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Guest Contributors...           Edwin R. Scollon

Diving Lake Champlain...
The Valcour Bay Research Project- V

The cannon is broken!


The cascabel portion of the exploded cannon is recovered from Valcour Bay. Photo by the author

In partnership with...

   

Once the proper permits were in place, the next order of business was the further study the cannon.

Since we’ll be discussing cannon and their parts further, a diagram of a cannon and its nomenclature are provided below:

Modified and from an original in:
Manucy, Albert.  Artillery Through the Ages:  A Short Illustrated History of Cannon, Emphasizing Types Used in America. Washington, D.C. 1949; National Park Service Division of Publications, rpt. 1985.

Cannon are classified by the weight of the iron shot that they are capable of firing.  A 9-pounder would fire nine-pound, iron shot.  Shot was produced from molds and would have a consistent diameter.  A cannon’s bore would also require a specific diameter to accommodate its shot and a predetermined gap.  This gap was called windage and would prevent the shot from becoming lodged in the bore.  Since the bores were of a precise diameter, a gun’s size can be determined from a measurement of its bore. 

Our first thoughts were that the gun might be from a vessel discovered by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in 1997.  The gondola was located in deep waters, standing upright and completely intact.  Its bow gun was still present but two guns, typically located amidships, were missing.  If the gun were of those two, it would most likely be a 9-pounder that the fleet typically mounted there. (For more information on the discovered gunboat click here.)

Art Cohn and associate, Jonathon Eddy, traveled to the site to measure its bore and get a firsthand look at the site.  We were surprised at what the two would discover.  Art’s measurement of the bore was 3 ½” - the bore diameter of a 6-pounder, not of a nine.  Jonathon also reported feeling an irregular, sharp edge beyond the gun’s trunnion.  Their discoveries raised more questions:  What vessel could the gun be from?   Could the gun be broken?  If it was, was it stuck by enemy shot or did it explode?

A few days later, I went out to the site to obtain further measurements of the gun, along with its position and depth within the sediment.  Three volunteer members of the newly forming project joined me:  Tim Aubin, Dan Rock and Dan Carpenter.  We brought out gauged pieces of ½” PVC pipe to measure the sediment depth.  We also brought a clipboard with an attached sheet of Mylar and pencils to record our measurements.

  To measure the total length of the gun we decided to place one of the PVC gauges at its muzzle, one at its cascabel and measure the distance between.  Terry Aubin and I had previously excavated to one of the trunnions.  I estimated where the cascabel should be from the excavation and pushed the second gauge into the silt.  Several feet of the gauge disappeared without hitting anything solid.  I brought it back, closer to the excavation, and tried again.  This process continued until I finally made contact with the gun. The gauge was only a short distance from the excavation and both gauges were only 4 ½’ apart.

I followed the gauge to the gun and traced its outline.  Jonathon was right; there was a sharp edge.  The gun was broken at a steep angle, between its trunnions.  The other trunnion and the remainder of the gun were missing.  Earlier I had made a sketch of a cannon on the sheet of Mylar.  I drew a line across it to indicate where it was broken and showed it to the group.

I remember my heart sinking as I first felt the break.  I had already envisioned the raising of the gun and a discarded fragment wasn’t what I had in mind.  Eventually, my disappointment would vanish as we learned more about the gun and its surroundings.  We would later discover that the gun did explode. That event would provide us with a means to identify the gun later on, as you’ll see in the pages that follow.        

I had always been in awe of the men’s courage to stand before an enemy’s guns.  As I researched and found several historical accounts of cannons bursting, I also found myself in awe of their courage to stand behind the guns of their own: 

  •    An exploding cannon killed Scottish King James II, while he supervised the siege of Roxburgh Castle in 1460.  A fragment severed his leg.
     

  •    In 1862 an experimental cannon exploded in Savannah, Georgia; one of the fragments flew over General Robert E. Lee’s head.  The fragment was recently recovered from the Wilmington River.  Check it out here
     

  •     Lt. James Hadden, traveling down Lake George with Burgoyne's right flank (the supply train) wrote of exploded cannons on  gunboats in his Journal:

"...the Rebels with the Gun Boats and Batteaux which they had surprised at the carrying Place at Lake George, attacked in two Divisions, Diamond Island, where Captain Auberry and a Detachment of the 47th Regiment were posted with some Cannon and Gun Boats: the Rebels were repulsed with great Loss, and pursued by the Gun Boats to the East Shore, where the principal Vessel and a Gun Boat were retaken, together with all the Cannon, except two which had burst; the Enemy, having had time to set fire to the other Batteaux, retreated over the Mountains." --Sept. 24, 1777 1

  •    Bostonian Timothy Newell, also recorded two incidents in his journal during the British occupation in 1775 2:

"August 19th – A 42-pounder split on the lines, killed a bombardier and wounded one or two men."

"October 17th – Two floating batteries from the Provincials from Cambridge River fired a number of cannon into the camp at the Common; the shot went thro houses by the Lamb Tavern, etc.  A deserter who came in this morning says one of the cannon split and killed and wounded several.  5 or 6 hats, a waistcoat and part of a boat came on shore at the bottom of the Common."

Top, side and bottom views of the Valcour cannon are in the draft below.  The draft is from the LCMM archives, was drafted by Gordon Cawood and inked by Adam Loven.

 

Continued here:
The Archaeological Mapping of Valcour Bay

Back to the VBRP HOME PAGE

 

Other links about Valcour Island and the Battle of Valcour within The Lake Champlain and Lake George Historical Site

The Battle of Lake Champlain:

The American Revolution on Lake Champlain

Download a copy of The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum's Official VBRP Cannon Raising Commemoration Program- Click HERE.

Also of interest: LCMM's Valcour Island Battlefield Preservation

 

 IMPORTANT NOTE: Artifacts on the bottom of the lake are the property of the People of the States of New York and/or Vermont by law. It is illegal to remove or damage them under State Law(s) without the appropriate clearances and permits. Removing them and transferring them across state lines violates Federal law & makes one liable to Federal prosecution.

Sources/Notes:

1 James Hadden. Hadden's Journal and Orderly Books: A Journal Kept in Canada and Upon Burgoyne's Campaign in 1776 and 1777, by Lieut. James M. Hadden, Roy. Art. Edited by Horatio Rogers. (Albany: Joel Munsell's Sons, 1884)

2 Timothy Newell.  “The Journal of Timothy Newell.”  In The Spirit of Seventy-Six:  The Story of the American Revolution As
Told by the Participants.
  Eds.  Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris.  Indianapolis, 1958; rpt. New York, NY,:  Da Capo Press, 1995.

 

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