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The Mysterious Cannon

by Jim Mathews

Some years 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.

The first 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.

The second 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.

Apparently, 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.

The Mars 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).


This variation of the story of the "Mysterious Cannon" is a monograph entitled,  "The Ship Guilford, 13th ship in the Conn. Navy in the Revolution", authored by Mr. K.R. Lee of Guilford, CT.

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.

The monograph begins:

The Guilford

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.

The 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.

Governor 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.

Officers and 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.

Captain Nott 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.

The fleet 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 shot.

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."

Before and 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 extra speed.

The Guilford 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.

A paper prepared for the Guilford Keeping Society--March 1982

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