Friday, May 3, 2019

Heavy History

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director
For the last two weeks, I’ve been carrying around a 2-3 pound cannon ball in a suitcase. It’s an object I use to introduce first graders to artifacts associated with the American Revolution, and this year over 500 students have had a chance to hold it. Without knowing what it is at first, these twenty-first century kids have told me it was heavy, shaped like a sphere, smelled like a penny, looked like a meteor, colored black and a little brown, and was both smooth and bumpy.

Cannon ball
So just what is a cannon ball? Like the students observed, it’s a round solid ball of cast iron. It won't explode, but if it comes in contact with something, it can do a lot of damage. The solid iron balls ranged from two- to fifty-pounds and were fired from cannons-thus their name-with the aid of propellants. Firing a cannon ball in the air, was not always reliable. The greater the target range, meant the less accurate the hit. Reports mention that rolling and bouncing cannon balls became just as dangerous as those successfully aimed and fired.

Artillery efforts by patriots during the war often relied on self-taught experts who brought their own cannons and guns with them. One patriot fighter, 

Henry Knox

Henry Knox (1750-1806), was a bookseller from Boston who had a passion for military history. He was instrumental in organizing the colonists’ early artillery groups, establishing training protocols and bringing much needed discipline to the newly formed militia. His efforts were so successful he was later appointed as first US Secretary of War for the new nation. Fort Knox in Kentucky is named in his honor.

Before the revolution, civilian teamsters and contracted carters transported the cannons, while any actual operating and firing was done by soldiers. The duties were separate and distinct. This meant in the heat of the battle, soldiers often had to reposition equipment without help because any contracted helpers, along with their horses, had long since fled the battlefield. After the revolution, armies eliminated these contractual positions, absorbing all artillery responsibilities.  

We have six cannon balls in our collection from the time of the American Revolution. These were all discovered in Chemung County. In 1779, General Sullivan's military campaign to target loyalists and Indigenous people culminated with a battle at Newtown, the original name for Elmira. Called  Sullivan's Campaign, but conducted on strict orders which came from George Washington, this event happened two hundred and forty years ago.
Monument at Newtown Battlefield

Following Washington's directions, Sullivan's troops destroyed over 40 Iroquois villages, and prompted 5,000 refugees to flee north to Canada. One cannon ball in our collection, perhaps used in that battle, was discovered in 1880, dug up from the backyard of Dr. Riggs who lived on Partridge Street.

Sturdy CCHS History-to-Go suitcase
The Historical Society has been going into local schools for years introducing tough subjects in age appropriate ways. We offer programs on the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, First Peoples, Colonial Life, the Underground Railroad, Canals, and Immigration to kindergarten, first and second grade classes. These programs let us share artifacts, documents, and stories from different times and help us connect students to local history. Having the chance to hold a bit of history in their hands gives students a new understanding of artifacts, and they learn some subjects are heavier than others.

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