Robert Tomes.

Battles of America by sea and land. With biographies of naval and military commanders (Volume 01) online

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SIXTEEN thousand New-England
patriots were now in arms before
Boston. Of these, about three fourths
were from Massachusetts ; and the rest
from Connecticut, New Hampshire, and

Rhode Island. One common sentiment
of patriotism united them all in a firm
resolve to defend their country against
the oppressor. This was their strength,
which was sure to frive them the ultimate




victory over their enemies. They had
their weaknesses, however; and these
greatly diminished their efficiency as an
army gathered to resist the disciplined
troops of Great Britain. With the ex
ception of a few veterans, who had fought
in the British ranks at Louisburg and
Quebec, most of the men were fresh from
the shop and the field. All varieties of
trades and occupations had their repre
sentatives in the American ranks. There
was even a divine, the Reverend John
Martin,* of Rhode Island, who, having
delivered a stirring sermon on the text
" Be not ye afraid of them : remember
the Lord which is great and terrible, and
fight for your brethren, your sons, and
your daughters, your wives, and your
houses" (Neh. iv. 14), shouldered his mus
ket, and took his position as a private in
the line. Most of the Americans, at best,
had had but a few days militia-training,
and knew nothing of war but its "first
steps." They could form ranks, face to
the right and left, and march, keeping an
irregular step to the village drum and
fife, to the undisguised ridicule of the
critical looker-on.

There was hardly a man, however, in
those early days, who could not steadily
poise his gun and bring down his game
with the sure aim of a " good shot," In
appearance, they had none of the look
of a soldier. In dress they pretended to
no uniformity, and civilized broadcloth
coats, homespun jackets, and coarse shirt
sleeves, indiscriminately diversified the
patriot ranks. Some shouldered fowling-
pieces rusty from neglect, or polished

* He fought bravely at Bunker s hill.

smooth with long use ; some carried blun
derbusses ; others implements of peaceful
husbandry, sharpened into weapons of
war ; and but few were provided with the
" regulation" musket and its efficient bay

There was a general scarcity of mili
tary stores. The artillery was scanty, the
ammunition small in quantity, and there
was a great want of tents, clothing, and
even roofs, to protect the troops from ex
posure to the weather. There was, more
over, worse than all, an absence of unity
in command. " The Massachusetts men
had their own commander, Connecticut
and the other provinces theirs ;" and each
insisted upon being governed exclusively
by his own leader. They were all, how
ever, ready to fight for the one cause ;
and we shall see how this unanimity of
feeling, in the time of trial, smoothed
many of the irregularities which came
from a want of discipline.

Among the officers there were men of
military experience, and well able, with
proper materiel, and under favorable cir
cumstances, to organize an army, and to
command it. Artemas Ward, the gener
al of the Massachusetts men, had fought
gallantly under Abercrombie. " Old Put,"
of Connecticut, had learned a good deal
of war while serving as a private in the
French campaign. Pomeroy had distin
guished himself at Louisburg, and so had
Gridley, where he had shown great skill
as a military engineer. Prescott and
Stark, too, \vere veterans, who had fought
bravely while serving in the British ranks
against the French. The men looked up
with veneration to these leaders, and con-



[PART n.

dently obeyed their orders. Such was
the patriot force now loosely scattered
over some ten miles of country surround
ing Boston, and holding that city in a
state of siege.

The town itself and the suburbs were
emptied of their inhabitants. Charles-
town was almost entirely deserted, but
one or two hundred out of two or three
thousand of the population being left.
A few only of the citizens returned occa
sionally, to plant their gardens, mow their
grass, and look after the property which
they could not take away with them.
The removals of the citizens from Boston
into the country were so frequent, that
General Gage became alarmed ; and, al
though he had pledged himself to give
passes to those who desired to leave, he
threw all kinds of obstructions in their
way to prevent their departure. The
passes were made out in such a manner
as to prevent those who bore them from
carrying anything with them. " All mer
chandise was forbid ; after awhile, all pro
visions were forbid; and now all merchan
dise, provisions, and medicine. Guards
were appointed to examine all trunks,
boxes, beds, and everything else, to be
carried out." The passports, too, were
often so worded as to separate men from
their wives and children, whom the gov
ernor was particularly desirous of retain
ing as pledges for the " good conduct" of
the patriots. Passes finally were refused
altogether. The whole city was given
up almost entirely to the British soldiery.
Occasional skirmishes occurred between
Gage s outposts and the American patri
ots, but nothing was effectually done un-


til the arrival of reinforcements from
Great Britain.

