J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Col. Putnam and the Cannon Balls

As shown by postings like this one, I keep my eyes peeled for stories of Continental soldiers during the siege of Boston
picking up British cannon balls for reuse.

Here’s one variation that appeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on 14 Sept 1775 in a section on news from London. It was most likely printed in a London newspaper that, at least that early in the war, supported the American cause.
July 10. We hear Gen. [Israel] Putnam, who distinguished himself last war under Gen. [Jeffery] Amherst, by his ingenious inventions and invincible courage, having nearly expended his cannon ball before the King’s schooner [H.M. S. Diana] surrendered, took this method to get more from the Somerset in Boston harbour:

He ordered parties, consisting of about two or three of his men, to shew themselves on the top of a certain sandy hill, near the place of action, in sight of the man of war, but at a great distance, in hopes that the Captain would be fool enough to fire at them.

It had the desired effect, and so heavy a fire ensued from this ship and others, that the country round Boston thought the town was attacked. By this means he obtained several hundred balls, which were easily taken out of the sand, and much sooner than he could have sent to the head-quarters for them.

Other accounts say, that towards the close of the day he ordered meal bags to be filled with straw, and set up with hats on, and guns shouldered, which produced the desired effect.
This item was reprinted in New York’s Constitutional Gazette newspaper and thence in Frank Moore’s 1850s compilation Diary of the American Revolution.

However, I haven’t found any such tricks in first-hand descriptions of the fight from Massachusetts, either newspaper accounts or letters. The story fits a common “crafty Yankees” trope. I’m not convinced it actually happened.

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