February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
The tension between American colonists and English rulers had at last reached the breaking point. British troops held Boston, and their commander, General Thomas Gage, believed the time had come to put some sort of curb on the rebellious colonial leaders. On an April day in 1775 he sent out a detachment of soldiers to take action against what seemed clearly a rebellious movement.
That touched it off. In the days and weeks that followed, the names of previously obscure places and men found a lasting place in the American legend—Lexington and Concord, Paul Revere and Joseph Warren, Ticonderoga and Bunker Hill—and one of the great turning points in human history was reached.
The story of those crucial days in the spring of 1775 has been told many times, but never more graphically than in the new book Rebels and Redcoats by George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin. By going to letters and diaries written by the American and British leaders and soldiers themselves, these authors have given their narrative a dramatic immediacy which makes the familiar story seem new and gives it almost a contemporary flavor.
AMERICAN HERITAGE presents the opening chapters of Rebels and Redcoats, which will presently be issued in book form by the World Publishing Company.
Lexington, April 19, 1775
No one knows who knocked on the door of Paul Revere’s house, jammed between the Holyokes’ and the Barnards', on Boston’s North Square. It was night, about ten o’clock. The date was Tuesday, the eighteenth of April, 1775.
When the door opened, letting light into the shadows under the second-story overhang, the messenger must have whispered a name: Dr. Warren.
Moments later, brawny Mr. Revere was hurrying along the dark cobbles toward fashionable Hanover Street. It did not take him long to reach Dr. Joseph Warren’s, where he was probably admitted by the Doctor himself. The Doctor was 34, tall and fair and blue-eyed, rather handsome. He was genial and kind and always dapper, with much charm of manner. He was a good doctor and extremely popular with Boston’s 15,000 citizens. Recently he had come to be recognized as third only to violent Samuel Adams and zealous John Hancock as a political leader of the radical Whig party. He was as much a marked man as they in the eyes of the British, and at the moment in even greater personal danger.
When the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts had adjourned in Concord last Saturday, Adams and Hancock had not dared return to Boston, but had taken residence in the comparative safety of Lexington, twelve miles away, at the home of Hancock’s kinsman, the Reverend Jonas Clark. There, until they should depart for the Continental Congress in Philadelphia next month, they felt secure from the colony’s military governor, who might at any time during the existing tension decide to snatch up the rebel leaders. Warren, however, ignoring muttered threats of hanging, had returned to town to serve as a link between them and the Whigs in Boston. Suddenly a time for action had come, and he had summoned Paul Revere.
On the face of it, Dr. Warren and Paul Revere seemed unlikely associates. Burly, forty-year-old Revere was the town’s most gifted artificer, a ruddy-faced, plain man with a wide, generous mouth, a substantial, flaring nose, and quizzical brows arching over warm, dark eyes. His blunt, capable hands had fashioned the most beautiful silver pieces in America, and that spring, in his oft-exercised role of surgeon-dentist, he had contrived and fitted for Dr. Warren two artificial ivory teeth. His skill, good taste, and sensibility ordinarily would not have been sufficient to break down the social barrier that existed between the world of the mechanic and the circle of the wellborn, Harvard-bred Joseph Warren, but between these two had grown a genuine affection, born of political rebellion and bonded by common cause and common peril.
That there was something special about the man Revere his nominal social superiors recognized; they accepted him graciously into the exclusive Long Room Club, made up of Harvard graduates, scholars, and men of affairs. The friendship of Revere and Warren had grown apace with their radicalism. More and more Warren had come to rely upon the judgment and abilities of his friend Revere, who worked closely with the Whig committees, mostly doing what he loved—“outdoor work” he called it—riding courier from the Boston committee to others as far away as Philadelphia.
During the past winter, about thirty mechanics, most likely all North Enders and friends of Revere, had formed themselves into a vigilance committee to keep an eye on the activities of the Tories and the movements of the British troops quartered in the town. Ever since General Thomas Gage, a plain, sensible man, had returned from England in the spring of 1774 as the colony’s first military governor, supported by nearly 4,000 regular troops “to keep order,” the Whigs had been expecting him to take some sort of punitive action against them and their leaders. In pairs the mechanics patrolled the streets all night.
Not only the Whig leaders were in jeopardy, but also a certain valuable cache in the town of Concord, about seventeen miles to the northwest. There, with typical New England prudence and foresight, the radicals already had stockpiled and concealed against the day of need muskets and cannon, musket balls and cartridges, hundreds of barrels of gunpowder, reams of cartridge paper, spades, axes, medicine chests, tents, hogsheads of flour, pork, beef, salt, boxes of candles, wooden spoons, dishes, canteens, casks of wine and raisins, and other supplies for war.
On Saturday night, April 15, three nights ago, the patrolling mechanics began to suspect that General Gage meant to move his troops, perhaps in a raid on the party chiefs and the supplies at Concord. The rowboats which belonged to the British naval ships anchored in the harbor had previously been hauled up for repairs, but about midnight they were all launched and moored under the sterns of the men-of-war. The surreptitious launching of the boats reminded the patrol that Gage’s crack grenadier companies, his biggest men, his heavy-duty troops, and the light infantry companies, his fast active troops trained as flankers, had been detached from their regiments earlier in the day on undesignated special duty. The two facts together suggested that something was astir.
When the General marched his troops into the country for exercise, it was usually from the southward across Boston Neck and through the hamlet of Roxbury, or northward across the Charles River by ferry and through Charlestown. He would know that any expedition through these towns was sure to be detected. Was he now shrewdly planning to move troops swiftly one night by boat across Back Bay to East Cambridge and steal a march on the unsuspecting patriots by lonely country lanes that led into the road to Concord?
Nothing more happened that Saturday night, the fifteenth.
On Sunday morning, sent by Dr. Warren, Paul Revere rode to Lexington to warn Sam Adams and John Hancock that Gage soon might make a sudden march to seize both them and the Concord stores.
Riding back to Boston, Revere wondered if Gage, when he marched, would post extra guards at the Charlestown Ferry and the town gates on Boston Neck to prevent couriers from leaving Boston to alert the countryside. So he turned toward Charlestown. From there, across the broad mouth of the Charles, Boston was plainly visible, its steeples pricking the sky. Revere hunted up Colonel William Conant, a high Whig, and several “other gentlemen” and with them he arranged signals: If General Gage should leave Boston by water, Revere would show two lanterns in the North Church tower; if the redcoats marched over Boston Neck and out of town by land, he would show one lantern. He himself would endeavor to reach Charlestown with details, but if he should fail, the lanterns would tell the Colonel what warning he must send into the countryside.
Monday, the seventeenth, dreary and threatening rain, and this Tuesday, the eighteenth, showery but turning clear and cold, were taut with rumors. Many of the British regulars were billeted in private houses. Profane, honest, likable old Major John Pitcairn of the marines was quartered almost next door to the Reveres in North Square. Officers of the Royal Irish and the 43rd were in Back Street close by. Scarcely a house with an extra bed but quartered one or more of His Majesty’s troops. And it was obvious to anyone that they were going on active duty.
So by ten o’clock at night, when the unknown messenger brought Dr. Warren’s summons to North Square, Paul Revere was waiting for it. What took place at Dr. Warren’s house that Tuesday night is Revere’s own recollection: … Dr. Warren … begged that I would immediately set off for Lexington, where Messrs. Hancock and Adams were, and acquaint them of the movement and that it was thought they were the objects …. I found he had sent an express by land to Lexington, a Mr. William Dawes …. I left Dr. Warren, called upon a friend and desired him to make the signals. I then went home, took my boots and surtout, went to the north part of the town, where I had kept a boat. Two friends rowed me across Charles River, a little to the eastward where the Somerset man-of-war lay. It was then young flood, the ship was winding, and the moon was rising. They landed me on the Charlestown side. When I got into town I met Colonel Conant and several others. They said they had seen our signals. I told them what was acting and went to get me a horse. I got a horse of Deacon [John] Larkin. While the horse was preparing, Richard Devens, Esquire, who was one of the Committee of Safety, came to me and told me that he came down the road from Lexington after sundown that evening, that he met ten British officers, all well mounted and armed, going up the road.
The British patrol, muffled in their long blue cloaks, had asked Devens where “Clark’s tavern” was, leading him to suspect that the men knew that Adams and Hancock were at Clark’s but were unaware that Clark’s was a parsonage, not a public house. Devens had sent a warning to the Reverend Jonas Clark that the patrol evidently was seeking his residence and his guests.
Revere mounted Deacon Larkin’s horse and, with Devens’ warning of the British troop in mind, spurred through slumbering Charlestown and out over Charlestown Neck, with the Mystic on his right and the Charles glistening on his left. It was now about eleven o’clock. The night was chill but pleasant, and the moon shone bright.
