Patriot Riflemen During the Ammunition Crisis at the Siege of Boston in 1775

©Hugh T. Harrington, 2000

Hugh T. Harrington is an independent researcher living in Georgia. He may be reached by clicking on his name.

George Washington sucked in his breath sharply as he read a letter that had been delivered by hand only moments before. It was dated August 1, 1775, from Elbridge Gerry, 1 the chairman of the Committee of Supply of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. To Washington's "very great astonishment" 2 the supply of gunpowder for the army besieging Boston was 36 barrels. Washington had thought there were 308 barrels of gunpowder. Gerry went on to say that there were no flints and only two tons of lead.

Washington thought of his army. The army that was supposed to deal with the British in Boston just a few miles away. He had arrived in Cambridge on July 2, 1775 to take command of this army, "a mixed multitude of people here, under very little discipline, order, or government...confusion and disorder reigned in every department." 3 One of the problems was that the army had materialized quickly after the Lexington/Concord fights of April and had taken up positions along a 10 mile crescent around Boston and the tip of the Charleston peninsula across the Charles River from Boston. He was bringing organization to the multitude of inexperienced officers and men. Now he was faced with his first major crisis.

His mind raced. Three major factors had to be addressed immediately. First, he needed to obtain more powder as quickly as possible. Second, it was absolutely essential that the powder shortage not become known to the British. To keep the shortage a secret as few of his own people as possible should know of it. A word leaked to the British would surely cause an immediate attack. It would be an attack that he could not possibly repulse. Washington had just under 14,000 men fit for duty. 4 The vast majority of these men had never heard a shot fired in anger. The powder crisis left his army with "not more than 9 cartridges a Man." 5 This amateur army would be faced with over 6,000 highly trained British regulars who carried 60 rounds per man. 6 The British attack would be backed with artillery and heavy cannon fire from warships in the harbor. Clearly then, the third factor was that the British must be discouraged from making an attack.

Washington called a Council of War on August 3. He explained to his generals the critical need for powder. The explanation for the discrepancy of what had been listed as being in store and what actually was available tells much about the inexperience of the American forces. The Committee of Supplies, "not being sufficiently acquainted with the nature of a return...sent in an account of all the ammunition which had been collected by the Province, so that the report included not only what was on hand but what had been spent." 7 Besides seeking powder from the provinces, other sources must be found for powder. The Council of War agreed "by a great majority" to send a detachment of 300 men to make an attempt to capture the British powder magazine at Halifax. 8

On August 4 Washington wrote to Governor Nicholas Cooke of Rhode Island for powder. He informed Cooke that "our necessities in the articles of powder and lead are so great as to require an immediate supply.....forward every pound of each in the colony which can possibly be quantity, however small, is beneath notice and should any arrive I beg it may be forwarded as soon as possible." Washington then proposes that an armed ship be sent from Rhode Island and make an attempt to capture a powder magazine on Bermuda. Washington offered that "I am very sensible that at first view the project may appear hazardous and its success must depend on the concurrence of many circumstances, but we are in a situation which requires us to run all risques [sic]. No danger is to be considered when put in competition with the magnitude of the cause and absolute necessity we are under of increasing our stock [of powder]. Enterprises which appear chimerical, often prove successful from that very circumstance, common sense and prudence will suggest vigilance and care, when the danger is plain and obvious, but where little danger is apprehended, the more the enemy is unprepared and consequently there is the fain'd prospect of success." 9

In his letter to The Committee of Safety of New Hampshire on August 4, 1775, Washington also begged for powder saying "the smallest quantities are not beneath notice...lead and flints are also very scarce...every hour in our present situation is critical." 10

Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut received a plea "in strict confidence" for "every ounce [of powder] in the Province." Washington added that "the case calls loudly for the warmest and most strenuous exertions of every friend to his country, and does not admit of the least delay; no quantity however small is beneath notice." 11

