“the Decisive Day Is Come”

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Just behind the firing line, officers crouched low and moved swiftly back and forth, passing the word to shoot low, to wait for the order to fire, to pick out the officers and aim for the crossing of the belts, to wait until they could see the whites of their eyes. And the red tide moved slowly nearer, near enough now so the defenders could distinguish faces beneath the tall pointed helmets, make out rows of shining buttons and belt buckles. Now and again there was a strange moment of silence—the big guns had stopped firing, for fear of hitting their own men—broken only by the steady dull thump of marching feet, the swish of long grass as 2,000 men pushed through it, the crackle of flames and the occasional splintering crash of a building in Charlestown.

Over along the beach Howe’s light infantry moved forward rapidly across the level, unobstructed sand, and the long, lancelike column was almost close enough to charge. Still there was silence behind the rebel barricade, no sign of movement. The British were only two hundred feet away, then one hundred, now fifty, when a row of dull musket barrels leveled along the stone wall, a nasal New England voice twanged, and the wall disappeared in a sheet of flame and oily black smoke. The blast of fire tore apart the leading ranks of Fusiliers, and as the rows behind closed up they were shattered by the violent hail of bullets. Officers fell, men spun around and dropped headlong into the shallow water, and the column stopped, recoiled, then came on again, the King’s Own Regiment shoving through the broken Fusiliers, clambering over the dead and wounded, only to be met with that withering fire from the wall.

Officers’ voices shouted hoarsely through the din, ordering the men forward, but with each advance the men in the lead simply melted away, falling grotesquely and piling up the awful carnage on the narrow beach until there was nothing to do but turn back. And turning back, the men began to run, terror-stricken, pelting along the wet sand toward safety. Behind them the defenders peered through thick smoke that lay like a greasy blanket around the stone wall, saw their flight, saw the fallen “as thick as sheep in a fold,” the dead floating crazily on the ebbing tide, the shallow water lapping red against the sand.

The flank attack on which Howe’s hopes rested was shattered. The Reverend Peter Thacher, watching from across the Mystic, saw the light infantry retreat “in very great disorder down to the point where they landed, & there some of them even into their boats; at this time their officers were observed by spectators on the opposite shore to … use the most passionate gestures & even to push forward ye men with their swords.”

There could be no retreating; even though the flank attack had failed, Howe could still rely on his long line of grenadiers and regulars and a direct frontal blow. These men, advancing steadily on the level above and k out of sight of the beach, had been delayed by the long grass, the rough terrain, and the fences, and just as they were readying for the charge heard the great roll of musketry off to their right and the screams of wounded men. There was one last fence to cross before they could attack, and they had just climbed over it and were forming for the charge when a few defenders behind the rail fence opened on them.

Lieutenant Knowlton had given orders not to fire until the enemy came within fifteen rods, and then not until the word was given. But Lieutenant Dana told his friend John Chester that he had been the first to shoot,

 

and that he did it singly, and with a view to draw the enemy’s fire, and he obtained his end fully, without any damage to our party. Our men then returned the fire, well-directed, and to very good effect, and so disconcerted the enemy that they partly brokfe and recreated. Many of our men were for pursuing, [but by] the prudence of the officers they were prevented lea[ving so] advantageous a post.

It is hard to believe that Dana alone forced the redcoats to fire, but whatever the cause, apparently they halted to do so and were struck at that moment by a blast from the rail fence that shattered their lines. By some miracle, Howe was not hit, but all around him officers and aides were down, and his tough grenadiers fell by threes and fours, leaving gaping holes in that once-perfect line. They loaded again and fired, but their aim was hurried and the bullets went over the Americans’ heads, while the standing, red-coated figures made perfect targets for the defenders, sighting their pieces along the fence rails. The line of regulars, coming up behind the grenadiers, was torn apart by the murderous volleys, and at last both lines turned and ran out of range, too badly mauled to continue.

Off on the British left, Pigot’s lines had advanced slowly in what was intended only as a feint or delaying action while Howe’s forces should punch through on the right. In spite of the raging fire in the streets of Charlestown, rebel skirmishers there harassed Pigot so effectively that his men were unable to mount a real attack on the redoubt, and when he saw what had happened to Howe he called them back.