The Mysterious Cannon
by Jim Mathews
ago, about 10 I believe, a cannon barrel was donated to Fort Nathan Hale. The
gentleman who donated the gun was Dr. Harmon C. Leonard DVM who now resides in
Colorado. Some ten years later I as
a reenactor became involved with Fort Nathan Hale first as a reenactor and later
as a member of the Fort Nathan Hale Board of Restoration.
As the appointed Fort Engineer I was asked to identify this old cannon,
ascertain it's history and it's value, and make some suggestions to the Fort
Hale Board regarding it's place in the future of Fort Nathan Hale.
As cannons go, this is a fairly small gun weighing in at possibly 300 to
400 lbs. It greatly resembles a
carronade except that it has trunnions (extensions on either side of the barrel
to hold the gun in place within a carriage when the gun is fired) in place of
the normal mounting block on the bottom of the barrel usually found on the
carronade style weapons.
story in regard to the gun, I received from Dr. Harmon, related from memory, as
told to him by a Mr. Merrill K. Linsay, a noted Connecticut author (“Early
Connecticut Firearms”) and the holder of a second gift cannon from Dr. Harmon.
Dr. Harmon / Mr. Linsay's story begins in the small town of Guilford, CT
a few miles north of New Haven. The supposed privateer-sloop Mars was
operating out of Guilford Harbor and was engaged in blockade running and
trafficking for the Americans in Long Island Sound.
The Mars was boarded by a British or Loyalist Force, while
anchored in Guilford Harbor (about 1778), a small prize crew was put aboard, and
the American crew locked in the hold. The
British crew not knowing the waters off Guilford ran aground.
The townspeople of Guilford noticing this ship at rest on a sandbar
within a short distance of the harbor rowed out and recaptured the Mars.
The pair of guns that are so much a part of this story were part of this
ship's armament. When the British attacked New Haven in a large raid late in the
Revolutionary War, the Mars was anchored in New Haven Harbor, but was not
taken by the British when they retreated. After
the Revolutionary War and sometime at the beginning or shortly after the
beginning of the War of 1812, Mars was said to have been abandoned and
the two guns (Fort Hale's and Mr. Linsay's) were said to have been removed from
the sloop and mounted in Guildford Harbor as a harbor defense measure during the
War of 1812. Later the guns were
used in the town as salute cannon to celebrate the 4th of July for
many years. Finally they were
abandoned by the town of Guilford and finally ended up in the barn of an antique
dealer in Northford, CT where they were purchased by Dr. Harmon in the 1950s. One of the two iron guns was traded to Mr. Merrill Lindsay
for a copy of the “Original Incorporation” paper of the City of Waterbury,
CT signed by Governor Saltonstall and dated 1722.
This document was given to the Library at Cornell University.
The second gun was donated to Fort Nathan Hale.
variation of the story of the subject gun is detailed more around the capture of
the Mars than the gun itself. This
tale comes from a gentleman who remembers this story from the period ten years
ago when the gun was first donated to Fort Hale.
the supposed British/Loyalist privateer/sloop Mars was engaged in
trafficking along the Connecticut coast in the collection of "pressed
seaman" and what in a later period is known as "shanghaied"
seamen or landsman and delivering them to the Royal Naval Vessels in these
waters to supplement the crews.
put into Guilford Harbor and left on board an "anchor watch" of men,
while some of the crew went ashore. The
townspeople, seeing an opportunity to take an "enemy" vessel, went
aboard the ship and captured it at anchor in the harbor.
The British/Loyalist anchor watch was locked in the hold, and the
townspeople sailed the vessel out of the harbor.
To date there
is no primary or secondary source evidence that either of the stories regarding
the "Mysterious Cannon" are true.
We have at the moment only the recollections of two men who have heard
these stories secondhand. Research
into this matter of the "Mysterious Cannon" continues at the request
of the Fort Nathan Hale Board of Restoration (Feb. 2001).
of the story of the "Mysterious Cannon" is a monograph entitled,
I am informed
by the current Guilford Town Historian Mr. Joel Helander, that Mr. Lee was a
excellent researcher and amateur historian, who was extremely interested in the
history of his hometown Guilford, CT. This
monograph can be found in the Guildford Public Library, and the historical
archives of the Henry Whitfield Museum in Guilford, CT.
