The Balls Whistled Over Our Heads: Continentals and Cannonballs

Two Cannonballs from the Battle of Bunker Hill, currently on display at the Bunker Hill Museum, Boston National Historic Park. (Author)

The booming roar of cannon shattered the stillness of the warm summer air around Boston. A thirty-two pound cannonball screamed through the sky toward the Continental army encampment in Roxbury. Smashing through the wall of a house and tearing through two partitions, the shot ripped through a room where soldiers were eating breakfast. The ball plowed into a chimney and an explosive spray of bricks and chunks of ceiling rained down on the breakfasting soldiers, filling their dishes with plaster and dust.[1]

Before he knew it, Maryland rifleman Daniel McCurtin had sprinted down “two pair of stairs of three strides without a fall and as soon as I was out of doors ran to the Brestwork in great haste, which is our place of safety, without the least concern about my breakfast.”[2]

It was the summer of 1775 and the Continental army, headquartered at Cambridge, was laying siege to Boston. The army had fortified various strategic locations in the countryside surrounding the city and the two forces simmered within uneasy proximity to each other. “The main bodies of the two armies were scarcely one mile apart, and the outposts, both at Boston and Charlestown Neck, were within earshot of each other.”[3]Breastworks in Roxbury were “thrown up … within half a mile of the British lines.”[4]

Several Continental soldiers kept journals during the siege. Within their pages, the soldiers immortalized their encounters with the cannon shot which alternately rocketed, bounded, rolled and dropped into their camps.

Greeted by “a most amazing shout of cannon thunders which at this time seemed strange and shocking to our young soldiers”[5], Daniel McCurtin and the Maryland rifle companies had arrived at the Continental army camp in Cambridge in August of 1775. As new arrivals to the siege, the soldiers had not yet become inured to the continuous roar of cannon.

After the long march from Maryland, McCurtin observed “This Cambridge is a beautiful town, it has a University in it of a very elegant building and several other buildings for the Collegians use which makes the town appear very beautiful to the eye and makes me to believe that it was a very flourishing town in the time of peace.”[6]Likewise, the rifleman found nearby Roxbury “a very pleasant place” but no doubt noticing the damage wrought by British shot, lamented that “the Regulars have spoiled it much with their cannonballs.”[7]

Roxbury lay within cannon-shot of British-occupied Boston—in fact, there was no land route in or out of Boston but through Roxbury. Samuel Bixby, a soldier stationed in Roxbury, noted in his journal that during the Battle of Bunker Hill the British pummeled the town with a heavy cannonade. “The balls whistled over our heads, & through the houses, making the clap-boards and shingles fly in all directions.”[8]

“The Enemy fire their cannon shot into Roxbury and several have passed through the church,” observed surgeon James Thacher. “Our soldiers become so familiarized to the sight of cannon shot rolling among them that they manifest little or no fear of the consequences.”[9]

The frequency of cannon-fire plus the relatively low odds of actually being struck by a ball helped to desensitize soldiers to the peril of their situation. Some soldiers even developed a rather blasé attitude.  According to Capt. Samuel Richards, “One night a ball passed thro’ my apartment in the barrack a few feet over me as I lay in my berth. But such things having become so common we thought little of them.”[10]

Some journal entries contain a touch of light humor, the suggestion of soldiers having a bit of fun at the expense of others who might have reacted in dramatic fashion to the sudden appearance of a ball in their midst. One such episode occurred when the British fired a cannon at soldiers who were parading in an orchard in Roxbury. As noted by Rifleman McCurtin,“the ball bounded before it came to where we stood and went through an apple tree and cut one of the large boughs through so far that it broke down to the ground, which caused the shaking of a great quantity of apples that was not ripe, and scared two of our men so that they ran for shelter.”[11]

In his autobiography, John Trumbull recounted a story that occurred during the battle of Rhode Island in August 1778. In riding to Butts’ Hill, Trumbull had noticed “A party of soldiers bearing a wounded officer on a litter … my friend, H. Sherburne … They were carrying him to the surgeons in the rear, to have his leg amputated. He had just been wounded by a random ball while sitting at breakfast.”[12]

Major Sherburne had been in a house with General Glover and some other officers when an aid-de-camp had gotten up from his chair to leave the room. Sherburne had just seated himself in the vacated chair “when a spent cannon ball from the scene of action bounded in at the open window, fell upon the floor, rolled to its destination, the ancle of Sherburne, and crushed all the bones of his foot.”[13]

According to Trumbull, Major Sherburne later declared, “If this had happened to me in the field, in active duty, the loss of a leg might be borne, but to be condemned through all future life to say I lost my leg under the breakfast table, is too bad.”[14]

To emerge from an encounter with a cannonball with one’s sense of humor intact could be considered good fortune indeed, for when shot did make contact with a person’s body, the injuries were catastrophic and usually lethal.

