One of the most serious problems faced by the colonists during the first two and a half years of the American Revolution was that of obtaining an adequate supply of gunpowder. At the beginning of that period the situation of the Americans as to a supply of powder was like that of the South at the opening of the Civil War. The total store in the South in 1860 was about 60,000 pounds, a relic of the Mexican War.2 The Southern states had always depended upon the North for supplies of the explosive, but after the attack on Fort Sumter that source was shut off.3 In fifty years scarcely a pound had been manufactured in the Southern states. The colonies in 1775, like the South nearly a century later, were mainly devoted to agriculture. When the Civil War came on, there were almost no workmen skilled in the making of powder, there was no saltpetre in store at any Southern point, and the blockade made it impossible to obtain either saltpetre or powder abroad.4 In spite of the difficulties the South turned its attention to the manufacture of powder, and the success which rewarded its efforts enabled it to keep up the struggle until its internal resources were all but exhausted and its transportation had broken down.5
In 1775, the greater part of the powder stored in the colonial magazines had lain there since the Seven Years' War. The few powder-mills were in ruins, the manufacture of the explosive was almost a lost art, and the country was nearly destitute of ammunition and other warlike stores.6 Any hope of getting munitions from England which may have survived the adoption of the non-importation agreement of December, 1774, was destroyed by the outbreak of hostilities in the following spring. Then, as ninety-six years after when Fort Sumter was fired upon, there was no going back. As the determination to resist became general, the colonists hastened to procure the store of powder readily at hand, whether the property p272 of private persons or of the crown. If the non-importation agreement were to be respected, the hope of the colonists lay in collecting every ounce within reach and in manufacturing as much more as their resources would permit. Should the resulting quantities prove inadequate, it would be necessary to increase the supply by importations, the "agreement" notwithstanding. In the Civil War, the steady pressure of the blockade reduced the Confederacy to a degree of destitution which made further support of her armies impossible. In the recent World War, France would have suffered a like experience had she not been able to procure coal and iron from England. But during the first two and a half years of the American Revolution the colonists' success in importing powder enabled them to keep going until victory was their final reward. The full importance of these imports can be appreciated only by a study of the situation of the colonists as to a store of powder in 1775, together with a study of their efforts to manufacture.
In Massachusetts and Virginia simultaneous attempts were made to forestall the colonists in their determination to secure possession of the local magazines. In the Bay colony General Gage set up a ferment of excitement when he seized the Charlestown arsenal and withheld "the powder lodged in the magazine of the town of Boston from the legal proprietors".7 Within a few hours of the time when the minute-men faced the redcoats on Lexington green and at Concord bridge, Governor Dunmore, down in Virginia, laid hold of the principal supplies in the Old Dominion.8 News of these proceedings soon reached the remote regions of the colonies, where the zeal of many was fired into adopting retaliatory measures. In December, 1774, an attack was made on Fort William and Mary at Jerry's Point (Portsmouth) in New Hampshire, and in due time 10,100 pounds of powder were appropriated.9 In May, 1775, the "Liberty Boys" in Savannah, Georgia, seized 600 pounds stored in the magazine of that town, and, July 10, one of the king's ships was boarded and something like 12,700 pounds were carried away.10 p273 In addition, by various means, there were secured some 3000 pounds in New Hampshire, 12,000 in Massachusetts, 4000 in Connecticut, and 17,000 in Rhode Island. New York and New Jersey yielded very little; but 4000 pounds were collected in Pennsylvania, a like amount in Maryland, in the Carolinas 9000 pounds, while Virginia and Georgia yielded around 2000 pounds. Though many people "were in a manner destitute" of powder when the war began, nevertheless the rebellious colonists succeeded in procuring within the colonies something like 80,000 pounds of powder.11
