Millions of young Americans learned that “taxation without representation” sparked the American Revolution. Which is only partly true. One key factor long ignored by historians and educators: British gun control. That’s gradually changing, as scholars revisit the British tyranny that led to the birth of our nation. Alexander Historical Auctions is selling a document that highlights the importance of British efforts to deny rebellious colonists the gunpowder they needed for self-determination. Here’s the lot description:

JOSEPH WARREN PLEADS FOR GUNPOWDER FROM NEW YORK, DAYS BEFORE HIS DEATH AT BUNKER HILL

JOSEPH WARREN (1741-1775) American physician, President of the revolutionary Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He was killed when the British stormed the redoubt at Breed’s Hill during the Battle of Bunker Hill. Excellent, historic content signed document, 2pp. 4to., Cambridge, June 4, 1775, “To the Hon[ora]ble Congress for the Colony of New York”. Warren, along with ARTEMAS WARD (1727-1800), General of the Massachusetts Army, and MOSES GILL (1734-1800), Chairman of the Committee of Supplies, describe the dire situation faced by the patriots in Boston, and issue a desperate plea to the New York Congress for supplies, in full:

Your noble Exertions in the common Cause, your Zeal for the Maintenance of the Rights of America & the Sympathizing Concern, with which we know you look on our suffering, encourages us to represent to you the distressed State of this Colony. Our Capital is filled with disciplined troops, thoroughly equip’d with every thing necessary to render them formidable. A train of Artillery as compleat as can be conceived of, a full supply of Arms and Ammunition, and an absolute command of the Harbour of Boston, which puts it in their Power to furnish themselves with whatever they shall think convenient by Sea, are such Advantages as must render our Contest with them in every view extremely difficult.

We suffer at present the greatest Inconveniences from a want of a sufficient Quantity of Powder, without this every attempt to defend ourselves or annoy our Enemies must prove abortive; We have taken every step to avail ourselves of this Article, by drawing into our General magazine whatever could be spared from the Respective Towns of this Colony; But the frequent Skirmishes we have had, has greatly diminished our Stock, and we are now under the most alarming Apprehensions; that notwithstanding the Bravery of our Troops, (whom we think we can without boasting declare are ready to incounter every Danger for the preservation of the Rights & Liberties of America) we shall barely for the want of the Means of Defence fall at last a prey to our enemies.

We therefore most earnestly beseech you that you would if possible afford in some Relief in this Respect, by lending or selling to us some part of the Powder in your Colony, we readily conceive the Unwillingness with which you must part with so necessary an Article at this Time, we know you have not the Quantity you would wish to keep for your own use, we apply to you, not because we suppose you have a Surplussage, but because we are in the most distressing Want.

We beg therefore that we may be not be suffered to perish, we have taken such Steps as we have great Reason to hope will in a short Time furnish us sufficiently with Powder, and if we can be assisted untill that arrives, we doubt not but that we shall be able to baffle the designs of our Enemies, and be greatly instroumental in preserving the Rights and Liberties of all America.

We must request that whatever aid you shall find it in your Power to give us may be in the most secret Manner, as a knowledge of our Deficiency in the Article of Powder, before we are supplied might be attended with the most fatal consequences.

The three patriots sign boldly at the conclusion, after which the writer adds the post script: “We beg what Powder you can possibly spare may be immediately conveyed to us by Land in the Way least liable to be suspected by any Persons who may correspond with the Enemy.”

plea-for-gunpowder-reverse-courtesy-auctions-alexautoghraphs-com

It is unknown whether New York was able to provide these badly-needed supplies to their Massachusetts brethren, but it is doubtful: New Yorkers were already heavily involved in the raiding of armories and the seizure of the local government.

On June 17, only thirteen days after this letter was written, Joseph Warren reported to the militia assembling at Bunker’s Hill under Gen. Israel Putnam, and asked where the heaviest fighting would be. Putnam directed him to nearby Breed’s Hill. Despite being commissioned a major general by the Provincial Congress, Warren chose to fight as a private soldier, deferring to officers with more experience in war.

As the British stormed the redoubt at Breed’s Hill, Warren was reported to have repeatedly exclaimed: “These fellows say we won’t fight! By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!”

Warren and his fellow soldiers fought desperately until their powder and ammunition ran out, repelling two British assaults on the hill before being overcome by a third. Warren was killed by a musket ball to the head, after which his body was stripped, bayoneted, spit upon, and decapitated, before finally being buried in a shallow ditch.  Warren’s death was seen as a galvanizing act of martyrdom for the American cause.

The letter bears some chipping along the left edge, affecting a few letters of the text on the verso. It also bears two archival tape repairs on the verso, not affecting any text. The original docketed integral leaf is detached but present. In all, this exemplary document provides a vivid and striking testimony of one of the most dire moments in the birth of our nation, and serves as a striking monument to one of her most dedicated defenders.

Estimate $ 75,000-100,000

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39 Responses to Joseph Warren Pleads for Gunpowder Days Before His Death at Bunker Hill: Just Thought I’d Leave This Here

  1. ” A train of Artillery as compleat as can be conceived of…”

    Sounds suspiciously like a militia possessed of weapons of war equal to the enemy (the government forces). Guess they didn’t get the memo that 2A doesn’t include artillery, rapid fire rifles, large capacity magazines. Obviously, had the rebels won their war against the government, those same rebels would have quickly created a document that on its face prohibited the people of the new nation from having every weapon necessary to throw off the next government that tried to oppress the people.

      • Indeed, you are correct. I conflated the Breed’s hill action with the larger action of the siege of Boston (which would not have been possible without artillery), “Between November 1775 and February 1776, Colonel Henry Knox and a team of engineers used sledges to retrieve 60 tons of heavy artillery that had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga. ”
        -McCullough, David (2005). 1776.