Through the desolate salt marshes, clay pits, and scrub, where the smell of the sea rose strong and rank, Revere bore left, taking the short road through Cambridge to Lexington. He came in sight of the awesome gibbet where the mummified body of Captain Codman’s Mark, who had conspired in poisoning his master, had hung in chains for twenty years as a warning against insurrection. The sandy road narrowed where it approached woods. Suddenly, Revere saw two horsemen ahead, close in the shadow of a spreading tree. He was near enough to recognize their British holsters and cockades. One started toward him, and the other trotted up the road to head him off. Revere spun short about, raked his horse’s flanks, and “rode upon a full gallop for Mystic Road.” Over his shoulder he saw his pursuer’s heavy charger stumble into a clay pond.
“I got clear of him,” Revere told later, “and went through Medford, over the bridge, and up to Menotomy. In Medford I awakened the captain of the minutemen. And after that I alarmed almost every house till I got to Lexington.”
Lexington was a cluster of pleasant, roomy country houses, where the road from Boston forked left to Concord and right to Bedford. On the triangular village common stood a big, barnlike meetinghouse with an awkward detached wooden belfry in the yard. Across the road was John Buckman’s popular tavern, strangely alight at this late hour, while the large dwellings on the other side of the green slept quietly in the moonlight.
Revere flanked the common and turned down the Bedford Road about a quarter of a mile to Clark’s rambling frame house, snuggled in a grove of trees.
To his surprise, he found a militia guard at the door! Earlier in the evening, a townsman returning from the Boston market had told Orderly Sergeant William Munroe of the Lexington minutemen that he had seen the patrol of British officers on the road. The Sergeant, sensitive to the temper of the day, assumed they were out for no good; he guessed that the important visitors at Clark’s, for whom he as militia officer felt responsible, might be the object of a raid. To protect them from molestation, he posted himself and eight other minutemen around the parsonage as a guard.
When Revere trotted up and demanded entrance, Sergeant Munroe said the family had retired. Adams and Hancock had settled down for the night, asking Munroe not to disturb them by any noise in the yard.
“Noise!” shouted Revere. “You’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out!”
John Hancock heard the commotion in the yard and recognized Revere’s hearty voice. From the house he called, “Come in, Revere. We are not afraid of you!”
Both Hancock and Sam Adams ushered him in, eager to know what tidings had brought him to their door at midnight. His news shattered the peace of the household. John Hancock’s formidable old aunt and his fiancée, pert, pretty Dorothy Quincy, were also guests of the minister and his wife. They all crowded noisily about Revere, while frail, dandified John theatrically proclaimed he would take up a gun and join the Lexington minutemen if they opposed the British march. Sam Adams tried to persuade him not to act foolishly, but Hancock was insistent; somewhere in this compulsive fervor was the key to one of Hancock’s weaknesses as a revolutionary.
Revere, who knew both Hancock and Adams well, must have been faintly amused by the contrast between them at this moment when their dissimilarities were thrown into bold relief. Sam Adams at 52 appeared to be an old man. Although his gray eyes were clear and his thin mouth and thick jaw were firm and often stern, his hair was a thinning gray and his voice and hands shook with palsy. In the rusty, patched clothes he wore, he looked like a seedy failure, and by economic standards he was one. He had run indifferently through a modest inheritance because he simply could not manage business or money. He was so easygoing, softhearted, and impractical that, what with dipping into his collections for small personal sums, ignoring delinquencies, and neglecting his records, he was discovered at the end of ten years to be in arrears nearly £7,000.
Fortunately, just as he faced jail for defalcation, passage of the Stamp Act diverted attention from his shortages, and he swept into power as a radical member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and quickly rose from an obscure work horse of the radical wing of the Whig party to its supreme leadership. Eschewing personal glory, he became a self-effacing, single-minded man, unwavering in his devotion to republican principles and content to stand behind the scene and maneuver more colorful men into rebellion. At last he found success in the specialized field of political revolution. He was a dedicated, realistic revolutionary, who did not waste himself in gestures, histrionics, or in courting personal popularity.
John Hancock was one of his political protégés, and he was everything Sam Adams was not. By inheritance, the merchant, shipowner, and smuggler was the wealthiest man in New England. Adams had recruited him for the party when he was 28 and had but recently inherited the mighty fortune of his uncle, Thomas Hancock. The two men never developed any real affection such as that which grew between Revere and Warren, for their moral concepts were completely different: Hancock dreamed of snatching leadership from Adams, the rabble-rouser, and Adams, who was pleased to have Hancock as a figurehead and financier, distrusted him intellectually and emotionally, suspecting quite rightly that Hancock hoped to head a new aristocracy. Nevertheless, through Hancock—vain, petulant, vacillating, selfish—ran a strain of idealism not unlike Sam Adams’: a sense of charity, and a notion of fair play. It was only characteristic of him now to be contending wildly in Clark’s parlor that he should arm himself and sally forth. But shrewd, level-headed Sam Adams had brought his revolution too far along to lose one of its potential leaders. Both he and Hancock were representatives-elect to the Second Continental Congress to be held in May. Calmly he reasoned that it was their duty to flee and save themselves for the important work of the cabinet.
John was still holding out a half-hour later when William Dawes, Dr. Warren’s other messenger, who had come out of Boston over Boston Neck, arrived at Clark’s. He and Revere had no time to lose on senseless heroics. They took a bite together, rested a few minutes, and then departed to ride on to Concord to arouse more of the countryside.
As the two couriers cantered out of Lexington, they were joined by Dr. Samuel Prescott of Concord. Until this one o’clock hour, he had been courting Miss Milliken in Lexington. He struck the couriers as a “high son of liberty,” whose company they would welcome. While the three rode along, Revere told his companions about the officers who were rumored to be in the vicinity and voiced the fear that they might have split into small parties to ambush any riders on the way to Concord. He later recalled:
… When we had got about halfway from Lexington to Concord, the other two stopped at a house to awake the man. I kept along. When I had got about two hundred yards ahead of them, I saw two officers under a tree. I immediately called to my company to come up, saying here was two of them. … In an instant I saw four officers, who rode up to me with their pistols in their hands and said, “G-d d-n you, stop! If you go an inch further, you are a dead man!”
Immediately Dr. Prescott came up … we attempted to get through them, but they kept before us and swore if we did not turn into that pasture, they would blow our brains out. They had placed themselves opposite to a pair of bars and had taken the bars down. They forced us in. When we got in, Dr. Prescott said to me, “Put on!” … He … took to the left. I turned to the right … towards a wood, intending when I had gained … that to jump my horse and run afoot.
The doctor, who knew the ground, jumped his horse over the low stone wall of the pasture and headed safely for Concord. William Dawes also escaped. Paul Revere, dashing toward the wood at the bottom of the pasture, was not that fortunate: Just as I reached it, out started six officers, seized my bridle, put their pistols to my breast, ordered me to dismount, which I did. … One of them, who appeared to have command there and much of a gentleman, asked where I came from. I told him. He asked what time I left. … I told him. He seemed surprised. He said, “Sir, may I crave your name?” I answered, “My name is … Revere.” “What?” said he …. “Paul Revere?” I answered … “Yes.” The others abused me much, but he told me not to be afraid, no one … should … hurt me.
Revere then glibly told the officer that the British would “miss their aim,” because he had alarmed “the country all the way up” from Boston. Hoping to confuse the patrol and convince it to release him, and thus to gain time for the men who were being called out, he blandly lied that the British boats had run aground; by the time the delayed troops reached Lexington, he warned, 500 men would fall upon them.
The patrol, seeming very agitated, grilled him closely. They already had rounded up four countrymen who had been found riding in the night. The commanding officer herded his prisoners together and turned back toward Lexington. To Revere he announced, “We are now going toward your friends, and if you attempt to run, or we are insulted, we will blow your brains out.”
Revere coolly told him he might do as he pleased. According to Revere: We rode down towards Lexington a … pretty smart pace …. I was often insulted by the officers … calling me damned rebel, etc., etc. The officer who led me said I was in a d-m-d critical situation. I told him I was sensible of it. After we had got about a mile I was delivered … to … a sergeant to lead … who was ordered to take out his pistol … and … should I run to execute the major’s sentence. When we got within about half a mile of the Lexington Meeting House, we heard a gun fired. The major asked me what … that was for. I told him to alarm the country.
The Major must have figured that there was little time to lose if he was to join the advancing British main force and inform its officers that the rebels were awake and waiting. He ordered the girths and bridles on the four countrymen’s horses cut and the horses driven afield, and told the men to go home afoot.
