The Guns of October

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

The war was all but over in 1783; Independence of the Thirteen States was essentially decided and the preliminary peace treaty had been ratified.  A German officer, Johann Ewald of the Hesse-Cassel Field-Jäger Corps traveled from the British-held city of New York through some of the areas he’d served in the lower Hudson Valley.

His destination was the fort complex at West Point that had proven too strong for a direct assault by the British, and by a stroke of luck, immune to Benedict Arnold’s treachery.  Ewald was traveling in civilian clothes, but made no attempt to conceal his identity, which sometimes resulted in displays of mild hostility by civilians along the route.

Not so with officers of Continental Army.  Ewald was politely treated and given a pass and a staff officer as a guide to visit the West Point fortifications.  The strength and location impressed Ewald greatly, and he recognized that it was essentially impregnable to armies of his time.

In the course of his tour, Ewald was shown the artillery park where he noted:[The artillery park] consists of approximately eighty pieces, all of which had been captured from the English during the war, and on which the place and occasion of capture were engraved in big letters….”

Undoubtedly several of the guns were those taken at General John Burgoyne’s capitulation, a few of which currently reside at Saratoga National Historical Park’s visitor center.  These cannon are a very real link to the events here in 1777 when General Gates’ Army of the United States defeated and captured a military force from one of the most powerful nations in the world.

Great Britain was perhaps the most dangerous enemy the United States has ever faced.  With a world-class army and navy and immense monetary resources to its advantage, Britain outclassed their rebelling colonies on many levels.  Additionally, Britain was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the modern factory system.  Britain had the infrastructure to create high quality items, including artillery.

Compared to some of the weapons systems of the present day, eighteenth century cannon appear to be exceedingly simple, and relatively inexpensive to make.  Yet for their day, they reflected sophisticated metallurgy and were the end product of over 400 years of cannon manufacturing.

Even more importantly, cannon required immense resources to create.  A twelve pounder cannon cost the British Crown £ 208 10s 6d, which was over 17 times the annual pay of a single British soldier*.  They would have required more than a ton of bronze and enormous amounts of fuel and labor to produce.

As they required technical skill and large amount of money to manufacture, cannon were not knocked together in a Williamsburg-like  cottage industry.  Rather, cannon were created for purposes of countries’ leaders.  In the seventeenth century some French cannon were engraved with the motto Ultima ratio regum: the Ultimate Argument of  Kings.  Kings could afford and own these powerful weapons, not everyday people.

The cannon captured at Saratoga displayed in the visitor center retain evidence of their previous owners.  For example, the three pounder gun has the “broad arrow” the symbol of the Board of Ordnance that oversaw its manufacture for the Crown of England.  The twelve pounders, being grander guns, have the coat of arms of the Master-general of Ordnance, John Lord Viscount Ligonier, and the owner George II of England, Scotland Wales &c.   However, to reflect the change of ownership “the place and occasion of capture were engraved in big letters”.

That the guns were a windfall to the United States in 1777 is obvious.  They were top of the line military hardware that was at the time beyond the capabilities of the United States to manufacture.  Additionally the guns could be and were utilized against their former owners.

Most importantly, the guns reflect the startling accomplishment of the Army of the United States in October 1777.  An army of “farmers and rude mechanics” had bested The Ultimate Argument of Kings.

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