June / July 1997
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Taken from the January 1965 issue of:
The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Relief came with the spring. The French and Dutch, sympathetic with the Americans from the beginning because of their own rivalries with England, had, nevertheless, played a cautious hand during the first year of hostilities. They had not wanted to waste their resources on what still appeared to be a domestic quarrel, which might soon be resolved. The Virginia Gazettetook note of the French quandary in a perceptive, if awkward, article on April 6, 1776.
The French appear exceedingly friendly to the American cause, which they would have promoted by a much larger supply of arms and ammunition than they have hitherto imported, had they not been doubtful of the American submission to the clams of Parliament, and of course a discontinuance of the demand for warlike stores, which in that case would remain in the hands of the importers.
The common toast among the French, from the General down to the merchant, is, the independence of America; until which is declared, they say our war with England can only be looked on as a domestic broil.
The movement toward independence grew irresistably in the spring of 1776, and Washington's seizure of Dorchester Heights on March 4, together with the consequent evacuation of Boston by General William Howe indicated that the rebellion might become revolution after all. Thereafter, France and Holland vastly increased their exports of military supplies to the colonies.
On March 15 Joseph Reed, Washington's military secretary, wrote the general from Philadelphia: "The French vessels begin to find their way to our ports . . . but their cargoes are chiefly West India goods--a little, very little powder merely as a cover." Yet within three weeks a total of 121,200 pounds of powder had arrived in the colonies. On April 20 the Virginia Gazette reported the arrival at Philadelphia of 1,200 casks of gunpowder. These large shipments came primarily from the West Indies. French and Dutch ships bound for their West Indian islands were not liable to be confiscated, while a direct voyage from Europe to America was decidedly risky. Hence ammunition shipments via the West Indies stood the best chance of reaching colonial ports without British interference, and the use by France and Holland of this circuitous route minimized the danger of war with Britain.
The Dutch island of St. Eustatia and the French island of Martinique were the principal entrepots of the ammunition traffic. Throughout the spring of 1776 these islands received huge cargoes of ammunition intended for America. On June 14 it was reported from Martinique that arms and ammunition were arriving daily. Between May 6 and July 14, 100,000 pounds of powder arrived at Martinique and twelve ships were expected hourly on July 13 with from 120,000 to 144,000 pounds. On May 7 an American wrote from St. Eustatia that a Danish ship had arrived there with fifty tons of powder and two others were expected shortly. "Besides these, near 20 sail are expected from Amsterdam, all of which will bring more or less; so that if it is yet wanted in America, you will know where it may yet be had in plenty. The demand for American produce seems to increase daily." The expected vessels apparently arrived at St. Eustatia of large shipments of arms and ammunition from Holland. On July 20, 1776, one correspondent reported from St. Eustatia: "Powder continues in great plenty. It has lately sold as low as 30 piastres."
The American colonies took full advantage of these abundant supplies. Indeed, one historian has asserted that St. Eustatius was so important as a source of arms and munitions that the war could not have been won without the importations from that island.
Virginia dealt directly with the firm of Abraham Van Bibber and Richard Harrison, who operated on both St. Eustatius and Martinique. These two merchants assured the Virginia Committee of Safety that those islands would furnish the Old Dominion all it needed in the way of military supplies. A variety of goods could be sent in payment for the arms and munitions, but Virginia had an advantage over the other colonies, because tobacco was the most profitable article, and Virginia was the greatest tobacco producing colony.
Van Bibber and Harrison regularly sent sizeable shipments of powder to Virginia, beginning in the spring of 1776. For example, they sent 14,300 pounds on May 24, 16,300 pounds on June 13, and a total of 11,500 pounds were ready for shipment on July 25. In August, Virginia received 436 barrels and 290 half-barrels of powder, and Van Bibber and Harrison shipped at least 4,000 pounds more to Virginia that month. These shipments apparently continued, unabated, into the fall. On November 8, 1776, Dixon and Hunter's Virginia Gazette reported that two sloops and four schooners had arrived in the York River with a varied cargo that included 800 casks of gunpowder. The same day, Purdie's Gazette noted that two vessels had sailed into Chesapeake Bay with 900 barrels of gunpowder each.
