With all the excitement over our new exhibition Founding Fashions, which opened in May, it can be easy to forget about the other phenomenal exhibits at the Fort and all the rich stories they contain. Although easily overlooked amongst the much more elaborate weapons on display in the Bullets & Blades exhibit in the South Barracks are two simply forged spear points. In fact, these artifacts represent an important part of the American struggle for independence and relate quite specifically to this year’s interpretation of 1776. In addition to muskets and cannon American soldiers at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence were occasionally armed with long spears or pikes. Amongst the oldest weapons known to man they found a new life in North America during the Revolutionary War as they had in many previous, and subsequent, revolutions.
As a battlefield weapon the pike had been obsolete almost since the beginning of the 18th century. By the 17th century pikes consisted of a wooden shaft 10 to 20 feet in length, sometimes longer, with a pointed iron head. Long pole arms were important weapons for keeping horsemen and other enemies at a safe distance. Even after firearms were introduced to the battlefield pikemen in compact formations were necessary to protect the musketeers, who were defenseless after firing their muskets.
Also on display in the Bullets & Blades exhibit is one of the first solutions to this problem the plug bayonet. Developed towards the end of the 17th century the plug bayonet was a long blade inserted directly into the musket’s barrel. This provided an effective defensive weapon, however, by plugging the barrel it rendered the musket useless as a firearm. The development of effective flintlock firearms and the socket bayonet, that turned the musketeer’s own weapon into a pole arm while retaining its function as a firearm, signaled the end of the pikeman in Europe. Pikes continued to be used on ships were a long weapon that did not require reloading was valuable when boarding an enemy vessel, or preventing against being boarded.
Although obsolete, by the 18th century pikes and spears were among the most common weapons associated with incidents of armed resistance. Throughout the century pikes were secretly made for slave revolts, wielded in peasant uprisings, carried by Scots rebels, and ultimately manufactured by French revolutionaries. Perhaps the simplest weapon to produce they were ideally suited for rebels and revolutionaries that had numbers and courage, but lacked manufacturing capacity.
So what were pikes doing at Ticonderoga? As in many uprisings, procuring enough firearms for the Continental army was a significant challenge throughout the American Revolution. Unarmed recruits, however eager, were not much good. Bounties for private weapons, small scale manufacturing, civilian arms pressed into service, the importation of European weapons, and captured arms all helped to meet the demand for firearms. As the Continental army fell back to Ticonderoga in the summer of 1776, pikes reappeared in the hands of American soldiers.
Like other revolutionaries, pikes and spears were an early tool of the Americans. Even before hostilities commenced in 1775, spears were proposed to compensate for a shortage of firearms amongst militia in Virginia. Just four months after Lexington and Concord General George Washington issued instructions to the army outside Boston detailing the production of “spears” and over 300 were in use by February of 1776. After driving the British out of Boston the army again prepared pikes to meet the deficiencies of firearms while preparing the defenses of New York.
The army at Ticonderoga faced similar problems with regards to manpower and weaponry. Pikes or spears were not just economical they were an important last line of defense in case of assault. If an enemy penetrated far enough to reach the American entrenchments, men armed with long spears had an advantage over a fixed bayonet. Although published in 1808, an engraved plate from an Italian military manual in the Museum’s collection vividly depicts how soldiers armed with pikes, and protected by strong fortifications, could repel an attacker lucky enough to make it to the parapet.
In October of 1776, the British landed and encamped at Crown Point compelling General Gates to prepare every means of defense available for what appeared like an imminent attack. Surgeon’s mate James Thacher in the 6th Continental Regiment recalled the tension in the American camp:
“All our troops are ordered to repair to their alarm posts, and man the lines and works; every morning, our continental colors are advantageously displayed on the ramparts, and out cannon and spears are in readiness for action.”
Orders went out on October 19th and were repeated throughout the army that, “All the Spears that can be spar’d from the Vessells to be deliver’d to the Defence of the Frensh [sic] Lines and Redoubts.” Some spears had evidently been supplied to General Benedict Arnold’s fleet, natural for a naval force, but now they were needed on land. Simultaneously Colonel Jeduthan Baldwin recommended long spears be made up to bolster the defenses of the Jersey Redoubt on the flat plain near the lake.
For some soldiers pikes or spears would have been familiar weapons. New Hampshire troops in 1775 had carried small pikes in their camps outside Boston and many of those men were now stationed on Mount Independence. Similarly the 4th Pennsylvania Battalion had five companies that served in New York until July. There those five companies had received orders with the rest of Washington’s army to prepare spears in their fortifications. Once the battalion re-formed at Ticonderoga, they received similar orders again as the British approached.
Although the British never attacked in 1776, these simple weapons continued to form part of the armament of the soldiers that guarded Ticonderoga. In April of 1777, General Anthony Wayne ordered “one fourth part” of the Ticonderoga garrison to be armed with 13 foot long spears. These were to be the, “Stoutest and best men” in their respective regiments capable of the physical strength and discipline to use these archaic weapons effectively. Pikes remained part of the defenses of Ticonderoga until the end. After the Americans evacuated the fort in July of 1777, Adjutant August Wilhelm Du Roi, of the Brunswick regiment Prinz Friedrich, noted that the former garrison had been well supplied with ammunition, artillery and food, but that they, “lacked bayonets to defend the lines in case of attack. This want they thought to correct by using long pikes instead.” The reality of this statement was borne out in the court martial of General Arthur St. Clair where returns for most of the American army show that bayonets were lacking for many American soldiers even if they had muskets.
Evidence of the use of spears at Ticonderoga also survives outside of the documentary record. On display in the Bullets & Blades exhibition in the South Barracks are two spear points recovered during the restoration of the fort in the early 20th century. These are two of nearly a half a dozen such points found on the site, most likely some of those made or employed in 1776 or 1777. There is another artifact in the collection that appears to be a bayonet with the shank purposely straightened, possibly to be attached to a shaft and pressed into service as a spear. Bayonets mounted on poles are known to have been employed during the American Revolution on occasion. The pike heads recovered at Ticonderoga are simple diamond shaped blades with short sockets where the pole was attached. This suggests an economy of materials, as well as the predicted combat usage. Pikes carried by 17th century pikemen were generally fitted out with steel heads attached to their poles by three feet long iron straps. Defending against cavalrymen armed with swords these iron straps prevented the horsemen from cutting off the pointed heads of the pikes. At Ticonderoga the spears were designed to outreach an enemy armed only with fixed bayonets, where the danger of the pike heads being severed was limited.
The spears Wayne had made in 1777, were ordered to have iron tips but in times of need even simple sharpened wooden poles were pressed into service. Colonel Jeduthan Baldwin wrote to General Horatio Gates on October 19, 1776 about a variety of issues, but added: “I would also recommend the getting eighteen dozen poles twelve feet long, to be sharpened and placed in the Jersey redoubt for the present as spears.” So great was the need for defensive weapons that they did not wait for iron heads to be attached. During General Arthur St. Clair’s court martial he testified that when the fort was evacuated in 1777, the lines were again, “furnished with some spears and sharp pointed poles.”
So it was that an ancient weapon found new life in the American War of Independence, a weapon shared by Revolutionaries across the Atlantic world.