Saturday, January 19, 2013

Blast from the Past

Several "open sources" reported on a dangerous and historic discovery  made in Central Park  the week before last.

New York City Parks workers came upon a live cannon ball, loaded in a cannon. The loaded artillery piece was one of two Revolutionary War-era cannons being stored at the park’s Ramble shed near the 79th Street transverse ( a road that crosses the Park from east to west). Preservation workers for the Central Park Conservancy called police after opening up the capped cannon for cleaning,  The police found over 800 grams of black powder along with cotton wadding and a cannonball.  More to the point: the powder was still capable of firing!

Actual cannon found with live charge in Central Park

The cannon, donated to the park about the time of the Civil War, was on public display for over 125 years until 1996 when the Conservancy decided to bring it indoors to protect it from vandalism. So a loaded cannon was sitting in the midst of joggers,school kids, picnickers,and  lovers (not to mention assorted hookers, pimps, junkies and muggers).  Seems amazing that loaded ordnance could have gone unnoticed so long. But  the gun posed little real threat as it was already over 90 years old and is believed to have come from a sunken British vessel in the East River. And it was capped with concrete.

The Patriot Spy tells the tale of the British invasion of Long Island (today's Brooklyn) and then the Island of New York (today's Manhattan)...The gun appears to be a small caliber (6 or 12 pound) carronade. During the time of the Revolution, guns like these would have been used mostly to arm British merchant ships, not frigates as the New York papers speculate.

Carronades had a higher trajectory than long guns
Carronades (named for the British Carron iron works that developed them) were short barreled guns used on merchant ships for defense. More economical and easier to employ than high velocity "long guns," the carronade's lower muzzle velocity gave it a better "smashing" ability.  The carronade's shot could devastate its target, tearing the ships gunwale and masts into much larger chunks and splinters that were as deadly to the enemy as the munition itself. Also, because they required less run out space they required a smaller crew and more carronades could be mounted in the same given space as the long gun. And they could be put back into battery for the next shot more quickly than traditional guns giving carronades a more rapid rate of fire.

Why merchant ships?  The carronade sat high in its gun carriage and made it more difficult to smash the hull at the water line.  But the deck line and the masts were easy targets.  Merchant vessels generally needed only to smash masts, yard arms and rigging to reduce the sail power of its pursuer (usually an American privateer) and then make its escape.  It was only in 1791 that the Royal Navy began to mount these devastating little beast on the man o' war.  And not just frigates: schooners, brigs and even ships of the line (large sailing battle ships with 60 or more guns).  The massed close range fire of the carronade proved devastating to French and Spanish (and sometimes American) ships during the numerous naval battles and duels that took place from 1792 until 1814.

Early 19th century carronades on warship

Merchant vessel fleeing privateers
However, during the time of Yankee Doodle Spies the carronade was considered a defensive weapon suitable for merchant ships.  One can speculate whether any of the American privateers mounted these guns.  They likely did when the privateer was a captured British merchant prize. The role of merchant shipping and the privateers during the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies is often under stated in popular histories but I'll discuss in a future blog how critical, even decisive, that domain of the War for Independence really was.

 With this recent discovery, Central Park once more connects itself to the War for Independence and the Yankee Doodle Spies. Not far from where the mysterious gun was located near McGowan's Pass - a critical approach to the Heights of Harlem that played such an important role during the British invasion of Manhattan. And an important setting in...The Patriot Spy.

Heading east from Mc Gowans Pass - today


  1. That is pretty fascinating, Scott! A lot of people are surprised to hear that several farmers are still killed each year in France when they plow over ordnance left over from World War I, and that is amazing enough -- going back almost a century-and-a-half earlier than that is almost mind boggling.

    Am I correct in remembering that even during the War of 1812 the American naval forces ended up using carronades during the Battle of Lake Erie? I need to verify this one way or another ...

  2. Mike,

    By then carronades were in widespread use on both sides. The carronade was a critical weapon in the battle of Lake Erie. here is a link to a short living history demo on the subject made at Cleveland Fleet Week last summer. Otherwise simply Google "Carronades at battle of lake Erie" and you'll get lots of hits with cool stuff!,d.eWU