by Jim Paw-Paw Wilson
Illustrated by Jock Dempsey and Walt Sherrill

Book III Chapter 2

30 April 1777

Today as the troops were lowering a 6 pound cannon on it's carriage down the hill to where they were supposed to put it, it got away from them! The gun carriage is badly damaged, but what is even worse, one of the trunnions is broken. It's not broken right at the cannon, for some reason it broke almost in the middle. The Col. has asked if we can repair it, or if it needs to be re-cast. I asked for a day or two to think it over and to talk it over with Tom and Rob. I think I see a way to repair it but there is a risk that it might not work. Col. Callahan says that if we can fix it, we will save much time over having it re-cast, and if we fail, we won't be in any worse shape than we already are. We'd have to send the cannon back to the foundry to have it re-cast, and that would take at least a month. I can't weld it, the cannon is cast iron. So I will have to work out a way to mechanically repair and support it.

Rob has already started on repairing the gun carriage. I've told him to not work on the trunnion mounts as there will be some changes in the dimensions of the trunnion, but I'm not yet sure how much it will change.

What I am planning to do is to place the broken cannon on it's side, with the broken trunnion uppermost. We will have to dig a hole to do that. And I want the rest of the barrel to be solidly supported as well.

Cannon repair - jdd

Then I want to put the broken piece of the trunnion back in place. We will make a band of wrought iron, and hot shrink it into place as if it was a tire on a wheel.

I had also thought about drilling a hole in the length of the trunnion, and driving a shaft of wrought iron into it. But I don't really have any tools big enough to do that, and it would take far too long with just our hand tools. So I will just install the sleeve on the trunnion, and hope it works.

This is going to be a JOB! But it will be a big help to the regiment, if I can do it. I talked it over with Capt. Machin, and he seemed to think that it will work. I talked to him because he is an artillery officer, in addition to being an engineer. He says he's never seen one repaired this way, but if it works it will save a lot of time. He also said he couldn't see any reason why it shouldn't work. So we will give it our best try.

5 May 1777

Well, tomorrow we will know how good a job we have done on the damaged cannon. Tom and I placed the cannon on the ground, as I had planned. Then we made a sleeve for the trunnion from 1/2" X 6" wrought iron. I used the same traveler to measure the trunnion for the sleeve as I use for measuring wheels for a tire. I deliberately made the sleeve just a little small, then Tom and I spent two days filing and scraping until it would ALMOST slip over the trunnion.

When it would almost fit, we put the sleeve back in the forge and started heating it. We heated it hotter than we normally would heat a tire, almost to a welding heat. Then two of the men picked it up with large tongs, and placed it on the end of the trunnion. When they turned loose of it, it slipped almost half way on. Tom and I were waiting, one on either side of the cannon, and we were able to push it the rest of the way with just a few light taps from our hammers. When it got level with the end of the trunnion I knew it was all the way to the cannon. Just as it got there, Tom called out, "Mine!" I stepped back and he proceeded to almost dance around the cannon, using first his hammer and then a file to dress the edges of the sleeve so that they were neat and clean.

When he finished and looked at me, I grinned and said, "Looks like we got it, let's cool it off and see how tight it is. If we can't move it, it should hold."

At that there was a round of applause. I had known that Captain Machin and the Colonel planned to be here, but did not realize that many of the men of the regiment had also come to watch. I had been concentrating on the work so hard that I had not heard a sound from them.

We quenched the repair with buckets of water from the river till it was cold. We checked it and it's as snug as snug can be. So Rob made the trunnion mount on the carriage larger to accommodate the increased diameter of that trunnion, and Tom made a new trunnion cap to hold it down. Tomorrow morning, we will test fire it.

6 May 1777

It worked! I had Captain Machin load it with a double load of powder, and a ball. After carefully aiming it so that the ball would go into the bluff without hitting anything, I got a piece of slow match from him, and sent everyone away but Tom and I. Captain Machin wanted to stay and fire the cannon, but I said that it was our responsibility, and if it failed I didn't want anyone to be hurt. Then I told him to move back with the rest of the troops. He saluted me, and did as I had ordered.

