The Thanksgiving Gun
Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy family and friends and give thanks to … the Battle of Saratoga?
It started with a gun
The Institute of Military Technology recently found itself interested in a Brown Bess. This isn’t surprising, really, as the Bess is a staple of military technology interest. In the authors’ opinion it’s a quintessential arm that bridges the gap between an informal ‘pre-history’ and what begins to drive the modern era. The Bess, or more accurately the family of guns we call the Bess, served a prolific 116 years in service to the Kingdom of Great Britain (1722-1838). And it’s a monster. The longest variant is nearly the height of a grown man (62.5”), weighing a little more than an M1 Garand (10.5lbs) and lobbing a nearly three-quarter-inch ball weighing some 45 grams at the enemy. And, yes, many were captured and used by American forces during the Revolutionary War as well – so it carries some interest for nearly everyone.
A gun with history
But even still, this particular Brown Bess was special. A 1756 Long Land Pattern (meaning the longest variant), marked with the 62nd Regiment of Foot. IMT researchers quickly realized that the 62nd is a storied British military unit that had served among other places in the American Revolutionary War. It fought in the Canadian Battles of Troi-Rivieres in June 1776, and Valcour Island in October, and then joined John Burgoyne’s forces headed South. General Burgoyne and company was successful in the Siege of Ticonderoga, and had American forces on the run. Though casualties were heavy, the unit succeeded in taking Saratoga in September of ‘77. But unknown to the Redcoats and the Colonials, the tide began to turn. The unit would not see reinforcements. Refusing to retreat, Burgoyne pushed on the attack, but with their movements known to American scouts they were subsequently intercepted by well-placed American riflemen. The battle raged, but the determined Colonials pressed on to victory. General Burgoyne along with the 62nd Regiment of Foot surrendered to American forces on October 17th. The General would later testify to the British Parliament, “I must here again, in justice to the army … recur to the vigour with which they were fought by the enemy. A more determined perseverance than they showed in the attack upon the lines … I believe, is not in any officer’s experience.” (Luzader)
It is widely regarded that this major American victory at Saratoga was a key turning point of the Revolutionary War – and the gravity of a key victory must have meant everything to those that fought it. This was the moment, perhaps the first moment in a generation, when Continental forces could stand with confidence and hope that their future was, in fact, achievable by their own hand.
A series of declarations
The jovial mood afforded by Saratoga allowed General Washington in November to declare a day for “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise” later that year (LOC). Washington would go on to write that Congress had requested him “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” (LOC) (Emphasis by the authors) Well, perhaps not that peaceably.
Clearly it would be unfair to state that the tradition of Thanksgiving begins with Saratoga. Thanksgiving has been practiced in this country since at least the early 1600s (LOC). But the roots of the federal holiday, and perhaps our ability to celebrate as American citizens in the Land of the Free can find its roots here.
The Thanksgiving Gun
It is impossible to know if this firearm was truly at the battle of Saratoga, if it captured, or if it was carried by American forces subsequently. The gun is of a slightly earlier era, reportedly issued to the 62nd in the years 1770-72 (62ndROF), with some or all of the 62nd being issued newer Short Land muskets just prior to their deployment to the colonies in 1776.
One piece of circumstantial evidence in favor is the American-style initials carved in the stock including a Masonic-stylized “A”. Were this still a British arm, we reason, respect for the King’s property would have prevented such a carving. Further, the authors find it unlikely that this arm would have made it back to Great Britain before the war, and then made it back to the Colonies with enough time and usefulness for this period marking to have been applied.
While all of this is up for debate and contemplation, what is indisputable is that this unique piece of preserved history has inspired us to investigate our own history further. The Institute of Military Technology looks forward to showcasing more pieces like this one in the future.
And, finally, a Happy Thanksgiving from our family to yours.
Head Quarters, at the Gulph [Pa.] Decr 17th 1777.
C. Signs Woodbridge. Winchester.
The Commander in Chief with the highest satisfaction expresses his thanks to the officers and soldiers for the fortitude and patience with which they have sustained the fatigues of the Campaign—Altho’ in some instances we unfortunately failed, yet upon the whole Heaven hath smiled on our Arms and crowned them with signal success; and we may upon the best grounds conclude, that by a spirited continuance of the measures necessary for our defence we shall finally obtain the end of our Warfare—Independence—Liberty and Peace—These are blessings worth contending for at every hazard—But we hazard nothing. The power of America alone, duly exerted, would have nothing to dread from the force of Britain—Yet we stand not wholly upon our ground—France yields us every aid we ask, and there are reasons to believe the period is not very distant, when she will take a more active part, by declaring war against the British Crown. Every motive therefore, irresistably urges us—nay commands us, to a firm and manly perseverance in our opposition to our cruel oppressors—to slight difficulties—endure hardships, and contemn every danger—The General ardently wishes, it were now in his power, to conduct the troops into the best winter quarters—But where are these to be found? Should we retire to the interior parts of the State, we should find them crowded with virtuous citizens, who, sacrificing their all, have left Philadelphia and fled thither for protection. To their distresses humanity forbids us to add—This is not all, we should leave a vast extent of fertile country to be despoiled and ravaged by the enemy, from which they would draw vast supplies, and where many of our firm friends would be exposed to all the miseries of the most insulting and wanton depredation—A train of evils might be enumerated, but these will suffice—These considerations make it indispensibly necessary for the army to take such a position, as will enable it most effectually to prevent distress & to give the most extensive security; and in that position we must make ourselves the best shelter in our power—With activity and diligence Huts may be erected that will be warm and dry—In these the troops will be compact, more secure against surprises than if in a divided state and at hand to protect the country. These cogent reasons have determined the General to take post in the neighbourhood of this camp; and influenced by them, he persuades himself, that the officers and soldiers, with one heart, and one mind, will resolve to surmount every difficulty, with a fortitude and patience, becoming their profession, and the sacred cause in which they are engaged: He himself will share in the hardship, and partake of every inconvenience.
Tomorrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutely to express our grateful acknowledgements to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us—The General directs that the army remain in it’s present quarters, and that the Chaplains perform divine service with their several Corps and brigades—And earnestly exhorts, all officers and soldiers, whose absence is not indispensibly necessary, to attend with reverence the solemnities of the day. (National Archives)
62d Rediment of Foot (ND) Arms of British Infantry Rank and File, 1768-1784: the “Stand of Arms”. Retrieved from: http://www.62ndregiment.org/soldier_arms.htm
Library of Congress (N.D.) Thanksgiving Day. Retrieved from: https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/november-26/
Library of Congress (N.D.) Thanksgiving Timeline, 1541-2001. Retrieved from: https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/thanksgiving/timeline/1777.html#
Luzader, J. (2008). Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution
National Archives (N.D.) General Orders, 17 December 1777. Retrieved from: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-12-02-0566
Author: Corey Wardrop and Austin Ellis
Photography/Artwork: Michael Fullana
Limited Edition Archival Prints Coming Soon.