A massive return for all ordnance stores belonging to the Continental Army on hand at Boston at the opening of 1777. Though similar returns for smaller units appear with some frequency on the antiquarian market, it is rare indeed to encounter one for such a major component of the Continental Army, and with such excellent provenance.
The manuscript was compiled at a desperate time for the American cause: despite the recent victory at Trenton on December 26, 1776 and the one to come at Princeton on January 3, the Continental Army had been ravaged in the New York campaign and was but a shadow of what it had been half a year earlier.
The return presents in columnar format the stores held in and around Boston, the headquarters of the Continental Army’s Eastern (New England) Department. The Department had been established in April 1776, in the happy days following the British evacuation of Boston, and was commanded from its inception by Major General Artemas Ward. After Washington removed to New York in June 1776 with the main body of the Continental Army, the Eastern Department’s primary role was to guard Boston against the eventuality of a British attempt to retake the town.
This return is dated January 1, 1777 and signed by Nathaniel Barber, Jr., who bore the rank of Deputy Commissary of Military Stores in Boston, probably reporting directly to Artemas Ward. Beginning with the all-important item of gunpowder, the document runs through the vast range of supplies required for small arms, mortars, field artillery and even grenades. The list, 53 items in all, includes the obvious, such as musket balls, cartridge paper and round shot, and the less obvious (to us at least), such as hand bellows, pincers, funnels, “horse & mens harness” ladles, and “junk” (i.e., cable or rope). Additional stores of powder at Roxbury and shells at Cambridge and Roxbury are appended on the verso. Most striking is the dearth of powder, a mere 344 ½ barrels in all (112 ½ in Boston and another 232 in Cambridge). At an estimated 100 lbs. per barrel this yields rather over 34,000 lbs., which sounds like a great deal until one reads that firing a single 32-lb. cannonball required 10-12 pounds of powder. Indeed, shortages of powder would plague the Continental Army throughout the war and at times were so severe as to pose a strategic threat to the revolutionary cause.
The return is identical in format and similar in content to one produced by Barber on May 23, 1776, just weeks before Washington moved the main body of the Continental Army to New York City. Close comparison reveals that, whereas ours terminates at “2 Boxes” of “Fuze” (i.e., “Fuze Compound”), the May 23, 1776 return continues with another 9 line items. That, and certain physical evidence on our return, suggests that it is slightly incomplete. Nevertheless, this rare document provides superb first-hand evidence of the stores on hand in Boston, as Ward and his staff sought to maintain the highest-possible degree of readiness against a British attack.
Nathaniel Barber (1751-????)
Piecing together the life of Nathaniel Barber, Jr. is difficult, not least because he was the son of Major Nathaniel Barber (1728-1787), who was also at times referred to as “Nathaniel Barber, Jr.” In any event, the elder Barber was a prominent Boston merchant and patriot, served on the town’s Committees of Correspondence and Public Safety, and after the war was appointed naval officer of the Port of Boston.
Our Nathaniel Barber, Jr. was born in Boston in 1751, but his early years remain obscure. Immediately after Bunker Hill, perhaps through his father’s influence, he was appointed a clerk in Samuel Gridley’s Massachusetts Artillery Regiment. His progress over the next year is not clear, but when Washington decamped for New York he appointed Barber Deputy Commissary of Artillery (later changed to Deputy Commissary of Military Stores). In this role he seems to have had charge of all artillery supply for the Eastern Department, reporting to Major General Artemas Ward. He held this position until March 1781, when Congress accepted his resignation.
The particular circumstances of Barber’s later years are not clear, but they were marked by misfortune: There is extant a poignant letter from him to President Washington, written from St. Croix, Virgin Islands on May 1, 1793, in which Barber describes his ill luck and asks for what he believes to be back pay due him: “I was unfortunate at home, for which reason, I came to this Country & have resided here near Seven years—I have also been unfortunate here—I have a Wife & Family, & and am in the utmost distress.” (Founders Online, “To George Washington From Nathaniel Barber, Jr. 1 May 1793”, accessed on line June 2020) There is no record that Barber’s request was ever acted upon.
The return was prepared for Major General Artemas Ward (1727-1800), commander of the Eastern Department headquartered in Boston. Ward had commanded the 3rd Massachusetts Regiment during the French and Indian War and was a prominent patriot during the interwar years. In 1774 he was appointed commander-in-chief of the colony’s militia, naturally assumed command of the colonial militia besieging Boston in the Spring of 1775, and was in command—though not present—at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Many criticized his generalship, particularly relative to the Bunker Hill fight, but he deserves much credit for holding together the nascent American army prior to Washington’s arrival in Cambridge to take command on July 2, 1775.
On June 17 the Continental Congress commissioned Ward a major general in the Continental Army (one of four, along with Charles Lee, Israel Putnam and Philip Schuyler) and second-in-command to Washington. After the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, Washington and the main body of the Army departed for New York, while Ward remained behind and took command of the newly-formed Eastern Department. He held the post until ill health forced him to resign his commission in March 1777.
The return descended from Ward and through his daughter Sarah’s branch, kept in the general’s document box and discussed in a 1910 article, which noted hyperbolically that “these records carry us back to the ancient days and to a civilization that, although less than one hundred and forty years old, was nearer in all the implements and accoutrements of war to Carthage and Troy than to the America and Europe of this generation.” (Clark)
Rick Atkinson, The British Are Coming (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2019), pp. 126-127 (on gunpowder). Jimmy Dick, “The Gunpowder Shortage,” Journal of the American Revolution (Sept. 9, 2013), accessed on line June 2020. Harry M. Ward, “Ward, Artemas” at American National Biography, accessed on line June 2020. Rev. Francis E. Clark, “Found in an Old Trunk,” Christian Endeavor World, vol. XXIV no. 48 (Sept. 1, 1910), p. 942.
Offered in partnership with James Arsenault & Company, Arrowsic, Maine.