Rebels And Redcoats

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We however immediately passed on and went into a store, but see no one there. I stamped and called out to rally some person and a man answered us from the cellar below. I told him what we wanted, but he did not come up, nor did we see him at all. I again told him what we wanted and asked him why he stayed down cellar. He answered, “To keep out of the way of the shot,” and then said, “If you want anything in the store, take what you please.” I seized a brown, two-quart, earthen pitcher and drawed it partly full from a cask and found I had got wine. I threw that out and filled my pitcher with rum from another cask. Ben took a pail and filled with water, and we hastened back to the entrenchment on the hill, when we found our people in confusion and talking about retreating. The British were about advancing upon us a third time. Our rum and water went very quick. It was very hot, but I saved my pitcher and kept it for sometime afterwards.

Twice Howe’s men had been driven back; windrows of British dead and wounded lay crimson in the uncut grass before the rebel lines. As his men were stopped, Howe experienced “a moment that I never felt before"; every European tradition had been shattered by such fire as the British never had faced. Still the dogged Howe determined to have another go at the tenacious rebels and formed his men again.

General Pigot had failed so far to dislodge the rebels from their redoubt. There, as he advanced again, fought the tall, blue-eyed Pepperell farmer, William Prescott, in homespun clothes, a sword buckled to his side, a light, loose coat about his shoulders, and a broad-brimmed hat shading his eyes:

I was now left with perhaps one hundred and fifty men in the fort. The enemy advanced and fired very hotly … and meeting with a warm reception, there was a very smart firing on both sides. After a considerable time, finding our ammunition was almost spent, I commanded a cessation till the enemy advanced within thirty yards, when we gave them such a hot fire that they were obliged to retire nearly one hundred and fifty yards before they could rally and come again to the attack. Our ammunition being nearly exhausted, could keep up only a scattering fire. The enemy, being numerous, surrounded our little fort, began to mount our lines and enter the fort with their bayonets.

On the hill and behind the rebel lines all was confusion. The Americans had fired time after time at rank after rank of redcoats; the lines were muffled in smoke; powder was almost gone. Behind them reinforcements had balked at the Neck, which was swept by cannon fire from the ships, or had hesitated on top of Bunker Hill, or did not know where they were expected to support the line.

Howe, concentrating his strength against the earthworks, at last bore the rebels down. His officers were astonished by the stubbornness of Prescott’s defense of the redoubt on the right. A lieutenant of the 5th Regiment reported that “the oldest officers say they never saw a sharper action.” The rebels kept up this fire until the redcoats were within ten yards. Said the lieutenant, “There are few instances of regular troops defending a redoubt till the enemy were in the very ditch of it, and [yet] I myself saw several pop their heads up and fire even after some of our men were upon the berm.” Then, of a sudden, American powder was gone—their fire “went out like an old candle.” Peter Brown was among the last defenders: “I was in the fort till the regulars came in,” he told his mother, “and I jumped over the walls and ran for about half a mile where balls flew like hailstones and cannons roared like thunder.”

Lieutenant Samuel Webb had come up with Captain John Chester’s Wethersfield, Connecticut, company, one of the few reinforcing units to mount the hill. Said he:

We covered their retreat till they came up with us by a brisk fire from our small arms. The dead and wounded lay on every side of me. Their groans were piercing indeed, though long before this time I believe the fear of death had quitted almost every breast. They now had possession of our fort and four fieldpieces, and by much the advantage of the ground; and, to tell you the truth, our reinforcements belonging to this province, very few of them came into the field, but lay skulking the opposite side of the hill. Our orders then came to make the best retreat we could. We set off almost gone with fatigue and ran very fast up [Bunker Hill], leaving some of our dead and wounded in the field.

Among the dead lay the beloved Dr. Joseph Warren. When he had heard the report that the regulars had landed at Charlestown, he had set out for the scene of action. Three days before, he had been voted a major-generalcy by the Provincial Congress, but was not yet commissioned. When Warren presented himself at the redoubt on Breed’s Hill, Prescott, respecting his new commission, asked him if he had any orders to give. Warren replied, “The command is yours.”

Throughout the hard-fought action at the redoubt, the doctor fought side by side with the men, who were heartened by his cold, debonair courage. He fell with a musket ball in the back of his head just as the fort was overrun. He “died in his best cloaths,” said a British officer, “everybody remembered his fine, silk fringed waistcoat.”

To Captain John Chester defeat was bitter; he remained convinced that only Prescott’s men fought well: