Rebels And Redcoats

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divers of them entered our house by bursting open the doors, and three of the soldiers broke into the room in which I then was laid on my bed, being scarcely able to walk from my bed to the fire and not having been to my chamber door from my being delivered in childbirth to that time. One of said soldiers immediately opened my [bed] curtains with his bayonet fixed and pointing … to my breast. I immediately cried out, “For the Lord’s sake, don’t kill me!”

He replied, “Damn you.”

One that stood near said, “We will not hurt the woman if she will go out of the house, but we will surely burn it.”

I immediately arose, threw a blanket over me, went out, and crawled into a corn-house near the door with my infant in my arms, where I remained until they were gone. They immediately set the house on fire, in which I had left five children and no other person; but the fire was happily extinguished when the house was in the utmost danger of being utterly consumed.

Farther on, at Cooper’s Tavern, two idle men, 39 and 45 years old, were calmly drinking flips. When one suggested that the fighting was getting too close for comfort, the other replied, “Let us finish the mug. They won’t come yet.” Before the cups were drained, some redcoats crowded into the taproom. An altercation broke out, and the soldiers shot down the drinking companions. A few days later the owners of the tavern, swept away by the hysteria of the day’s events, deposed for the Provincial Congress a colorful tale of terror:

The King’s Regular troops … fired more than one hundred bullets into the house where we dwell, through doors, windows, etc. Then a number of them entered the house where we and two aged gentlemen were, all unarmed. We escaped for our lives into the cellar. The two aged gentlemen were immediately most barbarously and inhumanly murdered by them, being stabbed through in many places, their heads mauled, skulls broke, and their brains beat out on the floor and walls of the house.

Lord Percy continued to hold his force together and astutely made a feint as if to enter Boston by way of Cambridge, then wheeled left in North Cambridge and marched for Charlestown. “We threw them!” exulted Lieutenant Barker.

At sunset, half past six, the exhausted column stumbled its last mile across Charlestown Neck toward the comforting safety of Bunker Hill, rising a hundred feet above the surrounding country. Darkness fell fast and musket flashes showed as bright as fireworks when the footsore, hungry, thirsty regulars—after some 35 miles of marching, half of it fighting an enraged and merciless foe—flung themselves down to rest on Bunker’s slope.

As the redcoats crowded across the narrow isthmus that connected Charlestown with the mainland, “the rebels ceased fire,” charged Ensign Lister, “they not having it in their power to pursue us further in their skulking way behind hedges and walls.” Actually, the greenest military novice among the New Englanders recognized that further pursuit would be disastrous. Once the redcoats had crossed Charlestown Neck they were in an almost unassailable position. Bunker Hill commanded the Neck, and if the rebels dared advance on so narrow a front they would be met by overwhelming fire from the hill and could be enfiladed by the warship Somerset, anchored in the Charles. As the descending darkness gave the redcoats cover, the last popping musket fire died away; rebels and redcoats settled down for an uneasy night.

To the haphazardly assembled citizens’ army that had risen from the farms and shops, command had come late in the day. Militia General William Heath had come into the field for a brief hour of glory. The General, a native of Roxbury, was a farmer who candidly described himself as a man “of middling stature, light complexion, very corpulent, and bald-headed.” An old-time militia officer, and a member of the Committee of Safety, he was one of five general officers appointed sixty days earlier to command the colony’s troops in case of hostilities.

At daybreak the morning of the nineteenth, Heath had been awakened and told that a British detachment was on the march for Concord. He consulted briefly with members of the Committee of Safety and then struck out for Lexington. On the way he met Dr. Joseph Warren. The doctor, on hearing that morning from one of his messengers of the clash at Lexington, had crossed the Charlestown Ferry for the scene. He and Heath reached Lexington a few minutes after Percy’s relief column had arrived there. Heath had gathered together a regiment of rebels, which he commanded in the pursuit, and Warren had stuck with him.

Now as senior officer on the field, Heath ordered the militia, which converged about 3,000 strong on Charlestown Common, just outside Charlestown Neck, “to halt and give over the pursuit, as any further attempt upon the enemy in that position would have been futile.” He ordered a guard posted close to the Neck to watch the redcoats, and then ordered the militia “to march to the town of Cambridge, where, below the town, the whole were ordered to lie on their arms.”