The Palisades Interstate Park is a National Historic Landmark.
Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey

“A Cannon Ball or Two”

Close-up of the smaller cannonball at the Kearney House The two 'cannonballs' at the Kearney House

“A Cannon Ball or Two” was first published in the September-October 2008 issue of “Cliff Notes.”

Our thanks to John Muller at Fort Lee Historic Park for sharing his expertise in the subject of eighteenth-century artillery.

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They’ve been kicking around the Kearney House for years, as long as anyone can remember. The smaller of the two is about the size of a softball. Scaled in rust, it has three deliberate scores cut from pole to pole. If it was indeed what it appears to have been — an iron cannonball from the time of the American Revolution — the scores may have been sawn into it so that (with luck) it would break into three pieces upon first impact, trebling its potential to kill or maim. On a bathroom scale it registers 8.5 pounds.

How did it end up in the Kearney House? We unfortunately lack a convincing paper trail. On inventory lists from the 1930s and 40s, the item “Cannon balls, hardware, etc. from orig. bldg.” appears. Then, in January 1933, someone typed up a press release with the title “The Traditional Story of ‘Cornwallis’ Headquarters’” (we don’t know if any papers picked it up — we have only the carbon copy in our files). Near the end, the copy reads

… The old house has been preserved by the Commissioners of the park, and many a visitor stops by to gaze at the thick walls, the worn doorstep, the rough hewn beams, and to speculate about “what might have been.” Tales told today by shad fishermen of the days before the park owned the property indicate that one of their favorite pastimes as boys was to search beneath the floorboards of the old house for treasures — mementoes of the early days. They report the unearthing of many a button from soldiers’ uniforms, parts [of] ancient clay pipes, old coins, etc. … even a cannon ball or two dug out from the walls have been placed in a glass faced case…

It’s tantalizing — but hardly conclusive. The press release, seemingly written in anticipation of a plaque proclaiming the house to have been the “Cornwallis Headquarters” (a designation our longtime readers will know is now considered apocryphal), proudly told how the British general “sought shelter and refreshment in the little tavern” as his men crossed the river and began their “tedious upward climb” to the summit of the Palisades in November 1776. (We have no evidence that the house was a tavern — or not — before Rachel Kearney used it as such in the mid-nineteenth century.) “And so,” the piece continued, “the story of the famous visitor who partook of the gracious hospitality of the little house became a treasured tale…” Never mind that the first instance of a person named Kearney being associated with the house occurred almost fifty years after the Revolution: The article speculated that “it is entirely possible that ye host to Lord Cornwallis was a relative of the famous General Phil Kearny.” (Philip Kearny, for whom the town of Kearny, New Jersey, was named, was a Union General killed in the Battle of Chantilly in 1862; we have so far found no family link between him and our James Kearney.)

Given the amount of stretched truth and exuberant speculation in the piece (“…as late as the latter half of the 19th century, the Kearny [sic] family were serving their famous Applejack”), it’s tempting to dismiss the “cannonballs-in-the-wall” story as more of the same. But that might be hasty.

What follows is from the New Jersey Gazette, from July 1779:

Extract of a letter from New Barbados [present-day Hackensack], July 22, 1779. “On Sunday afternoon, the 10th inst. a party of refugees and tories [i.e., Loyalists], in number about 20, under the command of a Lieut. Waller, (as it is said) landed at Closter-Dock [present-day Alpine Boat Basin], and advanced to the neighborhood called Closter, from which they collected and drove off a considerable number of cattle and horses, in order to carry them aboard a sloop, which they had brought up [from British-occupied New York City] for that purpose. They were pursued by Capt. Harring and Thomas Blanch, esq. at the head of a few of their neighbours, hastily collected, who recovered all the cattle except two and a calf, and all the horses save one and an old mare, which they [he enemy] had got aboard previous to the arrival of Capt. Harring.

“Capt. Harring took two prisoners, seven stand of arms and three suits of clothes, and obliged the enemy to cut their cable, conceal themselves below deck, and let their vessel drive with the tide, notwithstanding above 20 vessels in the river endeavored to protect them by cannonading Capt. Harring [emphasis added].”

Eighteenth-century artillery was categorized by the weight of the projectile it fired. Both eight- and nine-pound cannon were common on vessels, particularly smaller vessels, such as those that would be used in an operation like that described. “Above 20 vessels” nevertheless strikes us as wartime exaggeration — as does the image of the hapless Loyalist raiders cowering under what must have been some pretty thin musket fire from the militiamen on shore. Still — it seems reasonable to believe that at least some iron took to the air that day. Are we saying that the cannonball in our possession really was dug from the wall of the house? That it really was “fired in anger”? Of course we can’t make such a claim with the scant evidence we have for the object’s provenance. But it surely is a neat artifact with which to start a discussion about what the Revolution must have been like for those who lived in this part of the Colonies.

And what about the other “cannonball” we possess? This one is more of a problem, mostly because we don’t think it was a cannonball. More or less unblemished, it’s just shy of the size of a typical bowling ball — but it weighs a back-straining 80 pounds. The largest cannon we know of used during the Revolution, at least in this neck of the woods, were the 32-pounders (though 64-pounders also existed at the time). Likewise, if this thing had smacked into the wall of the house, it seems doubtful it would have done anything less than make a hole — a great big one. Maybe it was a counterweight of some kind? That’s the best we’ve come up with. But for what? For now we’ve tucked it into the fireplace in the “tavern” room, where we invite our visitors to take on the riddle with us: What on earth is perfectly round, made of iron, and weighs exactly 80 pounds…?