In Roxbury, some Continental guards had been posted close to Boston Neck. One night, the British directed “uncommonly severe” fire toward their guard houses. The next morning, upon hearing that several of the guards had been killed, Capt. Samuel Richards went to survey the scene. The bodies had been removed, but “where one man was dashed to pieces by a cannonball I saw pieces of his entrails and the blood sticking against the adjoining wall where he was standing.”[15]

Captain Richards noted another cannonball-related fatality, this one especially blunt and brutal.  “When the enemy was firing briskly a soldier peeped over the parapet to look out, when a ball just pierced the edge of the parapet and entered his body at the upper part of the breast bone, its force being nearly spent it remained in his body; I had just arrived when two men took hold of his feet and raise him up, when the ball dropped out at the place where it entered; it appeared to be a twelve pounder.”[16]

Despite the potential of a ball to inflict gruesome injuries and near certain death upon any unlucky soldiers in its path, “The almost constant fire of the enemy produced one effect, probably not contemplated by [the British]; it hard’ned our soldiers rapidly to stand and bear fire; when their balls had fallen and become still the men would strive to be the first to pick them up to carry to a sutlor in exchange for spirits.”[17]

On one occasion, soldiers had a narrow miss when “A bomb had fallen into a barn, and in the day time it could not be distinguished from a cannon ball in its passage.”[18]Balls were solid, metal spheres shot from cannon. Bombs, however, were hollow shells filled with powder and fused. The shells were shot from a mortar and calculated to burst into flame upon reaching their target.

In darkness, bombs could be easily differentiated from balls because bombs “in the night, appear like a fiery meteor, with a blazing tail.”[19]But sunlight must have obscured the “beautifully brilliant”[20]tail streaking across the sky on this particular day because the soldiers, believing it to be a cannonball, rushed into the barn “together to seize it when it burst and shattered the barn very much without injuring any one.”[21]

Soldier Samuel Bixby observed an instance where the British had fired upon several men who were digging for clams on the beach, but injured no one. “Our men picked up one of the balls, a 24 pounder, and carried it to the Genl., who gave them two gall. of rum.”[22]Bixby observed that the men—perhaps fortified by hopes of further libation—were as excited to pick up spent shot “as though they were gold balls.”[23]

Though deceptively innocuous-looking, even spent shot rolling along the ground was dangerous. “For when the soldiers saw a ball, after having struck and rebounded from the ground several times, (en ricochet,) roll sluggishly along, they would run and place a foot before it, to stop it, not aware that a heavy ball long retains sufficient impetus to overcome such an obstacle.”[24]Much like the unfortunate Sherburne who lost his leg under the breakfast table, “several brave lads lost their feet, which were crushed by the weight of the rolling shot.”[25]

Some curious phenomena noted at the time were injuries supposedly inflicted not by the impact of a cannonball on human flesh, but by the powerful “force” of the ball through the air as it passed too close to a person.

Doctor Thacher, the surgeon, upon examining a wounded soldier at the Battle of Springfield in 1780, recorded that the soldier’s “arm was fractured above the elbow, without the smallest perceptible injury to his clothes, or contusion or discoloration of skin. He made no complaint, but I observed he was feeble and a little confused in his mind. He received proper attention but expired the next day. The idea of injury by the wind of a ball, I learn, is not new, instances of the kind have, it is said, occurred in naval battles, and are almost constantly attended with fatal effects.”[26]

At least two such “wind of the ball” injuries were supposedly received at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Capt. Ebenezer Bancroft asserted that as he was “standing by the redoubt before the action began, a ball from the Somerset passed within a few inches of my head, which seriously affected my left eye so that it finally became totally blind.”[27]

A second “wind of the ball” injury was thought to occur at Bunker Hill to soldier John Martin. “When a Canon ball came by his Breast (but without Toutch) he fell instantly and was senseless, the Force so great. They let him blood & he recovered, tho’ he vomited or raised much blood & is still at pain in his breast.”[28]

Some men were lucky enough to emerge unscathed from an encounter with a ball. According to Rev. Benjamin Boardman at Roxbury, a sentry was “hurled round by a cannon ball, & thrown down, which gave him a considerable of a shock.”[29]Another man “had a cannon ball grazed his head, took off some of the skin, but does well.”[30]

Finally, in March 1776, the British evacuated Boston and the Continental army entered the city. The siege was over. The British had abandoned cannon all over Boston, among them several formidable 32-pounders, 28-pounders, and 24-pounders at locations such as West Boston, Copp’s Hill, and Haymarket Battery.[31]

In addition to cannon having been left behind, tens of thousands of pounds of shot had been discarded, including “278 twenty-four pound shot, 645 twelve pound shot, 80 six pound shot, 402 eighteen pound shot, and 358 thirty-two pound shot.”[32]

Every ball—each one an emissary of destruction—was destined to be fired at the Continental soldiers in the camps encircling Boston. Mercifully, these balls had been denied their fate, never grazing the head, interrupting the breakfast, smashing the ankle, nor lodging above the breastbone of any soldier. Rather, these balls were recovered by two companies of Continentals from under the waves of Boston Harbor, where the British had submerged them during their evacuation, having no more opportunity to fire them.

