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Chapter 39:

Bunker Hill battle.

June 17, 1775.

Ward determined, if possible, to avoid a general
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action. Apprehending that, if reenforcements should leave his camp, the main attack of the British would be made upon Cambridge, he refused to impair his strength at Headquarters; but he ordered the New Hampshire regiments of Stark, stationed at Medford, and of Reed, near Charlestown neck, to march to Prescott's support.

When word was brought that the British were actually landing in Charlestown, the general regarded it as a feint, and still refused to change his plan. But here the character of New England shone out in its brightest lustre. The welcome intelligence that the British had actually sallied out of Boston, thrilled through men, who were ‘waiting impatiently to avenge the blood of their murdered countrymen.’ Owing to the want of activity in Ward, who did not leave his house during the whole day, all was confusion; but while the bells were ringing and the drums [417] beating to arms, officers who had longed for the op-

Chap. Xxxix} 1775. June. 17.
portunity of meeting the British in battle, soldierswho clung to the officers of their choice with constancy, set off for the scene of battle, hardly knowing themselves whether they were countenanced by the general, or the committee of safety, or the council of war; or moved by the same impetuous enthusiasm which had brought them forth on the nineteenth of April, and which held ‘an honorable death in the field for the liberties of all America preferable to an ignominious slavery.’

The veteran, Seth Pomeroy of Northampton, an old man of seventy, once second in rank in the Massachusetts army, but now postponed to younger men, heedless of the slight, was roused by the continuance of the cannonade, and rode to Charlestown neck; there, thoughtful for his horse, which was a borrowed one, he shouldered his fowling-piece, marched over on foot, and amidst loud cheers of welcome, took a place at the rail fence.

Joseph Warren also, after discharging his duty in the committee of safety, resolved to take part in the battle. He was entreated by Elbridge Gerry not thus to expose his life. ‘It is pleasant and becoming to die for one's country,’ was his answer. Three days before, he had been elected a provincial major-general. He knew perfectly well the defects of the American camp, the danger of the intrenched party, and how the character of his countrymen and the interests of mankind hung in suspense on the conduct of that day. About two o'clock he crossed Bunker Hill, unattended, and with a musket in his hand. He stood for a short time near a cannon at the rail [418] fence in conversation with Putnam, who declared a

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readiness to receive his orders; but Warren declined to assume authority, and passed on to the redoubt, which was expected to be the chief point of attack. As soon as he arrived there Prescott proposed that he should take the command; but he answered as he had done to Putnam: ‘I come as a volunteer, to learn from a soldier of experience;’ and in choosing his station he looked only for the place of greatest danger and importance.

Of the men of Essex who formed Little's regiment, full a hundred and twenty-five hastened to the aid of Prescott; Worcester and Middlesex furnished more than seventy from Brewer's regiment, and with them the prudent and fearless William Buckminster, of Barre, their lieutenant colonel. From the same counties came above fifty more, led by John Nixon, of Sudbury. Willard Moore, of Paxton, a man of superior endowments, brought on about forty of Worcester county; from the regiment of Whitcomb, of Lancaster, there appeared at least fifty privates, but with no higher officers than captains. Not more than six light field pieces were brought upon the ground; but from defective conduct and want of ammunition, even these were scarcely used. A few shot were thrown from two or three of them; as if to mark the contrast with the heavy and incesssant cannonade of the British.

At the rail fence there were, as yet, but the Connecticut men, whom Prescott had detached. The two field pieces had been deserted by the artillerymen. After the British had landed, and just before they advanced, a party of New Hampshire levies arrived, [419] led on by Colonel John Stark, who, next to Prescott,

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brought the largest number of men into the field.— When they came to the isthmus, which was raked by cannon, Dearborn, one of his captains who walked by his side, advised a quick step. ‘Dearborn,’ replied Stark, ‘one fresh man in action is worth ten fatigued ones;’ and he marched leisurely across Charlestown neck, through the galling fire of cannon shot, which buzzed about them like hail. Of quickest perception, resolute in decision, the rugged trapper was as calm as though he had been hunting in his native woods. At a glance upon the beach along Mystic river, ‘I saw there,’ he related, ‘the way so plain, that the enemy could not miss it.’ While some of his men continued the line of defence by still weaving grass between the rails, others, at his bidding, leaped down the bank, and with stones from adjacent walls, on the instant threw up a breastwork to the water's edge. Behind this, in the most exposed station that could have been selected, where a covered boat, musket proof, carrying a heavy piece of cannon, if it had been towed up the channel, could have taken them on the side and instantly dislodged them, he posted triple ranks of his men; the rest knelt or lay down. The time allowed him no opportunity of consulting with Prescott; they fought independently; Prescott to defend the redoubt, Knowlton and Stark, with Reed's regiment, to protect its flank. These are all who arrived before the beginning of the attack; and not more than a hundred and fifty others of various regiments, led by different officers or driven by their own zeal, reached the battle ground before the retreat. From first to last, Putnam took an active interest in [420] the expedition, and the appointment of Prescott to
Chap. Xxxix} 1775. June 17.
its command, was made with his concurrence. Without in the least interfering with that command, he was now planning additional works on Bunker Hill, now mingling with the Connecticut troops at the rail fence, now threatening officers or men who seemed to him dilatory or timid, now at Cambridge in person or by message, earnestly demanding reinforcements, ever busily engaged in aiding and encouraging, here and there, as the case required. After the first landing of the British, he sent orders by his son to the Connecticut forces at Cambridge, ‘that they must all meet and march immediately to Bunker Hill to oppose the enemy.’ Chester and his company ran for their arms and ammunition, and marched with such alacrity that they arrived at the battle ground before the day was decided.