        • It was the threat of artillery. Washington knew he could not slug it out with British ships. So in the interest of self preservation…discretion being the better part of valor, redcoats employed the scoot maneuver.

          Engineers UP and please continue.

    • “Sounds suspiciously like a militia possessed of weapons of war equal to the enemy”

      A bunch of deplorables went and got them.

    • It seems like practically everyone of even moderate intelligence & schooling of that era makes us look like fourth graders.

      I still found it mildly amusing that “TLDR” existed even back in those days (“PS – summary of the above message”)

    • You should see the documents in courthouses all over the west – penmanship the equal or better of this was common in court recorders and County Clerks clear up until WWI in most any county courthouse I’ve visited.

      Today’s kids can barely scrawl their own names on a piece of paper, including a check.

      • I was a title abstractor in the gas and oil industry for about a year and half. A part of the job was to run land titles and leases back until 1860. I was always amazed at how remarkable the penmanship was on all those old deeds. I don’t honestly recall ever coming across that was chicken scratch.

      • And now, schools are dropping instruction in cursive, completely. Kids need to know how to text with both thumbs, cursive is completely unimportant. I wish I could really find a way to disagree. It hurts.

  2. beautiful handwriting. Strangely reads like the emails I get from the Barrister and most Honorable Mr. Ambuauto Phillip, Bank of Nigeria, regarding the 23.475Millions US dollars awaiting my earnest response and banking information.

    • Yeah, it is a wonderful dream. However, if we recall there was no indoor plumbing, it becomes apparent that our imagination may not be completely accurate.

  3. Reminds me to buy another can of Pyrodex. My flask is getting light and I need to work up a new load for the Kentucky rifle I won in a raffle the other week. Sure hope to put some pork or venison in the freezer with it this season.

  4. Man, he was long-winded.

    I mean, 485 words that can be summed up as “If we don’t get more powder, we’re going to get our asses whooped.”

    Our nation could use a few more people like Dr. Warren right about now.

  5. “We beg what Powder you can possibly spare may be immediately conveyed to us by Land in the Way least liable to be suspected by any Persons who may correspond with the Enemy.”

    In modern English, “Send gunpowder. Don’t tell the Democrats.”

  6. 18th Century equivalent of hoping to die screaming, covered in blood, lying in a pile of spent brass reeking of cordite and grime… Makes the Tanker in me proud to descend from such men. Treat ‘Em Rough!

  7. One major reason for the powder shortages was that King George, issued an Order in Council in (I think) October 1774. It banned further importation of powder, muskets, or any of the parts for them, from importation to the colonies. By May of 1775, the New Englanders had largely used up their supplies. See, “The Founders Second Amendment” by Stephen Halbrook.

    • Yes, that was one reason.

      But it was possible for the colonists to make their own powder – the problem was that with the imported powder from England, it was economically infeasible to make a profit at it. The reason why was that the Brits were importing their saltpeter from large, naturally occurring deposits in northern India at the time.

      In order to have black powder of good quality, you must have a good quality of saltpeter (potassium nitrate). Charcoal may be easily made from local sources, and sulphur occurs naturally in many places in the world. But saltpeter in large, naturally occurring formations is relatively scarce – so you have to make it the hard way.

      Making saltpeter the hard way requires a man have a very strong stomach and a nose that doesn’t care about the stench. Basically, you need to have decaying animal or plant matter (or manure & urine-soaked soil) which you allow to ferment for a bit in a “nitre pit,” then you dig up the “black soil” and start processing it. I won’t bore people with the processing details – you can find them in history books if you care to. Suffice to say, it is an involved process, requiring time and processing. It stinks – literally. It’s like living over a pig manure lagoon.

      At one point in 1775, the colonies were down to one domestic producer of gunpowder in Pennsylvania. The Congress instituted bounties for domestic production of powder, and this caused several more powder mills to open up in PA and other states. A rich source of sulphur was located in New Jersey, and saltpeter production was also subsidized by the Congress, and lots of farmers set to converting their muck (manure & urine-soaked ground) into saltpeter. In the early days of the Revolution, our powder production was scattered over several of the colonies, in dozens of production mills. These were usually located near hydro power. In order to produce uniform powder, you need to pulverize the ingredients until they’re the consistency of flour, or even finer. To do this, the powder mills had stamping machines that were powdered by waterwheels, which would pulverize the ingredients.

      By 1777, the colonies were on their way to producing quite a bit of their own powder, albeit of rather variable quality. The masters of black powder production were the French, and they had been such since the 1600’s. During the Revolution, a couple of Frenchmen came over and toured several of our powder production mills, and made useful and important recommendations for improvement. Still, we were constrained by the quality and availability of saltpeter.

      Domestic production of black powder didn’t really achieve the uniformity and high quality of European powders until a Frenchman by the name of E.I. duPont was forced by the French Revolution to immigrate to the US. duPont had been well acquainted with powder production in his native land, and wasn’t all that keen to set up shop here in the US to produce powder, but market conditions convinced him otherwise – he saw that he could make a far, far better product than American powders and make a profit at it.

      After duPont set up his powder production in Delaware in 1804, we never looked back.

      duPont’s powder production was quickly the top product in the blasting, military and sporting arms markets, with their black powder production eventually joined by smokeless production, the latter eventually became the IMR line of smokeless powders. This was all owned by the the duPont corporation until it was purchased by Hodgdon in 2003, if I recall correctly.

  8. That information about powder production was fascinating!
    Give us more stuff like that on the truth about guns

  9. Love the historical article, keep ’em coming! A great book that I have read many times (& recommend) is ‘American Rifle – A Biography’ by Alexander Rose, it’s available on Amazon from 1 cent! (used).

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