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Rebels And Redcoats
Participants describe the opening of the American Revolution
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
Our retreat … was shameful and scandalous and owing to the cowardice, misconduct, and want of regularity of the province troops, though to do them justice there was a number of their officers and men that were in the fort and a very few others that did honor to themselves by a most noble, manly, and spirited effort in the heat of the engagement, and ‘tis said many of them, the flower of the province, have sacrificed their lives in the cause. Some say they have lost more officers than men. Good Dr. Warren, God rest his soul, I hope is safe in Heaven! Had many of their officers the spirit and courage in their whole constitution that he had in his little finger, we had never retreated.
The great American failure that day was behind the lines before the battle ended, where Ward’s staff proved inadequate to his needs, and his regimental officers unequal to the emergency. In the retreat itself, the officers and men who had arrived in the vicinity of the fighting behaved much better than brave Captain Chester in his agony of defeat gave them credit for. It was a fighting retreat; like veteran troops they carried off most of their wounded, and obstinately fought “from one fence or wall to another,” until, said a British officer, “we entirely drove them off the peninsula of Charlestown.” Burgoyne admitted, “The retreat was no flight; it was even covered with bravery and military skill.” By not taking the Neck and cutting off all of Prescott’s men, the British failed to win a crushing victory and to capture innumerable rebel prisoners; only their failure to do so made possible the escape of the beaten survivors.
At five o’clock on a broiling summer afternoon the day was over. If each army wondered what the other might do, it tended to its own problems. On Winter Hill, slightly more than a mile outside the Neck, under vigorous old Israel Putnam’s directions, the rebels steadied and flung up a fort, while Howe’s men began pitching tents on the ground they had taken. General Clinton, who had come over to Charlestown during the afternoon, entreated Howe to push on. Cambridge was only two miles away, and the Americans were demoralized; Clinton was sure they could be smashed entirely, although he himself admitted Breed’s Hill was “A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us.” But Howe’s men were far “too much harrassed and fatigued to give much attention to the pursuit of the rebels,” he reported to General Gage. As for the rebels themselves, Captain Peter Coburn of Dracut, his clothes bullet-rent, possibly spoke for them all when he sighed, “I arived at Cambridge About Sunset alive, Tho much Tired and Feteogued. Blessed be God Theirfor.”
Gage had gained an outpost, but it was of little real value, and the cost was disastrous. Of his 2,250 men engaged, 1,054, including 92 officers, had been hit by the fierce rebel fire. Of the total, 226 died. Every one of Howe’s twelve staff officers had been struck, and in some of the regiments only three or four men escaped. Among the British dead was Major John Pitcairn, whose son carried him dying from the field. Of the Americans, 140 were killed, and 271 wounded.
One of Gage’s own officers made a sound critique of the day’s work. Overconfidence, he thought, had led to the “dreadful” British loss, and he charged his commander in chief with failure to reconnoiter the rebel position before committing his troops, with failure to use the ships either against the exposed rebel left flank or in cutting them off at the Neck by landing in their rear, and with failure to pursue them in retreat. In sum, said the sharp-tongued commentator:
We are all wrong at the head. My mind cannot help dwelling upon our cursed mistakes. Such ill conduct at the first outset argues a gross ignorance of the most common and obvious rules of the profession and gives us for the future anxious forebodings. I have lost some of those I most valued. This madness or ignorance nothing can excuse. The brave men’s lives were wantonly thrown away. Our conductor as much murdered them as if he had cut their throats himself on Boston Common. Had he fallen, ought we to have regretted him?
General Gage was indeed solely responsible for the attack and for its blunders. Nevertheless, he blandly overlooked in detail his own responsibility, although a few days later he admitted to Lord Barrington, secretary at war, that everything had been done wrong:
You will receive an account of some success against the rebels, but attended with a long list of killed and wounded on our side, so many of the latter that the hospital has hardly hands sufficient to take care of them. These people show a spirit and conduct against us they never showed against the French, and everybody has judged of them from their former appearance and behavior when joined with the King’s forces in the last war, which has led many into great mistakes.
They are now spirited up by a rage and enthusiasm as great as ever people were possessed of, and you must proceed in earnest or give the business up. A small body acting in one spot will not avail. You must have large armies, making diversions on different sides, to divide their force.
The loss we have sustained is greater than we can bear; small armies can’t afford such losses, especially when the advantage gained tends to little more than the gaining of a post—a material one indeed, as our own security depended on it. The troops are sent out too late. The rebels were at least two months before-hand with us, and your Lordship would be astonished to see the tract of country they have entrenched and fortified. Their number is great, so many hands have been employed.