December 2, 2008
CW's Historic Trades artisans build Revolutionary War artillery from the ground up
The skilled artisans of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Trades are engaged in the reproduction of 18th-century artillery pieces as the metalworkers at the Geddy Foundry attempt to rediscover the mysteries of casting large military weapons, such as mortars and cannon.
The first casting operation in mid-November produced a Coehorn-type mortar, and subsequent castings will produce a second mortar and a British light infantry three-pounder—a small cannon designed for mobility and intended for infantry support. The foundry artisans will cast the mortar and cannon barrel in bronze, while other Historic Trades craftspeople will produce the woodwork, ironware, leatherwork, textiles, and other components needed to complete the project.
“This undertaking is a wonderful opportunity for many Historic Trades to participate in a single project,” said Jay Gaynor, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of historic trades. “As each shop contributes its own expertise, Historic Trades as a whole rediscovers the mysteries of an extremely important, but now largely lost, 18th-century technology.”
Materials used in the project and video documentation are funded by a generous grant from the Ambrose and Ida Fredrickson Foundation of Summit, N.J.
“My fellow trustees and I are tremendously excited about the cannon project,” said Hugo Pfaltz, trustee of the Ambrose and Ida Fredrickson Foundation. “It is a wonderful opportunity to support the Fredricksons’ abiding interest in the historic trades.”
Light infantry three-pounders consisted of a 41-inch barrel mounted on a wooden carriage. The barrels were produced at the Royal Brass Foundry at Woolwich, England, between 1776 and 1778, primarily for use in North America during the American Revolution.
Easily transported over rough terrain, the cannon was essentially self-contained and designed with compartments for ammunition and equipment. “During the War of American Independence, there is no doubt that these highly maneuverable cannon were at the top of the wish list for both armies,” said Erik Goldstein, Colonial Williamsburg curator of mechanical arts and numismatics.
Most of the surviving artillery pieces have been found in North America, and there is evidence that Col. John Simcoe, commander of the Queen’s Rangers, had a light infantry three-pounder with him at Spencer’s Ordinary, just outside Williamsburg in 1781. Several of these cannons also were captured during the 1781 siege of Yorktown.
The U.S. National Park Service owns an original cannon barrel—cast in 1776—and permitted Colonial Williamsburg staff to photograph and measure it. In addition to written documentation, scale drawings of the barrel, the “butterfly” carriage, the limber—a towing vehicle—and accessories are in the collections of the Royal Artillery Institution at Woolwich, placed at the Royal Military Repository there by Col. William Congreve in 1783.
The wheelwrights are fashioning the gun’s wheeled carriage on which the barrel is mounted and building the accompanying limber. Blacksmiths will produce carriage and limber hardware, loading tools and moving tackle. The weavers are weaving the canvas that the tailor will sew into finished rain covers and powder bags. The gunsmiths have produced a wall gun—an oversized musket that is part of the cannon’s equipment—and leatherworkers will produce leather harness and equipment.
The masonry trades craftsmen built the casting furnace near the Great Hopes Plantation site, while the blacksmiths provided the ironwork and carpenters the woodwork for the molding pit.
The Geddy Foundry staff has been involved in the furnace design, development of tools and researching moldmaking. They recently completed the mold for the Coehorn mortar that was used to test the furnace, mold making and other procedures. Research assistance was provided by the National Park Service and the Royal Artillery Institution.
The entire undertaking is expected to take one year to 18 months to complete. A date for casting the three-pounder cannon will be announced later.
Established in 1926, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Within the restored and reconstructed buildings, historic interpreters, attired as colonial men and women from slaves to shopkeepers to soldiers, relate stories of colonial Virginia society and culture – stories of our journey to become Americans – while historic trades people research, demonstrate and preserve the 18th-century world of work and industry. As Colonial Williamsburg interprets life in the time of the American Revolution for its guests, it also invites them to interact with history. “Revolutionary City®” – a dramatic live street theater presentation, is a 2008 Rand McNally Best-of-the-Road™ Editor’s Pick. Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site at www.history.org.