The National Park Service manages dozens of sites of famous battles, and although every area has a unique story, many of them have something in common: lots of cannon. You may find them perched on redoubts, still facing a long-vanquished enemy, or resting sedately inside a museum, and perhaps you've wondered how all that ordnance managed to survive for all these years.
Some of that military weaponry is in fact original to the period, and those items are valuable indeed. Many such artifacts were lost long before there was any thought of national parks to commemorate battles, so reproductions of cannon and other ordnance are often used to fill in the gaps and help tell a park's story by recreating a sense of place.
The Story Behind A Cannon
There's a tale or two behind each piece of that historic hardware, and even some of the reproduction items have an interesting heritage. That's certainly the case for a cannon at Saratoga National Historical Park,and its background was told in an article written by Bill Meuse for the July 12, 1971, issue of the NPS Newsletter.
Here's a reproduction of his original story, "Ploughshares Into Swords - an Historical Precedent Repeated," which is available online at the National Park Electronic Library:
"Even as late as 1780, the Commonwealth of Virginia, like many of her sister colonies, was still searching for sources of warlike supplies and materiel. Most badly needed were items of heavy ordnanceâcannon. The war was not going particularly wellâa British army was rampaging the Carolinas, and Virginia's long and tortuous coastline was especially vulnerable. Virginia finally managed to purchase a number of cannon from Spain, and then opened negotiations with a foundry in France for the casting of iron cannon to order.
Striking A Bargain
The French foundry was more than willing to cast the guns for Virginia, but the negotiations came to a complete standstill over the matter of payment. The foundry was naturally quite unwilling to accept Continental or State script, and Virginia seemed unable to come up with the required amount in hard cash. A bargain was finally struck, and the foundry agreed that for every four pounds of iron delivered to it, one pound would be cast into cannon. Nothing more is heard of this peculiar agreement, and it may be assumed that the smashing victory at Yorktown and the resulting end of open hostilities put an end to Virginia's quest for foreign ordnance. The basic idea has merit, however, and has been resurrected.
Saratoga, where victory made French assistance and the success at Yorktown a reality, is presently as desperate for ordnance as the "Old Dominion" ever was. With the bicentennial rapidly approaching and a battlefield yet to be reconstructed, no less than fifty cannon are required to rearm long silent emplacements, and these are not something that can be built overnight at the last minute.
We share a similar financial problem with many other parks in these troubled times in that our operating funds are completely inadequate to meet the needs. Cooperating Associations have provided a few of the needed cannon, but are incapable of assistance on the large scale required. Assistance, as was frequently the case during the Revolution, often comes too little or too late.
Scrap to Cannon
Last winter, shortly before the snow buried Saratoga under several feet of whiteness, we literally went on a "treasure hunt" around the park. As the park lands had been acquired, piece by piece, farms and homes had been bought up for the land and the buildings demolished. The woods were dotted with old cellar holes and foundations, filled with inconceivable junk. We knew where they were and had a pretty good idea as to what was in each one. Systematically we checked out the more promising ones, loading anything we found of cast iron onto a truck.
By day's end we had over a ton and a half of scrap iron, consisting of old automobile engine blocks, cast iron stoves, plow shares, farm machinery, grates, and a number of old cast iron signs left over from the days when we were a state park. The next day the truck headed for the foundry, and the load was turned over to them. In a short while they called us up and said we could have some of it back.
We went up and loaded a beautiful and newly cast 800-lb. six pounder cannon into the truck and brought her home. She has replaced an original piece on the battlefield, and now stands guard in the American defenses on Bemis Heights. So, we succeeded in cleaning up some unsightly spots in the park, came up with a good (albeit unusual) example of recycling scrap, and the end result was a badly needed product.
So much for cannon barrels. Anyone know where we can get some carriages?"
In case you're not familiar with the term, the "carriage" is the wood and metal framework which supports the heavy cannon barrel; wheels on the carriage make it possible to reposition and transport the weapon.
During his career at Saratoga, Bill Meuse, the author of the above article, was responsible for obtaining a number of reproduction cannon which are still used at the battlefield--and which add immeasurably to the visitor experience.
Visiting Saratoga Battlefield Today
Saratoga National Historical Park is located in New York State, about 30 miles north of Albany. The park website summarizes the park's story: "Here in the autumn of 1777, American forces met, defeated and forced a major British army to surrender. This crucial American victory in the Battle of Saratoga renewed patriotsâ hopes for independence, secured essential foreign recognition and support, and forever changed the face of the world."
"Because of the incredible impact caused by the American victory in the Battles of Saratoga, they are known as the 'Turning Point of the American Revolution,' and are considered by many historians to be among the top 15 battles in world history."
You'll find more information about the park and details to help plan a visit, at this link. Among the activities you can enjoy is a driving tour of the battlefield, which includes a stop at Bemis Heights. There, overlooking the Hudson River Valley, you'll likely find a cannon or two... and perhaps the vestiges of some former plowshares.