The Powder Magazine stood ready to arm soldiers against the oppressors of the age. Historic interpreter Chris Geist details the building’s purpose.
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Chris Geist: Make ready, present, fire! (Musket firing sound.)
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
Today we're on location at Colonial Williamsburg's Magazine, a building where the colony stored its weapons. On a street of distinctively square colonial houses, the Magazine stands out as an octagonal brick structure. Here with me is Chris Geist, who spends a lot of time here – he's a historic interpreter with the military program staff. Just to get the audience in on it, describe the room. Circular, kind of …
Chris: Well it's kind of circular. There are eight sides to the building. We don't really know why that is, nobody wrote it down. Governor Spotswood had it put up in 1715 as a strong brick storehouse to contain not only weapons, but the gunpowder and everything else a soldier would need, except for food and medicine. Those things could spoil in this climate.
Lloyd: You told me earlier, so I know this: all the weapons on that wall behind the glass partition are authentic. The drums are authentic as well. So everything on that wall is real, and everything on this wall is a reproduction.
Chris: Exactly. The things that we use to demonstrate military life to give you some idea of what things were stored here.
Lloyd: What things are stored here?
Chris: Oh we've got everything. We've got drums, and fifes, and swords, and tents, and uniforms, and flags, and buckets, and eating utensils, and canteens. Everything a soldier will need to go into the campaign.
Lloyd: How many – maybe you know, maybe you don't know – we're now back in the 18th century, this is an active magazine, it's working. How many people could you outfit out of here?
Chris: The answer is, as many as you need. The first time the thing is used is in 1719, and we just had a few dozen soldiers outfitted to go after Blackbeard, the pirate. During the French and Indian War, we know of one day when at least 3,500 muskets were on this floor. It's a fairly boring building when there's not a war going on, because it's just a warehouse. In a time of war, it's a bustling place with things coming and going all the time.
Lloyd: This room, to me, does not look big enough to store 3,500 muskets.
Chris: Oh I assure you, it is. Above stairs, we have another room just this size. Down below stairs, behind the building, there's a room just for the gunpowder. The most we know of at any one time was 34 tons. And no, it did not go off. I was asked that earlier in the summer by a visitor, and …
Lloyd: (Laughs.) Well, the building is still standing.
Chris: Well, most of Williamsburg would have been lost if it had gone off.
Lloyd: That’s a lot of gunpowder.
Chris: But think about this as not a place where people moved around. It's simply storage from floor to ceiling.
Lloyd: So you came in, you got what you needed, you left.
Chris: No, you stayed outside. The keeper of the magazine, in a very orderly fashion, taking down the serial numbers of the weapons and such, would issue them to the soldiers who were brought here, only in time of war. We do have militia who serve, using their own guns. They have their own powder, their own shot. But in times of war, we needed a more professional force, armed with the same English muskets.
Lloyd: So, during the Revolutionary War, the foot soldier, the ordinary foot soldier, both sides were armed with the same gun.
Chris: Pretty much. Just a basic English musket. We were, after all, English at the beginning of the war. It's sort of a civil war in that sense. We are trained by British officers. Our officers, if they read military tacticians, they read English tacticians, so we're pretty much the same. We do have militiamen, we have frontiersmen, we have riflemen. The bulk of the fighting was carried out by regular forces.
Lloyd: You have written an article for Colonial Williamsburg, and I've read it, it hasn't been published yet. It basically argues that we have a false concept of the Revolutionary War. We think the British wore red jackets and marched in a line – as Bill Cosby used to say – and we got to shoot from behind walls and trees.
Chris: There were a couple battles like that, to be sure. But the bulk of the fighting, particularly in the North and even some of the Southern campaigns were European in style: both sides fighting in lines. By the way, some American troops wore red. It's not often known.
Lloyd: That was a dangerous undertaking.
Chris: The only way these weapons are effective is by massing fire. Also, the only way that you can do that is to have kind of an open ground situation where the officers can take control, can command the troops and get them in order shoulder-to-shoulder, three ranks firing volleys every 15 seconds at the enemy with bayonets fixed, ready to go the last yards to drive the enemy from the field.
Lloyd: So you can load and fire in 15 seconds?
Chris: That's the goal.
Lloyd: What could most people really do?
Chris: At that time period, if you were a professional soldier – again, these are not militiamen, they're not going to go home every evening – they're going to stay in the field with the commanders, and they drill, and they drill, and they drill. That's one of the things that happens at Valley Forge. Over that winter, in addition to all the suffering, the troops were drilled by General von Steuben, Baron von Steuben, and they learned to fire with this discipline, and this speed.