For a short distance, he refused to dismiss Revere. Then he commandeered Deacon Larkin’s horse from Revere for the use of the sergeant, whose mount was tired. The sergeant’s horse was stripped and turned loose. The patrol rode away and, ironically, Deacon Larkin’s gallant little horse that had borne Revere and his news to every Middlesex village and farm carried a British soldier off on the King’s business and forever disappeared into the British Army. Revere was left to make his way afoot through the fields in what he guessed was the direction of Jonas Clark’s:
I went across the burying ground and some pastures and came to the Reverend Mr. Clark’s house, where I found Messrs. Hancock and Adams. I told them of my treatment, and they concluded to go … towards Woburn. I went with them and a Mr. Lowell, who was a clerk to Mr. Hancock. When we got to the house where they intended to stop, Mr. Lowell and myself returned to Mr. Clark’s to find what was going on.
By now, a great many men of the neighborhood were doing the same thing. At Lexington, an hour or more earlier, Revere’s alarm had brought out the captain of the minutemen, John Parker. He lost no time in assembling his company. From warm beds his men hurried in their workaday clothes to the common before Buckman’s Tavern “to consult what to do.”
Captain Parker, “a great tall man with a large head and a high, wide brow,” did not think his handful of rustics could halt the regulars, but he determined to protect the town and its women and children if the redcoats grew mischievous there on the way to Concord. He and his men had stood waiting for a time in the clear, cold moonlight, stamping their chilled feet and blowing on their stiff fingers. When the British failed to appear and riders sent toward Boston to spy them out failed to return, Captain Parker assumed Revere’s report was false or exaggerated. After about an hour, he dismissed the company, but he warned the men they should reassemble instantly at the call of the drum. Those who lived nearby straggled home, muttering to their wives as they crawled back into bed that some tarnal fool was making another false alarm. A number of them sought the warmth and conviviality of Buckman’s Tavern to while away the rest of the uneasy night. It was already far spent; darkness was about to flee before the misty gray shadows of dawn.
Had everything gone as smoothly for General Gage’s expeditionary force as he had planned, it would probably have passed through Lexington by this time. From the beginning, however, it seemed doomed to irritating failures. Before Gage marched his men to the Boston Common, he knew that his secret was out.
In the evening he informed Hugh, Earl Percy, the young but battle-tested commander of the 5th Regiment, that Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith was to command a force of 700 to be sent to seize the stores at Concord. Very likely because he was senior field officer in town, Colonel Smith was chosen to head the force. Although a friend called him “a gallant old officer,” most of the army knew him to be grossly fat, slow-thinking, and often tardy. Perhaps that is why Gage had named Major Pitcairn of the marines second in command. The major was a portly, comfortably middle-aged, devout Scotsman, an old army man who was a rigorous disciplinarian, but who tempered his strict demands with humanity, patience, and tact—the kind of man General Gage would want on a difficult command such as this. Lord Percy was told he would command reserves which would be ordered up to support Smith if the Colonel should run into trouble. But the General added he probably would not have to call them out, for he “did not think the damned rebels would … take up arms against His Majesty’s Troops.” Percy rather agreed. He had come to Boston only a short time after Gage’s return last spring, and although Whig-principled, he quickly had decided “the people here are a set of sly, artful, hypocritical rascals, cruel and cowards.”
At dusk, Lord Percy left the general’s office at Province House for his own quarters. He walked unrecognized up to a group of eight or ten men on the common. One of them said, “The British have marched, but they will miss their aim.”
“What aim?” Percy asked.
“Why, the cannon at Concord,” said the loiterer.
Percy quickly retraced his steps to Gage’s headquarters and repeated what he had heard, much to the General’s consternation. But it was too late to abandon the enterprise. Gage, hoping his plans were not too widely known, decided to proceed, with all possible secrecy. His men moved silently through the dark streets and were rowed, oars muffled, across the Charles to Cambridge.
Lieutenant John Barker, of the King’s Own Regiment, a peevish, carping young man who was a little contemptuous of his superiors, kept a diary in which he described the landing at Phip’s Farm on Cambridge Marsh. The heavily loaded boats could not get close in. The men dropped overboard into shallow water.
After getting over the marsh, where we were wet up to the knees, we were halted in a dirty road and stood there till two o’clock in the morning waiting for provisions to be brought from the boats and to be divided, and which most of the men threw away, having carried some with them. At two o’clock we began our march by wading through a very long ford up to our middles.
The cold, wet, miserable march was not long under way when Colonel Smith, doubtless dissatisfied with his slow progress, dispatched Major Pitcairn ahead with six companies as an advance corps to secure the two bridges beyond Concord.
Pitcairn took every precaution to prevent any warning of his approach from reaching Lexington. By marching a small advance guard as flankers, he swallowed up all but one of Captain John Parker’s Lexington scouts. Finally, he was met by the patrol that had taken Revere, and was told that at least 500 men stood ready at Lexington to oppose his advance. The Major slowed his march to allow Colonel Smith to draw closer. Revere’s ruse had succeeded.
Colonel Smith, meanwhile, already had sent back to Boston for reinforcements. Major Pitcairn had scarcely left him when he had become aware, by the sound of an occasional, distant musket shot and the faraway ring of bells, that the countryside was astir.
The Colonel had cause for concern. Few men slept that night in the towns and on the farms along the British route. Among those aroused by the excitement was 23-year-old Sylvanus Wood of Woburn, three miles from Lexington. The sharp, shrill tolling of the Lexington bell had suggested to the sleepy youth that “there was difficulty” there.
I immediately arose, took my gun, and with Robert Douglass went in haste to Lexington. … When I arrived there, I inquired of Captain Parker … the news. Parker told me he did not know what to believe, for a man had come up about half an hour before and informed him that the British troops were not on the road. But while we were talking, a messenger came up and told the captain that the British troops were within half a mile.
Parker immediately turned to his drummer … and ordered him to beat to arms ….
Captain Parker asked Sylvanus Wood and his companion if they would parade with his company. As the men gathered, Parker called out, according to Wood’s account: “Every man of you who is equipped, follow me. And those of you who are not equipped, go into the meetinghouse and furnish yourselves from the magazine and immediately join the company.” Parker led those of us who were equipped to the north end of Lexington Common, near the Bedford Road, and formed us in single file. I was stationed about in the center of the company.
While we were standing, I left my place and went from one end of the company to the other and counted every man who was paraded, and the whole number was thirty-eight and no more. Just as I had finished and got back to my place, I perceived the British troops had arrived on the spot between the meetinghouse and Buckman’s, near where Captain Parker stood when he first led off his men.
Captain Parker did not intend to meet the British regulars with force. He planned only to stand and resist any overt act. But he chose to stand in a position and at a place that dared the redcoats to pursue the road they had determined to take.
On the far side of the common at this instant, Thomas Willard watched from a window in Daniel Harrington’s house as Major Pitcairn took the rebel dare. Willard testified later:
I … saw … about four hundred of Regulars in one body coming up the road and marched toward the north part of the Common back of the meetinghouse. … As soon as said Regulars were against the east end of the meetinghouse, the commanding officers said something, what I know not. But upon that, the Regulars ran till they came within about eight or nine rods of about a hundred of the militia … at which time the militia of Lexington dispersed. Then the officers made a huzza, and the private soldiers succeeded them. Directly after this, an officer rode before the Regulars to the other side of the body and hallooed after the militia … and said, “Lay down your arms, damn youl Why don’t you lay down your arms?”
These were practically the same words that rang in the ears of Sylvanus Wood, just as the little five-footer regained his place in the minuteman line:
The officer … swung his sword and said, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, or you will all be dead men! Firel”
Some guns were fired by the British at us from the first platoon, but no person was killed or hurt, [the guns] being probably charged only with powder. Just at this time, Captain Parker ordered every man to take care of himself. The company immediately dispersed, and while the company was dispersing and leaping over the wall, the second platoon of the British fired and killed some of our men. There was not a gun fired by any of Captain Parker’s company within my knowledge. I was so situated that I must have known it, had anything of the kind taken place before a total dispersion of our company. When the strong east wind swept away the cloud of acrid gunsmoke that for moments shrouded Lexington Common, it revealed mad disorder. In every direction minutemen dashed for the protection of trees and walls. The redcoats, contrary to Pitcairn’s orders, pursued them viciously with ball and bayonet.
Jonas Parker, an older cousin of the Captain’s, stood his ground. In his hat at his feet he had tossed bullets, wadding, and spare flints. When a British ball buckled his knees, he tried vainly to reload his piece, but a redcoat’s bayonet finished him. Jonathan Harrington, with a ball in his body, dragged himself from the common almost to his own doorstep, but he died before his anguished wife, bursting from the house, could reach him. John Brown fell on the edge of a swamp north of the common. Another man slumped dead behind the wall in John Buckman’s garden.
