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U.S. History/Gunpowder Knox seized at Fort Ticonderoga

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Question
I am preparing an essay arguing that George Washington blundered by letting the British army and fleet escape the siege of Boston in March of 1776. Some historians argue that Washington lacked gunpowder to use the cannons quickly erected on Dorchester Heights on March 4, 1776. So Washington had to let General Howe escape. Is that true?

Henry Knox in his diaries provided an inventory of the cannons he brought from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston, but I haven't found an inventory of gunpowder and cannon balls and other weaponry he would have brought with him to Boston. Did he just not bring such munitions from Ticonderoga, or did he just fail to list it in his inventory? What was the true state of Washington's gunpowder inventory once Knox arrived with the cannons?
Can you help me?

Answer
Hi David,

You raise some interesting points, but you may find difficulty determining the exact state of munitions in the Continental Army at that time.  The State of munitions was considered a top national secret.  Gen. Washington allowed almost nothing to be put into writing.  This was because if the British knew how little powder the Army had, they could have routed the Army in a matter of hours.

When Washington took control of the Army shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill, he found the army had 38 barrels of powder on hand (about 2 tons).  This was fewer than nine shots per soldier using small arms.  Cannon took far larger amounts of powder.  To give you some comparison, the British Navy attacked Fort Sullivan SC in June 1776 in what was a relatively small one day bombardment.  In that battle, the Navy used 17 tons of powder.

To directly answer your question, I have never seen an accounting of how much powder or shell was brought along with the 59 cannon that Henry Knox and his men brought back from Fort Ticonderoga.  But it likely would not have been very much.  First, it is unclear whether there was any powder to bring back.  After Ticonderoga was captured, there was powder, but much of that may have been used for the invasion of Quebec a few months later.  Also, even if there was powder at the fort, Knox had only a limited number of men and sleds on which to transport the cannon.  They may not have been able to transfer the necessary tons of powder overland along with the cannon needed for battle.  Since the cannon were unique and powder could be gained elsewhere, their focus was on the guns themselves.  Similarly, cannon balls could be made locally, which would be easier than transporting them overland on sleds.

What we do know is that the cannon arrived in Boston in January, but that the Army did not have sufficient powder until March to use the Canon.  This indicates that if Knox brought any powder with him, it was not nearly enough.

Most of the powder acquired by the Army over the Winter of 1775-76 did not come from captured stores.  It was purchased and smuggled into the country from Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa.

What is clear is a that by March, powder reserves were not quite as bad as they had been.  But there was more than a lack of powder that preventing Washington from attacking the British in Boston.

In those days, Boston was a peninsula.  The only way to enter Boston by land was through Boston neck, a small strip of land about 120 feet wide.  In the 1800's most of the water around the city was filled in with dirt and built up, which is why Boston looks very different today.  

The British had reinforced the brick and stone defenses at that gate, making it nearly impossible for an army of any size to attack through that heavily defended point.  A water landing would also have been difficult as British troops could have demolished any troop carriers attempting to land in Boston.

Gen. Washington had proposed storming the city during the winter, marching his men over the ice.  But by the time they had sufficient munitions in March, the ice was no longer thick enough to risk such an attack.  Even if it had still been an option, a frontal assault on British troops would likely have ended in disaster.

So once Washington, commanded Dorcester Heights with his new artillery, the two sides were still at a standoff.  The Continentals could not take the city, but could lob shells into the city, killing the British soldiers at will.

But this leads to another issue.  Boston was not just a British fortress.  It was a town full of civilians.  Even many patriots who had fled the city still had property inside that they did not want to see destroyed.  The British agreed to evacuate the city, but said they would burn Boston to the ground if the Continentals attacked them during the evacuation.  Given his inability to storm the city, Washington could have killed some soldiers during the evacuation, but would likely not have captured them as they escaped.  But the price for killing them would have been the complete destruction of Boston, which was a price almost no one on the Patriot side was willing to pay.

I hope this helps!
- Mike  

U.S. History

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Michael Troy

Expertise

I can answer just about any question on early American History. My specialties are the American Revolution through the Civil War/Reconstruction. I also have greater expertise in matters relating to military, political or legal history.

Experience

I have lectured at George Washington University regarding the Civil War, as well as several elementary school Civil War demonstrations. I was also a member of a Civil War reenactment group for about 10 years.

Publications
http://unlearnedhistory.blogspot.com

Education/Credentials
J.D. University of Michigan B.A. George Washington University

Awards and Honors
Truman Scholar

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