Trophies of War: The Guns at Elk

Postwar Conflict (>1783)

September 23, 2021
by Joseph Lee Boyle Also by this Author


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Elk Landing, Head of Elk and Elkton all refer to the same geographic area in Cecil County, Maryland. Head of Elk was a key focal point for the transportation of troops, food, animals, armaments, etc., being, as Dr. Albert Bushnell Hart stated, “in a key position, geographically speaking, to the armies of the northern and southern colonies and was a thoroughfare for the troops of both sides, traveling by land or water; it was a frequent stopping place for officers—Washington, Lafayette, Rochambeau, Howe, and others.”[1]

The British surrender at Yorktown was a windfall for the American military establishment. Henry Knox and the Ordnance Department were particularly blessed. Several different estimates were made of the artillery captured.  Knox prepared “A summary return of the Ordnance Arms and Military Stores taken in the Enemies posts of York and Glocester 19th October 1781” which showed 140 “Iron Cannon of different calibre” and 74 “Brass Cannon & mortars.” An unsigned “Summary return” lists 120 “Iron Cannon of different Calibres” and 80 “Brass ditto.” In Washington’s letter to the Continental Congress, October 27-29, along with many other items, he included a “Return of Ordnance and Military Stores” taken from the enemy. This included an itemized list of 75 brass pieces of various calibers, broken down as cannon, howitzers and mortars. The number of iron ordnance had increased to 169 pieces of various calibers, listed as cannon, carronades, and swivels.[2]

Another report in Knox’s hand lists a vast amount of “Ordnance Stores to be sent up the Bay of Chesapeake.” This includes items surrendered as well as the Continental Artillery’s own munitions. Shot and shell are among the hundreds of items on the list. A total of 95 pieces of brass ordnance and 134 “Iron Ordnance” were to be shipped.[3]

Washington was anxious to move out of Virginia. Five days after the surrender Knox’s aide-de-camp Samuel Shaw relayed the general’s orders that “You are to proceed with the first division of Vessels with Canon and Stores to the Head of Elk.―Colo: Stevens will give you an inventory of the Cargo, that must be landed and application made to the Quarter Master at the Head of Elk, for waggons to transport them to Cristiania―the Quarter Master, must send an Express to philidelphia for vessels to be at Cristiania to Receive the canon and Stores on their arrival their, and transport them to philidelphia.” On November 6, Henry Dearborn recorded at York that “from the 28 ult. we have been busily ingaged in collecting vessels, & Imbarking Troop, Artelliry, Stores &c. our sick & invaleads ware first imbark’d & sent off for the head of Elk.”[4]

On November 2 Knox wrote from “Park of Artillery near York in Virginia” to Col. John Lamb that:

As circumstances will not admit of my going with the artillery from this place, You will please to take charge of all the ordnance and stores to the Head of Elk, where they must be landed, and the shot and shells piled in some secure place, remote from the wharves, to prevent their being stolen. Every possible assistance must be obtained from the Qr. Master at the Head of Elk, for the transportation of all the brass ordnance and iron 18 pounders, across the Country to Christiana bridge. He must also procure a sufficient quantity of shipping to transport them to Philadelphia. If he cannot furnish the shipping necessary, an officer must be sent off express to the D.Q.M.Genl. at Philadelphia, and to the Board of War, to have vessels instantly sent to Christiana Creek—a lolerable [sic] estimate of the tonage can be transmitted with the demand.

Two days later he had a “Return of the Cannon sent to the Head of Elk, intended to be subject to the orders of Robert Morris Esq.” This included:

2 —  3 pounders — no carriage

16 —  6 pr. on ship carriage

40 —  9 “ “

16 — 12 “ “

26  — 18 pd Caronades no carriage.


On November 19 Washington wrote from Mount Vernon to Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris that “A number of Iron Cannon, being unnecessary for our use, I have appropriated as a Fund for Discharge of the Debt incurred & are sent to Head of Elk this with the other funds may possibly amount to a full Discharge of the Debt.”[6]

What we now might consider a pleasant sail on the bay was not always such. Surgeon James Thacher wrote that “We sailed from York river on the 4th of November, and in consequence of severe storms and contrary winds, our voyage was very unpleasant and protracted to sixteen days, which has often been performed in three. . . . We disembarked at the head of Elk, on the 20th of November.”[7] The voyage in relatively small ships with large amounts of heavy metal must have been particularly nerve wracking.