The regulars went entirely out of hand, much to the disgust of Lieutenant Barker: “The men were so wild they could hear no orders.” Major Pitcairn was furious, chagrined, and mortified; one of his subordinates had shouted the order to fire. His own cease-fire went unheeded. He was finally able to form his unruly ranks, just as Colonel Smith came into sight with the main body.
The common was deserted now, except for the redcoats and the rebel dead and wounded. In those few minutes of fire, eight Massachusetts men had been killed and ten wounded. One regular had suffered a slight leg wound, and Major Pitcairn’s horse had been struck lightly twice.
Regrouped, the British fired a volley to celebrate their victory, struck up their music, and marched briskly for Concord. Sylvanus Wood reported:
After the British had begun their march to Concord I returned to the Common and found Robert [Munroe] and Jonas Parker lying dead … near the Bedford Road, and others dead and wounded. I assisted in carrying the dead into the meetinghouse. I then proceeded toward Concord with my gun. …
Concord, April 19, 1775
Many a tanner, farmer, wheelwright, and clerk was proceeding that morning toward Concord with his gun. By the time the fresh April sunlight flooded down on the bloody common at Lexington, the alarm set off by Dr. Warren had spread far and wide.
Colonel Conant and his Charlestown friends, signaled by Paul Revere’s lanterns, had roused their neighborhood and as Revere and Dawes awakened house after house and village after village on the roads to Concord, other riders swung into the saddle and galloped to spread the warning that the regulars were marching into the country. From every direction in Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, and Worcester counties, militiamen and minutemen were on the march to Concord.
Over their shoulders, or cradled in their arms, they carried the muskets that their English law required each of them to own. Every one of them, from sixteen to sixty, was enrolled in the Crown militia, liable to be called out en masse or by a draft in time of danger. Each was expected to possess a firelock, a bayonet, and a quantity of ammunition. By now, many of them belonged also to secret minuteman companies, recently formed to march against Crown forces at a minute’s notice from watchful Whig committees of safety.
Concord stood alerted. Harness-maker Reuben Brown had been sent down toward Lexington before light to learn the truth of Dr. Prescott’s panted warning that the British were out in force. He had arrived in sight of the Lexington Common just as the regulars drew up before the minutemen and the firing started. He reined in long enough to take in what was happening, then he wheeled his horse and dashed for home to tell what he had seen. There the two local minuteman companies and one from Lincoln already were assembled, about 200 men in all.
Corporal Amos Barrett of David Brown’s Concord minuteman company expected to celebrate his twenty-third birthday in a few days; his recollection of the morning of the nineteenth was far more accurate than his orthography:
… the Beel Rong at 3 o Clock for alarum, as I was then a minnit man I was soon in town and found my Capt and the Rest of my Compny at the post, it wont Long Before thair was other minit Compneys. one Compney I believe of minnit men was Raisd in a most every town to Stand at a minits warning, before Sunrise thair was I beleave 150 of us and more of all that was thair. we thought we wood go and meet the British, we marched Down to wards Lfexington] about a mild or mild half and we see them acomming. we halted and stayd till they got within about 100 Rods, then we was orded to the about face and marchd before them with our Droms and fifes agoing and allso the Bfritish]. We had grand musick.
About a mile from Concord, a sharp ridge rose abruptly from the plain and flanked the Lexington Road all the way to the Concord town square. At the square, the road turned sharply right and followed another ridge to the wide wet meadows on the bank of the Concord River, where it turned squarely to the left and crossed the North Bridge across the stream. Thence it followed the the graceful curve of the river, skirting a hill, and arrived after about two miles at the farm buildings of Colonel James Barrett, commander of the Concord militia. Not far beyond the bridge a short road struck right off the main road to Barren’s and climbed to the top of the hill north ot the river. Colonel Barren’s buildings were one of the main objectives of the British, who knew that a quantity of the stores was concealed around them.
Lieutenant Barker described the British approach to Concord:
We met with no interruption till within a mile or two of the town, where the country people had occupied a hill which commanded the road. The Light Infantry were ordered away to the right and ascended the height in one line, upon which the Yankees quitted it without firing, which they did likewise for one or two more successively. They then crossed the river beyond the town, and we marched into the town, after taking possession of a hill with a liberty pole on it and a flag flying which was cut down. The Yankees had that hill but left it to us. We expected they would have made a stand there, but they did not choose it.
Upon occupying Concord, the British troops systematically searched for stores to destroy. Observed Corporal Barrett:
Thair was in the town House a number of intrenchen tools witch they Caried out and Burnt them, at last they said it was Best to Burn them in the house and Sat fire to them in the house, but our people Begd of them not to Burn the house and put it out. it wont Long before it was Set fire again but finaily it warnt Burnt, their was about 100 Barrels of flower in Mr. Hubbards malt house, they RoId that out and nocka them to peces and RoId some in the mill pond ….
While the grenadiers went about their work and the officers refreshed themselves in the local taprooms, advance companies marched to secure the bridges across the river beyond which the minutemen and militia were retiring. Captain Munday Pole marched left from the square past Jones’ tavern and posted his company at the South Bridge, but it was along the road that crossed the North Bridge that trouble promised. Colonel Smith ordered seven companies of light infantry in that direction, under command of Captain Lawrence Parsons of the 10th Regiment. Captain Walter Sloane Laurie of the light company of the 43rd recalled:
As we advanced to the bridge a large body of people under arms, assembled on the hills near the bridge, immediately retreated over it and took post on the rising grounds on the other side. As soon as we got possession of the bridge, Captain Parsons ordered my company and the company of the Fifth Regiment to remain at the bridge, whilst he and the other four proceeded [toward Barrett’s farm]. On his advancing towards the heights the country people retired at a great distance to the woods.
The light company of the 23rd, accompanied by two officers jouncing along in a chaise, passed Laurie’s handful of men a few minutes later and crossed the bridge to overtake Parsons. A courier came back from Parsons with orders for Laurie to advance the light company of the 5th, leaving only Laurie’s men at the bridge.
The “large body of people under arms” on the height overlooking Laurie’s position steadily increased in numbers. From Acton came 38 minutemen under a gunsmith, Isaac Davis, and two companies of militia. Several score from Bedford were there. Men from Lincoln came, and other small groups. The force of aroused rebels grew to about 450 strong, standing menacingly on the hill. Colonel Barrett was on the field among them consulting a group of citizens of the town.
There was uneasy waiting on both sides.
Captain Laurie passed a tense hour. Although there were about 700 British troops in and about the town, his company of thirty-odd men, advanced about a half-mile beyond town, alone facing the mass of rebels, was piteously outweighed. The rebels shifted a little closer. Laurie reported:
… as they came nearer, the Light Company of the Fourth Regiment posted on a height immediately retreated to me at the bridge as did likewise the Light Company of the Tenth Regiment, who also had been at no great distance. Upon this, I sent Lieutenant [Alexander] Robertson … to acquaint Colonel Smith of my situation, desiring he would send some of the Grenadiers to support me in case of their attacking. Mr. Robertson brought for answer that two companies would be sent me. By this time the body of the country people arrived on the heights which the company of the Fourth Regiment had occupied, and there drew up with shouldered arms …. They halted for a considerable time looking at us and then moved down upon me in a seeming regular manner. … I determined to repass the bridge with the three companies, retreating by divisions to check their progress, which we … did, lining the opposite side of the river with one company to flank the other two in case of an attack. By this time they were close upon us.
Both sides were moving cautiously, neither eager to be guilty of opening fire. It was now half past nine, or a little later, of a bright, cool morning. The rising smoke from the fires in town inspired Colonel Barrett and the rebel officers assembled on the hill to advance to the town and defend it. The troops, commanded by Major John Buttrick with Captain Davis of Acton at the head of the column and Colonel John Robinson as a volunteer aide, formed in a column of twos and started down the hill toward the British. Colonel Barrett, who remained at the crest of the hill, ordered the column not to fire unless fired upon. The two Acton fifers struck up “The White Cockade,” and the rebels strode resolutely forward. The road off the hill met at right angles the road that led to the bridge. Major Buttrick’s men turned toward the British soldiers and formed up on the causeway that led over a meadow to the bridge. At the bridge a small detail of redcoats left by Laurie were pulling up the planks.