Largely in response to Washington's urgent and repeated calls for even the smallest quantities, more than half of this total was sent to Cambridge during the first few months after hostilities began.12 Part of the remainder was distributed to different towns, where it was drawn upon for the use of local levies of troops.13 A considerable portion also was sent for the use of the troops operating along the northern lakes, and some was carted to Canada, where Arnold once pleaded for a supply "for God's sake".14 Everywhere the explosive was expended in reckless fashion, especially at Cambridge.15 When Washington arrived to take command, little remained of the great quantity which had been sent to the camp.16 On the third of August, when a review of the situation was taken, there was not enough powder in the whole army to furnish •half a pound to each man exclusive of what was held in the horns and cartridge-boxes.17 By the last of the month Washington's supply was nearly gone and he had none with which to employ his artillery.18 All the cannon were silent except a small nine-pounder with occasionally fired from a point of vantage on Prospect Hill.19 Looking down on Boston from that height General Greene, in a letter to Henry Ward, wrote: p274 "Oh, that we had plenty of powder; I should then hope to see something done here for the honour of America."20 On Christmas Day, 1775, Washington wrote: "Our want of powder is inconceivable. A daily waste and no supply administers a gloomy prospect."21 Three weeks later there was not a pound in his magazines, and in Connecticut, where he hoped to obtain a supply, no more than 728 pounds could be collected for his men.22 At the end of the first nine months of the war practically all the powder originally in the colonies had been used, as well as a quantity of imported powder; and for nearly two months no large supplies were brought to the camp.23 When a stock finally did arrive Washington seized Dorchester Heights, where he commanded both the town of Boston and the British fleet. But if, in January, 1776, Howe had learned the feeble state of the American forces, he could have marched out to Cambridge and crushed the newly recruited colonial army. After that it would have been a simple matter to dispose of the sick and disheartened troops who would soon be beating a straggling retreat from Canada, and thus the Revolution would have ended.24 As it was, the British commander was forced out of Boston, and Washington was given an opportunity to move on New York.
The knowledge of the scarcity of powder in 1775, and the evident needs of Washington's men at Cambridge and of those in Canada, explains the celerity with which the colonial governments and the Second Continental Congress acted to increase the supply by manufacture and import. Soon after Congress met in Philadelphia, the manufacture of powder was considered.25 Members seem to have held that the manufacture of saltpetre and powder was primarily within the prerogative of the colonial governments rather than within that of Congress, though that body evolved one elaborate plan for producing the nitrate. Agents were sent out by Congress in the hope that they would succeed in extracting the "nitrous salt" from earthen floors of the buildings and yards in the Southern colonies where tobacco was inspected and stored.26 Nothing of consequence ever came of this project. On the other hand, virtually all the saltpetre and powder produced in the colonies was made as a result of the support given by the new colonial (or state) governments.
It was expected that the great centres for the manufacture of these substances would be located in the colonies of New York and Pennsylvania.27 John Adams was enthusiastic over the prospects in Philadelphia. "Germans and others here have an opinion," he wrote James Warren, June 27, 1775, "that every stable, Dove house, Cellar, Vault, etc., is a Mine of Salt Petre. The inclosed Proclamation, coincides with this opinion. The Mould under stables, etc., may be boiled soon into salt Petre it is said. Numbers are about it here."28 Printed "systems" describing processes of manufacturing were sent by Congress to the different colonial governments, urging immediate attention to the subject.29 Massachusetts needed no urging, nor did some of the other colonies after the news of the events at Lexington and Concord had stirred them to action. In the Bay colony, official interest, manifested as early as December, 1774, was maintained throughout 1775 and 1776. Virginia gave encouragement to the work in March, 1775, Connecticut in May, and in June of that year the activity was given legal support by New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. North Carolina's official interest began in September, that of Maryland in December, and that of New York and New Jersey in March, 1776. In each colony legislation as a rule provided for the erection of both private and public saltpetre "works" and for one or more powder-mills. Financial support was guaranteed, and liberal bounties were offered to those first to manufacture specified quantities of saltpetre or powder, or both.30 The opportunity to turn their patriotism to a profit inspired many to engage in the business of manufacturing these substances, though in Georgia during the early months of the war "no kind of manufactures" were started.31
In Massachusetts and Pennsylvania the first successes were attained. Not a great way from the place where Washington sat brooding over the hopelessness of his situation, a little group of men were rejoicing over the result of a test of some powder manufactured at Weymouth from saltpetre produced within the colony. A p276 committee of the Provincial Congress reported, January 23, 1776, that the powder was "very good; and at the same time laid on the table two flatted leaden balls which were discharged from a small-arm, loaded with •two inches of powder, into a tough white-oak tree, at the distance of •eight rods, which penetrated the tree two inches".32