By November 30 Richard Frothingham, Field Commissary of Military Stores, had delivered in Philadelphia 20 iron 18-pounders unmounted as well as 77 mounted and 15 unmounted brass cannon of various sizes, and many other related stores. The same day Frothingham reported items left at the “head of Elk” which included 15 12-pound iron cannon; 33 9-pounders; 15 6-pounders; 30 18-pound iron carronades, for a total of 93 iron artillery pieces. Also left were 54 garrison carriages, 6,191 shot and shell of various sizes and many other related items.[8]

Interest in the ordnance was prompt. At Philadelphia on January 17, 1782, Minister of Finance Robert Morris recorded that “Mr Bertles Shee applied to purchase Three pair of the Six pounders at the Head of Elk and offered £70 per pair of them. I required time to enquire their Value.” Perhaps spurred by this offer, Morris wasted little time in trying to dispose of the surplus. On February 26, 1782 he began to advertise:



ONE Hundred pieces of IRON ORDNANCE, lying at the Head of ELK, being the property of the United States, viz.

Two 3 pounders without carriages

Sixteen 6 pounders, on ship carriages

Forty 9 pounders,   “   ”

Sixteen 12 pounders,  “   ”

Twenty-six 18 pound Cannonades without carriages.

The prices are as follows for every Pair of the above ordnance:

3 120 dollars, 6 pounders 226 dollars and 2-3ds, 9 pounders 293 dollars and 1-3d, 12 pounders 333 dollars and 1-3d, and 18 pound cannonades 213 dollars and 1- 3d.
Any person inclining to purchase, on payment of the money to the Treasurer of the United States, for a part or the whole, and producing his receipt into this office, shall have an order for the delivery.

Morris then informed Donald Yeates, deputy quartermaster general at Elk, that “Brigadier General Knox . . . made me a Return of one hundred Pieces of Ordnance which he had caused to be landed at the Head of Elk and as several Persons have lately applied to purchase some of the Pieces I advertized them for Sale the twenty fifth Ultimo in the Public Papers and as fast as Purchasers appear I shall direct the Orders for the Delivery to you, as I understand they were left in your charge.”[9]

Morris had some success, writing to Yeates on March 5 that “I am to request that you will deliver to the order of Mr. William Turnbull & Co. three pair of Six Pounders . . . The said Gentleman having paid to the Treasurer of the United States the Price affixed by an advertisement of the 25th. February last from this Office . . . The Carriages go with the Cannon.” The same day he asked Yeates to deliver to the order of Messrs. James Stewart, and Paul Cox, “Five pair of six pounders, and one pair of nine pounders . . . The Carriages go with the Cannon.” Just six days later Morris wrote that “I am to request that you will deliver to the order of Mr George Henry eight pair of nine pounders with their Carriages being Part of the Ordnance brought from York Town Virginia and landed at the Head of Elk by Brigr: General Knox of the Artillery.” Henry later purchased an addition pair of 9-pounders which Yeates was directed to deliver on July 30, 1782.[10]

Not all the potential customers were happy with the merchandise. On March 13, the firm of Broom and Johnson wrote from the Head of Elk to William Buchanan: “We are exceedingly sorry for the delay of your Letter as it has been put out of our power to make a Choice of the Cannon. Cap. Paul Cox having been here a few days ago and taking 10 of the six pounders which are all that are worth having, those that are left . . . nor is there a Single Carriage for the Six pounders left we therefore wish you would make an enquiry if his order was prior to yours or not . . . we are confident they Guns are not equal to what expect.” On March 19, Thomas Mesnard wrote to William Buchanan, “According to your request I proceeded to the head of Elk, to examine the Six, Six pound Cannon and find them so bad that I would not Accept of them as a Present, to be bound to put them on board the new Ship.”[11]

By late July 1782, Yeates had prepared a “Return of the Military Stores received at the Post of Elk and of the Issues thereof.” He showed that on November 26, 1781, he had received:

832 24 pound Shot; 772 18 pound Shot; 3245 10 Inch Shells; 1309 8 Inch Shells; 5 ½ Inch Shells; 10 18 Pound Carronade Carriages; 12 12 Pound Cannon Carriages; 22 9 Pound Cannon Carriages; 10 6 Pound Cannon Carriages; 30 18 Pound Carronades; 15 12 Pound Cannon; 33 9 Pound Cannon; 15 6 Pound Cannon; 1 6 Pound Cannon damaged; 2 3 Pound Cannon damaged; 2 2 Pound Cannon damaged; 1 1 Pound Cannon damaged

From the sales program operated by Robert Morris claimed:

Apl. 9 1782 Delivd. Messrs. Cox & Stewart,” 2 9 Pound Cannon; 10 6 Pound Cannon; 2 9 Pound Cannon Carriages; 10 6 Pound Cannon Carriages
Delivd. George Henry,” 16 9 Pound Cannon; 16 9 Pound Cannon Carriages.
May 8 Delivd. Messrs. Whiteside & Co.” 2 3 Pound Cannon damaged.