 

[1]Daniel Mc Curtin, “Journal of the Times at the Siege of Boston,” in Papers Relating Chiefly to the Maryland Line ed. Thomas Balch (Philadelphia: Collins, 1857), 13, archive.org/details/PapersRelatingChieflyToTheMarylandLindDuringTheRevolution.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Charles S. Hall, Life and Letters of Samuel Holden Parsons(Binghamton: Otseningo, 1905), 33-34, archive.org/details/lifelettersofsam01hall.

[4]James Thacher, M.D., A Military Journal During the American Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783(Boston: Richardson and Lorde, 1823), 37, books.google.com/books?id=ff8OAAAAYAAJ&dq=james%20thacher&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[5]McCurtin, “Journal of the Times,” 12-13.

[6]Ibid., 12.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Samuel Bixby, “Diary of Samuel Bixby,” in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society(Boston: Mass. Historical Society, 1876), 287, hdl.handle.net/2027/njp.32101018323699.

[9]Thacher, A Military Journal, 37.

[10]Samuel Richards, Diary of Samuel Richards Captain of the Connecticut Line(Philadelphia: Published by his Great Grandson, 1909), 22, archive.org/details/diaryofsamuelric00rich. Note that this is not a contemporaneous journal kept during the Revolution, but instead a writing produced by Captain Richards later in Iife and published by his great-grandson.

[11]McCurtin, “Journal of the Times,” 14.

[12]John Trumbull, Autobiography, Reminiscences, and Letters(New York & London: Wiley & Putnum, 1841), 53, books.google.com/books?id=0jQGAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Autobiography,+Reminiscences,+and+Letters+of+John+Trumbull&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj7u67P0IDbAhWSNd8KHcyoCtYQ6AEIKTAA. Note that John Trumbull refers to this officer as H. Sherburne, however the wounded officer in question seems to be John Samuel Sherburne.

[13]Trumbull, Autobiography, 54.

[14]Ibid., 53.

[15]Richards, Diary, 18-19.

[16]Ibid., 19.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Thacher, 340. I first came across Dr. Thacher’s description of shells in Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill(New York: Viking, 2013), n.339.

[20]Ibid., 340.

[21]Richards, 19.

[22]Bixby, “Diary,” 286.

[23]Ibid., 287.

[24]Trumbull, Autobiography, 19. In the full account, Trumbull attributes the men’s eagerness to retrieve balls to the issuance of “general orders” which granted small rewards to men who successfully retrieved spent balls. Trumbull claims that the orders were later rescinded due to the number of ensuing serious leg injuries. But to my knowledge, no such general orders have been found and Trumbull’s reference to the general orders remains unsubstantiated.

[25]Ibid.

[26]Thacher, A Military Journal, 241-42.

[27]“Bunker Hill”, The Granite Monthly,Vol. I (Dover: Metcalf, 1877-78), 267. books.google.com/books?id=L7MVAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[28]Ezra Stiles, The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, Vol. I, ed. Franklin Bowditch Dexter (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1901), 581, archive.org/details/diaryezrastiles01stiluoft. I first came across mention of the injury to John Martin in Alexander Rose, Men of War(New York: Random House, 2016), 27.

[29]Rev. Benjamin Boardman, “Diary of Benjamin Boardman” in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Second Series, Vol. 7 (1891-1892), 400, www.jstor.org/stable/25079734.

[30]Ibid., 402.

[31]George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence: Ezekiel Cheever, Report on Discarded Ordnance. 1776. Manuscript/Mixed Material. www.loc.gov/item/mgw444568/.

[32]Peter Force, American Archives, Ser. 4, Vol. 4 (Washington, D.C.: St. Clair Clarke, 1846), 680-81.

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5 Comments

  • My favorite cannonball story is also my favorite Bad Career Move story, from the diary of Capt. Israel Angell of Rhode Island, relating an event in the Battle of Rhode Island on 29 August 1778:
    “Lt Arnold of the artillery was killed accidentally as he had fired his Piece Stept off to see where the Shot Struck and Steping before the mussel of another Gun as the officer gave the word fire the ball went through his body blo’d him too peaces his Body hung togeather by only the Skin of his belly, one Arm was blown Clear off”

  • Another interesting tale is that of General John Nixon, who during the closing stages of the saratoga campaign was rendered nearly deaf and blind by the near miss of a cannon ball.

    • Interesting! These “wind of the ball” injuries are fascinating. Nathaniel Philbrick in Bunker Hill referred to the “shockwave” of the passing ball. In researching, I’ve come across a lot of spirited back and forth on internet discussion boards but not an “official” scientific explanation for the phenomena…

  • cannon balls – so simple, yet so scary! I will surely think of this article the next time I go bowling!

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