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Chapter 38:

Prescott Occupies Breed's Hill.

June 16—17, 1775.

the army round Boston, of which Washington in
Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775. June.
person was soon to take command, was ‘a mixed multitude,’ as yet, ‘under very little discipline, order, or government.’ The province of Massachusetts had no executive head, and no unity even in the military department. Ward was enjoined to obey the decisions of the committee of safety, whose directions were intercepted on their way to him by the council of war. Thus want of confidence multiplied the boards to which measures were referred, till affairs wore an aspect of chaos. The real strength of the forces was far inferior to the returns. There were the materials for a good army in the private men, of whom great numbers were able bodied, active, and unquestionably brave, and there were also officers worthy of leading such men. But by a vicious system of recruiting, commissions were given to those who raised companies or regiments; and many had crowded themselves into place from love of rank or [405] pay, without experience, spirit, or military capacity.
Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775. June.
This also led to the engagement of unsuitable men; and in some cases to false muster-rolls. In nearly June. every company, many were absent with or without leave. No efficient discipline or proper subordination was established. For tents, canvas and sails, collected from the seaport towns, had furnished a small but insufficient supply, and troops were quartered in the colleges and private houses. There was a great want of money and of clothing; of engineers, but above all, of ammunition. The scanty store of powder was reserved almost exclusively for the small arms, and used with great frugality. ‘Confusion and disorder reigned in every department, which in a little time must have ended either in the separation of the army, or fatal contests with one another.’

Of the soldiers from the other colonies, the New Hampshire regiments only had as yet been placed under the command of Ward. The arrival of Greene quieted a rising spirit of discontent, which had threatened to break up the detachment from Rhode Island; but some of their captains and many subalterns continued to neglect their duty, from fear of offending the soldiers, from indolence, or from obstinacy. Of the men of Connecticut, a part were with Spencer at Roxbury; several hundred at Cambridge with Putnam, the second brigadier; who was distinguished for bold advice, alertness, and popular favor; and was seen constantly on horseback or on foot, working with his men or encouraging them.

The age and infirmities of Ward combined to increase the caution which the state of the camp made imperative. He was unwilling to hazard defeat, and [406] inclined to await the solution of events from the nego-

Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775. June.
tiations of the continental congress. It was sometimes even suggested that the Americans could never hold Cambridge, and that they had better go back and fortify on the heights of Brookline. ‘We must hold Cambridge,’ was Putnam's constant reply, and herepeatedly but vainly asked leave to advance the lines to Prospect Hill. Yet the army never doubted its ability to avenge the public wrongs; and danger and war were becoming attractive.

The British forces gave signs of shame at their confinement and inactivity. ‘Bloody work’ was expected, and it was rumored that they were determined, as far as they could, to lay the country waste with fire and sword. The secretary of state frequently assured the French minister at London, that they would now take the field, and that the Americans would soon tire of the strife. The king of England, who had counted the days necessary for the voyage of the transports, was ‘trusting soon to hear that Gage had dispersed the rebels, destroyed their works, opened a communication with the country,’ and imprisoned the leading patriots of the colony.

The peninsula of Boston, at that time connected with the main land by a very low and narrow isthmus, had at its south a promontory then known as Dorchester Neck, with three hills, commanding the town. At the north lay the peninsula of Charlestown, in length not much exceeding a mile; in width, a little more than a half mile, but gradually diminishing towards the causeway, which kept asunder the Mystic and the Charles, where each of those rivers [407] meets an arm of the sea. Near its northeastern ter-

Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775. June.
mination rose the round smooth acclivity of Bunker Hill, one hundred and ten feet high, commanding both peninsulas. The high land then fell away by a gradual slope for about seven hundred yards, and just north by east of the town of Charlestown, it reappeared with an elevation of about seventy-five feet, which bore the name of Breed's Hill. Whoever should hold the heights of Dorchester and Charlestown, would be masters of Boston.

About the middle of May, a joint committee from that of safety and the council of war, after a careful examination, recommended that several eminences within the limits of the town of Charlestown should be occupied, and that a strong redoubt should be raised on Bunker Hill. A breastwork was thrown up across the road near Prospect Hill; and Bunker Hill was to have been fortified as soon as adequate supplies of artillery and powder should be obtained; but delay would have rendered even the attempt impossible. Gage, with the three major-generals, was determined to extend his lines north and south, over Dorchester and Charlestown; and as he proposed to begin with Dorchester, Howe was to land troops on the point; Clinton in the centre; while Burgoyne was to cannonade from Boston Neck. The operations, it was believed, would be very easy; and their execution was fixed for the eighteenth of June.

This design became known in the American camp, and such was the restless courage of the better part of the officers, such the confidence of the soldiers, that it seemed to justify a desire to anticipate the movement. Accordingly, on the fifteenth of June, the Massachusetts committee of safety informed the council of war, [408] that in their opinion, Dorchester heights should be

Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775. June.
fortified; and they recommended unanimously to establish a post on Bunker Hill. Ward, who was bound to comply with the instructions of his superiors, proceeded to execute the advice.

The decision was so sudden, that no fit preparation could be made. The nearly total want of ammunition rendered the service desperately daring; in searching for an officer suited to such an enterprise, the choice fell on William Prescott, of Pepperell, colonel of a regiment from the northwest of Middlesex, who himself was solicitous to assume the perilous duty; and on the very next evening after the vote of

June 16.
the committee of safety, a night and day only in advance of the purpose of Gage, a brigade of one thousand men was placed under his command.

Soon after sunset, the party composed of three hundred of his own regiment, detachments from those of Frye and of Bridge, and two hundred men of Connecticut, under the gallant Thomas Knowlton, of Ashford, were ordered to parade on Cambridge common. They were a body of husbandmen, not in uniform, bearing for the most part no other arms than fowling pieces which had no bayonets, and carrying in horns and pouches their stinted supply of powder and bullets. Langdon, the president of Harvard college, who was one of the chaplains to the army, prayed with them fervently; then, as the late darkness of the midsummer evening closed in, they marched for Charlestown in the face of the proclamation, issued only four days before, by which all persons taken in arms against their sovereign, were threatened under martial law with death by the cord as rebels and traitors. Prescott [409] and his party were the first to give the menace

Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775. June 16.
a defiance. For himself, he was resolved ‘never to be taken alive.’

When with hushed voices and silent tread, they 16 and the wagons laden with intrenching tools had passed the narrow isthmus, Prescott called around him Richard Gridley, an experienced engineer, and the field officers, to select the exact spot for their earth works. The committee of safety had proposed Bunker Hill; but Prescott had ‘received orders to march to Breed's Hill.’ Heedless of personal danger, he obeyed the orders as he understood them; and with the ready assent of his self-devoted companions, who were, bent on straitening the English to the utmost, it was upon the eminence nearest Boston, and best suited to annoy the town and the shipping in the harbor, that under the light of the stars the engineer drew the lines of a redoubt of nearly eight rods square. The bells of Boston had struck twelve

June 17.
before the first sod was thrown up. Then every man of the thousand seized in his turn the pickaxe and spade, and they plied their tools with such expedition, that the parapet soon assumed form, and height, and capacity for defence. ‘We shall keep our ground,’ thus Prescott related that he silently revolved his position, ‘if some screen, however slight, can be completed before discovery.’ The Lively lay in the ferry, between Boston and Charlestown, and a little to the eastward were moored the Falcon, and the Somerset, a ship of the line; the veteran not only set a watch to patrol the shore, but bending his ear to catch every sound, twice repaired to the margin of the water, where he heard the drowsy [410] sentinels from the decks of the men of war still cry:
Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775. June 17.
‘All is well.’ Putnam also during the night came among the men of Connecticut on the hill; but he assumed no command over the detachment.

The few hours that remained of darkness hurried away, but not till the line of circumvallation was already closed. As day dawned, the seamen were roused to action, and every one in Boston was startled from slumber by the cannon of the Lively playing upon the redoubt. Citizens of the town, and British officers, and tory refugees, the kindred of the insurgents, crowded to gaze with wonder and surprise at the small fortress of earth freshly thrown up, and ‘the rebels,’ who were still plainly seen at their toil. A battery of heavy guns was forthwith mounted on Copp's Hill, which was directly opposite, at a distance of but twelve hundred yards, and an incessant shower of shot and bombs was rained upon the works; but Prescott, whom Gridley had forsaken, calmly considered how he could best continue his line of defence.

At the foot of the hill on the north was a slough, beyond which an elevated tongue of land, having few trees, covered chiefly with grass, and intersected by fences, stretched away to the Mystic. Without the aid of an engineer, Prescott himself extended his line from the east side of the redoubt northerly for about twenty rods towards the bottom of the hill; but the men were prevented from completing it ‘by the intolerable fire of the enemy.’ Still the cannonade from the battery and shipping could not dislodge them, though it was a severe trial to raw soldiers, unaccustomed to the noise of artillery. Early in the [411] day, a private was killed and buried. To inspire

Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775. June 17.
confidence, Prescott mounted the parapet and walked leisurely backwards and forwards, examining the works and giving directions to the officers. One of his captains, perceiving his motive, imitated his example. From Boston, Gage with his telescope descried the commander of the party. ‘Will he fight?’ asked the general of Willard, Prescott's brotherin-law, late a mandamus councillor, who was at his side. ‘To the last drop of his blood,’ answered Willard. As the British generals saw that every hour gave fresh strength to the intrenchments of the Americans, by nine o'clock they deemed it necessary to alter the plan previously agreed upon, and to make the attack immediately on the side that could be soonest reached. had they landed troops at the isthmus as they might have done, the detachment on Breed's Hill would have had no chances of escape or relief.