In Pennsylvania, during the latter part of 1775, one Oswell Eve "established", as he said, "the making of powder in this Province, which had not been carried on to any extent before".33 Prior to the fall of 1777, as a result of the powder-making activity in these and other colonies, there were produced from saltpetre extracted locally some 115,000 pounds of powder.34
It is very probable that this was the maximum amount which could be manufactured in the face of existing conditions. It was produced during the time when the wave of Revolutionary enthusiasm was rising to its crest. Nearly all of it was produced between January and November, 1776, when much "hard money" was still in circulation and when it did not take, as Christopher Marshall, the Philadelphia Quaker, notes in his diary, more than forty-five dollars in Continental money for the purchase of a pound of shingle nails.35 This powder came from the mills before the price of labor and materials had reached exorbitant heights. Nearly all of it was manufactured after the supply originally in the colonies had been used, when the demands were greatest, and when the distress for want of the explosive was "inconceivable". At the beginning of the year 1776, Washington saw the hopelessness of equipping a force "without any money in our treasury, powder in our magazines, arms in our stores. . . . and by and by, when we shall be called upon to take the field, shall not have a tent to lie in".36 Fortunately for Washington, however, and for the cause he championed, Howe evacuated Boston March 17, 1776, without ever having discovered what the true plight of the American forces had been.
The outlook at that time certainly was not bright. But powder kept coming in from outside, and these supplies, added to the quantities manufactured, at least partly filled the needs of the continent. Between January and July, 1776, more powder was distributed for the rise of the troops operating in the different fields, for the numerous privateers, and for the various forts, than the total quantity p277 manufactured from saltpetre extracted locally during the first two and a half years of the war.37
From the opening of hostilities, in anticipation of the dearth of powder, the Continental Congress, the different colonial governments, and even private individuals attempted to import saltpetre and powder as well as manufacture them at home.38 Georgia seems to have been the only colony which did not import either of these before the fall of 1777. The imports into the other colonies previous to that time reveal the success achieved:
|Colony||Pounds of saltpetre||Pounds of powder|
Nearly all of this 472,850 pounds of imported saltpetre was manufactured into powder before the fall of 1777, producing 698,245 pounds of the explosive.
The total amount of powder available for Continental purposes prior to the battle of Saratoga can now be computed. The amount is represented by the sum of the 80,000 pounds on hand when the Revolution began, the 115,000 pounds manufactured from internal sources of saltpetre, the 698,245 produced from the saltpetre imported, and the 1,454,210 pounds of imported powder, in all about 2,347,455 pounds. It appears therefore that well over 90 per cent of all the powder available for carrying on the Revolution during the first two and a half years of the struggle for independence was obtained from outside the country.39
In the consideration of the above figures certain questions naturally arise. In the first place, did the colonists have any sources of powder other than those already discussed? Where did the imported supplies come from, and how were they obtained? When did they arrive, and why were they not taken prize by the British? What was the attitude of the French government in the matter of allowing military stores to be shipped to the rebellious Americans? And, finally, what would have been the result had the colonists been forced to depend for powder solely on the small quantities on hand in 1775, together with such other supplies as they could manufacture from internal sources of saltpetre?
Considering the questions in order, it should be noted that there was a possibility of capturing supplies of powder from the enemy. But the land operations of the Revolution prior to the Saratoga campaign were in general very much in favor of the British, and their losses of powder and other military stores were small as compared to the losses of the Americans.40 From the destruction of the stores at Concord in 1775 to the blowing up of the magazine at Fort George in the midsummer of 1777, the Americans lost a great many tons of powder.41 On the sea the ships captured by the Americans were laden chiefly with provisions or products of the West Indies, though some of them carried valuable military stores.42 As a rule these prizes did not carry powder, though one valuable cargo was taken, in May, 1776, by the Continental cruiser Franklin.43 But it may be doubted whether all the powder taken from the British on the seas would balance or even approach the American losses afloat, wherein were comprised the magazines of the captured privateers p279 as well as cargoes of powder consigned to patriot destination.44 All things considered, it is probable that there is not enough difference on either side seriously to affect our conclusions.
