From the earliest settlements in New England and Virginia, the British Government encouraged the colonists to incorporate into tight knit communities. All supplies and necessities of life were to be provided by King and country in exchange for raw materials harvested and mined from this rich new land. This arrangement was not driven by a moral and nationalist desire to see her countrymen succeed; decisions made in Westminster and Parliament were based purely on profits. Trade was to be exclusively with England, which governed exports and imports and levied all duties. These financial arrangements also profited the English government when it came to defense.
The colonists were emboldened to form their own civilian militias for protection from the ‘race of savages’ and the ‘scourges of a brutal wilderness.’ This arrangement saved the British Government the enormous expense of garrisoning thousands of troops. The amateur army was born and was in place when hostilities broke out between the colonists and their governing country.
At the start of the American Revolution, the rebel forces facing His Majesty’s Troops were limited as to the necessities of modern warfare. They had to make do with what could be collected and salvaged from local militias and stolen from British armories. This held true for cannon and artillery.
The earliest cannon supplied to the militias were commandeered and purchased from ships. Smaller cannon were placed on makeshift portable carriages and used as field pieces, usually positioned in the town’s common. Larger ships’ cannons were permanently placed in forts.
Garrison Carriages: The larger cannon, twelve to thirty-two pounders (based on the weight of ball they threw), were mounted on garrison carriages, commonly called ‘trucks.’ These massive cannon, over a ton in weight each, were drawn out of ships’ port holes on ‘trucks’. Once fired, they were drawn back in for loading. In American forts, the same held true. The massive iron and brass barrels (chases), were laid on stout wooden frames. The frames were mounted on small solid wooden wheels called trucks, hence the reference to the carriage’s name. The chase rested between the sides of the frame on cross-members of stout beams called transoms. The top of these side frames had depressions on either side that the trunnions were set on. Trunnions were solid cylinders forged to either side of the barrel which allowed the barrel to be raised and lowered to project its shell at various arches and ranges. This form of carriage worked best on ships where deployment was done by changing ship’s direction.The principle worked in a fort as well, as each cannon had a specific field of fire.
Field artillery were cannon that supported infantry and were generally three to six-pounders weighing from five hundred pounds to a ton. These cannon had to be carted over dirt roads riddled with holes and ruts. They were drawn over meadows, corn fields, up rocky ridges and through hastily cut forests. Only wagon wheels with an axle of high ground clearance could serve to carry these weapons over such terrain, therefore ships’ and forts’ garrison carriages had to be converted by wheelwrights and joiners into field carriages. They were of two types: block trails and flask type.
Block Trail: Oak was the preferred wood of carriages; however maple, chestnut and walnut were also used. Wheels were made of beech or elm. Elm was more common and held up well in wet and moist conditions which is why elm was also used for watering troughs. Instead of lowering the metal chase on cross member beams like the garrison cannon, it was attached to a single piece of timber or trailing unit and lay on a single axle. The cannon could be raised and lowered as well as positioned by the trail. This type carriage was only used for the lightest of guns.
Flask Trail: This type carriage was used to transport the heavier guns. Like the garrison carriage, the six to twelve pound barrel was laid on cross member beams between a pair of thick wooden frames positioned over a single axle. These frames constituted two side pieces forming a trail of two beams instead of one as in the case of the block trail. Again the cannon could be positioned and aimed by use of the trail.
Limbers were used when transporting cannon by horse over long distances. Attached to the gun carriage, it transformed it from two wheels to a four wheeled vehicle. Powder and ammunition were packed in wooden boxes on either side of the carriage’s barrel or transported separately in caissons, separate carriages drawn manually or by horse. Also powder wagons resembling coffins were of use. Larger side board wagons with canvas tops served as ammunition wagons.
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McAfee, Michael J. Artillery in the American Revolution. Washington: American Defense Preparedness Association, 1974
Muller, John. A Treatise of Artillery. Whitehall: 1768 and reprinted 1779.
Neumann, George C. The History of Weapons of the American Revolution. New York: Harper and Row, 1967
Manucy, Albert C. Artillery Through the Ages. Washington DC: 1949 Division of Publications National Park Service.