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Nothing could strike fear into the heart of a young soldier faster than a cannonball bounding towards him. Rather than firing a cannon at an upward angle, it was aimed for a flat trajectory, so the cannonball would hit the ground with the maximum amount of momentum. The weight of the cannonball combined with its forward momentum would send the round bouncing through the battle field, breaking bones as it ricocheted off soldiers. Although cannons and their ammunition were heavy and unwieldly, they had the distinct advantage of being capable of eliminating large amounts of troops at once. Even if the infantrymen were not hit by the cannonball, it would still cause chaos by forcing the troops to scatter in order to dodge the shot. One American eyewitness recalls how the cannon “cut lanes through [the British], and broke them up”.[1]

Depending on the caliber, these solid cast-iron projectiles could weigh anywhere from 2 to 50 pounds.[2] This cannonball from the Mercury Collection is a 24-pounder that was recovered from Sylvan Beach near Lake Oneida in New York. The cannonball dates to the time of the Revolutionary War, but it is unclear if it is British or American since both sides used cannons prolifically. In fact, it was not uncommon for the Americans to recover and use cannonballs that had been fired at them by the British. In his diary, American Private Joseph Plumb Martin writes about a particular battle during the Revolution in which there was no ammunition for his regiment’s cannon so the artillery officers “offered a gill of rum for each shot fired from that piece, which the soldiers would procure.”[3] Rather than balk at this proposition Martin states that there were “twenty to fifty men standing on the parade waiting with impatience the coming of the shot, which would often be seized before its motion had fully ceased and conveyed off to our gun to be sent back again to it former owners. When the lucky fellow had caught it had swallowed his rum he would return to wait for another, exulting that he had been more lucky or more dexterous than his fellows.”[4]



[1] Dann, John C. The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence. University of Chicago Press. 1999. p. 54

[2] Artillery. American Revolution. The JDN Group, LLC. 2017.

[3] Martin, Joseph Plumb. The Diary of Joseph Plumb Martin: A Revolutionary War Soldier. Benchmark Books. 2001. p. 2.

[4] Martin, Joseph Plumb. The Diary of Joseph Plumb Martin: A Revolutionary War Soldier. Benchmark Books. 2001. p. 2.


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