Testing the Cannon - jdd

When everyone was at a safe distance, Tom handed me a torch that he lit from our fire. Telling Tom to move back toward the troops, I made sure he was well clear before I lit the slow match, then joined him about half way between the troops and the cannon. The slow match seemed to burn forever, but the cannon finally fired. When it did, it jumped back several feet before it stopped.

The troops behind us cheered, at least it hadn't burst into pieces. When we inspected it, all was in good order. I was, and am, very pleased.

Col. Callahan told Rob to carve the cannons name into the trails of the carriage. When Rob asked what the cannons name was, the Col said, "This is The Blacksmith and shall always be known by that name!" Rob immediately started carving, with a big grin on his face.

Then the Col told me that tonight I should eat with the officer's mess. I did so, and after dinner, Lt. Col. Alsop rose to his feet and proposed a toast to the Regimental Smith and The Blacksmith. All the officer's joined in the toast, and I had to respond. In doing so, I made it a point to say that my men had done most of the work, especially the Journeyman Smith, the Master Carpenter and all of the men who helped us.

As I sat down, Col. Callahan rose to his feet, and commented that he noted that while I willingly shared the praise with my men, I shared the danger of firing the piece for the first time only with my fellow smith.

My face got hot, I guess I flushed.

17 May 1777

Some people are so careless! One of the teamsters came to me looking a bit shame faced today. He has lost the bullet mold for his musket! I asked him if he had any musket balls left and he only had two. I made him give me one of them so I'd have a ball the right size to use for a guide.

I'll have to make a cherry so I can cut him a new bullet mold. I suppose while I'm at it, I might as well make a mold that will cast more than one ball at a time. I stopped by Master Longmire's wagon and explained what had happened and why I was making the repair so that he wouldn't think I was trying to take work away from him. Normally, it would be the guns smiths's job, but since it's one of my men, I'll do it for him.

And I think I'm coming down with some kind of sickness. My nose has been runny and I've been coughing for a couple of days now. I've had a bit of a fever too, I think. Cookie has been making me willow bark tea, I drink a cup every couple hours and it seems to help. At least I don't ache quite so much. But I'm rapidly learning to hate the taste of willow bark tea! Even with honey in it is doesn't taste very good!

21 May 1777

I got the bullet mold made. I took a piece of tire strap and folded it in half to make it thicker. After it was folded, I cut it two pieces and formed the half of a hinge on one end of each piece. On the end opposite the hinge, I forged a handle. Then I hinged them together.

Next I forge welded a piece of steel on the end of a piece of round stock. Then I forged the steel into a round ball. Tommy filed it down to the same size as the musket ball that I had gotten from the teamster. Then he filed a series of teeth into it almost like he was making a file. He also cut a few teeth on the shank just above the ball with a cold chisel so it will cut a sprue in addition to cutting the hole for the ball.

Once the ball was made, I shaped the rest of the rod into a crank handle and got a piece of maple from Rob to use for a palm pad. He shaped one side of the piece of maple to a nice curve and drilled a small hole in the center of the other side. Not very big, just a little bit bigger than the round stock that I used to make the cherry. I got some lard from Cookie to lubricate the palm pad.

Cherry Tool - jdd

Finally, I hardened the cherry by bringing it up to a nice red heat in the fire and quenching it in cold water.

Then I clamped the hinged bullet mold in the vise so that it was just a little tight on the cherry. Cranking the cherry around was pretty difficult at first, but once I got it started, it went fairly easily. When it had cut the sides of the mold till it was loose, Tom tightened the vise up just a tiny bit and I kept cranking. Each time the cherry got loose in the mold, Tom tightened it. When the two halves of the mold were almost touching, and the shank above the cherry had cut a groove, we took the mold out of the vise, opened it up, and cleaned out all of the little pieces of metal. Then we moved the cherry toward the handle so we could make a second cavity. The stock that I was working with was only long enough to cut four cavities.

When it was all cleaned up, I had Tom file the top edge of each half at an angle, till the edge of the file cut was right at the top of the ball, leaving a bit at each end so that the cut became a small trough for the lead to follow.

Finally, I forged a piece of small round stock into a clip that would fit over the handles of the mold to hold it closed.