Corporal Amos Barrett marched in the third company of minutemen; this is the way the next moments appeared to him:
Mager Buttrick said if we wair all of his mind he would Drive them away from the Bridge, they should not tair that up. we all said we wood go. We then warnt Loded. we wair all orded to Load and had stricked order not to fire till they fird firs, then to fire as fast as we could, we then marchd on … 2 Deep. It was a long Corsay. … Capt Davis had got, I Be leave, within 15 Rods of the B[ritish] when they fird 3 gons one after the other. I see the Balls strike in the River on the Right of me. as soon as they fird them, they fird on us. their balls whisled well, we then was all orded to fire … it is Straing that their warnt no more kild but they fird to high. Capt Davis was kild and mr osmore and a number wounded, we soon Drove them from the Bridge.
Three regulars were killed, four officers and four privates were wounded, before Laurie’s men fled from the bridge back toward town. The Americans did not pursue them far beyond the bridge, but withdrew to the hill from which they had marched.
The regulars, falling pell-mell back to town, collided with two belated companies of reinforcements under Colonel Smith himself. Lieutenant Barker bitterly accused the Colonel of being responsible for their tardiness: the elephantine commander had insisted on bringing them up himself, which, said Barker, “stopped ‘em from being [in] time enough, for being a very fat heavy man he would not have reached the bridge in half an hour, though it was not half a mile….” Colonel Smith, instead of re-forming the retreating troops and driving back across the bridge to succor Parsons, who had not yet returned from Barrett’s, abandoned him and joined the retreat to town. As it happened, however, Parsons and his three companies were allowed by the colonials to recross the bridge without interference.
The rebels allowed the British to retire in order for about a mile out of town. Then, as the sparkling red ranks, all aglitter in the sun, came to a bridge where the road narrowed, the angry men of the Massachusetts towns swarmed down on them. Of a sudden, Corporal Amos Barrett said, “a grait many Lay dead and the Road was bloddy.” For Lieutenant Barker, of the King’s Own Regiment, a nightmare had begun:
… we were fired on from all sides, but mostly from the rear, where people had hid themselves in houses till we had passed and then fired. The country was an amazing strong one, full of hills, woods, stone walls, etc., which the rebels did not fail to take advantage of, for they were all lined with people who kept an incessant fire upon us, as we did too upon them, but not with the same advantage, for they were so concealed there was hardly any seeing them. In this way, we marched … miles, their numbers increasing from all parts, while ours was reducing by deaths, wounds, and fatigue; and we were totally surrounded with such an incessant fire as it’s impossible to conceive; our ammunition was likely near expended.
Lieutenant Colonel Smith, now nursing a painful leg wound, prayed desperately for the relief column he had ordered so many long hours before, at two or three o’clock in the morning, when he had found the night filled with rebel alarms. General Gage had not waited for his request; on his own initiative he had ordered out Lord Percy’s force at four in the morning, but a series of stupid blunders and misunderstandings had delayed its start until nine. About that hour a thousand troops under Percy had swung out of Boston, toward Roxbury, their fifes and drums impudently shrilling “Yankee Doodle.”
With the relief force marched Frederick Mackenzie, a serious, methodical lieutenant of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. In his diary he wrote that when the column neared Lexington a little after midday, “some persons who came from Concord informed that the Grenadiers and Light Infantry were at that place and that some persons had been killed and wounded by them early in the morning at Lexington.” It was about two o’clock when Mackenzie heard some straggling shots fired about a mile in front.
As we advanced we heard the firing plainer and more frequent, and at half after two, being near the church at Lexington and the fire increasing we were ordered to form the line, which was immediately done by extending on each side of the road. But by reason of the stone walls and other obstructions, it was not formed in so regular a manner as it should have been.
The Grenadiers and Light Infantry [under Smith] were at this time retiring towards Lexington, fired upon by the rebels who took every advantage the face of the country afforded …. As soon as the Grenadiers and Light Infantry perceived the First Brigade drawn up for their support, they shouted repeatedly, and the firing ceased for a short time. [Percy, as a brigadier general, would now assume command over Lieutenant Colonel Smith.]
The ground we first formed upon was something elevated and commanded a view of that before us for about a mile, where it was terminated by some pretty high grounds covered with wood. The village of Lexington lay between both parties. We could observe a considerable number of the rebels, but they were much scattered, and not above fifty of them to be seen in a body in any place. Many lay concealed behind the stone walls and fences. They appeared most numerous in the road near the church and in a wood in the front, and on the left flank of the line where our regiment was posted. A few cannon shot were fired at those on and near the road which dispersed them. The flank companies now retired and formed behind the brigade which was soon fired upon by the rebels most advanced. A brisk fire was returned but without much effect.
As there was a piece of morassy ground in front of the left of our regiment, it would have been difficult to have passed it under the fire of the rebels from behind the trees and walls on the other side. Indeed, no part of the brigade was ordered to advance. We, therefore, drew up near the morass in expectation of orders how to act, sending an officer for one of the six-pounders. During this time the rebels endeavored to gain our flanks and crept into the covered ground on either side and as close as they could in front, firing now and then in perfect security. We also advanced a few of our best marksmen, who fired at those who showed themselves. About a quarter past three, Earl Percy having come to a resolution of returning to Boston, and having made his disposition for that purpose, our regiment received orders to form the rear guard. We immediately lined the walls and other cover in our front with some marksmen and retired from the right of companies by files to the high ground a small distance in our rear, where we again formed in line and remained in that position for near half an hour, during which time the flank companies and the other regiments of the brigade began their march in one column on the road towards Cambridge….
Lord Percy, judging that the returning to Boston by way of Cambridge (where there was a bridge over the Charles River which might either be broken down or required to be forced) and Roxbury might be attended with some difficulties and many inconveniences, took the resolution of returning by way of Charlestown, which was the shortest road and which could be defended against any number of the rebels….
During the whole of the march from Lexington the rebels kept an incessant irregular fire from all points at the column, which was the more galling as our flanking parties which at first were placed at sufficient distances to cover the march of it were at last, from the different obstructions they occasionally met with, obliged to keep almost close to it.
Our men had very few opportunities of getting good shots at the rebels, as they hardly ever fired but under cover of a stone wall, from behind a tree, or out of a house, and the moment they had fired, they lay down out of sight until they had loaded again or the column had passed. In the road indeed in our rear, they were most numerous and came on pretty close, frequently calling out “King Hancock forever!” Many of them were killed in the houses on the roadside from whence they fired; in some of them seven or eight men were destroyed. Some houses were forced open in which no person could be discovered, but when the column had passed, numbers sallied out from some place in which they had lain concealed, fired at our rear guard and augmented the numbers which followed us. If we had had time to set fire to those houses, many rebels must have perished in them, but as night drew on Lord Percy thought it best to continue the march. Many houses were plundered by the soldiers, notwithstanding the efforts of the officers to prevent it. I have no doubt this inflamed the rebels and made many of them follow us farther than they would otherwise have done. By all accounts some soldiers who stayed too long in the houses were killed in the very act of plundering by those who lay concealed in them. We brought in about ten prisoners, some of whom were taken in arms. One or two more were killed on the march while prisoners by the fire of their own people.
Few or no women or children were to be seen throughout the day. As the country had undoubted intelligence that some troops were to march out and the rebels were probably determined to attack them, it is generally supposed they had previously removed their families from the neighborhood.
Although Mackenzie had seen few women or children, many were involved in the actions of the day. A man from the British ships in Boston Harbor wrote to England about the fury of the rebel attacks:
… even women had firelocks. One was seen to fire a blunderbuss between her father and husband from their windows. There they three, with an infant child, soon suffered the fury of the day. In another house which was long defended by eight resolute fellows, the grenadiers at last got possession, when after having run their bayonets into seven, the eighth continued to abuse them with all the [beastlike rage] of a true Cromwellian, and but a moment before he quitted this world applied such epithets as I must leave unmentioned….
The British column had been on the march about an hour under heavy, scattered rebel fire, when a little more than two miles from Lexington, it descended the high road to the “Foot of the Rocks” at Menotomy. In the long street of the village, nearly 1,800 fresh rebels descended upon the harassed Britons, and it was here that most of the fierce, bloody, close-quarter and house-to-house fighting of the day occurred. Lord Percy turned his fieldpieces on his pursuers, but the cannon balls only tore up the road, toppled stone walls, and crashed into houses, causing few casualties. The redcoats fought as wildly as cornered game; their officers lost all control of their frenzied men, especially the flankers and the inevitable freebooters. From one house, Deacon Joseph Adams had fled to a nearby barn and was now hidden in the hay. In the house in bed lay his wife Hannah, who later declared:
…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.”
Thus ended an unbelievable April day. About 1,800 British regulars had marched to destroy some secreted rebel stores; 73 of them had been killed, 200 were wounded or missing. Probably an equal number of Americans had been engaged during the day, but no one could count accurately the men who came, shot at the red column, and then either came to Cambridge or hiked home. Forty-nine Americans had died and 46 were wounded or missing.