In an effort to conserve powder as well as maintain a semblance of discipline, Washington issued an order on August 4, 1775, which stated that "it is with indignation and shame the General observes, that notwithstanding the repeated orders which have been given to prevent the firing of guns in and about camp, it is daily and hourly practised; that, contrary to all orders, straggling soldiers do still pass the guards and fire at a distance, where there is not the least probability of hurting the enemy, and where no other end is answered but to waste ammunition, expose themselves to the ridicule of the enemy, and keep their own camps harassed by frequent and continual alarms...." As of this date "the rolls of every company is to be called twice a day, and every man's ammunition examined at even roll-calling; and such as are found deficient, to be confined." 12 A rumor was leaked to the British that the patriots had 1800 barrels of powder. Washington also caused a rumor to be circulated in his own camp that he had so much gunpowder he was somewhat embarrassed by having so much. 13

On June 14, 1775, Congress authorized the raising of rifle companies in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. Immediately, hundreds of young men from the western counties came forward to volunteer. These hardy men from the frontier used their rifles to bring in food and provide defense against Indians. As soon as they were organized, rifle companies marched to the aid of Boston. At that time, rifles were seen in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland as well as the southern colonies, but in New England they were a novelty.

Until the first rifle companies arrived there were no rifles or riflemen on either side at the Siege of Boston. The weapons used were smoothbores. The British were equipped with the Brown Bess and the Patriots with the Brown Bess and assorted smoothbores of varying ages and quality. Military training did not include marksmanship. Soldiers were drilled in quick loading and firing, on command, when their weapons were "leveled" at the enemy. In the linear formations in use at the time this was an effective method of delivering large numbers of balls in the general direction of the enemy. Volleys of musket fire were followed up with the bayonet. 14

Washington, having been a Colonel in the Virginia militia and having served actively in the French & Indian War was well acquainted with the rifle and the men who used them. He looked forward to the arrival of the rifle companies. On July 18th the first rifle company reached Cambridge from Berks County, Pennsylvania. Others soon followed. The riflemen went out of their way to cover ground quickly as well as to put on demonstrations of their marksmanship ability on their march to Massachusetts. Daniel Morgan marched his men 600 miles in 21 days while Michael Cresap's company covered 550 miles in 22 days.

The rifle was an unknown quantity to most of the population. Striking a mark at distances two or three times as far as a smoothbore musket provoked awe in the onlookers. Word of this new capability spread quickly by word of mouth, letters and newspapers. The news carried to England as well. The shortcomings of the rifle, slow loading, quick to foul, non-standard ball size, and no bayonet were not realized at this time. For now the only thing that was touted was the ability, often grossly exaggerated, of increasing the effective range of a weapon from "whites of their eyes" distance to several hundred yards.

The riflemen themselves also took on a mystical quality. Richard Henry Lee claimed that six counties in western Virginia could provide 6000 riflemen with "their amazing hardihood, their method of living so long in the woods without carrying provisions with them, the exceeding quickness with which they can march to distant parts, and above all, their the use of the Rifle Gun...every shot is fatal." Lee went so far as to assert that these riflemen could hit an orange at 200 yards. 15

An eyewitness in Cambridge, Dr. James Thacher, described the riflemen as "remarkably stout and hardy men, many of them exceeding six feet in height. They are dressed in white frocks, or rifle-shirts, and round hats. These men are remarkable for the accuracy of their aim, striking a mark with great certainty at two hundred yards distance." 16

A "letter to a gentleman in Philadelphia" dated Fredericktown, MD., August 1, 1775, gives us a glimpse of the impression the riflemen made on the general population. It also is a look at the riflemen themselves.

"I have had the happiness of seeing Captain Michael Cresap marching at the head of a formidable company of upwards of one hundred and thirty men, from the mountains and back-woods, painted like Indians, armed with tomahawks and rifles, dressed in hunting-shirts and moccasins, and though some of them had traveled near eight hundred miles, from the banks of the Ohio, they seemed to walk light and easy, and not with less spirit than at the first hour of their march. Health and vigour, after what they had undergone, declared them to be intimate with hardship and familiar with danger. ...Had Lord North been present, and been assured that the brave leader could raise thousands of such like to defend his country, what think you, would not the hatchet and the block have intruded upon his mind?"

The letter goes on to describe the riflemen's "dexterity at shooting."

