Carpenters' Hall

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Answering the Call to Arms

By Carl G. Karsch

New Hall stands on the site of shops which were part of a War Department arsenal.

From a second floor window, Carpenters' court appears park-like, almost bucolic. Two centuries ago it was neither. British redcoats had hardly abandoned Philadelphia in June, 1777, before both the Hall and court became a major center for storing and repairing American army ordnance. Wagonloads of cannon — fresh from the foundry — were hauled up the muddy, unpaved court for storage in the Hall's basement. Ground behind the building was seven feet lower than today, matching the level of the basement floor. Weapons and ammunition could be brought in more easily than would now be possible.

In place of New Hall were two frame buildings housing a brass foundry and file cutters' shop. Alongside were piles of firewood to fuel the foundry's smoking furnace; also, mounds of hot slag left from smelting copper and zinc ores, the ingredients of brass. The Company unanimously vetoed (1781) "a smith's forge on the lot in front of the Hall," despite the desperate need to repair heavy weapons after the crushing American defeat at Charleston, South Carolina.

Courtesy: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Founder pours molten brass into molds. Files made in adjoining shop were used to smooth rough castings. Using a heavy mallet and sharp chisel, file-maker cut a pattern of parallel grooves in a steel blank. Each blow made an indentation and raised a small ridge of metal. File-makers were paid by the number of inches of file they cut.

Courtesy: Independence National Historical Park
Button mold marked "USA" (detail enlarged) was discovered in a large pit beneath New Hall. Other items: slag, musket flints, knives & forks, 17 links of iron chain, and four cannon balls, each weighing over five pounds.

The Hall was just as jam-packed. Upstairs, shelves of books belonging to the nation's largest collection, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and their scientific equipment filled both large rooms. Often fearful of the building's explosive potential, the Library Company remained for 17 years — Carpenters' Hall's first and longest tenant.

On the first floor was a bewildering succession of tenants:

  • Infirmary for American soldiers;
  • The American Philosophical Society;
  • The Constitutional Society, Charles Willson Peale, president;
  • Office of Joseph Fox, "master" of the sprawling army barracks north of Vine St., and the Company's president for 16 years.
  • Office of Colonels Flower and Hodgdon, the Commissary Generals of Military Affairs.
  • General Henry Knox, President Washington's first Secretary of War.

Somewhere, the Company managed to find space for their own meetings.

Courtesy: Independence National Historical Park
Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller who learned military tactics from volumes in his own shop, became Washington's chief artillery general. He made possible the battle of Trenton (December 1776) by getting troops, horses and heavy guns across the ice-choked Delaware river without loss. Knox was the highest ranking government official to occupy Carpenters' Hall.

Several days after British forces sailed from New York (November, 1783) Washington hosted a farewell dinner for his key officers at Fraunces Tavern. Knox was the first to embrace his commander-in-chief in what was described as a "scene of sorrow and weeping." Most realized they probably would not meet again.

In addition to being Washington's battlefield artillery commander, Knox had a second assignment, equally daunting. The army needed supplies of all sorts, of consistent high quality and transported over roads bordering on impassable. He chose a pair of youthful officers, Benjamin Flower and Samuel Hodgdon, as Commissary Generals of Military Stores. Two widespread fears complicated their efforts. Many Americans felt greater loyalty to their states than to the novel idea of a United States of America. Consequently, they mistrusted a large professional army, preferring militia units from their communities.

No sooner had the British army left Philadelphia (1778) than Flower and Hodgdon rented Carpenters' Hall and courtyard for their headquarters and regional arsenal. Together they created the nation's first efficient war machine. The job required extensive travel to establish new suppliers and maintain quality control. Flower's health broke. He died in 1781 and is buried at 5th & Arch Sts., near the graves of Deborah and Benjamin Franklin.

Courtesy: Chicago Historical Society
Several days after British forces sailed from New York (November, 1783) Washington hosted a farewell dinner for his key officers at Fraunces Tavern. Knox was the first to embrace his commander-in-chief in what was described as a "scene of sorrow and weeping." Most realized they probably would not meet again.