Still “Remains at ye. Post” on July 27, 1782,

832 24 pound Shot; 772 18 pound Shot; 3245 10 Inch Shells; 1309 8 Inch Shells;
35 5 ½ Inch Shells; 10 18 Pound Carronade Carriages; 12 12 Pound Cannon Carriages;
4 9 Pound Cannon Carriages; 30 18 Pound Carronades; 15 12 Pound Cannon; 15 9 Pound Cannon; 6 6 Pound Cannon; 2 2 Pound Cannon damaged; 1 1 Pound Cannon damaged; 15 Musquets damaged; 4 Bayonetts damaged; 13 Cartouch Boxes damaged.[12]

The stores at Elk grew in 1782, as James Fife was paid “for raising & carrying ashore out of Elk River 9 ½ Tons Cannon Balls” and “Thos Johnson &c. for getting ashore stacking & counting a number of Shot & Shells on the Susquehanna.” These were probably dumped in 1777, when Lord Howe’s fleet landed his brother’s forces in Cecil County. In December of 1782, Yeates informed Quartermaster General Timothy Pickering that Secretary at War Benjamin Lincoln had directed him to move “Shott and Shells from Virginia to here and store at some safe place at least a mile from the river. There is some here now, the general may not know of, about 150 tons.”[13]

Some sales may still have been taking place as Commissary of Military Stores Samuel Hodgdon wrote to Yeates on February 24, 1783, “You will please to deliver the Bearer four hundred eighteen pound Shot such as he may choose—and also assist him in the Conveying them to Christiana Bridge, the expence of transporting he comes prepared to pay—for the Shot you will please to take a Receipt as usual.” In May that year there were still “at the Head of Elk” unmounted iron cannon:

1 1 Pounder; 2 iron 2 Pounders; 4 6 Pounders; 13 9 Pounders;
17 12 Pounders; 20 18 Pounders; 5 24 Pounders, as well as
30 18 pd Carronades. In addition to empty shells 32  5 ½” shells; 2809 inch 8; 5921 10 inch.

There were also 13,043 solid shot in sizes from 6 pounds to 24 pounds, as well as a few other stores such as sponges and rammers.[14]

On April 3, 1785, Yeates wrote as late deputy quartermaster general to Hodgdon with a return of “all public property in the Commissary Genl. of Military Stores Department in the District of the States of Maryland & Delaware.” This included 50 cannon in size from one to 24 pounders, 20 18-pound carronades, 23 garrison carriages of various sizes, 15 travelling carriages, 8 limbers with wheels, 3,444 assorted shot, and 32 5½ shells at Head of Elk. Other items were at Turners Creek in Kent County, Baltimore, George Town on Sassafras, and Susquehannah.[15]

Some ordnance materials continued to be sold:

To be Sold at Public Auction,
At the Head of Elk, on WEDNESDAY the 25th inst.
at 10 o’clock A. M.
SEVENTEEN double barrels of powder, belonging to the United States, containing about two hundred weight each, to be put up singly. Notes issued by the honorable Superintendent of Finance, Loan-Office certificates and all Liquadated securites will be received in payment, but it is expected that the purchasers will furnish the exact amount of their purchases, as it will be inconvenient to make change, payment must be made previous to the delivery of the powder
Com. Mil. Stores.
Head of Elk, August 15, 1784.[16]

In 1785, Congress received a report from the secretary of war that there were “sixteen pieces of artillery of 18 and 5 of 24 pounds, iron unmounted now lying at the head of Elk, and not in use.” Congress voted on May 26, “That in consequence of the request of the Governor of South Carolina, the Secretary at War be, and he is hereby directed to have seven pieces artillery, 16 pounders, and five 24 pounders, of the iron Ordnance, unmounted, and lying at the head of Elk, transported by the first convenient Opportunity by water to Charleston, together with such quantity of suitable ball, as may, in his opinion, be necessary, at the expense and risque of the State of South Carolina; for which the said State is to be accountable.”[17]

On March 4, 1786, Yeates, the former deputy quarter master general, was still reporting much material at the Head of Elk and nearby Kent County:

Iron Cannon 18 pounders 9 at Head of Elk
12 ditto 18 “
9 ditto 11 “
9 ditto 2 at George Town
6 ditto 3 at Head of Elk
6 ditto 1 Damaged at Head of Elk
2 ditto 2 “
1 ditto 1 “
Iron Carronades 18 pounders 20 at Head of Elk
Limbers wth. Wheels 24 pounders 2 at Turners Creek
18 ditto 3 “
12 ditto 2 “
6 ditto 1 “
Travelling Carriages 24 pounders 4 at Turners Creek
18 ditto 7 “
Garrison Carriages 24 pounders 2 at Turners Creek
18 ditto 9 “
12 ditto 10 “
9 ditto 2 at George Town
Carronade Carriages 18 pounders 1 at the Head of Elk
Shott 24 pounds 5824 at Susquehanna Ferry Head of Elk and Turners Creek
18 ditto 6670 “
12 ditto 727 “
9 ditto 297 “
6 ditto 86 “
Shells 10 Inch 5431 at Head of Elk, Susquehanna Ferry and Turners Creek
8 ditto 2807
5 ½ ditto 35
Slow Match 100 lbs
Linstocks 5
Drag Ropes 17
Cartridge Cases 5 damaged
Gun Worms 5
do. Spunges and Rammers 15
Ladles 15
Musquets 15 broken of no Value
Bayonets 4
Cartridge Boxes 13

Donaldson Yeates late D. Qr. Master[18]

An unsigned estimate, dated June 21, 1793, gave a cost for moving 250 tons of shot and shells from “Susquehana” to the Head of Elk, and 500 tons from Elk to Christiana, and then to Philadelphia. This was acted on as Samuel Hewitt wrote to Samuel Hodgdon from Elk Landing on September 26, 1793, that “I have at Last got forward all the Shot & Shells to Christiane Bridge, that was at Elk Susquehanah & Turners Creek.” He wanted to know if money could be though acknowledging “most of the Publick Offices are Shut” on account of the “fever that prevails in your City.” The yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, which killed perhaps 5,000 people, probably delayed further action.[19]

Included in a letter of December 1793, from Secretary of War Henry Knox to President Washington was a “Return of Ordnance and Military Stores in the States of Delaware and Maryland” as well as a return of shot and shell. At Elkton were 1,006 shot and 4,656 shells various sizes, in addition to 40 iron cannon of various weights, 10 18-pound carronades, and various military stores. There were also 17 cannon carriages at George Town and 21 at Turners Creek, Kent County, Maryland.[20]

Most of the cannon apparently remained at Elk until 1794, almost thirteen years after they were first deposited there. On June 23, Hewitt informed Hodgdon that “on the 16th, Inst I got the Canon Shipt, you ordred, (Say 9-18 & 1 12 pounder) & the Vessall Saild that evening, with orders to Call on Colo Yeats for the Truck wheels, & proceed with the hole to Norfolk . . . their is one Long 12 pounder yet on the ground.” Hewitt wrote from Elk Landing on July 8, 1794, that “agreeable to your orders I have this day Compleated the Shipment of the 23-12 pound Canon for Baltimore to the adress of Mr. Samuel Dodge, I Could not obtain a Craft Sooner, as I had to waite the return of the one I sent to Norfolk with the 10 Peaces & 20 truck wheels which are safe landed . . . the Gin Clothing &ca shall be sent up when you order.”[21]

In May 1797, Hodgdon wrote to Josiah Fox, a British shipwright now living in America who was planning frigate construction for the American navy, that “The 24 Pounder Ball are at the Head of Elk and may be easily transferred to Baltimore.” This was for the original frigate Constellation, whose derivative may still be seen on the Baltimore waterfront. An “Estimate of Military Stores wanted for the Three Frigates” the next month listed 4,797 “Round Shot for 24 pounders” at Elkton.[22]

Nothing further has been found on fate of the ordnance material at the Head of Elk. It is possible some of the pieces were still at Elk in during the War of 1812. Three earthen fortifications were constructed in Cecil County, including one called Fort Hollingsworth at the Head of Elk. On April 17, 1813 it was “nearly completed—300 feet of a semicircle; and mounts five 6-pound cannon; the trench sufficient to contain 500 men.”[23]


[1]Head of Elk Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution,

[2]Summary Return, October 19, 1781, Henry Knox Papers, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York (GLI), GLC02437.01245; Summary Return, undated, Knox Papers, GLI, GLC 02437.01316; Knox Papers, Copy of the Report to Congress, October 27-29, 1781, Knox Papers, GLI, GLC02437.10031.