"A clapboard, with a mark the size of a dollar, was put up; they began to fire off-hand, and the bystanders were surprised, few shots being made that were not close to or in the paper. When they had shot for a time in this way, some lay on their backs, some on their breast or side, others ran twenty or thirty steps, and firing, appeared to be equally certain of the mark. With this performance the company were more than satisfied, when a young man took up the board in his hand, not by the end, but by the side, and holding it up, his brother walked to the distance, and very coolly shot into the white; laying down his rifle, he took the board, and holding it as it was held before, the second brother shot as the former had done. By this exercise I was more astonished than pleased. But will you believe me, when I tell you that one of the men took the board, and placing it between his legs, stood with his back to the tree while another drove the center. What would a regular army of considerable strength in the forest of America do with one thousand of these men, who want nothing to preserve their health and courage but water from the spring, with a little parched corn, with what they can easily procure in hunting; and who, wrapped in their blankets, in the damp of night, would choose the shade of a tree for their covering, and the earth for their bed." 17

This same company arrived in Lancaster on August 4, 1775 and gave a similar demonstration. The event is described by an eyewitness in a letter which was published in the Pennsylvania Packet of August 28.

"Captain Cresap's Company of Riflemen, consisting of 130 active, brave young fellows...With their rifles in their hands they assume a kind of omnipotence over their enemies...Two brothers in the company took a piece of board, five inches broad, and seven inches long, with a bit of white paper, about the size of a dollar, nailed to the center, and while one of them supported this board perpendicularly between his knees, the other at the distance of upwards of sixty yards, and without any kind of rest, shot eight bullets successively through the board, and spared a brother's thighs! Another of the company held a barrel stave perpendicularly in his hand, with one edge close to his side, while one of his comrades, at the same distance, and in the manner before mentioned, shot several bullets through it, without any apprehensions of danger on either side. The spectators appearing to be amazed at these feats, were told that there were upwards of fifty persons in the company who could do the same thing; and there was not one who could not plug 19 bullets out of 20 (as they termed it) within an inch of the head of a ten penny nail; in short, to evince the confidence they possessed in their dexterity at these kinds of arms, some of them proposed to stand with apples on their heads, while others at the same distance undertook to shoot them off; but the people, who saw the other experiments, declined to be witnesses of this. At night a great fire was kindled round a pole planted in the courthouse square, where the company with the Captain at their head, all naked to the waist and painted like savages (except the Captain, who was in an Indian shirt), indulged a vast concourse of the inhabitants with a perfect exhibition of a war dance, and all the manoevures [sic] of Indians holding council, going to war, circumventing their enemies, by defiles, ambuscades, attacking, scalping, etc. It is said by those who are judges, that no representation could possibly come nearer the original. The Captain's agility and expertness, in particular, in these exhibitions, astonished every beholder. This morning they will set out on their march to Cambridge." 18 On August 9th these riflemen arrived in Cambridge.

It was common practice for newspapers to pick up news items from other newspapers as well as to reprint letters, such as the one to the gentleman in Philadelphia. Thus, stories such as this would rapidly spread far and wide.

The Virginia Gazette of July 25, 1775 carried an article claiming that so many riflemen had volunteered for the rifle companies that a shooting test was required to weed down the numbers. It was claimed that the judges chalked a drawing of a human nose on a board and sixty men were said to have riddled the mark from 150 yards away. 19 Such stories only added to the prestige and stature of the men in the hunting shirts.

Two Philadelphia printers, wrote a London publisher a letter which was printed in the London Chronicle of August 17-19, 1775, "This province has raised 1000 riflemen, the worst of whom will put a ball into a man's head at the distance of 150 or 200 yards, therefore advise your officers who shall hereafter come out to America to settle their affairs in England before their departure." 20

To Washington, who desperately needed to keep the British from attacking during the ammunition crisis, the arrival of the riflemen was an answer to a prayer. They brought with them not only their rifles but a fierce reputation as fighting men. This public fascination with the riflemen was far out of proportion to their actual usefulness but for the short term they were just what was needed. As soon as they arrived they began to pick off British sentries and officers at great distance. The numbers of men killed by the riflemen was of little significance, but the terror factor and effect on morale was enormous. The British quickly learned the effective range of the rifle and gave the marksmen few targets. But the threat from the riflemen was always present.