While the camp at Cambridge was the scene of so much confusion, Howe caused refreshments to be distributed abundantly among his troops. The reenforcements which he had demanded, arrived, consisting of several more companies of light infantry and grenadiers, the forty-seventh regiment, and a battalion of marines. ‘The whole,’ wrote Gage, ‘made a body of something above two thousand men;’ ‘about two thousand men and two battalions to reinforce him,’ wrote Burgoyne; ‘near upon three thousand,’ thought very accurate observers, and a corps of five regiments, one battalion, and twenty flank companies, more than seventy companies must, after all allowances, be reckoned at two thousand five hundred men, or more. It comprised the chief strength of the army. [421]

Not till the news reached Cambridge of this

Chap. Xxxix} 1775. June 17.
second landing at Charlestown, was Ward relieved from the apprehension, that the main body of the British would interpose themselves between Charlestown and Cambridge. Persuaded of the security of the camp, and roused by the earnest and eloquent entreaties of Devens, of Charlestown, himself a member of the committee of safety, Ward consented to order reinforcements; among them his own regiment, but it was too late.

The whole number of Americans on the ground at that time, including all such as crossed the causeway seasonably to take part in the fight, according to the most solemn assurances of the officers who were in the action, to the testimony of eye witnesses, to contemporary inquirers, and to the carefully considered judgment of Washington, did not exceed one thousand five hundred men.

Nor should history forget to record that, as in the army at Cambridge, so also in this gallant band, the free negroes of the colony had their representatives. For the right of free negroes to bear arms in the public defence was, at that day, as little disputed in New England as their other rights. They took their place not in a separate corps, but in the ranks with the white man, and their names may be read on the pension rolls of the country, side by side with those of other soldiers of the revolution.

Two days after the massacre at Lexington, Gage had threatened, that if the Americans should occupy Charlestown heights, the town should be burned. Its inhabitants, however, had always been willing that the threat should be disregarded. The time for the [422] holocaust was now come. Pretending that his flank-

Chap. Xxxix} 1775. June 17.
ing parties were annoyed from houses in the village, Howe sent a boat over with a request to Clinton and Burgoyne to burn it. The order was immediately obeyed by a discharge of shells from Copp's Hill. The inflammable buildings caught in an instant, and a party of men landed and spread the fire; but from the sudden shifting of the wind, the movements of the assailants were not covered by the smoke of the conflagration.

At half past 2 o'clock, or a very little later, General Howe not confining his attack to the left wing alone, advanced to a simultaneous assault on the whole front from the redoubt to Mystic river. In Burgoyne's opinion, ‘his disposition was soldierlike and perfect.’ Of the two columns which were put in motion, the one was led by Pigot against the redoubt; the other by Howe himself against the flank, which seemed protected by nothing but a fence of rails and hay easy to be scrambled over, when the left of Prescott would be turned, and he would be forced to surrender on finding the enemy in his rear.

As they began to march, the dazzling lustre of a summer's sun was reflected from their burnished armor; the battery on Copp's Hill, from which Clinton and Burgoyne were watching every movement, kept up an incessant fire, which was seconded by the Falcon and the Lively, the Somerset and the two floating batteries; the town of Charlestown, consisting of five hundred edifices of wood, burst into a blaze; the steeple of its only church became a pyramid of fire; and the masts of the shipping, and the heights of the [423] British camp, the church towers, the housetops of a

Chap. Xxxix} 1775. June 17.
populous town, and the acclivities of the surrounding country were crowded with spectators, to watch the battle which was to take place, in full sight on a con-17. spicuous eminence, and which, as the English thought, was to assure the integrity of the British empire, as the Americans believed, was to influence the freedom and happiness of mankind.

As soon as Prescott perceived that the enemy were in motion, he commanded Robinson, his lieutenant colonel, the same who conducted himself so bravely in the fight at Concord, and Henry Woods, his major, famed in the villages of Middlesex for ability and patriotism, with separate detachments to flank the enemy; and they executed his orders with prudence and daring. He then went through the works to encourage and animate his inexperienced soldiers. ‘The redcoats will never reach the redoubt,’ such were his words, as he himself used to narrate them, ‘if you will but withhold your fire till I give the order, and be careful not to shoot over their heads.’ After this round, he took his post in the redoubt, well satisfied that the men would do their duty. The British advanced in line in good order, steadily and slowly, and with a confident imposing air, pausing on the march to let their artillery prepare the way, and firing with muskets as they advanced. But they fired too soon, and too high, doing but little injury.