[3]Ordnance Stores, October 1781, Henry Knox Papers, GLI, GLC02437.01274.

[4]Samuel Shaw to Ebenezer Stevens,October 24, 1781; GLI, GLC02437.01261; Henry Dearborn, Revolutionary War Journals of Henry Dearborn 1775-1783, ed. Lloyd A. Brown and Howard H. Peckham (Chicago: The Caxton Club, 1939), 222.

[5]Henry Knox to John Lamb, November 2, 1781, John Lamb Papers, New-York Historical Society; November 4, 1781, Record Group 93, M 859, Miscellaneous Numbered Records, Roll 71, Document 21291, National Archives and Records Administration, (NARA).

[6]George Washington to Robert Morris, November 19, 1781,

[7]James Thacher,Military Journal, During the American Revolutionary War, From 1775 to 1783 (Hartford: Silas Andrus & Son, 1854), 303.

[8]Return of Ordnance & Military Stores, November 22 and 20, 1781, GLI, GLC02437.01298;Richard Frothingham, Return of Ordnance & Military Stores left at the head of Elk Brought from York Town in Virginia,” November 30, 1781, GLI, GLC02437.01297.

[9]E. James Ferguson et al. eds, The Papers of Robert Morris, 1781-1784 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978), 4:57. The ad runs regularly in both The Pennsylvania Gazette and The Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, from February 27 through May 2, 1782.Robert Morris to Donaldson Yeates, March 4, 1782, Robert Morris Papers, 4:339.

[10]Morris to Yeates, March 5, 1782, Papers of the Continental Congress, (PCC) M 247, Roll 52, vol. 10, p. 147, NARA; Morris to Yeates, March 5, 1782, RG 93, M 859, Miscellaneous Numbered RecordsRoll 85, Doc. 24578, NARA; Morris to Yeates, March 11, 1782. Papers of Robert Morris, 4:392; Morris to Yeates, July 30, 1782, Papers of Robert Morris, 6:109.

[11]Broom and Johnsonto William Turnbull & Co., March 13, 1782, PCC, M 247, Roll 52, vol. 10, p. 139-40, NARA; Thomas Mesnard to William Buchanan, March 19, 1782, PCC, M 247, Roll 52, vol. 10, p. 135, NARA.

[12] Donaldson Yeates, July 27, 1782, RG 93, M 859,Miscellaneous Numbered Records,Reel 69, Doc. 21124, NARA.

[13]RG 93, M 853, Roll 36, 170, NARA; Yeates to Timothy Pickering, December 28, 1782, RG 93, M 859, Roll 85, Doc. 24834, NARA.

[14]Hodgdon to Yeates, February 24, 1783, RG 93, M 853, Numbered Record Books … the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records Roll 33, NARA; General Return of Ordnance, Military and Quarter Master Stores, May 1, 1783, RG 93, M 859, Roll 73, Document 218191, NARA.

[15]Yeates to Hodgdon April 3, 1785; Return April 4, 1785, War Department Papers, item1785040490001.

[16]Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia) August 21, 1784.

[17]Journals of the Continental Congress, 28:390-391; 395-96.

[18]“A Return of Public Property on hand in the Commissary of General of Military Stores department within the district of the States of Maryland and Delaware by Donaldson Yeates late Deputy Qr. Master for said district 4th. March 1786,” RG 93, M 859, Miscellaneous Numbered Records, Roll 70, Doc. 21249, NARA. Note on Reverse: “Return of Public property under the Care of Donaldson Yeates at Turners Creek & the Head of Elk—Recd. 8th March 1786.”

[19]Unsigned Estimate, June 21, 1793,, item 1793092680001; Samuel Hewitt to Samuel Hodgdon, 26 September 1793,, item 1793092680001.

[20]Knox to Washington, December 14, 1793,, item 1793121600055.

[21]Hewitt to Hodgdon, June 23, 1794,, item 1794062380101; Same to Same, 8 July 8, 1794,, item 1794070880001.

[22]Hodgdon to Josiah Fox, May 2, 1797,, item 1797050228001; Unsigned, Estimate of Military Stores,, item 9999999989255.

[23]From the Baltimore Patriot, April 22, 1813, quoted in James G. Gibb et al., “Protecting the Upper Chesapeake Bay: Fort Hollingsworth (1813-1815), Elk River, Cecil County, Maryland,” Northeast Historical Archaeology, Special Issue, War of 1812 (2015) 166.

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