The Blackpowder Journal

The Blackpowder Journal Icon

...for the blackpowder enthusiast

Ammunition Supply In Revolutionary Virginia Part 1

Taken from the January 1965 issue of:
The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

One of the chronic problems facing the states throughout most of the American Revolution was a shortage of ammunition. The large degree of sovereignty retained by individual states complicated the problem by decentralizing, to a great extent, the responsibility for acquiring munitions. Each of the thirteen colonies sought supplies of ammunition, both for its own needs and for the total war effort. In the continuing search for sinews of war, Virginia played an indispensable role.

Virginia patriots early realized the importance of an adequate supply of ammunition to their cause. On February 13, 1775--two months before the war began--the Isle of Wight Committee of Safety appointed a subcommittee to purchase 1,000 pounds of gunpowder for the county's use, and promised a £20 premium to the first person in the colony who made 5,000 pounds of powder. Five days later, the Cumberland County Committee offered a premium of three shillings per pound to the first person who would produce, within eight months, fifty pounds of good gunpowder, "on due proof that the same as made wholly of American materials."

In March of that same year, the Virginia Convention resolved to put the colony in a "posture for defence." Included in this preparation was the collection and storage of powder at Williamsburg. On April 21 the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, alarmed and incensed by these belligerent acts, sent a detachment of marines to seize the colony's store of powder. The Governor's success was short lived. So bold and powerful was the reaction of the Virginians, led by Patrick Henry, that Receiver-General and President of the Council Richard Corbin was forced to pay for the confiscated powder. Soon Dunmore fled to the protection of a British man-of-war, and a near state of war existed between the Old Dominion and the mother country.

But the colony lacked the military strength to resist effectively the might of British arms. Ammunition in particular was lacking. In March 1775 a committee of the Convention recommended that the colony offer financial support for the manufacture of gunpowder. And in August the Convention demonstrated its concern by giving a bill for "furnishing arms & encouraging the making of Salt-petre, Sulpher, Powder & Lead" the same priority as those raising money and creating the general Committee of Safety.

The newspapers enthusiastically encouraged citizens to manufacture gunpowder. Many seem to have attempted it. Unfortunately, few of these domestic munitions works appear to have produced more than was needed by their proprietors. Some failed completely because of a prevailing ignorance of the high art of making gunpowder. It was to these that a contributor to the Virginia Gazette addressed himself in December 1775:

As many people have attempted to make Gunpowder, and some may have failed for want of knowing the proper proportion of the several ingredients, I have sent you that which, from a great number of experiments, has been found to be best, and is copied from the New Chymical Dictionary, translated from the French.

The suggested formula called for seventy-five parts of saltpetre, fifteen and a half of charcoal, and nine and a half of sulphur. Those ungrounded in "arithmetick" were instructed to use twelve ounces of saltpetre, two and a half of charcoal, and one and a half of sulphur per pound of powder.

It is likely that the relatively small quantity of powder produced by private individuals was due more to the time and trouble it took to produce the explosive than to the manufacturers' lack of knowledge. A standard recipe published in the Gazette gives some indication of the difficulty involved:

To make gunpowder by hand, take 14 ounces of salt-petre, 3 ounces of sulphur, 4 ounces of well burnt charcoal (I think pine the best) powder each article separately, very fine; then mix them in a large mortar; beat them continually, after moistening, for 12 hours; to grain it, have a sifter, with a sheepskin bottom, burnt full of holes, with a fork, the size you will have the grain; make the paste into balls, as big as walnuts; put them into the sifter, with a wooden ball, of about half a pound weight, which being moved to and fro, will force the powder through the holes, and form the grain; dry it well, on a linen cloth, or clean plank.

All this for slightly over a pound of gunpowder! Clearly, few persons would produce enough powder to help the colony overcome its great shortage.

One of the most successful early producers of the precious explosive was Major Charles Lynch of Bedford, who erected a powder mill in the spring of 1775, and was said to have "brought the manufactory of Gunpowder to very great perfection." If he had not yet made a large amount of powder "what of it has been tried by the riflemen is much approved of." The versatile Major Charles Lynch (who later became managers of the state's lead mines) also made saltpetre, "and it is said he has discovered a Sulphur Mine . . . where more may be made than would serve the whole continent." By December 1775 he was reported making fifty pounds of high quality gunpowder a day.

