There were six ferries operating to move the Continental Army across the river at McKonkey’s ferry site. Each of the six ferries could likely carry a maximum weight of roughly 8,750 pounds. That weight estimate comes from the intelligence report from Capt. Losbiniere on 22 December 1776 concerning the “7 flat-bottom boats which may carry about 50 men each and two ferry Boats, which may carry the like number” that were with Col. Cadwalader at Bristol ferry.[i] There is no reason to believe those ferries were different from those at used at McKonkey’s. If it is assumed a man weighed 150 pounds plus 25 pounds of musket and gear, then the weight for 50 men comes to 8,750 pounds. With those capabilities the Philadelphia Light Horse needed 3 ferries for their unit (8 horses and riders per ferry).
Possibly one more ferry trip for any leftover senior officers and aids horses was necessary. That is 27 trips total needed. With six ferries working that is four trips for all with three additional trips required. Those five round trips by the ferries were estimated by Washington in his plan to require six hours; however, it actually took a nine-hour period (6 pm to 3 am). The additional hours required for the crossing was likely explained by the floating ice and the increased river current driving the ferries out of position.
The question was raised about how difficult it would have been to transport the horses across the river. The somewhat surprising answer may be that it was not as difficult as many assume. No doubt a few horses were a problem; however, the majority of the horses probably presented few problems. How we surmise this is as follows:
Firstly, we can safely speculate that at least some of the horses had participated in earlier ferry crossings during the army’s previous movements and retreats. Those horses would remember that nothing was amiss in the crossing. Secondly, many of the farm horses transferred to pull guns had previous experience pulling carts and wagons across ferries to take produce to market. Thirdly, each team had a driver who knew the horses and he could strategically place the lead horse with a horse who had experience. As for the cavalry, each horse rider likely slowly leads his horse onto the ferry. Horses who see a previous horse move onto a ferry without incident generally lose their fear.
The following picture of a contemporary ferry crossing (1779) shows a typical crossing.[ii] This period ferry appears to measure about 48 feet long (without the two four-foot ramps) by eight feet wide. If one replaces the carriage in the painting with a field gun and limber then the person holding the reins would be the driver. Note the horses are in a pair; whereas, on a gun team there would be a thill horse in front of the limber and additional horse(s) in front of the thill horse.
Many of the campaigns and battles of the Revolutionary War are better understood if a study of horses was included in the analysis. Often, it was all about horses, or the lack thereof. Both General Burgoyne’s march south in the Saratoga campaign and General de Kalb’s march toward South Carolina show that the lack of horses was very important. As for the crossing of the Delaware, General Washington showed his skill in planning. More important, Washington was lucky. It was not the horses that drove the outcome but rather the bad weather and severe river conditions. These bad conditions set in place the delay that assisted the surprise attack.
[i] William S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1898), 338
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Travis Shaw.
As he looked northward across the open ground in front of his position, Captain John Ashby could see the advance guard of the British army moving steadily closer. They came on in a loose, open line, taking time to return the fire of Ashby’s men. Made up of red-coated light infantry and their German counterparts, the rifle-armed Jaegers, the advance guard were the cream of the Crown forces – men chosen for their fitness, marksmanship, and ability to endure hardship. Ashby and his men were veterans, so they must have known they’d be in for a fight. As the battle intensified around him, one wonders if Captain Ashby’s thoughts turned to home. The Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania was a long way from his native Virginia Piedmont.
John Ashby was born in 1740 in northwestern Fauquier County, among the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The son of Robert Ashby and Rosanna Berry, he grew up at Yew Hill, the family estate that lay just a few miles from the Gap that bears the family’s name to this day. John’s uncle and namesake, Captain “Jack” Ashby commanded a company of Virginia rangers during the French and Indian War, where he made the acquaintance (and drew the ire) of a young George Washington. Continue reading “Captain John Ashby”→
In preparation for an upcoming publication by Emerging Revolutionary War’s historian Mark Maloy, I was doing some light reading about the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. That is when I came across the following quote by the late Albert Chestone;
“The great Christmas raid in 1776 would forever serve as a model of how a special
operation–or a conventional mission, for that matter–might be successfully
conducted. There are never any guarantees for success on the battlefield; but with a
little initiative and a handful of good Americans, the dynamics of war can be altered
in a single night.”
There is no doubt that the actions that followed the daring enterprise of crossing the Delaware was a turning point in the long road to independence of the American colonies. Yet, sometimes we overlook the entire operation as a fait accompli. Continue reading “Christmas 1776”→