Guilford is usually thought of as having been an agricultural community since its founding in 1639. This is largely true. However the farms were small and the families large. Boys not needed on the farm often went to sea, either in coasters or in the West Indies Trade. In the 1700s Guilford had a thriving trade with he West Indies. Grains, livestock, barrel staves and such were carried to the islands and rum, sugar and molasses were brought back on the return trip. Sloops up to 70 feet in length were built in Guilford on the East and West Rivers. Crews on the sloops ran from 3 to 6. Wages were low and some took part shares in voyages as trading ventures. It was a difficult life, but made sailors out of young men in a hurry. They were prepared for sea action and privateering when the Revolution broke out.
In early 1779,
the Continental Navy was in its beginning stages. Johnathan Trumbull, Governor
of Connecticut, during his (and his Council’s) fifteen year tenure, 1769-1784,
had formed a Navy of Connecticut's own. The ships ranged in size from the full-rigged ship Oliver
Cromwell down to row galley's for inshore work.
Fortunately for those interested in history Governor Trumbull kept all
communications addressed to him, and copies of all outgoing letters.
These are all in the state library and are being edited by Professor Van
Dusen of the University of Connecticut for eventual publication.
Connecticut Courant on March 2, 1779, on file in the Connecticut Historical
Society, contains this item datelined: New Haven Feb. 24, "A privateer
sloop of 8 carriage guns and 22 men, belonging to the enemy, bound from Newport
to New York, was last Sunday night driven ashore at Guilford by the wind.
The crew are secured and the vessel is likely to be got off."
At the time
the British Army occupied the New York City area and Long Island.
Even in the dead of winter, Long Island Sound was alive with British
warships making raids on coastal towns for provisions and harassing American
coasters, and with American privateers out after British ships.
There were no great battles in the Sound, with ships of the line pounding
away at each other as did the Constitution and Guerriere in the
War of 1812. The war in the Sound
was fought by brigs, brigantines, sloops, whaleboats, topsail schooners and the
like--small, fast and shallow draft. There
were forts at New Haven and New London. A company of militia was stationed at
Guilford--the only shore protection between the two forts early in the war.
The story of
the ship Guilford begins with the armed British sloop Mars, 60
tons burthen. A 60 ton sloop of
that time would have been about 70 feet long with a 20 foot beam.
On Feb. 6. 1779, the Mars captured a small American sloop Lucy
commanded by Captain Sage of Middletown. Sage
and his crew were taken prisoners and the Lucy was sent into New York
with a prize crew from Mars for disposal by the British Court.
The Mars was bound for New York from Newport.
A letter from the National Maritime Museum in London states: The only MARS
registered in the British Navy in 1779 was a 74 gun battleship that had been
reduced to harbor service the previous year.
The sloop Mars was probably a privateer that had been captured by
the British. Armament on the Mars consisted of 8 carriage guns and 2
swivels. The carriage guns were
placed along the sides of the ship and were fired through opening ports.
The swivels were mounted bow and stern.
On Feb. 21,
1779, during a winter storm, Captain Sage and his six fellow prisoners
overpowered the crew of the Mars and beached her on the rocks at
Guilford. Since a welcoming party
on the shore includes one Solomon Leete, it is presumed that the Mars was
beached near Leete's Island. Prior
to the grounding, Sage's men hove overboard anchors, cables, chains and guns
marking the spot for future reference. Iron
was in short supply at the time, the only source being the Salisbury Conn. iron
works, with most of it's output going to cannon balls.
Nearly all of
this equipment was recovered. However,
in the 1950s a fisherman dredged up a carriage gun with Birmingham, England
markings on it. According to Mr.
C.H. Vilas of Short Beach, the gun was refurbished and found it's way into the
hands of Mr. M.K. Lindsay of North Branford, who for some years fired the cannon
each New Year's Eve. It was most certainly one of the Mars' guns.
