Deadly Iron: Revolutionary War Grapeshot in the Museum’s Becoming Americans Exhibit

A visit to the Museum’s Becoming Americans exhibit, which details the impact of the Revolutionary War on the Charleston area, reveals two examples of a deadly projectile called grapeshot.  Grapeshot consists of a cluster of iron balls held together by a netting that is fired from a cannon.  Called grapeshot because it resembles a bunch of grapes when held together in its netting, it was very much an anti-personnel weapon.  When fired from the cannon, the individual pieces of grapeshot scattered like buckshot from a shotgun.  The two Museum examples appear to be unassuming pieces of iron, but would have been lethal when fired into massed formations on a battlefield or at troops attempting to find cover in a siege trench.

One of the pieces of grapeshot, measuring 33 mm, came from an archaeological dig led by Museum archaeologists that took place at the Aiken-Rhett House in 2002.  Research indicates that this piece of grapeshot was probably fired by American forces at the besieging British during the Siege of Charleston in 1780.  On April 16, 1780, General Benjamin Lincoln ordered that American cannon could begin using this projectile against the enemy since they were within 400 yards.  The British employed conventional eighteenth century siege tactics against the city, which entailed the successive construction of siege parallels, trenches with fortifications along their lengths.  Their first parallel was begun near the intersection of King and Spring Streets on April 1.  Just three weeks later, they reached a third parallel, which ran just north of the current location of the Museum and through the rear yard of the Aiken-Rhett House.  A subsequent archaeological dig at the Aiken-Rhett House by the Museum and College of Charleston in 2017 found a section of the British parallel, just across the yard from where the grapeshot was found in 2002.  Given its location, it seems clear that this was a piece of grapeshot fired by American batteries at British troops in the third parallel.

The second piece of grapeshot, measuring roughly 35 mm, is more intriguing.  Museum collection records indicate that “Dr. James Lynah removed this piece from Count Casimir Pulaski upon being wounded at the Siege of Savannah in October 1779.”  Pulaski, a native of Poland, was a skilled horseman who offered his services to the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War.  Put in command of a legion, a mixed unit of cavalry and infantry, he eventually led them south.  When a British force under General Augustine Prevost threatened Charleston in May 1779, Pulaski ordered his cavalry to make a charge against Prevost’s troops.  The British successfully defended themselves against this attempt, and a number of Pulaski’s men were killed or wounded.  Pulaski later participated in the French and American siege of British-held Savannah.  On October 9, 1779,  he was involved in an attack on the entrenched enemy troops and was mortally wounded by grapeshot.  Is the Museum’s grapeshot the one that inflicted this mortal wound?  The Georgia Historical Society also has on display a grapeshot that is purported to be the one that inflicted the wound.  Their piece is on loan from descendants of Dr. James Lynah, which tends to strengthen their argument.  That Dr. Lynah, a Charleston surgeon, attended to Pulaski does not seem to be in doubt.  The question remains whether he would have kept a shot that he had removed.  Given that he probably extracted dozens of musket balls and grapeshot from wounded soldiers, there is little reason to suggest that he would have retained any of them or that one removed from Pulaski would have had any special relevance.  It is entirely possible, then, that neither of these was the shot that brought about the demise of Count Pulaski.  Such uncertainty is the case, however, for many Museum pieces that come to us with family traditions attached to them.

–⁠Carl Borick, Director


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