Another thing that should be noted is that practically all the powder imported during the first two and a half years of the war came from France by way of the West Indies, many of the carrying ships merely touching at those islands on their way to colonial ports.45 In the main, these supplies were obtained in exchange for colonial products, some of which went no farther than the West Indies, while some were forwarded to France.46 Probably 80 per cent of the imported saltpetre and powder reaching our shores came as a direct result of the efforts put forth by authorities in the different colonies and by the Continental Congress.47
During the period under consideration, over one hundred different ships brought supplies to our shores. From this we conclude that the patrol of British war-ships along the Atlantic coast fell far short of establishing an effective blockade, and that full advantage was taken of the chances of getting through. Furthermore the arrival of so many vessels suggests that the French government both secretly encouraged and, at times, openly connived at the illicit business carried on by her merchants in France and in the West Indies.48 Had there been a serious inclination on the part of the French government to do so, doubtless it could have put a stop to the p280 shipping of military supplies to the Americans. The total quantity of powder and other munitions allowed to come here from France and from ports under French control helps in a way to measure the desire of the French government to break up the British colonial empire and secure a part of it for France. It helps as measure her disappointment at not being able to retrieve her losses of 1763.
So far investigation has failed to reveal the names or the extent of the activities of all the persons in France who furnished the colonies with warlike stores in the several months before the arrival of Silas Deane, the secret agent of Congress. There can be no doubt, however, that to M. Caron de Beaumarchais chief credit is due for the stores obtained at this time, as well as for those obtained after his dealings with Deane began. The commercial house of Beaumarchais, under the fanciful name of "Roderique Hortalez et Cie.", had been in operation many weeks when Deane saw the "Watchmaker to His Majesty" for the first time, and from that house great quantities of munitions had been sent.49 It took several weeks for a vessel to cover the distance from French to American ports by way of the West Indies, so that even if Deane had succeeded in sending a ship-load of munitions within a few weeks after his arrival in Paris, July 7, 1776, it could not possibly have docked on this side until very late that year.50 But by that time nearly nine-tenths of the imports listed in the above table had reached our ports, the larger part of them unloading at Philadelphia, where Congress took them in charge. It is possible that Arthur Lee deserves more credit for his part in procuring supplies from France during the early months of the war than he has yet been accorded.
In conclusion it may be said that there was no time during the first two and a half years of the Revolution when the colonies had nearly enough powder for their needs. The writings of civil and military leaders of the time are crowded with expressions bewailing the scarcity of powder; and many a military movement was either not attempted or was abandoned because of this lack.51 Even as late as July, 1777, Schuyler wrote Washington from Saratoga that his "prospect of preventing them [the British] from penetrating is p281 not much. They have an army flushed with victory, plentifully provided with provisions, cannon, and every warlike store. Our army . . . is weak in numbers, dispirited, naked, in a manner, destitute of provisions, without camp equipage, with little ammunition, and not a single piece of cannon".52 In due time Gates, Schuyler's successor, received the needed supplies, and many of them had lately come from France.53 If the Americans had barely been able to continue the struggle up to that point when their available supply of powder was well over 2,300,000 pounds, what would have been the result if less than ten per cent of that amount had been available?
In the light of all the foregoing it may be stated with some degree of assurance that if it had not been for the great quantities of powder obtained by importations from France before the Saratoga campaign, the Revolution would have broken down long before that time.
Orlando W. Stephenson.
1 A paper read at the meeting of the American Historical Association at Columbus, Dec. 27, 1923.
2 Jefferson Davis, Short History of the Confederate States of America, pp113‑121.
6 New York Historical Society, Collections, XI (1878) 35; Journals of the Continental Congress, II.84, 85, 86, 223; Journals of each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, p64.
7 Journals of each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, pp256, 257, 428, 430, 570, 600, 755, 756.
8 B. J. Lossing, Pictorial Field-Books of the Revolution, II.503; Virginia Historical Society, Collections, VI.82, 83, 84, 86.