Then we melted some lead and poured the first four musket balls. One of the holes was not quite big enough, the ball was a pretty loose fit, so we ground it out a little bit more.

The last step before we signed it was to drill two small holes at the handle end, and put a pin in both holes on one half of the mold. I just let a little bit of the pin stick out so that when the mold is closed the ends of the pins will fit into the holes in the other half of the mold. That way it will always close up in exactly the same position.

Bullet Mold - jdd

The last thing we did was put our touch marks on it. I put mine on one side, and Tom put his on the other side.

Whatever sickness I was coming down with seems to have gone away. I'm not coughing nearly as much, and my nose isn't running any more. I'm sure glad, because I was pretty miserable for a couple of days.

22 May 1777

Before I gave the bullet mold to the teamster, I decided to make a combination tool as well. If he lost his mold, he probably lost his combination tool. A combination tool isn't hard to make, it's just a piece of half inch square stock, folded into a shape like a letter T with one of the short arms being twice as thick as the other. The thin end is forged down into a tiny point to serve as a vent pick, the thick end is formed into a small hammer head to serve as a flint knapper, and the end of the long part is shaped into a tiny screw driver to use on the screws of the musket.

When I gave the mold and pick to my teamster, he was most appreciative. Especially since we had made it a four ball mold, most molds will only cast one or two balls at a time.

31 May 1777

I got a letter from Dee today. She says everything at home is going well. Master John asked her to make some of her little roses for him, and offered to pay for them. She told him that she didn't want any money for them, just the stock to make them from. I completely agree with her about that. Master John is so good to us that if I could afford to work for him for free, I would be glad to do so.

Dee's letters always fills me with mixed emotions. I'm so glad to hear from her, but at the same time reading what she has written it's almost like I can hear her voice in my ears. And I get so lonely that I don't know what to do. When I try to write to her, my emotions make it hard to know what to say. I tell her about what we have done in the way of work, as well as little things about camp life.

I guess the last time I wrote was just after we finished fixing the broken cannon. She said she had read that part of the letter to Master and Mistress, and that Master got a big grin on his face when he heard how we had fixed the cannon. He told her to tell me that Tom and I had done an excellent job, and that he wasn't sure he would have thought of that method of fixing it. I told Tom what Master had said, and Tom's eyes just danced.

Dee is very frank about how much she misses me and that sometimes causes me other problems, too! But I get even, I write back just as frankly!

7 June 1777

Tom and I have been working on his reading and writing almost every night. He is learning very rapidly. Faith had already given him a good start, so about all I have had to do is help him with his spelling. He wrote to her a couple of weeks ago, and when he got an answer, he only had to ask me what one word meant. Tomorrow, he's going to lead our regular Sunday Rosary for the first time. Today he told me how nervous he was and I told him about the rosary that I lead when we were at West Point. He asked if I had been nervous, and I admitted that I had been. Then he asked if I would help him if he got stuck and I told him that of course I would.

All of the prayers and the sequence they are said in are in his little missal, so he shouldn't have any problem with that. He doesn't have a rosary to use for counting with, so I lent him my mother's. He's nervous about leading for the first time, though.

He also told me that he worries about how the other men will react to a freedman leading them in prayers. I admitted that when the idea came to me, I had asked some of the men what they thought and they all said that he was a part of the unit, just as much as they were, and they did not mind at all if he lead a rosary occasionally. He seemed much relieved by that.

I've tried to rotate leading our service around all of the Catholic men, rather than always leading it myself. Two or three of the men have asked me to not ask them to lead, they get too nervous. But most of them are willing to take a regular turn. I wish we had a priest with us. It's been over three months since we've had Mass. And some of the men need to go to Confession!

20 June 1777

There is a rumor that we are going to be sent back to Constitution Island to work on the fortifications there. I hope we don't go back there, but we are running out of things to do here so it may be a good thing. When they don't have much to do, the men get bored, and then things don't go so well. First Sgt. Baker has had to break up two fights this week alone. I am careful not to notice any bruises when that happens.

Continued in chapter 3
Colonial anvil with iron rose (c) 2001 Jock Dempsey

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