Incumbered with their knapsacks, they ascended the steep hill with difficulty, covered as it was with grass reaching to their knees, and intersected with walls and fences. Prescott waited till the enemy [424] had approached within eight rods as he afterwards

Chap. Xxxix} 1775. June 17.
thought, within ten or twelve rods as the committee of safety of Massachusetts wrote, when he gave the word: ‘Fire.’ At once from the redoubt, and breastwork, every gun was discharged. Nearly the whole front rank of the enemy fell, and the rest to whom this determined resistance was unexpected, were brought to a stand. For a few minutes, fifteen or ten, who can count such minutes! each, one of the Americans, completely covered while he loaded his musket, exposed only while he stood upon the wooden platform or steps of earth in the redoubt to take aim, fought according to his own judgment and will; and a close and unremitting fire was continued and returned, till the British staggered, wavered, and then in disordered masses retreated precipitately to the foot of the hill, and some even to their boats.

The column of the enemy which advanced near the Mystic under the lead of Howe, moved gallantly forward against the rail-fence, and when within eighty or one hundred yards, displayed into line, with the precision of troops on parade. Here, too, the Americans, commanded by Stark and Knowlton, cheered on by Putnam, who like Prescott bade them reserve their fire, restrained themselves as if by universal consent, till at the proper moment, resting their guns on the rails of the fence, they poured forth a deliberate, well directed, fatal discharge. Here, too, the British recoiled from the volley, and after a short contest, were thrown into confusion, and fell back till they were covered by the ground.

Then followed moments of joy in that unfinished redoubt, and behind the grassy rampart, where New [425] England husbandmen, so often taunted with cowardice,

Chap. Xxxix} 1775. June 17.
beheld veteran battalions shrink before their arms. Their hearts bounded as they congratulated each other. The night watches, thirst, hunger, danger, 17. whether of captivity or death, were forgotten. They promised themselves victory.

As the British soldiers retreated, the officers were seen by the spectators on the opposite shore, running down to them, using passionate gestures, and pushing them forward with their swords. After an interval of about fifteen minutes, during which Prescott moved round among his men, encouraging them and cheering them with praise, the British column under Pigot rallied and advanced, though with apparent reluctance, in the same order as before, firing as they approached within musket shot. This time the Americans withheld their fire till the enemy were within six or five rods of the redoubt, when, as the order was given, it seemed more fatal than before. The enemy continued to discharge their guns, and pressed forward with spirit. ‘But from the whole American line, there was,’ said Prescott, ‘a continuous stream of fire,’ and though the British officers were seen exposing themselves fearlessly, remonstrating, threatening, and even striking the soldiers to urge them on, they could not reach the redoubt, but in a few moments gave way in greater disorder than before. The wounded and the dead covered the ground in front of the works, some lying within a few yards of them.

On the flank also, the British light infantry again marched up its companies against the grass fence, but could not penetrate it. ‘Indeed,’ wrote some of the survivors, ‘how could we penetrate it? Most of [426] our grenadiers and light infantry, the moment of pre-

Chap. Xxxix} 1775. June 17.
senting themselves, lost three-fourths, and many, ninetenths of their men. Some had only eight or nine men in a company left, some only three, four, or five.’ On the ground where but the day before the mowers had swung the scythe in peace, ‘the dead,’ relates Stark, ‘lay as thick as sheep in a fold.’ Howe for a few seconds was left nearly alone, so many of the officers about him having been killed or wounded; and it required the utmost exertion of all, from the generals down to the subalterns, to repair the rout.

At intervals the artillery from the ships and batteries was playing, while the flames were rising over the town of Charlestown, and laying waste the places of the sepulchres of its fathers, and streets were falling together, and ships at the yards were crashing on the stocks, and the kindred of the Americans, from the fields and hills around, watched every gallant act of their defenders. ‘The whole,’ wrote Burgoyne, ‘was a complication of horror and importance beyond any thing it ever came to my lot to be witness to. It was a sight for a young soldier, that the longest service may not furnish again.’

‘If we drive them back once more,’ cried Prescott, ‘they cannot rally again.’ To the enduring husbandmen about him, the terrible and appalling scene was altogether new. ‘We are ready for the red-coats again,’ they shouted, cheering their commander, and not one of them shrunk from duty.

In the longer interval that preceded the third attack, a council of officers disclosed the fact, that the ammunition was almost exhausted. Though [427] Prescott had sent in the morning for a supply, he

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had received none, and there were not fifty bayonets in his party. A few artillery cartridges were discovered, and as the last resource the powder in them was distributed, with the direction, that not a kernel of it should be wasted.

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