Fighting a Revolution with a flintlock musket


Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where the Continental Army wintered after the British invaded Philadelphia is now a National Park.  We spent several hours there on our way from Philadelphia to Easton.  (For a visit to the train station, Washington’s headquarters, and the soldiers’ housing, go next-door to Lottabusha County Chronicles and learn more.)

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According to historian J. Lloyd Durham, because muskets were not accurate beyond about a hundred yards, a style of fighting had to be developed that considered the disadvantages inherent in such a weapon.  Regiments lined up and fired two or three volleys (firing all the muskets at once) before charging with bayonets that could be affixed to the musket.  The rationale was to ‘fill the air with massive amounts of lead’ to increase the odds of lead striking the enemy soldiers, creating gaps in their line of soldiers.  These gaps were then exploited by the opposing army to charge with bayonets, forcing either the surrender or retreat of the other side.

It was a carefully orchestrated “by the book” activity for loading and firing.  Although it seemed to me to take an inordinate amount of time, trained soldiers could reload and fire about 4 times a minute according to Durham.  First, the chamber that held the gunpowder had to be loaded.  The soldier pulled a small pack of powder from the pouch he carried, bit off the end with his teeth, spit out the paper, and poured a small amount of powder into the chamber.  The remainder of powder and lead balls was poured into the barrel of the gun, along with the paper, and rammed down using the steel tamp stored alongside the barrel.  When the gun was fired, flint struck steel, and the resulting spark set off the gunpowder in the barrel of the gun, causing it to fire the volley of lead balls.  (Some muskets used a single large lead ball, and others used several smaller balls fired all at the same time.)  After France became an ally, they sent French muskets, lighter in weight and firing a smaller lead ball, and were preferred by the Continental soldier over the British “Brown Bess.”  American gunsmiths also made flintlocks for the soldiers, along with the American long rifle used by scouts.

The uniform of the soldier was generally a shirt of linen or cotton, a vest of linen or wool, and wool, linen, or cotton trousers.  The American hunting shirt was made of homespun linen, and had rows of fringe around the edges.  Apparently, Washington favored the hunting shirt–which from the description, I assume the two soldiers in the photos are wearing.

It’s the Centennial celebration of the National Park Service, so go find your park!

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