Conserving (and making) Precious Ammunition

On June 17, 1775, as British regulars were marching up Breed’s Hill outside of Boston, a command reached the Massachusetts riflemen from Gen. Israel Putnam and Col. William Prescott: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” to encourage soldiers to make each shot as effective as possible. This might have seemed an odd command, since most of the militia were fresh off the farm and could pick off a squirrel at 100 yards and have it dressed for supper before it hit the ground.

The problem was ammunition; actually the lack thereof. To date, the armed rebellion had taken no real course toward organized warfare. As a result, supply chains had many weak links, including those for powder and cartridge paper. It wasn’t until after the Battle of Bunker Hill that a formal system of commissaries and ordnance stores were created to support activities of a standing army.

The man in charge of procuring gun powder was Thomas Crane of Stoughton. He had the unenviable task of rounding up powder from several small operations all over New England. The man in charge of making the paper was Stephen Crane at The Liberty Paper Mill. He had made relatively small amounts of what is described as cartridge paper in the mill’s ledger, but that would change soon.

Together, though acting separately, Stephen Crane and Thomas Crane were able to deliver powder and paper to a father and son team who risked their lives making cartridges for the militia.

As early as 1773, William Burbeck was purchasing cartridge paper from the Liberty Paper Mill. Burbeck, like Henry Knox, was a self-taught expert; in this case the science of pyrotechnics. He created the fireworks used to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, and was the former owner of the Green Dragon Tavern, where the Loyal Nine and Sons of Liberty regularly met. In 1769, he was appointed to serve as an artillery expert at Castle Island in Boston Harbor. In a very odd twist, in 1770, when the British took possession of the island, Burbeck stayed on as the ordnance storekeeper.

Sometime before August of 1773, Burbeck had become sufficiently restless and uneasy under the new regime, and slipped out of Castle Island to Boston,  where he continued his original occupation – that of a carver – and began making and selling cartridges for the militia. In 1774 he received an appointment through his friend Dr. Joseph Warren to superintend the “laboratory” to prepare the artillery belonging to the Colony for the expected conflict.

On April 21, two days after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Burbeck managed to escape Boston. He described part of the experience in a deposition a year later:

These may Cartify all whome it may Concarn, that on the 21 Day of Aprl. 1775 two Days after ye Battle of Lexington; I saw Mr. Williams of Noddles Island in Boston & that after some Conoversation with him setting forth my Concern how I should git out of town, Expecting every minute that I should be sent for; to go Down to that Castle – he told me that he would Carry me over to Noddles Island if I would Resque it that he would Do the same for ye good of his Country; And am Sure that if we had been taken Crossing of water must have been confind. to this Day, or otherway more severly punished. that I owe my Escape intirely to Mr. Williams as all other Communication to ye Country was stopd. And that the Very next morning after; A party of men & Boat was sent after me And Serchd. my house & Shop to find me – that after we got to ye Isand Mr. Williams ordered one of his men to Carry me over to Chelsea by which means I am now in Cambridge.

While William was in Cambridge, his son Edward remained in British-occupied Boston undertaking the most dangerous task of making ammunition for the Colonial Militia.


The following is an excerpt from a letter written in 1892 by his 81-year-old grandson, George Henry Cook to Eward Carleton Burbeck:  “. . .he continued the business of carver after his father went to Castle Island as a gunner; that he with his family were living in Boston at the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill; that while Boston was in possession of British forces under Gen. Howe, he made cartridges for his father, who was manufacturing ammunition for Washington’s army. This he did in the night with his blinds closed, so as not to be observed by the British, and secretly managed by the milkmen, and others, to convey them to his father. But the eagle-eyed watch of the British sentries got an inkling of what he was doing, and his friends spirited him away with wife and children over the Charles River in the night, by which he escaped arrest.”

Editor’s Note:

We will see much more of powder and paper, Cranes and Burbecks, as the new Colonial Army begins to mature.

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