9 Provincial Papers of New Hampshire, VII.421‑424; New Hampshire Historical Society, Collections, VII.14.
10 J. C. Harris, Stories from American History, pp53‑55; Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, ed. Burnett, I.170; Edward McCrady, South Carolina in the Revolution, I.16‑22; Extracts from the Diary of Christopher Marshall, ed. Duane, p33; South Carolina Historical Society, Collections, II.49, 50, 51, 55.
11 The figures given in this paragraph are the result of a study of the colonial records, correspondence of the times, and other source-material.
12 New Hampshire Provincial Papers, VII.4, 6, 12, 13, 478, 521, 558, 571, 572, 581; C. H. Bell, History of Exeter, N. H., pp241, 242; Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, III.14, 64, 65, 77, 99, 100, 101, 248, 334, 342, 354, 371, 387, 403, 430, 502, 503; McCrady, South Carolina in the Revolution, I.20; S. C. Hist. Soc., Collections, II.49, 50, 51, 52, 55; Journals of Congress, III.90; Continental Congress Letters, ed. Burnett, I.148, 149, 165; Colonial Records of Connecticut, XV.84‑85; Force, Am. Arch., fourth ser., VI.419, 420.
13 Conn. Col. Recs., XIV.433, XV.40‑41, 84‑85, 86, 87, 100, 180; Journals of each Provincial Congress, pp215 ff.
14 Conn. Col. Recs., XV.100.
15 Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, III.57 ff.
17 Ibid., III.54, 64.
18 Ibid., III.99, 100, 101, 387, 462.
19 Ibid., III.100, 101.
20 Force, Am. Arch., fourth ser., IV.312.
21 Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, III.299.
22 Conn. Col. Recs., XIV.433, XV.84‑85, 100, 231.
23 Force, Am. Arch., fourth ser., IV.1203, 1238.
24 Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, III.428, 429, 432.
25 Journals of Congress, II.84, 85, 107, 218, 219, III.296, 345‑347, 355, IV.170, 171, 185, 186, 396.
26 Ibid., III.345‑346, 347, 349, 352, 369.
27 Ibid., II.84‑86.
28 Mass. Hist. Soc., Collections, LXXII.66‑67, 68 (Warren-Adams Letters, vol. I). The manufacture of saltpetre by modern processes did not begin until after the middle of the last century. Sir Edward Thorpe, Dictionary of Applied Chemistry, IV.342; Roscoe and Schorlemmer, Treatise on Chemistry, vol. II, pt. 1, pp60‑90.
29 Journals of Congress, II.84, 85, 107, 218, 219, III.296, 310, 311, 345‑346, 347, 355, IV.170, 171, 185, 186, 396.
30 The proceedings referred to may easily be found in the records of the colonies or in Force's Archives.
31 Force, Am. Arch., fourth ser., V.1106.
32 Force, Am. Arch., fourth ser., IV.1410.
33 Ibid., fourth ser., IV.498, V.464.
34 This estimate is based on a detailed study of the sources.
35 Diary of Christopher Marshall, ed. Duane, app. H, p300.
36 Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, III.342.
37 Journals of Congress, IV.48, 53, 73, 124, 125, 128, 156, 175, 183, 187, 213, 225, 250, 257, 291, 304, 310, 323, 325, 331, 332, 396, V.427, 431, 470, 478, 484; Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, III.428, IV.176; Force, Am. Arch., fourth ser., IV.516‑517, 955, 1146, V.84, 250, 283, 826, 1225, VI.653, 660, 1283, 1284, 1285, 1289; fifth ser., I.1423; Continental Congress Letters, ed. Burnett, I.380; Letters to Washington, ed. Sparks, I.128.
38 Journals of Congress, II.66, 67, 74, 106, 173, 184, 210, 211, III.361, IV.53, V.328, VI.867, VII.274, VIII.533, 534; Warren-Adams Letters, I.55; Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, III.82.
39 More than 50,000 small arms were brought in with this powder, but it is possible that the colonists could have done very well without them.