The price of West Indian gunpowder fluctuated, but in August 1776 it was four shillings a pound at St. Eustatia and three shillings at Martinique (the usual price in America was six shillings). At the same time high prices were offered in the islands for colonial products. Tobacco brought fifty to sixty shillings per hundredweight, and flour sold for seventy-five to eighty shillings a barrel.
Not all of Virginia's imported powder came from these French and Dutch sources. Spain hoped that an American force might be sent to capture the British outposts at Mobile and Pensacola, thus removing those menaces to the Spanish colonies. So it was that when the French Foreign Secretary, Count Vergennes, entreated the Spanish government on behalf of the Americans, it instructed Governor Unzaga of Louisiana to obtain arms, ammunition, clothing and quinine from Havana for the American rebels. Oliver Pollock, a New Orleans merchant who acted as agent for both the Continental Congress and Virginia, concluded a deal for powder with Unzaga, and Captain George Gibson and William Linn led an expedition from Virginia to get it. They procured 12,000 pounds on September 22, 1776. Linn carried most of the explosive to the Virginia back country via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, while Gibson carried the rest to eastern Virginia by sea.
According to the English historian George O. Trevelyan, the summer of 1776 was a time of extreme ammunition shortage throughout the colonies. This assertion is only partially correct. The powder shortage was indeed critical through March, but, beginning in April , shipments poured into the colonies. By summer, gunpowder appears to have been relatively abundant in the colonies, though logistical failures might create shortages in particular battles.
It is true, however, that one necessary item remained relatively scare. On June 7, 1776, the Continental Congress circulated the following resolution among the colonies:
The article of lead is so essentially necessary to us at this juncture, and is withal so scarce, that no pains should be spared to procure it. The situation of the United Colonies will be extremely deplorable if we depend entirely upon the importation of it.
Specifically, Congress recommended that each colony develop lead mines. Some attempted to follow this suggestion. But efforts usually ended in disappointment as in New York, or mines failed to live up to expectations, like that at Middletown, Connecticut. The Virginia Gazette predicted in February 1776 that the Middletown mine would produce "several hundred tons of that necessary article . . . in a very short time." Yet, the mine fell so far short of this expectation that four months later the Connecticut Assembly appointed a committee to strip lead from clocks and windows. Other governments including Virginia followed a similar procedure throughout May, June, and July of 1776 in an effort to supply Washington's army, which shortly was to begin at Long Island a series of costly engagements with the British. New Yorkers celebrated the Declaration of Independence by pulling down the leaden equestrian statue of George III, which they promptly converted into ammunition, "to assimilate with the brain of our infatuated adversaries, who, to gain a peppercorn, have lost an empire." Still, all of these efforts were inadequate.
It was only natural that Congress should turn to Virginia for lead, for in the southwestern section of that state (near present-day Austinville) were the only operative lead mines in America capable of large-scale production. John Hancock, President of Congress, appealed to the state for help on July 16, 1776. "A considerable quantity of domestic lead" collected, he wrote, and was already on its way to Washington, but the army needed more:
I have it therefore in charge from Congress to request you will send by return wagons, which are now on their way to your colony with powder, as much lead as you can spare, and that you will order fifteen or twenty tons more of lead from the mines to this city as soon as possible.
The Virginia delegates to Congress reinforced this appeal with one of their own:
The army in Canada, and the army in New York will want much lead and there seems to be no certain source of supply unless the mines in Virginia can be rendered such . . . We take the liberty of recommending the lead mines to you as an object of vast importance. We think it impossible that they can be worked to too great an extent. Considered as perhaps the sole means of supporting the American cause they are inestimable.
Virginia was able to comply with only part of the congressional request. John Page the lieutenant-governor, ordered the immediate employment of a large number of additional hands. "By this means," he informed Congress on July 27, "it will not be long before we shall be able to furnish the 20 Tons you require." But an immediate shipment from the Williamsburg magazine was impossible. The demands for lead from the frontier, where an Indian war was raging, and from North Carolina had reduced the state's supply of lead and ball to only two tons, "& our cruisers are not yet furnished with that Article."