A man named John Jones arrived at Concord too late for the fighting, but soon his company was in Cambridge, billeted in Harvard College, and he was writing his “Loving Wife” the only universal truth of the day: ” ‘Tis uncertain when we shall return…. Let us be patient & remember that it is ye hand of God.”
Rebellion Is Drawn”
Cambridge Camp and Ticonderoga,
The night of the nineteenth was long and agonizing for the bone-tired redcoats. In Boston, General Gage had waited tensely all day for the return of his expedition, and as it entered Charlestown in flight, he had sent relief troops across the Charles to throw up and hold a “sort of Redoubt” on Bunker Hill. “My Lord,” he had sent word to Percy, “Gen. Pigot will pass over with a Reinforcement and fresh ammunition. The Boats which carry him may return with the Grenadiers and Light Infantry who must be most fatigued and the wounded….”
For the rebels the night did not end. Their campfires shone all night in a great circle from the Mystic to Cambridge until they paled at last against the thinning dawn. When light came, the redcoats discovered that yesterday’s nightmare had not been just a bad dream. The incredible Yankees had not vanished in the night. There they crouched around their breakfast fires, muttering about yesterday’s bloody work, remembering what their women had said when they left home, remarking how it looked like it was going to be a dry spring, and shaking their heads over what they reckoned would happen next. They were not going home. They did not intend to go home until something was decided. It was as preposterous as General Gage must have thought it was, but these men seemed to understand that they had started a war, and they intended to sit right where they were until their adversary made terms.
General Heath accepted the fact that a state of war already existed and realistically went about putting first things first. “How to feed the assembled and assembling militia was now the great object,” he thought. Even those men who had been foresighted enough to snatch a slab of bread or some cured meat when they dashed from their homes the day before were long out of food. Heath’s sergeants collected all the edibles around Cambridge, including the carcasses of beef and pork prepared for the Boston market and some ship bread at Roxbury belonging to the Royal Navy. The kitchen of Harvard College provided pots, kettles, and utensils, and soon the informal “army” was fed.
In the afternoon, General Artemas Ward, Massachusetts militia commander in chief, arrived. A bluff, fat, “middle-aged man afflicted with bladder-stone,” he had been lying ill in bed when an express rider had galloped through his town of Shrewsbury with the news of the fighting at Lexington; at daybreak on the twentieth, he had pulled himself into the saddle and ridden to Cambridge.
Ward was a slow, deliberate man with little or no imagination, but he was dependable and well liked and acted now with decision. He promptly called a council of war to fix upon guard posts, distribution of troops, fortifications, recruiting, and other matters.
He sent out parties to bury yesterday’s dead and ordered earthworks thrown up to bar the roads from Boston and to protect the central rebel position at Cambridge. He discussed extending his lines to Chelsea on the north, and ordered General Heath to march reinforcements to General John Thomas’ position on the right at Roxbury.
A number of families who had fled from Charlestown early on the nineteenth returned to their houses, but others like Hannah Winthrop and her ailing husband recognized that the peninsula, now lying between two armed forces, was a dangerous place. Mrs. Winthrop wrote her friend Mercy Warren, political satirist and wife of Plymouth merchant James Warren, that she and her husband and some eighty fellow refugees spent an uncomfortable night, the nineteenth, at a house a mile from town, “some nodding in their chairs, others resting their weary limbs on the floor.”
To stay in this place [on the twentieth] was impracticable…. Thus with precipitancy were we driven to the town of Andover, following some of our acquaintance, five of us to be conveyed with one poor tired horse and chaise. Thus we began our pilgrimage, alternately walking and riding, the roads filled with frightened women and children, some in carts with their tattered furniture, others on foot fleeing into the woods. But what added greatly to the horror … was our passing through the bloody field at Menotomy, which was strewed with the mangled bodies. We met one affectionate father with a cart looking for his murdered son and picking up his neighbors who had fallen in battle in order for their burial.
While the citizens of Charlestown puzzled where to seek refuge, and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety entreated the Massachusetts towns to enlist and send forward men to form an army at Cambridge and asked Connecticut and New Hampshire to come to their aid, the story of Lexington and Concord swept like a timber blaze through all New England and down the coast. Only a few hours after the firing between the British and the minutemen at Lexington, Israel Bissel, one of the regular post riders from Boston to New York, was thundering down the coast carrying an official report to each of the committees of safety of the other colonies. Bissel made it all the way to Philadelphia in only five days and a few hours, beating the stagecoach time some three days, a remarkable feat of endurance for a single rider. From Philadelphia the news flew southward; other riders were urged to stay in the saddle night and day until the news spread to Georgia and westward across the mountains. Everywhere the “momentous intelligence” went, a spirit of resistance sprang up: meetings were held, arms and powder were seized, and men prepared to fight.
While the American council was sitting, the British troops on Bunker Hill were withdrawn to Boston. Like General Gage himself, few British officers serving in the colonies had believed that Americans ever would resist royal armed force, but the one day of the nineteenth changed many minds. Lord Percy was first to express his revised opinion in a letter to Adjutant General Edward Harvey, in England, the morning after he returned from Charlestown to Boston:
Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them those who know very well what they are about, having been employed as Rangers against the Indians and Canadians, and this country being much covered with wood and hilly is very advantageous for their method of fighting.
Nor are several of their men void of a spirit of enthusiasm, as we experienced yesterday, for many of them concealed themselves in houses and advanced within ten yards to fire at me and other officers, though they were morally certain of being put to death themselves in an instant.
You may depend upon it, that as the rebels have now had time to prepare, they are determined to go through with it, nor will the insurrection here turn out so despicable as it is perhaps imagined at home. For my part, I never believed, I confess that they would have attacked the King’s troops or have had the perseverance I found in them yesterday.
These rebels moved swiftly to gain the advantage in propaganda. The Second Continental Congress would not convene until May 10; the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, convening on April 22, decided that news of the hostilities of the nineteenth should be given to the English people as quickly as possible and from the viewpoint of the colonists. Without waiting to consult the general Congress, the Massachusetts body within three days took depositions from scores of participants who avowed that the British troops fired first. These depositions, accompanied by a letter addressed “To the Inhabitants of Great Britain,” were sent across the Atlantic by a fast Salem schooner, and on the twenty-ninth of May the news was all over London.
The king was not disturbed. From the day he had come to the throne at the age of 21, full of piety, a personal purity new to his Hanoverian line, and a consuming ambition, he had determinedly maintained a Tory government that supported his absolute personal rule. That the American colonists had found friends among the men who opposed him did not faze the strong-willed king. Long months since, his mind had been made up. He would employ “every means of distressing America” until his deluded subjects “felt the necessity of returning to their duty.”
The Whig press in London accepted the news from New England largely as it came, making reasonable allowances for hysteria and exaggeration. An American sympathizer reported:
Administration were alarmed at the unexpected success of the Provincials and were at a loss what lies to fabricate which would destroy the force of the qualifications which accompanied the intelligence. Runners were sent to every part of the city, who were authorized to deny the authenticity of the facts, and so distressed was Government that they officially requested a suspension of belief until dispatches were received from General Gage.
When General Gage’s official account reached London on June 10 and was published in a rewritten version, which evoked contempt from the Whigs, it stirred England profoundly. The King now reluctantly admitted that a state of rebellion did exist and that a vast army would be required for America. Conscious that Great Britain was not likely to provide sufficient manpower, he considered a scheme for hiring 20,000 Russian mercenaries, but Catherine of Russia refused to make a deal. The government began to strip “desks, counting-houses and public offices” of their “peaceful occupiers to supply a new race of commanders and generals” and soldiers for the field.
From England the news sped across the Channel and electrified the Continent. John Singleton Copley, Boston painter whose subjects included Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, was traveling in Italy when the news reached him. Writing home to his Tory half brother to persuade him to leave the country and the war to others, he made a prediction:
The flame of civil war is now broke out in America, and I have not the least doubt it will rage with a violence equal to what it has ever done in any other country at any time. You are sensible also by this time of the determined resolutions of Government to persevere in vigorous measures, and what will keep them firm in this determination is that they act as (at least) four-fifths of the people would have them, they so resent the outrage offered to them in the destruction of the tea….
You must also know, I think that the people have gone too far to retract and that they will adopt the proverb which says, “When the sword of rebellion is drawn, the sheath should be thrown away.” And the Americans have it in their power to baffle all that England can do against them. I don’t mean to ward off the evils attendant on civil war, but so far as never to be subdued, so that oceans of blood will be shed to humble a people which they never will subdue. And the Americans, from the idea that England would not act against them, have tempted its power to the extreme and drawn all its weight of rage upon them, and after they have, with various success, deluged the country in blood, the issue will be that the Americans will be a free independent people.
