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.