Dying to Celebrate


September 4, 2018
by Joseph Lee Boyle Also by this Author


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During the American Revolution, hundreds of civilians and military men on both sides were killed or injured by accidents. A number of these occurred during occasions which were supposed to be joyous.

One of the earliest was Robert Jewell. Samuel Rowland Fisher heard of his death in 1781, and remembered he had been keeper of the New Goal, “a Joyner by Trade & at a grand entertainment of the Congress at the State house in 1775—when there was a firing of Cannon, he lost his Arm by some of the Guns—in consequence of which he was placed to keeper of that house.”[1]

Celebrating victories was costly for both British and Americans. On November 9, 1776, in England, “The following melancholy accident happened at Ulverston, in Lancaster, Nov. 9: A number of people were met together to celebrate the taking of New York, and to give a degree of grandeur to their rejoicing, drew up an old rusty cannon, which at the first discharge burst, and killed on the spot three boys, and miserably wounded a great many more.” On August 14, 1779, the British at Fort George in Maine were celebrating the denouement of the Penobscot Expedition, when “In the afternoon we fired a royal salute from the fort, and by accident of a gun hanging fire, one of the Artillery had his right arm broke, and his thumb blown off.”[2]

On October 26, 1777, Falmouth, Massachusetts, was ecstatic with

The surrender of General Burgoyne and his army . . . the first victory that caused sincere rejoicing throughout the new states . . . Parson Smith recorded October 26, ‘Sunday. We had the news by the post authentic, of the astonishing victory of Gen. Gates in taking Gen. Bourgoyne’s army. Our people were hereupon mad in their rejoicing.’ Although Parson Smith does not mention it, this rejoicing terminated disastrously. Benjamin Tukey, a young married man of twenty-eight, was killed while firing a cannon near Mrs. Grele’s tavern at the head of Hampshire street. A brother of young Tukey, who was present, and assisting in the firing, and who lived to be more than ninety years old, related to me the circumstances of the accident and described the ‘mad rejoicing.’ The leading Whigs of the town (the leading Tories had left), gathered at Mrs. Grele’s long, one story tavern on the east corner of Congress and Hampshire streets, to celebrate the victory, by eating and drinking, accompanied with the discharge of a small cannon in front of the house on Congress street. There was a general illumination of what few houses Mowatt’s bombs had spared . . . The cannon had been repeatedly fired; the weather was warm and the windows were open. Those who wore red coats and cocked hats were inside in the midst of jollity; buckets of punch and bottles of wine were freely passed out of the windows to the noisy crowd. The firing was resumed. Young Tukey was ramming down a cartridge when it was prematurely discharged, carrying away his right arm at the shoulder, and causing a mortal wound. He had married Hannah Stanford less than two years before. Falmouth suffered a similar accident on April 1, 1783, while the same people were celebrating the success in compelling George III. to acknowledge the independence of the states. This was a similar celebration. The man killed was Samuel Rollins, by the bursting of a gun. He lingered four days; he left a wife and four children; his age was forty years.

At the surrender at of Fort Vincennes, on February 25, 1779, George Rogers Clark gave “Orders for 13 Cannon to be fired—during which time there happen’d a very unlucky accident thro’ Mismanagement there blew up 26 six pound-Catridges in one of the Batires which Much burnt Capt. Bowman Capt. Worthington and four more Men very much.” Captain Joseph Bowman eventually died from the effects of the accident on August 14, 1779.[3]

Celebrating the Fourth of July, has always proved to be dangerous. William Prescott was “severely wounded in the hand by the premature discharge of  a cannon, and in consequence of this injury he received a pension from the United States.” In 1780, at Sunbury, Pennsylvania, John Smith was “disabled by rammer of cannon at a rejoicing.” At Lancaster in 1782, “Sergeant Kelly of the American Artillery by being so much in a hurry at showing his great capabilities in firing the illuminations of joy got blown off his feet with the spung [sic – sponge]  and badly wounded.” Kelly died several weeks later”[4]

Wedding celebrations were also potentially hazardous. Captain William Coit of the Connecticut ship Oliver Cromwell reported to the governor that