These first steps in the domestic production of ammunition led many to exude confidence. The Virginia Gazette asserted on October 17, 1775, that "There is now a good flock of powder in the country, and an excellent manufactory of that useful articleestablished." That same month, George Washington wrote his brother from Cambridge that he was "pleased to find that the Manufactury of Arms and Ammunition have been attended to with so much care; a plenty of these and unanimity and Fortitude among ourselves must defeat every attempt that a diabolical Ministry can Invent to Inslave this great Continent." Benjamin Franklin boasted in December 1775: "We have hitherto applied to no foreign power. We are using the utmost industry in endeavoring to make saltpetre, and with daily increasing success."

As early as June 10, 1775, the Continental Congress was urging the colonies to establish powder mills. Virginia did not act in this direction immediately, preferring to encourage individual enterprize instead. But in January 1776 the convention authorized the general Committee of Safety both to contract with private persons for the manufacture of arms and powder and to erect powder mills "at the Public expense." Moreover, the Committee was given power over the disposition of all saltpetre and sulphur purchased by the colony. Not until 1780, however, were steps taken to implement this legislation, when an ammunition laboratory was established at Westham. And, although the Gazette reported with characteristic optimism on March 23, 1776, that "The manufactories of arms and ammunition are rapidly advancing," the statement had little basis in fact. A more accurate report came from John Page in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, written at Williamsburg on April 26, 1776. He deployed the lack of progress in manufacturing and charged that not one powder mill had yet been erected at public expense, "and . . . the only one which has received any Encouragement from the Public has made but 700 lb." In a like manner, he was critical of the Committee of Safety for not offering more than six shillings per pound for gunpowder. A heavy outlay of capital was needed to build and operate a powder mill; yet, the colony did nothing to ease this initial expenditure.

Because Virginia failed to produce enough powder domestically, the colony was forced to seek it elsewhere almost from the beginning. Congress sent one ton of gunpowder in July 1775. Another six wagonloads of arms and ammunition went from Philadelphia to Williamsburg the following January, and Congress ordered two more tons of powder to the colony on February 15, 1776.

But Virginia imported most of its powder from the West Indies, not Philadelphia. The Committee of Safety early engaged John Goodrich, merchant, mariner, and plantation owner to secure ammunition from the islands. His son William was given £5,000 in bills of exchange and instructed to contact merchants in Antigua and St. Eustatia. Everything went smoothly at first. William Goodrich managed to smuggle 4,500 pounds of powder to Virginia via North Carolina in the fall of 1775. They the Goodriches lost their luck. Lord Dunmore found out about the shipment and sought to confiscate it. Failing this, he arrested the elder Goodrich, John Jr., and William and forced the latter to name the West Indian agent with whom he had dealt. The Governor then attempted, without success, to seize the money paid for the powder and the remaining bills of exchange. Dunmore finally paroled John Goodrich, who soon found himself in trouble with the patriots. On January 5, 1776, the Isle of Wight Committee of Safety accused the Goodriches of violating the Continental Association's embargo on British goods. It charged that Bartlett Goodrich had purchased English goods at Antigua, carried them to St. Eustatia, where he changed the identifying labels, and sent them to Virginia to be sold as fine homemade wares by John Goodrich and Company. Faced with disgrace on the patriot side, John, senior, joined the royal cause and participated in several of Dunmore's raids in the spring of 1776.

Thus, by the end of 1775, Virginia's efforts to acquire an adequate powder supply had failed. The private manufactories had not lived up to the sanguine expectations of the Virginia Gazette, and efforts to establish a supply depot in the West Indies had been thwarted by Dunmore's pesky vigilance. Moreover, the Continental Congress was able only partially to compensate for these disappointments with its spotty support. The Committee of Safety noted the critical shortage of powder in late October, and ordered the concentration of the colony's meager supply at Williamsburg for its more efficient disbursement. On December 8 the Convention passed a resolution requiring that all of the "good and merchantable" gunpowder either imported into Virginia or manufactured there be sold to the colony "for publick use" at the price of 6 shillings per pound.

Still the shortage worsened in early 1776, not only in Virginia, but throughout the other colonies as well. Only a few shipments of powder arrived in America. Twenty-three tons were landed at New York on January 20. Thirteen tons of gunpowder and sixty of saltpetre arrived at Philadelphia on February 2. And twenty-five more tons of powder followed a few weeks later. Yet, these importations, plus the small amounts of powder produced domestically, were hardly enough to furnish the growing Continental Army before Boston, not to mention militia of the various states. It is indeed fortunate for the colonies that there were no full-scale military operations in the winter of 1775-76 such as those that came later.

Look for Part 2 in the next issue of The Blackpowder Journal.