John Singleton Copley understood his former neighbors. On the outskirts of Boston a miracle was in the making. From several thousand amateur citizen-soldiers who poured into the camp around Boston, General Ward was creating an army. Regimental organization, where it existed at all, was crude; leadership was largely incompetent and in the hands of men of local prominence rather than ability; and no strong authority prevented men from coming and going at will. Yet the conscientious, Bible-quoting militia general from Shrewsbury steadily increased and strengthened his force.
Ward’s heterogeneous assemblage derived much of its inspiration from the vibrant presence of Dr. Warren. John Hancock, Sam Adams, and Sam’s younger cousin, John, had set out for the Congress at Philadelphia, leaving to Warren almost sole management of Massachusetts civil affairs.
On the twentieth, Warren established headquarters at Jonathan Hastings’ house in Cambridge with General Ward. The Provincial Congress, through its Committee of Safety, maintained iron control over the military as well as the civil situation. And as chairman of the Committee of Safety and then as president of the Provincial Congress, Warren labored endless hours to bring order to the undisciplined troops at hand and to call more into the field.
The rude rebel army lacked supplies of all kinds. Most of the men carried their own arms, every variety of musket and rifle, but few had much ammunition--at most, a flask or horn of powder and a pocket or pouch of balls—and fewer still had blankets, tents, utensils, or provisions. Despite the old Crown militia requirements, there were practically no bayonets, and uniforms did not exist. The public supply of gunpowder was only a few score barrels, and in cannon, that most essential article for a siege, the Army was weakest of all: a mere handful of guns was assembled.
It was a New England volunteer force with its good and its bad and its rock-ribbed individualism, but it doggedly cut off Boston from all communication with the rest of the country and forced a military stalemate. It had no way to drive into Boston, but it kept General Gage from breaking out. As long as British ships could move freely in and out of the harbor, Gage was not truly besieged, but he was dependent upon the country around for food and fuel, and that he could not reach by water. “The rebels certainly block up our town and cut off our good beef and mutton…” moaned Captain Harris of the 5th Regiment. “At present we are completely blockaded and subsisting almost on salt provisions.”
General Gage promptly increased the guards and sentries at the posts around town, enjoined his officers “to lay at their barracks” for easy accessibility in case of alarm, and expanded his fortifications. The weather turned fair and mild for the next few days. Construction progressed rapidly.
While Gage peered fearfully from Boston’s forts toward the growing rebel lines, Ward’s troops toiled manfully building entrenchments and redoubts, and Dr. Warren’s committee set afoot a secret expedition in the northern wilderness of New York in the hope of obtaining heavy guns for the siege. It was an odd adventure that had started in Connecticut when Israel Bissel, the post rider, had aroused New Haven. There an ambitious, bustling 34-year-old apothecary and merchant named Benedict Arnold commanded the local militia company, an elite outfit called the Governor’s Foot Guard, smartly uniformed in scarlet, white, and black. On the morning of the twenty-second, a shining Saturday, the short, swarthy captain led his fifty-odd men swinging up the road toward Cambridge.
On the road, Captain Arnold met Colonel Samuel Parsons, returning from Cambridge to Connecticut to recruit more men. Colonel Parsons expressed concern over the lack of cannon on the lines at Cambridge, and at once Arnold thought of a source of supply. On trips to Canada, where he often had traded in horses and merchandise, he told Colonel Parsons, he had become familiar with the rotting old British-held fort, Ticonderoga, at the southern end of Lake Champlain. It contained, he guessed, eighty pieces of heavy cannon, twenty brass guns, and ten to twelve mortars with small arms and other supplies in proportion, and its peacetime British garrison was insignificant.
By the time Arnold reached Cambridge, he was ready to propose the capture of Fort Ticonderoga to the Committee of Safety. Because the fort was in New York territory, the committee sent Arnold’s information to the New York committee, rather than launch an armed expedition into New York’s jurisdiction. But impulsive Dr. Warren could not wait. On the third of May, he persuaded his committee to appoint Arnold a colonel for “a secret service,” for which he was to enlist not over 400 men in western Massachusetts and neighboring colonies. Arnold’s instructions were to take the fort, leave a garrison, and bring away the cannon and stores.
The energetic Arnold set out at once. When he reached Stockbridge, he learned to his angry astonishment that another expedition was on the march against the fort. Colonel Parsons, after his meeting with Arnold, had conferred with several prominent Hartford citizens, who had decided to commission capture of the fort by the giant outlaw chief of the New Hampshire Grants, Ethan Allen, and his Green Mountain Boys, a powerful vigilante force that had been battling for five years against New York authority to uphold land rights of Hampshire citizens.
Colonel Arnold, fearing a rival might outrace him to glory, did not wait for the men he had recruited to join him, but galloped north with a single servant on the trail of the Green Mountain Boys.
At Castleton, twenty miles below Ticonderoga, in a smoky taproom, he found the Boys and the Connecticut men and their followers, and about midnight he and they joined Ethan Allen at a rendezvous point a few miles north, on the east shore of Lake Champlain.
After a bitter argument between the rival leaders, Arnold reluctantly agreed to a compromise—to march with Allen at the head of the column, but to issue no orders.
The problem now was to get across the dark, squall-ruffled waters of Lake Champlain to the western shore. Allen had sent men to commandeer boats from the head of the lake, but hours passed and they did not come. Finally, accompanied by Arnold, Allen started across with two boats that were at hand. It was nearly three o’clock in the morning of May 10 when he landed his first contingent of 83 men north of the fort. The eastern sky was beginning to pale. Reluctant to lose the element of surprise, he dared not wait for the rest of the men to ferry across, and left them on the eastern shore. He led his 83 down a road through thick forest skirting the lake and the east wall of the fort, to an open wicket gate on the south side.
Allen and Arnold stormed through the gate, each trying to outpace the other. A drowsing sentry jerked to life, and aimed his musket. When it flashed in the pan, he flung it away and fled through the covered way into the fort. The Green Mountain Boys crowded through the gate and formed, back to back, on the parade ground, whooping like red men.
Only 45 redcoats garrisoned the fort, five described by their own officers as “old, wore out, & unserviceable,” others sick. Twenty-four of their women and children lived in the barracks, and all were fast asleep. There were a few moments of turmoil, as the officers roused themselves to learn what was happening; then, yielding to the inevitable, the British commander, Captain Delaplace, surrendered the fort and all it contained.
Bunker Hill June 17, 1775
Allen’s and Arnold’s roistering exploits at Ticonderoga did not immediately change the situation before Boston. For lack of transport the cannon and stores could not be moved, and although the capture of the strategic point on the lake had the very important effect of discouraging for some time an English thrust from Canada, this advantage was to be lost through American lack of foresight.
At Cambridge every energy was consumed in making an army of the force gathered there. The men who had come on the alarm of the nineteenth of April were militia and minutemen from sixteen to sixty, married and single, strong and feeble. Many of them were impossible soldier material, without regimental organization, serving under elected local captains, and feeling no obligation to remain but that of moral suasion. They could not be expected to linger long. Many went home for additional clothing, or to settle personal affairs, or to sow crops. The Committee of Safety called for substitutes from the towns, and a few came. Probably 20,000 men traveled to Cambridge, but only part of them stayed after the first few days. Those who did remain were not an army but rather small detachments from every quarter.
A new army had to be created, and within three days the Provincial Congress authorized the enlistment of troops for the rest of the year, to be paid by the Congress, and promised to issue commissions to officers who raised regiments. Indecision and red tape slowed down the development of a firm plan of organization, but by June about 7,500 men, not only from Massachusetts, but also from New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, were enlisted and settled in a ring west of Boston from Charlestown on the north to Roxbury on the south, and the force was growing steadily.
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.
There were three hills on Charlestown peninsula: Bunker Hill, Breed’s Hill, and Morton’s Hill. Bunker Hill, a round, smooth eminence, was considerably the highest, 110 feet, just inside Charlestown Neck. Connected to it on the southeast by a ridge was steep Breed’s Hill, 75 feet. East of Breed’s lay brick kilns and clay pits and sloughy land; west was the most settled part of Charlestown. In the southeast corner of the mile-long peninsula, where it widened to a halfmile, was Morton’s Hill, about 35 feet high, sloping down to Morton’s Point. A highway varying from sixteen to thirty feet wide ascended from Morton’s Poinl, traversed Breed’s and Bunker hills, and ran out the Neck, which the tides occasionally overflowed. Anolher road branched from lhe highway to the left, circled the base of Breed’s Hill, and joined the road from Charlestown, meeting the highway at the Neck.