On the Day that Capt [Elisha] Hinmans Marriage was Celebrated, while I was with you, My Officers tho’t it best to Salute from the Ship which as the Guns wanted blowing of[f] perhaps was not amiss, had I been present should have Order’d it  A mischevious Ladd when the Guns were loaded told as mischevious a Boy to put a Shot in it which he did, entirely unknown to any of the Officers, and this was down with circumstances truly diabolical. the ship lay Broadside to the Town when the Guns were charged but by the Turn of the Tide laid the Gun toward the lower end of the Town. The Boy mistook, and for a Shot took a Hand Granado, which when the discharge was made, whistled, by Acct the like was never scarce. By Chance it did no Damage, tho it pass’d near severall Houses and sundry Persons, On my Return the Man and Boy were both confin’d in Irons . . . Once before by Accident a Shot was thrown into the Town which was truly accidental, this had been done by real design.[5]

Throughout the war, the British staged major celebrations at their posts for the birthdays of the King and Queen. On January 18, 1777, at Newport, Rhode Island, “A Detachmt. of 300 British fired 3 vollies on the Parade at 12 oclock Preceded by 21 Guns from ye Battery & the like number of Hessians on the Green behind the Church at 1 oclock The Navy fired, each ship 21 Guns but a melancholly accident happen’d from The Diamond Frigate who being lately in action they had not taken sufficient care in drawing the shot, & discharged a load of Grape into a Transport ship close by them & killed 5 men & wounded 3, a round shot went likewise thro’ a Barrack room & broke a parcel of firelocks.” The Diamond’s master recorded the incident as well: “at 1 pm Fird 21 Guns in Commeration of her Majestys Birth Day But the Most unluckey Accident that Ever Could be hapnd  the Shott not Being all Drawing out of our Guns in Firing Two of our Shott went Threw the Grand Duke Transports Sid and Kild five of ther Man and wounded Two more as they wer all Siting in the Fore Castle at their Denner and the Ship Lyeing Close along side of us.” A court martial cleared the officers and crew of the Diamond, though Admiral Richard Howe ordered another court martial due to irregularities in the trial.[6]

Annapolis, Maryland was the scene of several disastrous celebrations. On March 21, 1777, Thomas Johnson, Jr. was inaugurated governor of Maryland. The celebration included a salute of thirteen cannon. “During the firing of the cannon, one of the soldiers getting in front of one just as it was fired, was unfortunately killed.” In 1781, Major General William Smallwood wrote to the Governor and Council of Maryland on behalf of “Mary Watson being destitute of subsistance with a young child, having lost her Husband by an unfortunate accident from one of the pieces of Artillery going off for want of proper spunging on the Day of Entertainment given by the Citizens is recommended as an object of compassion to the Governor & Council for an Allowance of Provision &c for her Support.” Two months later the generous Maryland Council ordered the treasurer to “pay to Mary Watson the wife of a Soldier who was killed at an entertainment given the officers of the Maryland Line by the Citizens of Annapolis, two pounds, ten shillings.”[7]

Honoring general officers with artillery salutes was commonplace during the war. But on April 24, 1779, near Augusta, Georgia, a salute to Benjamin Lincoln went awry: “GenlLincoln & Retinue Came to our Camp about 12 oClock, was saluted with 12 or 13 Rounds of the Field Pieces . . . One of the Gunners was very badly wounded by the Cartridge taking Fire in the ramming down.”[8]

Salutes from ships regularly proved dangerous. In July 1778, the Carolina galley was saluting the American forces at Fort Tonyn on the St. Mary’s River, but “An unfortunate accident happened by their saluting us, the wadding of one of their Guns having carried away a Soldier’s right Arm, tho’ he was at the Distance of Forty Yards from the Vessel.” The unnamed soldier died of “mortification” on July 9. The Randolph saluted the town on Beaufort, North Carolina on November 16, 1778, with even sadder results.

When we were going to salute the town I directed Mr. Sumeral, the chief mate, to draw the wads and unshot the guns. When he told me it was done I gave orders to fire. Hesitating to fire his gun, I went up to him and asked him if he was afraid to fire, and intended to take the match from him, but upon my speaking he fired, and the gun burst into a hundred pieces. A large piece went through the boat, another through the foretop-sail. A splinter of the carriage scratched the side of my face, and the same piece tore the ensign all to pieces. Poor Sumeral had his thigh broken in two places, and many of the crew were slightly wounded. Considering the gun was loaded with grape shot, and the decks full of men, there being many on board from the shore, it was surprising more were not injured. Sumeral lingered a great while before he died . . . He told me he was really afraid to fire the gun; he had tried to draw the wad but could not. Had he mentioned this to me the accident would not have happened.[9]

