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Cannon Balls for General Washington

During the years 1777 and 1778 when George Washington was conducting operations against the British in New Jersey, including the battles of Princeton and Monmouth, the furnaces at Oxford and Andover were put to use casting cannon balls in their pig beds.  Transporting these to the Patriot army became a task fraught with danger as drovers and rivermen sought to elude British patrols and Loyalists alike.  A number of these cannon balls were discovered around 1870 near the cast house of Oxford Furnace and are now in the State Museum at Trenton.  

During one of the renovations of Shippen Manor in Oxford, a bundle of papers covering the years 1741 to about 1800 were discovered in an excellent state of preservation.  One such paper was the first hand account of John Castner’s delivery of cannon balls to General Washington in Morristown.

The typical route for delivery was for cannon balls to be loaded on flat boats at Foul Rift on the Delaware River in what is now White Township.  One such delivery was ambushed by riflemen on the Pennsylvania shore at Easton, killing two of the three boatmen and leading to the scuttling of the boat and its shipment by the attackers.  When word of the attack got back to Oxford from the surviving boatman John Ostrom, John Castner was assigned the task of delivering a cart load of cannon shot to General Washington in Morristown via an overland route.  According to his report, his horse and cart loaded 500 pounds of two or three pounders, plus a half-ton of six pound shot.

Because of the large number of Loyalists and “trimmers” (those whose loyalty shifted from side to side depending upon circumstances) in Hackettstown, Castner elected to take a route which led him over what is now Tunnel Hill (Route 31) to the Pahatcong [sic] Valley and on to the Musconetcong River.  This most likely took him to present day Mansfield Township along Route 57.  From there, he crossed the River and headed to Long Valley and thence to Chester, Mendham and finally Morristown.

In the course of his travels, Castner reported being accosted in the Pahatcong Valley by a man with a “fowling-piece” which misfired, and whom Castner subsequently killed with one of the small shot used as a bludgeon.  Along the Musconetcong near Hackettstown, Caster stopped at the farmhouse of a friend to rest and eat.  Then he proceeded under cover of darkness to follow a mountain road to Long Valley which took most of he night.  In the morning he was accosted by two drunks who had apparently slept in the woods, but after sharing a jug of “rank apple whiskey” with them, they were left even less capable of doing him harm, and he went on his way.

Nearing Chester, John Castner stopped near the home of another friend, Bill Whitman, who was in the logging business.  Whitman decided to join Castner as a guide to see him safely to Morristown via a new road Whitman had cleared.
Nearing Morristown, the pair were accosted by a mounted British patrol armed with pistols and swords.  Their attempt to outrun them with the cart led to a broken axle and their horse downed in the traces of the broken vehicle.  With Castner’s rifle and Whitman’s shotgun, they were able to take refuge behind the cart and hold off the patrol until a Patriot patrol which heard the gunfire managed to kill or capture members of the British foragers. The soldiers managed to fashion a skid for the broken wheel and escorted the shipment the short distance to Morristown.

In this skirmish, Caster reports that he was wounded in the shoulder and when reaching the Encampment, General Washington greeted the two travelers and had his own surgeon see to Castner’s wound.  After a recovery period in Morristown, he was given a captured British horse and saddle for his return to Oxford and was paid the value of his destroyed cart in gold. 

Caster ends his story, “And so I got back to Oxford without further adventures and have written this relation, so that those who come after me may understand the troubles and perils their ancestors suffered in order that they might enjoy ‘Life Liberty and Happiness,’ and that they should thank God who brought me safe and sound through all these dangers.”       - John Castner, June 25, 1777   

This story is adapted from an article by George S. Humphrey, published in the February 23, 1941 issue of Second Presbyterian Church’s "The Bulletin."  This weekly newsletter edited by the Reverend A. G. Yount, Ph.D., has become an important source of historical information for Warren County and the State of NJ.