Page was not just making excuses. In July the convention ordered the manager of the lead mines to delivery up to 5,100 pounds of lead to the beleaguered frontier counties; and North Carolina in particular kept a constant pressure on Virginia for lead. Almost simultaneously with the congressional request of July 16, Governor Patrick Henry received a desperate appear for five tons of lead from the North Carolina Convention, which reminded the Governor that North Carolina had no source for procuring the metal except Virginia. The Convention responded by ordering the manager of the mines to deliver to North Carolina's agent "all the Lead which was not immediately wanted for the use of our own Troops on the Frontier."
Page's promise to speed up production was not an empty one. By August 16, 15,000 pounds of lead were ready for conversion into ammunition. On October 10 Governor Henry informed the Virginia delegates to Congress that ten more tons were ready for delivery to the Continental Army and promised: "By Christmas or sooner, we may be able to spare as much more."
Until the lead deficiency became critical in 1776, the mines remained under the control of their owners. On October 7, however, the Convention passed legislation which, in effect, established state control of the lead industry in Virginia. The governor was given authority to hire as many workers, slave or free, as he thought necessary. He was also empowered to appoint any manager he wished to draw from the treasury the funds needed to carry on operations. Moreover, the governor and council were authorized to direct the sale of all lead that could be spared, first to the Continental Congress, and then to the other states. As compensation for the owners, it was ordered that "a reasonable annual rent be settled between the governour and council and the proprietors."
The importation of Dutch and French ammunition, arms, and other supplies continued unabated throughout the fall of 1776 and the following year. Virginia, while she lacked the ships and port cities of the colonies to the north, had tobacco, which Europe and the West Indies wanted more than any other colonial commodity. Silas Deane, American envoy to France, reporting that he had arranged the shipment to America of 200 tons of gunpowder as well as lead, ball, and other supplies, wrote that tobacco, rice, and flour brought high prices in Europe. Tobacco was especially lucrative: "Twenty thousand hogsheads of tobacco are wanted immediately for this kingdom and more for other parts of Europe." Van Bibber and Harrison wrote Virginia's Commissary-General, William Aylett, on April 2, 1777, that tobacco was the only import in the islands that could command cash payment. Its price, which had been fifty to sixty shillings per hundredweight the previous August, now had boomed to seventy-five shillings, and 1,000 hogsheads could be sold at that price immediately. Flour, on the other hand, now would not sell in the Indies at any price. The agents also assured Aylett that there was no shortage of munitions and promised that they could deliver "as much of it as the outside Limmits of your Letters will admit off." Cargoes could be loaded without any delay whatsoever.
Virginia seems to have taken full advantage of the special opportunity open to her. Ships entered the states rivers at will. For example, on March 21, 1777, the Virginia Gazette reported that a shop from Nantes carrying 30,000 pounds of gunpowder, a brig from St. Eustatia, and a schooner from Curacoa had sailed up the James River. Another brig from Guadaloupe had entered the York River, and yet two more sloops from St. Eustatia and Curacoa were plying the Rappahannock.
Although these arrivals carried varied cargoes, large amounts of ammunition continued to arrive in 1777. It is estimated that the French alone sent 1,000 barrels of powder and 20,000 stands of arms to the United States in that year. Dutch aid continued, as did that of the Spanish, who expanded their succour to the colonies in 1777. Governor Unzaga of Louisiana was succeeded by thirty-year-old Don Bernardo de Galvez in February of that year. Galvez was much more interested in the American cause than his predecessor had been, and in 1777 loaned Oliver Pollock $74,087 for the purchase of arms, ammunition, and provisions. Most of the Spanish supplies went to the Upper Mississippi and the Virginia or Pennsylvania frontiers. The value of goods shipped from New Orleans by the close of 1777 has been conservatively estimated at $100,000.
Thus throughout 1777 and 1778 there seems to have been relatively little concern over ammunition throughout the states. Indeed, the subject of ammunition was seldom mentioned in the records, letters, or newspapers, suggesting that there was an abundance. As early as March 1777 John Adams could write confidently that "there is no danger of our wanting arms or ammunition in the future." All the patriots needed now was patience.
