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The Puzzle of the Royal Artillery Pouch: A Relic of the Revolutionary War

Reproduction of a Royal Artillery Pouch by Joel Bohy

Reproduction of a Royal Artillery Pouch by Joel Bohy

You never know what you will find while doing research. In November 2010, I was at the Arlington Historical Society, studying the events of April 19th, 1775 that sparked the Revolutionary war in America. The Museum Director asked me if I was interested in seeing a British belt which had purportedly been taken on April 19th during the British retreat through West Cambridge, MA (now the city of Arlington). As soon as she opened the box, I realized it was not a belt, but a Royal Artillery cartridge pouch flap and strap, missing the leather pouch, wooden cartridge block, and brass insignia.

A Royal Artillery pouch was designed to carry 8 or 9 rounds of ammunition for a carbine. Made from white buff leather, with brass buckles, engraved brass tabs on the end of the straps, as well as a crown and scroll insignia on the flap, the pouch also carried a few tools essential to operating the guns.

I knew that there were four of these pouches from the 1770s extant. One had been donated to the  Charleston Museum in the 1950s and could also be traced back to April 19, 1775. Another appeared at the Gettysburg Antique Arms and Militaria show in 2009. There are also two examples in England, one at the National Army Museum, and another at the Royal Artillery Museum. Now I had uncovered the fifth. But where were the missing pouch, block, and brass insignia?

Joel Bohy, Historic Arms & Militaria Specialist at Skinner, pieces together the Royal Artillery Pouch

Joel Bohy, Historic Arms & Militaria Specialist at Skinner, pieces together the Royal Artillery Pouch. Photo by Carol Haines

I found a clue on the back of the strap. A note written there stated that the pouch had been taken from a dead British soldier on April 19, 1775. (Records indicate that no member of the Royal Artillery unit was killed that day. A soldier may have tossed the pouch aside during the hasty retreat back to Boston.) The note also explained that in 1856, George Gray, a member of the First Congregational Church of West Cambridge, had cut the brass tabs and buckles from the pouch strap. These had been placed into a box with other objects related to the church’s history, and the box was buried during a ceremony on July 4, 1856. After more research, I learned that the church had burned in the 1970s, and a lead box filled with artifacts had been found. Did the pieces cut from the strap survive the fire?

After a few years of back and forth communications with the church, I received permission to visit and try to solve the Royal Artillery pouch puzzle. I emptied every box and file cabinet in the church’s storage area. At the very end of the day, in one of the last boxes, I found a small bubble-wrapped package. As I opened it, I could see the buckles, buff leather, and tabs that belonged to the pouch I had found two years before in a different building. The hair stood up on the back of my neck —after two years of searching and communication, the missing pieces could finally be reunited!

Looking through other boxes at the Arlington Historical Society, I also found the missing russet leather pouch, as well as a block. Instead of the usual 8 or 9 round block of a Royal Artilleryman, this one held 17 rounds. The pouch seemed to have been re-used by a thrifty Provincial soldier after its capture, and this soldier may have added the larger block.

The pouch, buckles and strap end tabs will be reunited for the first time since being separated in 1856 at the exhibit Shot Heard Round The World, April 19th, 1775 at the Concord Museum, opening on April 18th. I hope to see you there.

Read more stories behind the exhibit

10 thoughts on “The Puzzle of the Royal Artillery Pouch: A Relic of the Revolutionary War

  1. Joel,

    Fascinating find. But I doubt any gunner would have thrown a good pouch away. As I understand, once the artillery and reinforcements from Boston reached the retreating column the battle was essentially over, as the milita had no cannon thus no way to answer the Royal Artillery. (see Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer) The only way I can see the Patriots getting their hands on this is if the pouch had fallen apart while the gunner was waring it. Maybe it’s stitching had rotted through or come loose.
    Are there any numbers engraved on the belt tips?

    • Mr. Cecala,
      In response to your question, the fight was not over by the time Percy’s relief made it to Lexington. That being said, there were also Royal Artillery who had come out on the expedition with Lt. Col. Smith to Concord to destroy any artillery they might find in Provincial stores, which they did. It is recorded in Gen. Gages original draft orders, as well as primary accounts of the day, not modern secondary accounts.

      When the relief force met Smith’s column and placed their two guns on the hill above Lexington center, they were on the verge of collapse. The heaviest fighting was yet to begin. Once the column reformed with the relief of battalion company men, the fighting got even heavier. The Royal Artillery on the relief brought with them two 6-pound guns, but Percy only allowed enough ammunition that would fit on the side-boxes, as he felt the additional wagon of ammunition would be an encumbrance. Although the artillery where able to fend off the militia and minute companies for a short time, they soon ran out of ammunition.

      The fighting on the retreat through East Lexington, Menotomy, West Cambridge, and Charlestown would be the heaviest of the day. If you look at the losses of equipment amongst the British troops recorded in WO 36/3, you will see that every regiment had major losses of arms, as well as accoutrements. Many of those soldiers were in panic mode, and their main goal was to make it back to the safety of Boston. The equipment losses show that a stoppage of their pay for the loss of a pouch, belt, musket, or bayonet was probably the furthest from their mind.

      We know that the tabs and buckles had been cut from the pouch as it was recorded by the owner in 1856. The way they were cut, they fit perfectly back into their original position. Again, they were cut off to be placed in the time capsule in 1856; no stitching has failed on the pouch since it was manufactured.

      For more primary accounts, read the privately published “We Were There!” and “The British Story of Lexington and Concord” both by Vincent J.R. Kehoe, as well as a great account of the aftermath in the same area by “Diary of David McClure, Doctor Of Divinity, 1748-1820,” which can be found on Google books.

  2. Mr. Bohy,
    My name is Stacy Brogden and I am a reenactor currently involved with the 7th Regt of Foot, Heyler’s Co. in the Carolinas. I am researching to assemble a proper RA guncrew in the south. Could you possibly send the dimensions of the cartridge box that you reconstructed so I may do the same. Thank you sir for your research.

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