I was a Lieutenant in the Maryland 122nd Militia on April 6, 1776, when this incredible feat of our heroism occurred.
I was, it seemed, deafened by the thundering sounds of war that day: the clapping of musket fire upon my ears; heart-stopping blasts of cannons; earth quaking thuds of galloping horse hooves causing the ground beneath me to rumble as if the devil himself was pounding on the earth from the pits of hell in protest to all of the noise we were making. It was one of the only times in my life that I truly wished to be deaf to save my ears from the cries of dying men all around me.
We had been in battle for two weeks and no matter how many we killed, those damned Redcoats kept coming. They had chased us into territory we didn’t think they would follow. But they did. They had even followed us through swamps and meadows.
Finally cornering us in a small canyon, their infantry advanced, accompanied by a single cannon, while their artillery raced up the outer ridge on the south side of the canyon. For almost two days, they kept us pinned down with the two cannons on the ridge while the foot soldiers waited like a pack of wolves to finish us off. Of the forty men under my command, twenty-eight would find eternal rest in that God forsaken hole.
We were near the very back of the canyon, taking cover behind the largest rocks and boulders we could find. A heavy tree line right above us prevented the Redcoats’ cannons from pummeling our backsides, so they had to settle for a position that put them right above their own foot soldiers, which was about two hundred feet away from us. To get the best angle they needed, the cannons were perched on the very edge of the rocky canyon wall. Though, even at that distance, the cannon balls still reduced our boulders to mere rubble and I knew that my men would eventually have nowhere left to hide.
One hundred feet below the cannons, at the base of the canyon wall, were the twenty, or so, remaining British infantrymen and the two artillerymen with the third cannon.
Driven, I’m sure, by arrogance more than common sense, the two artillerymen had wheeled the cannon about a hundred feet out ahead of their infantry trying again and again to get the big gun into a position to fire upon us, but the rocky floor of the canyon continued to be a problem.
I decided that it was time to do something, and do it fast, before they had time to get that third cannon out of the canyon and up to the ridge with the other two. My mind raced as I looked around at the bare, rocky walls that surrounded us. Though they were primarily rock, they would be next to impossible to climb due to the fact that the rocks were loose and gravelly. Not to mention that a few of the cannon balls that struck the wall had caused a rockslide which buried four of my men as well as further ruining our chances for escape. I stared at the pile of rubble and huge rocks that was now the crude gravesite of the four soldiers, lost in the idea that had suddenly buried itself in my head, until the simultaneous blasts from the two cannons made me jump, shattering the image in my mind.
The two cannon balls hit the boulder just to my right. The impact caused the huge rock to shatter, sending the two men crouched behind it flying backward in a shower of dirt and dust.
Peering out from behind my boulder, I could see the third cannon about a hundred feet away, midway between the Redcoats and us. The two artillerymen were trying to pull the cannon back the way they had come with, no doubt, all intentions of getting it up on the ridge while their infantry fired on us. As I watched for the next few seconds, they had to turn the barrel away from us to get it in a position to be pushed, but the large rocks and boulders that littered the canyon floor continued to pose problems for them. Taking a quick glance at the foot soldiers, I saw that they were holding their positions while the cannons continued to do the dirty work.
It, then, finally dawned on me the one mistake their artillerymen on the ridge were making: firing both cannons at the same time. There was about a minute of silence between each dual blast, which would give me just enough time to advance, and fire until I reached that single cannon. All my men would have to do was fire at the Redcoats each time the two big guns were being reloaded. I knew I could gain at least a hundred feet in sixty seconds on this terrain. But there was no way I could get that cannon aimed by myself, therefore, my Sergeant, Jonathan Woodward, would accompany me.
After the next blasts of cannon fire, I quickly relayed my plan to the remaining soldiers and told them what they were expected to do.
Jonathan and I waited until after one more bombardment, and then we made our move.
As my men opened fire down the middle of the canyon, Jonathan and I stayed as close to the wall as we could, running along the same side as the two cannons so that they couldn’t get a shot on us even if they wanted.
Up ahead, the two soldiers were struggling with the cannon. Further up the canyon, I could see the infantrymen yelling at them and gesturing for them to turn around and shoot at us. Some were even taking aim at us. And, though, the combination of the barking of my men’s muskets and echoes the cannon fire was enough to wake the dead, it meant certain doom for these two men. They never heard their fellow soldiers’ warnings, nor did they hear us run up from the rear.
I ran up behind one of the artillerymen, ramming my musket’s bayonet into the base of his skull until five inches of it broke through the top followed by a bloody geyser. I quickly yanked it out and glanced over to see that Jonathan had done the same.
We both dove to the ground next to the cannon, which offered very little cover from any musket fire we might have received. Between the spokes of the cannon’s wheels, I saw five Redcoats fall to the ground from ball wounds. The others fired at us then ducked for cover.
I felt an agonizing pain race through my left thigh.
I had been shot.
I screamed and grabbed my leg.
The cannons exploded again.
Fighting the pain, I put my shoulder behind the butt of the cannon and pointed it at the canyon wall just below the two big guns up on the ridge. Jonathan struggled to turn the wheel, trying to make it easier to position.
Something hit the cannon just above my shoulder and I realized that the Redcoats were firing on us again. As I threw myself to the ground, Jonathan had taken the flint from his musket and tossed it to me just as four musket balls tore through his chest.
The flint had landed not two inches from my face. I picked it up and looked back over to the Redcoats. Three more had fallen. The others had taken cover, reloading, no doubt.
I only had a few seconds before the artillery fired on my men, again. So, with all of the strength I could muster, I pulled myself up to the fuse. Normally, one would use a long torch to light it, but I didn’t have one and would have to take the risk of a few broken ribs due to the recoil when the cannon fired.
Hugging the big gun, I struck the flint across its metal body near the fuse. Sparks flew, but no explosion. For a moment, I thought it to be empty, but knew that it wasn’t because I had watched them load it the day before.
I struck the flint again.
I struck it again!
I could hear the musket fire from my men behind me.
I could see the Redcoats taking aim in front of me.
A hot musket ball ripped through my left shoulder as I struck the flint once more.
Suddenly, there was a massive blow to my chest as my cannon let out a pounding and deafening cough. I was left without breath as I felt myself sailing through the air, and then hitting the ground with a sickening smack. I found myself looking up at the ridge where the two cannons had been perched.
My aim was good enough. The iron ball had slammed into the loose rock only a few feet beneath the two big guns and started an enormous rockslide. Both guns, along with their four artillerymen, and what must have been a thousand pounds of rock, came crashing down onto the remaining British infantrymen.
I was instantly showered in dirt and rubble and I could taste the grit in my mouth. Lying there in the settling dust, I looked over at the mountain of metal, blood, and rock that I had created and smiled a weak, but victorious, smile.