All of the
claims and counterclaims of salvage were settled in the New Haven Maritime Court
on April 4, 1779. The state paid
500 pounds prize money to the claimants. Captain
Sage was paid for his personal property lost when the Lucy was captured,
including one tierce of rum, one barrel of sugar, and one barrel of coffee.
The anchors, chains and guns were dredged up and the claimants paid.
Trumbull in Lebanon was advised of these proceedings. He issued orders renaming the Mars the Guilford
and making her the thirteenth ship in the Connecticut Navy, whose largest ships
were the Oliver Cromwell and Defence.
No other ships were named after Connecticut towns.
The Governor and Council of Safety ordered Brigadier General Ward of
Guilford to see to getting the Guilford repaired and outfitted.
Captain William Nott was ordered to take command of the Guilford, proceed
to Stamford for provisions and then to New London to fit out.
His orders read in part, "proceed to cruise in the Sound between
Long Island and the main, to take, destroy, etc. the enemy's cruisers, ships,
vessels, etc. that may be found in the Sound and to guard and defend the shores
and coasts of this state against the attacks and depredations of the enemy to
the utmost of his power as a brave and vigilant officer, and not to depart out
of the Sound unless circumstances will permit of it, and then by special leave
of the Commander In Chief, and to make report from time to time of his
proceedings, situations and discoveries to the Commander in Chief."
The drawing of
the Guilford is based on references to rigging, sails and guns in the
Trumbull papers, and on a similarly rigged ship built in Newport for the
Bicentennial. It is probable that a
long boat was towed at sea, for use in getting ashore on beaches and for towing
the ship when there was no wind.
crew of the Guilford totaled 32. There
were Captain, 2 Lieutenants, Sailing Master, Doctor, Mate, Clerk, Pilot,
Armourer, Boatswain, Cook, seamen and marines. The large crew was needed to take over any enemy ship
captured, and to man the guns in the event of a sea battle. Men signed on partly in hopes of prize money if enemy ships
were taken. It was a hard life,
particularly in winter, with few amenities.
However, each man was entitled to a ration of grog (rum and water) each
day. Crew members were paid 12
pounds a month. The pay abstract,
recorded later, showed that 7 of the original crew had deserted shortly after
coming on board.
took command of the Guilford in June 1779. He had tendered his resignation from the service and was
awaiting replacement. On July 2, 1779 he wrote the Governor a letter, in which
he said that he had gone on board the Guilford according to orders, had
proceeded to the westward as far as Black Rock, where he learned that his
resignation had been accepted. He
then returned to New Haven, and on June 30 turned command over to Captain Hawley
of Stratford. He said that on his
return from Black Rock, he had seen a fleet off Milford of 49 ships including
brigs, standing to the westward.
observed by Captain Nott was forming up to invade New Haven. On Monday July, 5,
3000 British troops from a fleet consisting of 2 men-of-war and 46 other vessels
marched into New Haven, burning and pillaging as they went. They departed the
next day, taking with them large quantities of goods and stores.
Captain Hawley had sailed out of New Haven to the Eastward when he
sighted the fleet. After the
British fleet departed, Hawley came back into New Haven harbor to fill out his
crew and to prepare for a trip to New London to pick up armament, powder and
On July 11,
British ships returned to New Haven harbor.
Hawley managed to get most of the movable equipment off the Guilford
while the British were standing in. This
gear was later used on the new ship Defence.
The British boarded the Guilford, took her off, and there is no
further record of her.
A Court of
Inquiry was held in New Haven on order of Governor Trumbull to, "ascertain
whether there is any blame or misconduct in anyone," in connection with the
loss of the Guilford. On
September 13. 1779, the Court acquitted Captain Hawley, "without the least
blame or misconduct."
after their service on the Guilford, Captains Nott and Hawley had
captured several British vessels while in command of other ships.
Ships often changed hands under force of superior gun power or a knot of
had been a part of the Connecticut Navy for two weeks as a commissioned ship.
The Navy accounted for over 200 British vessels in the Sound, but not one
survived the war. The British
captured most, but a few were shipwrecked.
prepared for the Guilford Keeping Society--March 1982
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