Now if you're talking about a militia company, in which everyone brings their own private weapon, many of them carrying fowling pieces – we would call them shotguns today – some carrying rifles, others carrying rifles of a completely different caliber. Those men could not load and fire volleys with any rapidity whatsoever. All of those weapons take different timeframes to load, different motions. So, in time of war, you do need that regular force. You need that force that is all armed with the same type of weapon.
Lloyd: Here's a question you've been asked by probably 700 guests and are tired of – how does a musket work?
Chris: A musket works very simply. Unlike a rifle, there is no powder horn. We have pre-measured cartridges, which are simply tubes of paper, rolled and then dipped in wax on the bottom. The ball for the musket is put into there, and then the powder for the charge is on top of that. So, if you go to load the musket, you simply bring it to half-cocked position, retrieve one of those cartridges from your cartridge box on your right hip, bite the top of it off, pour a bit of powder into the pan to form the prime. You shut the pan, flip the musket around with your left hand, and throw the cartridge, paper and all, down the barrel. Now the ball is on the top, the ball is smaller than the barrel. It doesn't make sense that we're not hunting, we're just doing for speed, you know. So, then you push it down with the rammer, and all you need to do is go to full-cock and you’re ready to fire.
Lloyd: Now you put some prime in the pan. Is that where "flash in the pan" comes from?
Chris: No, flash in the pan is when you fire the musket, and for some reason –probably the vent to the inside of the barrel is plugged – you get a nice flash of the primer, but the musket does not go off. So it's a misfire.
Lloyd: It’s a misfire. OK, that begins to make a certain amount of sense now. A flash in the pan is, in fact, a misfire. Doesn't go very far.
Chris: So then you would clean out the vent, re-prime it, and hope the next time it goes off. In the heat of battle, it was frequently found that men would not notice when their musket had misfired. You can imagine the nervousness you might feel when another opposing army is firing volleys back at you. They would sometimes reload, and reload, and reload. When it finally goes off, with four or five charges in it, it will explode the barrel, potentially not only hurting you, but remember, you're standing shoulder-to-shoulder, so you're going to take out a lot of your own troops with that one musket blowing up.
Lloyd: I remember there was a study after the Korean War, and some phenomenal percentage of frontline troops never fired.
Chris: Exactly. I think it's common in many wars. I know that to be the case in some battles in the Civil War …
Lloyd: (Interrupts.) You're trying to stay out of the way of the incoming volleys.
Chris: At the Battle of Camden, in South Carolina in August of 1780, the militia – most of them – ran from the field on the bayonet charge of the British, and left their muskets loaded on the ground, never firing.
Lloyd: I don't know, I'll ask it and see if you know. The British Army was said to be among the best standing armies in the world. Did they fight that well in America?
Chris: Absolutely. If you go battle-by-battle, they won most of the battles. We just happened to have the good fortune to win at the right time. And, they made some blunders along the way, of course. One of them was Cornwallis perhaps being caught here at Yorktown. At the time of his surrender, the British still had substantial forces in the South, and up in New York, and could easily have carried on the war. I think it was a lot of public opinion against the war and parliamentary lack of resolve that caused them to give up.
Lloyd: I have read somewhere the British Foreign Office record of the Revolutionary War, and it seems that somebody who meant something – someone in authority – complained about the war in the colonies almost every day.
Chris: Oh absolutely, absolutely. There's a long-standing debate in the parliament, and in the public press. It reminded me in looking into it somewhat of our own turmoil at the time of Vietnam.
Lloyd: I read somewhere too – which I had never thought of, but it makes sense – if you go back in the history of the war, when Cornwallis sent a note or a letter, or a whatever to Washington saying he'd like to have a cease-fire and sue for peace, it was the first time anybody had surrendered to George Washington.
Chris: I believe that to be the case. In fact he was, particularly in the French and Indian War, the one who did the surrendering.
Lloyd: I think that's wonderful. Somebody observed that he was an absolute genius at explaining why he lost.
Chris: Exactly, exactly.
Lloyd: On the other hand, he did some things that were quite brilliant – the Christmas Eve attack in New Jersey across the Delaware River.
Chris: Quite a surprise.
Lloyd: That was just probably one of the better guerilla tactics you have ever read about, and it worked.
Chris: It worked in part because it was so surprising. At that time in the 18th century, armies sort of stopped fighting, maneuvering, moving during the winter, for good reason. It was very difficult to move the heavy equipment and arms, let alone men, over frozen or muddy or snowy roads. So they just went into winter camps.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Read Chris Geist's story on 18th-century military tactics in the Winter 2008 Colonial Williamsburg journal. Until then, check history.org often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.