The day was exceedingly hot, one of the hottest of the season. After their fatigues through the night, the American partisans might all have pleaded their unfitness for action; some left the post, and the field officers, Bridge and Brickett, being indisposed, could render their commander but little service. Yet Prescott was dismayed neither by fatigue, nor desertion. ‘Let us never consent to being relieved,’ said he to his own regiment, and to all who remained; ‘these are the works of our hands, to us be the honor of defending them.’ He consented to despatch repeated messengers for reinforcements and provisions; but at the hour of noon no assistance had appeared. His men had toiled all the night long, had broken their fast only with what they had brought [412] in their knapsacks the evening before, had, under a

Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775 June 17.
burning sky, without shade, amidst a storm of shot and shells, continued their labor all the morning, and were now preparing for a desperate encounter with a vastly superior force; yet no refreshments were sent them, and during the whole day they received not even a cup of cold water, nor so much as a single gill of powder. The agony of suspense was now the greater, because no more work could be done in the trenches; the tools were piled up in the rear, and the men were waiting, unemployed, till the fighting should begin.

The second messenger from Prescott, on his way to the Headquarters at Cambridge, was met by Putnam, who was hastening to Charlestown. The brigadier seems to have been justly impressed with the conviction, that the successful defence of the peninsula not only required reinforcements, but that intrenchments should be thrown up on the summit of Bunker Hill. He, therefore, rode up to the redoubt on Breed's Hill, where he did not appear again during the whole day, and asked of Prescott, ‘that the intrenching tools might be sent off.’ It was done, but of the large party who took them away, few returned; and the want of a sufficient force, and the rapid succession of events, left Putnam no leisure to fortify the crown of the higher hill.

Far different was the scene in Boston. To finished and abundant equipments of every kind, the British troops, though in number hardly more than five thousand effective men, added experience and exact discipline. Taking advantage of high water, the Glasgow sloop of war and two floating batteries had [413] been moored, where their guns raked the isthmus of

Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775. June 17.
Charlestown. Between the hours of twelve and one, by order of General Gage, boats and barges, manned by oars, all plainly visible to Prescott and his men, bore over the unruffled sheet of water from Long Wharf to Moulton's Point in Charlestown, the fifth, the thirty-eighth, the forty-third, and the fifty-second regiments of infantry, with ten companies of grenadiers, ten of light infantry, and a proportion of field artillery, in all about two thousand men. They were commanded by Major General Howe, who was assisted by Brigadier General Pigot. It was noticed that Percy, pleading illness, let his regiment go without him. The British landed under cover of the shipping, on the outward side of the peninsula, near the Mystic, with a view to outflank the American party, surround them, and make prisoners of the whole detachment.

The way along the banks of the river to Prescott's rear lay open; he had remaining with him but about seven or eight hundred men, worn with toil and watching and hunger; he knew not how many were coming against him; his flank was unprotected; he saw no signs of reinforcements; the enemy had the opportunity to surround and crush his little band. ‘Never were men placed in a more dangerous position.’ But Howe, who was of a sluggish temperament, halted on the first rising ground, and sent back for more troops. The delay cost him dear.

When Prescott perceived the British begin to land on the point east by north from the fort, he made the best disposition of his scanty force, ordering the train of artillery with two field pieces, and the [414] Connecticut forces under Knowlton, ‘to go and op-

Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775. June 17.
pose them.’

At about two hundred yards in the rear of the still unfinished breastwork, a fence of posts with two rails, set in a low stone wall, extended for about three hundred yards or more towards the Mystic. The mowers had but the day before passed over the meadows, and the grass lay on the ground in cocks and windrows. There the men of Connecticut, in pursuance of Prescott's order, took their station. Nature had provided ‘something of a breastwork,’ or a ditch had been dug many years before. They grounded arms and made a slight fortification against musket balls by interweaving the newly mown grass between the rails, and by carrying forward a post and rail fence alongside of the first, and piling the fresh hay between the two. But the line of defence was still very far from complete. Nearer the water the bank was smooth and without obstruction, declining gently for sixty or eighty yards, where it fell off abruptly. Between the rail fence and the unfinished breastwork, the space was open and remained so; the slough at the foot of the hill guarded a part of the distance; nearly a hundred yards were left almost wholly unprotected.

Brooks, afterwards governor of Massachusetts, one of Prescott's messengers, had no mode of reaching Headquarters but on foot. Having performed the long walk, he found the general anxious and perplexed. Ward saw very clearly the imprudence of risking a battle for which the army was totally unprepared. To the committee of safety which was in session, the committee of supplies expressed its concern [415] at the ‘expenditure of powder;’ ‘any great

Chap. XXXVIII.} 1775. June 17.
consumption by cannon might be ruinous;’ and it is a fact that the Americans—with companies incomplete in number, enlisted chiefly within six weeks, commanded, many of them, by officers unfit, ignorant, and untried, gathered from four separate colonies, with no reciprocal subordination but from courtesy and opinion—after collecting all the ammunition that could be obtained north of the Delaware, had in the magazine for an army, engaged in a siege and preparing for a fight, no more than twenty-seven half barrels of powder, with a gift from Connecticut of thirty-six half barrels more.

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