- Historic Sites
Rebels And Redcoats
Participants describe the opening of the American Revolution
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
Its only military activity, aside from entrenching and standing guard, was sniping at British sentries, skirmishing occasionally with small parties that ventured ashore from boats, and firing on British guard boats. The rebels sometimes paraded at an exposed place to show themselves to the redcoats, as at Charlestown where “after giving the war-hoop” they returned to camp, satisfied they had impressed the regulars with their daring.
The first reinforcements for Gage’s army began to arrive in late May. On the twenty-fifth, the Cerberus dropped anchor in the harbor, bringing three major generals to assist the entrapped commander at Boston: William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne.
General Howe was the senior of them in service and the only one who had served in America. He had been at the second taking of Louisbourg in 1758 and had commanded the light infantry that led the way for Wolfe’s army, the next year, up the heights to the Plains of Abraham. He was a large man, still soldierly and handsome in a dark, overbearing way, though softened by years of peace and coarsened by the indulgence of an insatiable appetite for high living. Troops loved him for his heartiness and his great animal courage, and with them he might have done anything, but he was almost reluctant to come to battle, often negligent in preparing for it, and seldom pursued it to victory.
Compared to Howe, Henry Clinton was colorless. He was short and paunchy with a plain, round face whose prominent feature was a large nose. Although he had served with some distinction in the Seven Years’ War, he seemed to have bad luck which made his talents appear less than they really were. Like so many men of dark, suspicious nature, he distrusted himself; his solid military acumen surrendered to his own timidity, and he was his own worst enemy.
The most theatrical of the three was John Burgoyne, worldly, graceful, and vivacious. At 53 he was the eldest of the trio but the junior in service. He had won lasting recognition in the Spanish campaign of the Seven Years’ War, in which he had commanded the 16th Dragoons, called “Burgoyne’s Light Horse,” and his concept of the duties of an officer was sound and far advanced for his time. Although he had been out of military life during the dozen years since, he had remained prominent in London circles as a member of Commons, a man of fashion, a fabulous gambler, a littérateur, and a fairly popular dramatist. An intriguer, he now came to Boston determined to elevate his position among the British generals in America.
Following instructions from Lord Dartmouth, secretary of state for the colonies, Gage first issued a proclamation, dressed in the verbose prose of John Burgoyne, declaring martial law and offering amnesty to all rebels, except Adams and Hancock. Among the Americans it aroused more ridicule and indignation than dismay. As soon as Gage recognized that such an overture was not going to affect “the present troubles and disorders,” he at last laid plans for aggressive military action.
An attempt to destroy the American army lying outside Boston could not be seriously considered, for even if it were successful, Gage’s forces were too weak to penetrate into the interior of New England. However, he decided, now was the time to occupy and fortify the outlying heights of Dorchester and Charlestown which, if seized by the rebels, would make Boston untenable. From the hills of Dorchester, rebel cannon could sweep all of Boston and its main anchorage; from those of Charlestown they could bombard Boston’s North End and the northern anchorages. Accordingly, he prepared to move a detachment to Dorchester on June 18 and another as soon as possible to cover Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill on Charlestown peninsula.
But Gage’s headquarters was talkative, and by the fourteenth his plans were known in the rebel camp. The Committee of Safety moved to checkmate them by recommending that General Ward take and hold Bunker Hill; the committee confessed its ignorance of “the particular situation” of Dorchester peninsula and left to a council of war the decision as to what steps to pursue respecting it. The council decided, at least for the time, to ignore Dorchester and turned its whole attention to Bunker Hill.
In tall, broad-shouldered Colonel William Prescott’s Massachusetts regiment, Private Peter Brown was a company clerk. He had fought at Concord and had come from his home in Westford to the siege. The lad knew nothing of the strategic value of hills and cared less, but he soon was writing about them to his mother:
Friday, the sixteenth of June we were ordered to parade at six o’clock with one day’s provisions and blankets ready for a march somewhere, but we did not know where. So we readily and cheerfully obeyed … these three: Colonels Prescott’s, Frye’s, and Nickson’s Regiments…. About nine o’clock at night we marched down to Charlestown Hill.