40 Cont. Cong. Letters, I.247; N. H. Prov. Papers, VII.637; Pa. Arch., V.454; Marshall, Diary, pp109, 111; Charles Stedman, History of the American War, I.167; Letters of R. H. Lee, ed. Ballagh, I.171, 195.
41 Mass. Hist. Soc., Collections, fifth ser., X.89, 284 (Trumbull Papers, vol. II); Lieut. Hadden's Journal, pp84, 85, 107; Lieut. Digby's Journal (Albany, 1887), p223; R. I. Col. Recs., VII.548; Force, Am. Arch., fifth ser., III.740; Marshall, Diary, pp134, 135; Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, V.297, 298; St. Clair's Papers, I.421; F. S. Drake, Life and Corr. of Henry Knox, p50; Letters to Washington, ed. Sparks, I.512.
42 Force, Am. Arch., fifth ser., III.1523‑1530; fourth ser., VI.1113, 1114. See index to each volume of the Archives for the names of these ships. Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, III.261‑262, IV.249, 314, 318, 319; Marshall, Diary, pp88, 95, 96; Warren-Adams Letters, I.317.
43 Force, Am. Arch., fourth ser., VI.495, 496, 629, 1113, 1114; fifth ser., I.405, 552, III.823, 824, 939; Journals of Congress, V.619; Marshall, Diary, pp59, 73; Stedman, History of the American War, I.167; Wharton, Rev. Dipl. Corr., II.94; Boston Gazette, Nov. 4, 1776, and May 12, June 9, July 10, 1777; Freeman's Journal and New Hampshire Gazette, Oct. 12, 1776.
44 Freeman's Journal and New Hampshire Gazette, Aug. 31 and Oct. 12, 1776, and Apr. 7, 1777. See the index to each volume of the Archives. Wharton, Rev. Dipl. Corr., II.328; Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, III.269; Journals of Congress, VIII.465, 466; Marshall, Diary, p99; Warren-Adams Letters, I.313, 314; Force, Am. Arch., fourth ser., IV.1134, 1135, VI.1414, 1415; fifth ser., I.659.
45 The citations used in support of these statements were the same as were used in compiling the table on p277, ante. See also Am. Arch., fourth ser., IV.353, 354, 658, 659, 660, 1103, 1202, 1276, 1277, 1309, VI.1560; fifth ser., I.862, III.668, 1065; Wharton, Rev. Dipl. Corr., II.82, 113, 252, 262, 268‑269, 278, 323, 349, 382, 387, 392, 433, 434; Journals of Congress, IV.119, 120, 130, 131, 176, 193‑194, VI.930‑931; N. H. State Papers, VIII.74, 75, 303, 304, 385‑386, 549; Letters of R. H. Lee, ed. Ballagh, I.157; Documents on the American Revolution, ed. John Durand, p107; G. Williams, History of the Liverpool Privateers, pp193, 201; Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, V.385; Cont. Cong. Letters, ed. Burnett, I.299, 304; S. C. Hist. Soc., Collections, II.40, 57, 62, 63, III.39, 40, 108; Boston Gazette, Nov. 4, 1776; N. Y. Hist. Soc., Collections, 1879, p130; R. I. Hist. Soc., Collections, VI.145; Conn. Col. Recs., XV.261; Journals of each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, p405.
49 Wharton, Rev. Dipl. Corr., II.74, 87, 92, 95, 97, 106, 122, 154, 174, 190, 200, 201, 207, 209, 211, 222, 223, 248, 276.
50 Warren-Adams Letters, I.318; Boston Gazette, Aug. 12, 1776, July 21, Oct. 6, 1777. The first considerable supply of munitions to arrive as a result of Deane's efforts did not reach an American port until the spring of 1777.
51 Letters to Washington, ed. Sparks, I.394‑395; Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, III.29, 57, 184; Cont. Cong. Letters, ed. Burnett, I.100, 387.
52 Letters to Washington, ed. Sparks, I.394‑395; Writings of Washington, ed. Ford, V.483.
53 G. L. Clark, Silas Deane, a Connecticut Leader in the American Revolution, pp90‑91; Journals of Congress, VIII.476; Public Records of the State of Connecticut, I.217, 335‑336, 363, 364.
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