The real value of the riflemen was to buy time for the patriots. Washington seized onto the temporary excitement caused by the riflemen and worked it to his advantage. The riflemen were treated as privileged units. They camped together and were exempted from camp duties. No digging entrenchments for these specialized men. A few times the riflemen were used to creep out and attack small parties of British. Putting the fear of riflemen crawling about in the dark into the minds of the British would be one more thing to bother the enemy.

To make sure that the message was loud and clear Washington ordered a spectacular demonstration of the abilities of his riflemen. With a huge crowd of spectators on hand Washington publically had his men fire at a seven inch diameter pole from 200 yards. The riflemen riddled the pole. Others fired at 250 yards. Some companies, at quick march, hit seven inch targets at 200 yards. 21 By the middle of August there were 1400 riflemen facing the British in Boston. With their hunting shirts they stood out from the mass of soldiers as something elite.

Such marksmanship demonstrations and the loss of British soldiers exposed to their fire created discontent among the British in Boston and in England. General Howe wrote to England about "the terrible guns of the rebels." He was so concerned about the riflemen that he gave orders that one be taken prisoner along with his rifle. As soon as this was accomplished he had the rifleman sent to England to be exhibited. 22

By the end of August the gunpowder crisis had eased. On August 24 Washington had 184 barrels of powder as well as thousands of flints and several tons of lead. Throughout the war supplies were never what were wanted but at least the men could have some in their cartridge boxes as well as powder stocks in store. The army and the public never knew there had been a crisis. With the end of the powder crisis the riflemen, after having played such a major part in containing the British, became a nuisance.

After making their triumphal march to join the army surrounding Boston, the riflemen became restless, bored and sullen. They participated in a couple of minor raids but other than sniping at the British they had little to do. As they were bivouacked in a special area and were exempted from routine duties, time hung heavy on their hands. Washington had put them on display and fostered the idea of their being an elite force. This fit in well with Washington's undisclosed plan to maximize the prestige and fame of the riflemen and thus keep the British occupied with their own worries within Boston. However, the riflemen's special status caused resentment among the other troops in the army. The independent minded backwoodsmen ignored military protocol and fought among themselves and others. Some deserted to the British taking their rifles with them. 23 Military discipline was entirely a foreign concept to them. If a rifleman was confined in the guardhouse his comrades would break him out. On one occasion a rifleman, who had been broken out of the guardhouse by his friends, was recaptured and taken to Cambridge. Members of his unit, with loaded rifles, marched on the Cambridge guardhouse to get him out again. Washington added 500 armed men to the guard and put another regiment under arms in case they were needed. Washington, Nathanial Greene and Charles Lee then faced down the mutineers and had them marched back to camp where they were court-martial and convicted of disobedient and mutinous behavior. 24

General Artemas Ward wrote that, "they don't boast so much of the riflemen as heretofore. General Washington has said he wished they had never come; General Lee has damned them and wished them all in Boston..." 25 The rifle companies were ordered to do the same fatigue duties as other troops and their special status was greatly diminished. Their usefulness at Boston was over but they, without knowing it, had served a vital function. Without the intimidation of the riflemen the British might have poured out of Boston and put an end to the fledgling Revolution.

1 Force, Peter, American Archives, Series IV, vol. 3, page 5, Letter dated August 1, 1775 from Elbridge Gerry to General Washington.

2 Fitzpatrick, John C., The Writings of Washington, vol. 3 p. 394.

3 Fitzpatrick, John C., The Writings of Washington, vol. III, p. 371-374, cited in Christopher Ward, War of the Revolution p. 103.

4 Fitzpatrick, John C., The Writings of Washington, vol. III, August 4, 1775, Letter to the President of Congress, p. 392.

5 Fitzpatrick, John C., The Writings of Washington, August 4, 1775, Letter to the President of Congress, vol. III, p. 395.

6 Fitzpatrick, John C., The Writings of Washington, January 30, 1776, Letter to the President of Congress, vol. IV, p. 288.