Henry Knox, now Washington's Secretary of War, oversaw Indian affairs from Carpenters' Hall. Knox's office on the first floor's west room was papered at his request (and expense); six clerks occupied the east room, painted a bright yellow. Despite cheerful surroundings, Knox faced a grim business, suppressing Indian tribes' opposition to thousands of settlers streaming across the mountains into the Ohio valley. During the half-dozen years following the Revolution, more than 1,500 immigrants had been killed; horses were stolen by the thousands. Worse, the British kept the frontier aflame with arms supplied by agents from forts along the Canadian border, forts England had pledged to abandon — but didn't.

Something had to be done. Knox ordered two military expeditions to destroy tribal crops and villages, driving survivors toward the Mississippi valley. A coalition of Indian chiefs agreed to pool their warriors to defend the homeland. The result: the first American force (1790) was defeated; the second (1791) ended in disaster.

Knox hastened as fast as his 300 pounds would permit to Washington's mansion at 5th & Market Sts. It was evening; the President was hosting a lavish dinner party. The two men went to an adjoining room where Knox delivered the bad news. Washington had a talent for keeping his cool and returned to the party. When the guests finally left, he went to a second floor parlor (the first "oval office") and exploded. "Beware of surprises," Washington had warned in instructions to General St. Clair. "Trust not the Indian; leave not your arms for a moment. When you halt for the night, be sure to fortify your camp."

Recipe for Disaster. Of 1,400 soldiers and militia, 630 were killed as were 35 commissioned officers and 56 women accompanying their husbands — three times the number who died with Custer at Little Big Horn. Only 40 Indian warriors died.

Courtesy: First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry
Soon after the First Continental Congress adjourned, prominent ship owners, importers and traders met at Carpenters' Hall to form and equip — at their own expense — the Light Horse of the City of Philadelphia. The Troop participated in several crucial battles, served as a bodyguard for Washington, acted as trusted couriers for secret messages and pay for the army. Today, the Troop is recognized as the nation's oldest mounted military unit.

Blame fell on everyone. Hogdon, striving to be cost-conscious, urged military contractors to do the same. They happily obliged, ridding themselves of equipment left from the Revolution a decade earlier. Muskets needed repair . . . uniforms and shoes were poor quality . . . there was but one grindstone to sharpen 100 axes required to hew a road through dense forest . . . gunpowder was so rotten that bullets glanced harmlessly off attackers. Congress had its customary investigation, then promptly dropped the matter.

New Era ... New Look. Despite defeats in the west, Philadelphia eagerly welcomed the new Federal government. The Carpenters' Company made changes to encourage tenants of the new administration. In 1790 Colonel Hodgdon cleared the Hall basement of military gear and demolished shops housing the brass foundry and file-making shop.

In their place stood New Hall, a fashionable brick structure erected in little more than a year. Gravel paved the courtyard. A decorative frontispiece now framed the entrance of Carpenters' Hall in preparation for a prosperous tenant, the First Bank of the United States. Secretary Knox and his staff had to move into New Hall's first floor for a year, until his new office was completed near 5th & Chestnut Sts. The Company gained a meeting place of its own on the second floor of New Hall.

Members Answer the Call. The Company's ties to the military are found throughout its nearly three-century history. In each of America's wars, members have either seen active duty or constructed buildings or facilities for military purposes. From a membership of 65 in 1776, half fought either in militia units or the Continental army. Others built gun carriages for cannon, erected fortifications, organized Philadelphia's defenses and removed the Liberty Bell for safety to Allentown.

Remarkable achievements ... a remarkable Company.

Carpenters' Hall, 320 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Open free to the public daily, except Mondays (and Tuesdays in Jan. and Feb.), from 10am-4pm

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Copyright 1999-2015 by the Independence Hall Association,
a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942.
Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.