In late 1778 military action shifted to the South. The British invaded and soon conquered Georgia. Charleston fell in May 1780, and the Redcoats moved into the interior of South Carolina. General Horatio Gates, appointed commander of the southern army, rushed South just in time to lose the disastrous Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780. Congress could send a general, but it failed to forward needed ammunition, in spite of slackening action in the North. Washington, who was nervously watching Clinton in New York, told a congressional committee seeking supplies for South Carolina that he could spare no aid. Henry Laurens of South Carolina informed his government from Philadelphia that the committee was recommending that the responsibility for furnishing the southern army with arms, gunpowder, and lead to be given to Virginia and the other southern states. And in May 1779 one Maryland delegate complained to his governor: "Arms, Ammunition etc. all go to the Northern States . . I see very plainly, that the Southern States will be obliged to shift for themselves."
The Virginia General Assembly appealed to Congress in the spring of 1780 to send men and arms to North Carolina, "to whom the government of Virginia hath already furnished all it is able to spare." But Congress already had made it clear to the Old Dominion that she must carry the principal burden in the South. Samuel Huntington, President of Congress, wrote Governor Thomas Jefferson in March 1780:
From the Intelligence your Excellency must have received from the Southern Department it is presumed the necessity of reinforcing the Southern Army hath called forth the Exertion of Virginia and the more Southern states.
What more Southern states? Georgia had fallen. South Carolina soon would be overrun, and North Carolina had long depended primarily upon Virginia for ammunition. Clearly, the responsibility of supporting the war effort in the South almost entirely devolved upon Virginia. This was indeed an herculean task, and it assumed even greater dimensions when one considered that the state also supplied ammunition to the Kentucky and Ohio frontier settlements and outfitted the George Rogers Clark expeditions as well.
Governor Jefferson, while still attempting to gain support from Philadelphia, made every effort to comply with Congress' request. On September 3, 1780, he wrote Gates that Virginia would continue sending powder, flints, cannon, and cannon ball to him, although the state would be unable to supply other types of provision. Lead was available at the mines, if Gates could arrange the transportation. On the same day, the Governor sent an urgent request to the President of Congress: "I am earnestly . . . to sollicit Congress for plentiful supplies of small arms, powder, flints, cartridge boxes and paper; and to pray that no moment may be lost in forwarding them." Then he informed Governor Abner Nash of North Carolina that he had written "most pressingly" to Congress and he promised: "In the mean time we will endeavour to forward to you powder and flints."
Unfortunately, Jefferson's pleas to Congress were fruitless, and on September 23 the Governor informed the North Carolina Board of War that the number of militia Virginia had expected to send South within the month would have to be sharply reduced because of a lack of arms. Yet, he promised to continue sending munitions: "Our State Stores of Ammunition we still are as we have been making up and sending on to you with all possible Dispatch. We have received no Supplies of these Articles as yet from Congress."
Jefferson kept his promise. By the end of January 1781, the state war office could not account for the exact amount of loose ammunition (lead and powder) sent to North Carolina the preceding year, but it estimated that, of fixed ammunition, 100,000 cartridges had gone to that state. But Virginia was no cornucopia of munitions. The state's supply of raw materials wore dangerously thin in late 1780. In November there were only 53,279 pounds of powder left in the state magazines, and much of that was damaged. There were only 2,550 pounds of lead on hand; yet, the North Carolina agent in Virginia, Colonel Martin Armstrong, was under orders to pick up no less than 4,000 pounds for his state and 4,000 pounds more for Gates' army. The ammunition factory in Bedford was in danger of running out of these necessary materials, as was the laboratory at Westham. Had that happened, the southern army would have been paralyzed, and Cornwallis could have completed his conquest of the southern United States. Little wonder that Richard Henry Lee wrote pessimistically to Theodorick Bland, Virginia delegate to Congress: "We have been preparing, in the best manner that we can, to meet the storm that is brewing against us in the south; but I fear that our exertions, unassisted by our northern friends, will not be sufficient to oppose the collected strength of our enemies."
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