Thursday, June 9, 2011

Cow Manure and Cannon

Molly Pitchur manning a Revolutionary War cannon during a battle

When the troubles between the British and the Colonists broke into open warfare on April 19, 1775 one of the first acts of the then Governor of Connecticut, Jonathon Trumbull was ti send a dispatch rider to Salisbury in the northwest corner of Connecticut seizing the iron furnace at Salisbury under the name of the Committee of Public Safety.  The furnace by that time belonged to Richard Smith an English entrepreneur who was a suspected Tory.  Smith at the time was in England on a business trip where the outbreak of war left him stranded until the war was over in 1783.  Included in the dispatches sent to Salisbury was another to Squire Samuel Forbes of East Canaan urging him to come out of retirement to operate the furnace for the Colonials.

Samuel Forbes at the time was the only man in the colonies capable of casting canon without bursting. When George Washington took command of the colonial forces besieging Boston the number of cannon possessed by the colonials could be counted on one hand. Their opponents, the British Army was well supplied with all kinds of artillery that came from the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. In a daring raid led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold they succeeded in capturing 59 cannon weighing sixty tons.  They were dragged all the way from Ft. Ticonderoga 300 miles to Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston. The threat presented by these cannon drove the British out of Boston getting the colonials their first taste of victory. Most of these cannon were lost later during the Battle of Long Island, but by then George Washington was being supplied by cannon cast by Squire Forbes at Salisbury.

When the war broke out the furnace at Salisbury had passed into the hands of Richard Smith from which its supplied pig iron to Smith's finery and Robertsville Connecticut that produced wrought iron and crucible steel. The crucible steel was a real secret weapon in the hands of the colonials because they were able to make cutters for the boring mill that produced the cannon cast in Salisbury. The finery in Robertsville marked the beginning of the United States steel industry.

From the iron furnace at Salisbury Squire Forbes was able to cast 150 tons of cannon during the first six months of the Revolutionary war. Throughout the war to Salisbury canon was able to produce over 850 cannon ranging from 4 to 34 pounders. It was these cannon that gave Washington's army's enough edge so they were able to meet the British on equal terms, and combined with the artillery supplied by the French were able to find the defeat the British at Yorktown Virginia.

In the process of casting these cannon for sent to make use of several innovations. For instance it was necessary to bore the cannon in a vertical position by suspending them from a framework over the boring mill, and lowering them down out of the cutter had until the cannon was bored to its finished depth.

The process actually began by making a wooden pattern of the cannon that was covered with oil and coated with a mixture made from clay, cow manure, straw and strips of old cloth. This was removed from the pattern that was made in pieces so it could be taken apart like a puzzle to release the mold. The mold was alone to thoroughly dry before it was used.

After the mold was completely dry it was buried in the sand of the casting floor clear up to the muzzle. The furnace was breached allowing the cast iron to flow out through a series of channels into the molds. It was the practice of Squire Forbes to cast several cannon in one pour.

The cannon were then suspended over the boring mill sold their bores could be made. After that they were test fired in an area of Lakeville that is even today known as the ordinance grounds where it is still possible to find an occasional cannonball leftover from the Revolutionary war.

When the cannon were finished and mounted they were shipped off to war usually by way of Poughkeepsie New York. These cannon found many uses aside from accompanying the Army; they were also used in coastal defense and onboard some of the ships used by the colonials during the war.

It was the casting of these cannon returned for Connecticut the name, “Arsenal of Democracy.” It is passing strange that there are hardly any historical monuments to this period of American history; so they Salisbury Connecticut is known as a home for New Yorkers. In its day however, Northwestern Connecticut and Salisbury were well on their way to becoming the iron and steel producing center of the United States. For almost 2 centuries they were to play this role until the last furnace went out of blow in 1923.

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