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A Revolution in Arms: Weapons in the War for Independence

October 11, 2018 — March 24, 2019

The American republic was born in war. While statesmen asserted the independence of the United States in an eloquent declaration, tens of thousands of British soldiers and sailors converged on New York to subdue the rebellion by force. Revolutionaries armed with muskets and swords had to wage an eight-year war to free the new nation from British rule and ensure that the promise of independence would be fulfilled.

Supplying its troops with the weapons required to win the Revolutionary War was a critical, complex, and ever-present issue for the new American nation. When the war began in 1775, there were few factories in America capable of producing firearms, swords, and other weapons—let alone in the quantities necessary to sustain an army for several years. At the height of the war, fifty thousand men served in the Continental Army, with another thirty thousand state and militia troops fighting for the American cause. To arm these soldiers against the well-supplied British regulars, American officials gathered weapons from an array of sources on two continents.

Patriots had begun to amass caches of weapons as tensions grew in the months leading up to the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, seizing British arms from royal storehouses, provincial magazines, and supply ships. At the beginning of the Revolution, the army relied on soldiers to bring weapons from home, including hunting guns, militia arms, and outdated martial weapons from the French and Indian War. American soldiers also carried weapons captured from the enemy in the field and reissued to Continental and state troops. A growing number of American manufacturers produced weapons on government contracts, as the domestic arms industry expanded to try to meet the demand, but they could not sustain the American troops through a long conflict. Success on the battlefield ultimately depended on the hundreds of thousands of arms supplied by France and Spain.

A Revolution in Arms features nearly forty weapons of the Revolution—British, French, American, Spanish, Hessian, and Scottish armaments drawn largely from the Society's collections—as well as accoutrements and tools used to fire and maintain the weapons and documents that provide context for how these arms were acquired, transported, altered, and used. Highlights of the show include examples of the iconic British "Brown Bess" and French Charleville muskets that dominated the battlefields, a Pennsylvania long rifle like those used by Continental Army rifle companies, a Hessian dragoon pistol captured at the Battle of Bennington in 1777, and an elegant American officer's cuttoe featuring a silver-and-ivory hilt and dog-head pommel made in New York by John Bailey. The exhibition also features two important American-made muskets assembled at manufactories in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, on loan from the Fredericksburg Area Museum, and several arms from the collection of James L. Kochan, including an extremely rare French Model 1717 rampart musket that was transported to America between 1776 and 1780 and modified at the arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts, for use by Continental troops.

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