© 2008 Bryant White
John Chaloner was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1758. Only 17 when the American Revolution began, he quickly volunteered. John served for several years in Colonel Crane's 3d Continental Artillery Regiment. Crane's regiment participated in action in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Years of service and his rank as a senior non-commissioned officer testified to Chaloner's accumulated artillery experience and expertise. John turned 25 the year the war ended. Following his honorable discharge, he took a job as a schoolmaster at a school in Greenfield, Massachusetts. A schoolmaster's salary did not amount to much, and keeping a school was generally considered an occupation suitable for younger men like Chaloner. Few made a career of teaching; most moved on to other occupations.(1)
Like so many other towns in central and western Massachusetts, Greenfield was a community under stress. Heavy taxes and an unresponsive General Court drove some residents to take up arms against the state in the fall and winter of 1786-87. John Chaloner, however, was among those who chose to support the Massachusetts government and the new state constitution. In January, 1787, news came that another Continental Army veteran, Captain Daniel Shays, was advancing with an army of insurgents on the United States Arsenal in Springfield. John quickly volunteered to return to his hometown to defend the Arsenal and its stores of ammunition, guns and supplies. In February, 1787, he recalled that
when orders were issued by Gen. Shepard, to the militia to repair to Springfield, on the 18th ult. he cheerfully turned out as a volunteer, conceiving it his duty as a citizen, to defend, with his life, a constitution of government which he supposes calculated to secure freedom to all, and to the poor as well as rich, the full enjoyment of honest earnings.(2)
John Chaloner came to the Arsenal prepared "to defend, with his life"
the constitution of Massachusetts.
His wartime artillery experience made Chaloner a welcome member of the militia at the Arsenal. He was quickly assigned to one of two gun crews under the command of another artillery veteran, Captain William Stevens of Colrain. A second piece was positioned close by his own. Chaloner and his comrades stood ready, knowing that the rebels were advancing toward the Arsenal hill. They watched and waited as Captain Samuel Buffington, under orders from General William Shepard warned Captain Shays to stop his advance and disperse his men. Knowing that there were men among the insurgents with whom he was personally acquainted may have made Chaloner especially apprehensive. He knew from experience the terrible effects of cannonballs and, grapeshot. The rebels were poorly armed; many did not even have muskets. How could they hope to prevail against a well-armed force? Or did they perhaps believe that Chaloner and his fellow artillerymen would not actually fire on them? The order came to elevate the cannon and fire warning shots over the heads of the insurgents. When the advancing column ignored this last warning, Chaloner and those alongside him did not hesitate to follow General Shepard's orders to begin firing at "waistband height." The cannon and howitzer fired round after round; Chaloner swabbed out the barrel of his assigned gun after each discharge. After the fourth or fifth shot, Chaloner again stepped forward with his swab to clean and load. Had the noise disoriented him? Or had he become distracted? Or was he simply out of practice? Whatever the cause, Chaloner committed one of the most deadly mistakes a gunner could make. Mistaking the report of the nearby second gun for his own, he tried to swab the barrel of his cannon just as it went off. The blast blew Chaloner's arms off to the shoulder and he was instantly blinded, "his face and eyes mangled in a most distressing manner."(3)
The government militia fired a light artillery piece like this one at the Regulators.
A moment of inattention had a tragic outcome for John Chaloner.
Courtesy Saratoga National Park.
John Chaloner survived—barely. Only 30 years old, maimed and unable to support or care for himself, he dictated a petition to the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives for financial assistance, declaring that
Your Petitioner, had one of his arms been spared, would still most cheerfully use it in defence, of the government, if required; if not, he might possibly acquire a living with it, by keeping his school; but as his situation now is (without the ability to act) he can only wish for the peace and prosperity of the Commonwealth, and rely on such provison for support, as your Honours in your wisdom and mercy, shall see fit to make for him; for such provision he humbly petitions.(4)
John Chaloner lived for six more years. It is unknown who took care of him from 1786 until 1792, when he married. Perhaps he was able to rely on family members to feed, clothe and house him. In March of 1792, John married 28 year-old Experience Bliss, also of Springfield. John was then 34 years old. Experience had the care of him for little more than a year, for he died in June or July of 1793. Ironically, his tragic accident prevented John Chaloner from fully enjoying the "honest earnings" he fought so hard to achieve for himself and others.
Note: All narratives about people are, to the extent possible, based on primary and secondary historical sources.
See Further Reading for a list of sources used in creating this narrative. For a discussion of issues related to telling people's stories on the site, see: Bringing History to Life: The People of Shays' Rebellion