Calling a Spade a Spade

by Mark Tully

Two of the more basic tools employed by the American Revolution-period armies were the shovel and the spade. Though at first glance they may appear to serve basically the same function, they are in fact two distinctly different tools.

Both spades and shovels of the period are shown in an old engraving entitled Military Architecture on display at the Fort Ticonderoga museum (Spade C, Shovels A & B)1. The captions below these tools state: "A Spade for cutting turf" and "A Shovel for digging the ground". These definitions indicate that the spade was probably used for making fire pits and trenching around tents, while the SHOVEL was primarily used to help in digging camp kitchens, graves, trenches, and for filling gabions to make field fortifications. Several varieties of shovels and spades have been excavated from 18th-century sites. Perhaps the most complete specimen is a spade in the Fort Ticonderoga museum. It has an iron blade and wooden handle that was still virtually intact. The top of the handle features a short, peg extension, evidence that it once had either a ball or a cross-piece (Spade A). Another example from the Fort Stanwix museum is virtually identical except that the blade is about twice as long (Spade B). Several other examples of spades taken from period paintings and engravings are also shown below.2 The Fort Stanwix museum also has several semi-intact shovels (fig. C) ­ though none are in very good condition.

It is much easier to find period-correct spades than shovels. For our purposes ­ digging fire pits or trenching around tents ­ a spade is the proper tool anyway, so this works out nicely. The primary differences between period tools and their modern counterparts are that the handles and sockets are typically in-line and straight on 18th-C tools. Modern shovels and spades usually have a curved socket and/or handle, though you can still find spades very similar to style "D" at flea markets, auctions, and rummage sales.


1. This engraving is reproduced in The American Heritage History of the American Revolution, American Heritage Books, 1971, p 161. 2. See Joseph Wright of Derby, A Selection of Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and Robin May and G. A. Embleton, The British Army in North America, 1775-1783, Osprey, 1974, p. 11.

Engineering Tools

"Return of the Stores Wanted for the Service of His Majesty's Works in the Engineering Department at Boston, 7th August, Enclosed to the Honourable Board of Ordinance, 19 August, 1775".

Chevaux de Frize, sets200
Cuirasses with head pieces, 50
Caltrops or Crows Feet2,000
Crows of Iron100
Hammers, Hand100
Carpenters Tools in Boxes, sets6
Grind Stones with Troughs,20
Mantlets of Cured Hides,200
Hambro Lines, Skains100
Hand Hatchets1,000
Barrows, Wheel500
Hand Bills1,000
Saws, Hand100
Cross Cut50
Sand Bags,Bushel10,000
1/2 Bushel10,000
Size from 5 to 8-1/2 inchesBarrels 20
Nails, 24ddo. 10
Augers of Sorts200

SOURCE: Colonial Office 5/5 pages 717-718 (from microfilm in the Wisconsin State Historical Society Library)