For a reason never satisfactorily explained, the American detachment, which included Captain Samuel Gridley’s artillery company with two fieldpieces and a fatigue party of 200 Connecticut troops under Captain Thomas Knowlton, marched over Bunker Hill to Breed’s Hill, nearer the enemy, where Colonel Richard Gridley, chief engineer, laid out a plan of fortification. Here every advantage of the higher Bunker Hill was lost, for Breed’s commanded neither the water nor its own flanks. Its only advantage was that it was so much nearer to Boston that even small cannon from its top could threaten the town and the shipping. Peter Brown wrote:
… we entrenched and made a fort of about ten rod long and eight wide, with a breastwork of about eight more. We worked there undiscovered till about five in the morn, and then we saw our danger, being against eight ships of the line and all Boston fortified against us….
And about half after five in the morn, we not having about the fort done, they began to fire (I suppose as soon as they had orders) pretty briskly a few minutes, and then stopped, and then again to the number of about twenty or more. They killed one of us, and then they ceased till about eleven o’clock, and then they began pretty brisk again; and that caused some of our young country people to desert, apprehending the danger in a clearer manner than the rest, who were more diligent in digging and fortifying ourselves against them. We began to be almost beat out, being tired by our labor and having no sleep the night before, but little victuals, no drink but rum….
It being about three o’clock, there was a little cessation of the cannons roaring. Come to look, there was a matter of forty barges full of regulars coming over to us. It is supposed there were about three thousand of them and about seven hundred of us left not deserted, besides five hundred reinforcement that could not get so nigh to us as to do any good hardly, till they saw that we must all be cut off, or some of them, and then they advanced.
When our officers saw that the regulars would land, they ordered the artillery to go out of the fort and prevent their landing if possible, from which the artillery captain took his pieces and went right off home to Cambridge as fast as he could, for which he is now confined and we expect will be shot for it.
But the enemy landed and fronted before us and formed themselves in an oblong square, so as to surround us which they did in part, and after they were well formed, they advanced towards us in order to swallow us up. But they found a chokey mouthful of us, though we could do nothing with our small arms as yet for distance and had but two cannon and nary gunner. And they from Boston and from the ships a-firing and throwing bombs keeping us down till they got almost round us.
The booming of the ships’ guns in Boston before sunrise on the morning of the sixteenth, followed almost instantly by the crash of guns from a battery on Copp’s Hill, was General Gage’s first notice that the rebels had stolen a march on him, and were entrenching on Breed’s Hill. In a few minutes the other generals arrived, and to a window-shaking cannonade sat down to a council of war. Obviously the rebels must be driven at once from Charlestown peninsula. General Clinton proposed that while an attack be made on the hill, troops should also be sent at once to cut off Charlestown Neck, “not a stonethrow across,” but General Howe argued that a direct frontal attack on the new rebel redoubt would be sufficient. Howe prevailed. Then hours passed, while bread was baked, meat boiled, and officers waited upon tides; finally a main body of 1,550 men and a reserve of 700 under Howe landed at Morton’s Point and formed on that hill.
By now the rebels had extended an earthwork left of their redoubt about a hundred yards. To the rear, beyond a patch of swampy ground, another breastwork extended leftward to the bank of the Mystic; it “consisted of two fence rails, the intervals filled with bushes, hay and grass which they found on the spot ready cut.” Along this rail fence lay Knowlton’s detachment, strengthened by Colonel John Stark’s New Hampshire regiment and some of James Reed’s.
Howe himself, with the light infantry, commanded the British right, facing the fence, expecting to turn the rebel flank, while General Robert Pigot, commanding the left, was to assault the redoubt.
As Private Peter Brown continued to work feverishly on the American earthwork, the red lines moved forward. A British officer, advancing with Howe’s troops, later described the redcoat advance that hot afternoon:
Our troops advanced with great confidence, expecting an easy victory. As they were marching up to attack, our artillery stopped firing. The general on inquiring the reason was told they had got twelve pound balls to six pounders, but that they had grape shot. On this, he ordered them forward and to fire grape.
As we approached, an incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel lines. It seemed a continued sheet of fire for near thirty minutes. Our Light Infantry were served up in companies against the grass fence without being able to penetrate. Indeed, how could we penetrate? Most of our Grenadiers and Light Infantry the moment of presenting themselves lost three-fourths, and many nine-tenths, of their men. Some had only eight and nine men a company left, some only three, four, and five.
On the left, Pigot was staggered and actually retreated. Observe, our men were not driven back; they actually retreated by orders.
Across the Charles, Howe’s colleagues, Burgoyne and Clinton, stood in a battery overlooking Charlestown. Spread before them, as in a vast amphitheater, was the fierce defense of Breed’s Hill. Upon Burgoyne, no stranger to warfare, the sight of Howe’s stubborn assault, broken and flung back, made such an impression that when he wrote a friend in England a few days later, every detail was still burning fresh in his memory:
As his first arm advanced up the hill, they met with a thousand impediments from strong fences and were much exposed. They were also exceedingly hurt by musketry from Charlestown, though Clinton and I did not perceive it till Howe sent us word by a boat and desired us to set fire to the town, which was immediately done…. Our battery kept an incessant fire on the height. It was seconded by a number of frigates, floating batteries, and one ship of the line.
And now ensued one of the greatest scenes of war that can be conceived. If we look to the height, Howe’s corps ascending the hill in the face of the entrenchments and in a very disadvantageous ground was much engaged. To the left the enemy pouring in fresh troops by thousands over the land, and in the arm of the sea our ships and floating batteries cannonading them. Straight before us, a large and noble town in one great blaze. The church steeples being of timber were great pyramids of fire above the rest. Behind us, the church steeples and heights of our own camp, covered with spectators of the rest of our army which was engaged. The hills round the country covered with spectators. The enemy all in anxious suspense. The roar of cannon, mortars, and musketry, the crash of churches, ships upon the stocks, and whole streets falling together in ruins to fill the ear; the storm of the redoubts with the objects above described to fill the eye, and the reflection that perhaps a defeat was a final loss to the British Empire in America to fill the mind, made the whole a picture and a complication of horror and importance beyond anything that ever came to my lot to be witness to.
About midway of the American entrenchments was Robert Steele, a drummer boy of Ephraim Doolittle’s regiment, which had come up during the day from Cambridge under command of its major, Willard Moore. The two favorite tunes with fifers and drummers in those first days were “Yankee Doodle” and “Welcome Here.” Years later, Robert told a friend, “I beat to ‘Yankee Doodle’ when we mustered for Bunker Hill that morning,” and he related what he recalled of the battle:
… the British … marched with rather a slow step nearly up to our entrenchment, and the battle began. The conflict was sharp, but the British soon retreated with a quicker step than they came up, leaving some of their killed and wounded in sight of us. They retreated towards where they landed and formed again … came up again and a second battle ensued which was harder and longer than the first, but being but a lad and this the first engagement I was ever in, I cannot remember much more … than great noise and confusion. One or two circumstances I can, however, distinctly remember….
About the time the British retreated the second time, I was standing side of Benjamin Ballard, a Boston boy about my age, who had a gun in his hands, when one of our sergeants came up to us and said, “You are young and spry, run in a moment to some of the stores and bring some rum. Major Moore is badly wounded. Go as quick as possible.”
We threw down our implements of war and run as fast as we could and passed over the hill … down to Charlestown Neck and found there was a firing in that quarter. We heard the shot pass over our heads, which I afterwards understood were thrown from a floating battery in Mystic River and from the shipping on the Boston side of the Neck.
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:
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.
We are here, to use a common expression, “taking the bull by the horns,” attacking the enemy in their strong parts. I wish this cursed place was burned; the only use is its harbor, which may be said to be material, but in all other respects it’s the worst place either to act offensively from, or defensively. I have before wrote to your Lordship my opinion, that a large army must at length be employed to reduce these people and mentioned the hiring of foreign troops. I fear it must come to that, or else to avoid a land war and make use only of your fleet. I don’t find one province in appearance better disposed than another, though I think if this army was in New York that we should find many friends and be able to raise forces in that province on the side of government.
Gage and Howe had had enough for the present. Clinton argued vainly with them to seize Dorchester Heights. From Foster’s Hill there, he said, the rebels could do more harm to Boston than ever they might have done from Charlestown. He insisted, “if we were ever driven from Boston it would be by the enemy batteries at Foster Hill.” But Gage determinedly stood on the defensive, and soon it was evident that he would continue to do so. The one battle that never should have been fought for the hill that never should have been defended was all. The British strongly fortified Bunker Hill and then Breed’s and remained in possession of the peninsula. The rebels, after fortifying Winter Hill, built works atop Prospect Hill to the eastward, and within a week were strengthening their lines all the way round to Roxbury. And the armies settled to inactivity.