The American sloop of war Saratoga made fatal celebrations an international affair at Cape Francis, Hispaniola, in January 1781. Joseph Hardy recorded, “at 8 O’Clock this morning the Saratoga saluted the Town—the first gun fired unfortunately proved to be Loaded with a round shot and Grape supposed to be put in by the Prisoners which killed a negro Woman ashore —and in loading one of the Guns without Springing [sic—sponging] killed a Man and wounded another.” The ship had brought in a prize the day before, and the captive sailors were blamed for secretly putting a ball in one of the cannon.[10]

Even the end of the war could not be celebrated without fatal consequences. As mentioned above, Samuel Rollins was killed celebrating at Falmouth, now Maine. At Wilmington, North Carolina in June 1783, “there was a very grand Ball here the other night, the Company was remarkably numerous and brilliant . . . There were obliged to be three successive sets of Dancers . . . On Thursday (the day before the Ball) the Proclamation of the Cessation of Hostilities was read in form by the Sheriff, and the Town was finely illuminated in the evening. Unluckily tho’ upon the discharge of Cannon a similar accident happened as at Edenton, a Man who was drunk and careless was wounded in such a manner that he has ever since been in the most miserable condition, and his life despaired of, tho’ he still unfortunately lingers to our for us is a more shocking object.”[11]


[1]”Journal of Samuel Rowland Fisher, of Philadelphia, 1779-1781,” ed. Anna Wharton Morris, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 41 (1917): 411-12.

[2]Connecticut Journal, April 9, 1777; “Sergeant Lawrence’s Journal,” George Augustus Wheeler, History of Castine, Penobscot, and Brooksville, Maine (Bangor, ME: Burr & Robinson, 1875), 320.

[3]William Goold, Portland in the Past with Historical Notes of Old Falmouth(Portland, ME: B. Thurston & Co., 1886), 390-91; Joseph Bowman, “Journal of Col: G: R: Clarks Proceeding[s] from the 29th Jan’y 1779 To the 20th March Inst.,” Papers of George Washington, 20:674; Mrs. Roscoe C. O’Byrne, Roster of Soldiers and Patriots of the American Revolution Buried in Indiana (Indiana Daughters of the American Revolution, 1938), 67.

[4]Samuel A. Green, Groton During the Revolution(Cambridge: John Wilson & Son, 1900), 261-62; Pennsylvania Archives, ed. John Blair Linn & William H. Egle, 2d ser. vol. 11 (Harrisburg: E.K. Meyers, 1890), 65; “Diary of Jacob Smith-American Born,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, ed. Charles William Heathcote, 56 (1932): 264.

[5]William Coit to Jonathan Trumbull, March 26, 1777, in William James Morgan, ed. Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington: DC: GPO, 1980), 8:205-206.

[6]John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776-1782, ed. Ira D. Gruber, Publications of the Army History Society, vol. 13 (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1998), 80; Master’s Log of H.M.S. Diamond, in William James Morgan, ed. Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 7:991-92; 7:1260-61.

[7]J. Thomas Scharf, History of Maryland From the Earliest Period to the Present Day(Baltimore: John P. Piet 1879), 2:288; Elihu S. Riley, The Ancient City, A History of Annapolis in Maryland, 1949-1887 (Annapolis: Record Printing Office, 1887), 183; William Smallwood to the Governor and Council of Maryland, August 25, 1781, in Archives of Maryland, ed. J. Hall Pleasants, vol. 47, Journal and Correspondence of the State Council of Maryland, 1781 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1930), 446; Archives of Maryland, 45:647.

[8]C. F. W. Coker, ed., “Journal of John Graham, South Carolina Militia, 1779,” Military Collector and Historian (Summer 1967), 42.

[9]Thomas Pinckney to his sister, July 4, 1778, “Letters of Thomas Pinckney, 1775-1780,” ed. Jack L. Cross, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 58, no. 3 (July 1957): 153; John Faucheraud Grimké, “Journal of the Campaign to the Southward. May 9th to July 14th, 1778,” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, 12, no. 4 (October 1911):193;   Autobiography of Charles Biddle, Vice-President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. 1745-1821 (Philadelphia: E. Claxton and Company, 1883), 116.

[10]James L. Howard, Seth Harding, Mariner: A Naval Picture of the Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930), “Journal of Joseph Hardy,” 275.

[11]James Iredell to Hannah Iredell, June 6, 1783, in The Papers of James Iredelled. Don Higginbotham (Raleigh: North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1976), 2:417-8.


  • Interesting article on celebrations – however – it was in Falmouth, MAINE – then part of Massachusetts, not the small town of Falmouth on Cape Cod in Massachusetts that the October 1777 event took place. It was a good idea to later change the name of Falmouth, Maine because there was continual confusion-

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