7 Fitzpatrick, John C., The Writings of Washington, August 4, 1775 Letter to the President of Congress, vol. III, p. 395.

8 Force, Peter, American Archives, Series IV, Vol. 3 p. 36, minutes of Council of War held at Cambridge, Headquarters, August 3, 1775.

9 Fitzpatrick, John C., The Writings of Washington, August 4, 1775, Letter to Governor Nicholas Cooke, vol. III, p. 386.

10 Fitzpatrick, John C., The Writings of Washington, August 4, 1775, Letter to the Committee of Safety of New Hampshire, vol. III, p. 388.

11 Fitzpatrick, John C., The Writings of Washington, August 4, 1775, Letter to Governor Jonathan Trumbull, vol. III, p. 389.

12 Force, Peter, American Archives, Series 4, vol. 3, p. 36.

13 Flexner, James Thomas, George Washington in the American Revolution (1775-1783), p. 35-36.

14 Reichmann, Felix, "The Pennsylvania Rifle: A Social interpretation of Changing Military Techniques," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 69, January 1945 p. 6.

15 Richard Henry Lee to Arthur Lee, February 24, 1775, James Curtis Ballagh, ed., The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, New York, 1911-1914, I, 130-131, cited in Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War, p. 34.

16 Thacher, James, Military Journal of the American Revolution, p.31.

17 Force, Peter, American Archives, Series IV, vol. 3, page 2.

18 Dunlap's "Pennsylvania Packet or The General Advertiser," Monday, August 28, 1775, No. 201,
cited in John G.W. Dillin, The Kentucky Rifle, p. 81-82.

19 Virginia Gazette, July 25, 1775, cited in Lynn Montross, Rag, Tag and Bobtail, p. 49-50.

20 London Chronicle, August 17-19, 1775, p. 174, cited in John G.W. Dillin, The Kentucky Rifle, p. 83.

21 Thacher, James, Military Journal during the American Revolutionary War, pp. 31; Dillin, John G.W., The Kentucky Rifle p. 83-84.

22 Cline, Walter, Muzzle-Loading Rifle Then and Now, p. 35.

23 Scheer, George F. and Rankin, Hugh F., "Rebels and Redcoats," p. 86. In researching this paper I found no references to the British using the rifles of deserters or captured riflemen. It does present a point of interest, however, as clearly the British were not the only targets who needed to fear long distance sniper fire.

24 Ward, Christopher, "War of the Revolution," p. 107-108.

25 Scheer, George F. and Rankin, Hugh F., Rebels and Redcoats, p. 86.

Suggested further reading

Gill, Harold B., Jr. The Gunsmith in Colonial Virginia. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1974.

Gluckman, Arcadi. United States Muskets, Rifles and Carbines. Harrisburg: Stackpole Co., 1959.

Kauffman, Henry J. The Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle. Harrisburg: Stackpole Co., 1960.

Moore, Warren. Weapons of the American Revolution ... And Accoutrements. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1967.

Neumann, George C. The History of Weapons of the American Revolution. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Neumann, George C. Firearms of the American Revolution 1775-1783. Washington: American Ordnance Association, 1973.

Peterson, Harold L. Arms and Armor in Colonial America 1526-1783. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1956.

Peterson, Harold L. Round Shot and Rammers. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1969.

Reichman, Felix. "The Pennsylvania Rifle: A Social Interpretation of Changing Military Techniques." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 69 (January 1945), pp. 3-14.

Russell, Carl P. Guns on the Early Frontiers: A History of Firearms From Colonial Times through the Years of the Western Fur Trade. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Sawyer, Charles W. Firearms in American History. 3 vols. Boston: Privately printed, 1910-1920.

Stephenson, Orlando W. "The Supply of Gunpowder in 1776." American Historical Review, 30 (January 1925), pp. 271-281.

Wintringham, Thomas H. The Story of Weapons and Tactics from Troy to Stalingrad. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1943.

Wright, John W. "The Rifle in the American Revolution." American Historical Review, 29 (January 1924), pp. 293-299.

York, Neil Longley. "Pennsylvania Rifle: Revolutionary Weapon in a Conventional War." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 103
(July 1979), pp. 302-324.

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