A large number of British troops now
arrived, w r hich, added to Gage s
previous force, gave him an ar
my of ten thousand Avell-disciplined sol
diers, mostly by long service inured to
war. Three British generals of renown
also arrived Howe, Clinton, and Bur-
goyne. As the Cerberus man-of-war, on
board of which these officers came, was
entering the harbor, she spoke a coaster ;
and the skipper, being asked what news
there was, replied, " Boston is surround
ed by ten thousand country-people."
" How many regulars are there in the
town ?" asked General Burgoyne ; and,
being told there were afaout five thou
sand, he cried out, with astonishment:
" What ! ten thousand peasants kee p five
thousand king s troops shut up ? Well,
let us get in, and w r e ll soon find elbow-
room !" This expression. " elbow-room," *
stuck by Burgoyne during all the time
he remained in America. The British
generals might well be surprised at the
state of things in Boston ; for, when they
left England, they had no thought of be
ing obliged to draw the sword, and sup
posed that their mere appearance would
settle all the difficulties. They had ac
cordingly prepared themselves with fowl
ing-pieces and fishing-rods, with the view

* " General Burgoyne is designated by Elbow-room in the
satires of the times. It is said that he loved a joke, and
used to relate that, after his Canada reverses, while a pris
oner-of-war, he was received with great courtesy by the Bos
ton people, as lie stepped from the Cluirlestown ferry-boat;
but he was really annoyed when an old lady, perched on a
shed above the crowd, cried out at the top of a shrill voice :
Make way, make way the general s coming ! Give him
elbow-room ! " FKOTHINGIIAM.



of " good sport" in America, during their
leisure hours, when off duty.

Gage, thus reinforced, prepared for ac
tive hostilities. As a beginning, he is
sued a proclamation which excited the
indignation of each patriot, and fixed him
more firmly in his resolve to fight for his
country. The British fretted greatly at
the idea of being shut up within Boston,
and now resolved to extend their " elbow-
room." It was accordingly proposed, in
council, to take possession of Dorchester
and the other heights which surrounded
the city.

The provincial leaders heard of these
designs of the enemy, and prepared to
counteract them. Several plans of oper
ation were considered, and, among oth
ers, that of occupying Bunker s hill. This
hill formed, with that of Breed s, the
heights which, overlooking the northern
end of Boston,were at the back of Charles-
town, and gradually descended to the neck
of the peninsula upon which that town is
situated. The object was, to hem the Brit
ish in effectually on that side, and pre
vent all sallies. Many, however, opposed
the plan, as too hazardous, deeming the
militia not sufficiently expert as yet to
be capable of a sustained military op
eration. But others contended that the
country was growing discontented with
the inactivity of the army, and that the
soldiers themselves were eager for work.
The veteran Putnam and the martial
Prescott strongly advocated the posses
sion of Bunker s hill, by which means
they might draw out the British and have
a fair fight with them. These officers
professed great faith in the provincials,

and Putnam said : " The Americans are
not afraid of their heads, though very
much afraid of their legs ; if you cover
these, they will fight for ever." Genera
Ward and Warren (who had been ap
pointed a brigadier-general, but had not
yet received his commission) opposed the
plan. The advice of Putnam and Pres
cott, however, carried the day.

The American forces were much scat
tered about the neighborhood of Boston
General Thomas was at Koxbury, with
four thousand Massachusetts men ; Gen
eral Greene was at Jamaica Plains, with
the Rhode-Islanders; where also was Gen
eral Spencer, with the larger portion of
his Connecticut regiment. The main
body of the American militia, consisting
of some nine thousand men and four ar
tillery-companies, was in and about Cam
bridge, where General Ward had his head
quarters. This part of the forces was dis
tributed over a considerable surface of
ground, and, extending through most of
the villages over Charlestown neck, with
its outposts it reached even the base of
Bunker s hill.

With the main body, besides General
Ward of Massachusetts, were Putnam of
Connecticut, Stark and Reed of New
Hampshire, and Gridley the engineer.
The officers and men were quartered in
the college-buildings, churches, taverns,
farmyards, and in tents under the few
breastworks which had been hastily erect-
ed here and there. It may be well here
to give a more specific description of the
scene of the struggle which we are about
to record. We borrow it from Frothing-
ham, who says :


[PART n.

" The peninsula of Charlestown is situ
ated opposite to the north end of Boston,
and is separated from it by Charles river.
It is about a mile in length from north
to south ; and its greatest breadth, next
to Boston, is about half a mile, whence
it gradually becomes narrower until it
makes an isthmus, called The Neck, con
necting it with the mainland. The Mys
tic river, about half a mile wide, is on the
east side ; and on the west side is Charles
river, which here forms a large bay a
part of which, by a dam stretching in the
direction of Cobble hill, is a millpond. In
1775, the Neck, an artificial causeway,
was so low as to be frequently overflowed
by the tides. The communication with
Boston was by a ferry where Charles-
river bridge now is, and with Maiden by
another called Penny Ferry, where at

present Maiden bridge is Bunker hill

begins at the isthmus, and rises gradually
for about three hundred yards, forming
a round, smooth hill, sloping on two sides
toward the water, and connected by a
ridge of ground on the south with the
heights now known as Breed s hill. The
easterly and westerly sides of this height
were steep ; on the east side, at its base,
were brick-kilns, clay -pits, and much
sloughy land ; and on the west side, at
the base, was the most settled part of the

town The easterly portions of these

hills were used chiefly for hay-ground and
pasturing ; the westerly portions con
tained fine orchards and gardens."

Friday night (16th of June) was
the time appointed for taking pos
session of and fortifying Bunkers hill. Ac
cordingly, orders were issued for the as-


sembling of the troops drafted for the
purpose ; and, at six o clock in the even
ing, they mustered ready for duty. They
were some twelve hundred men in all,
mostly of the Massachusetts regiments,
although Connecticut supplied a fatigue-
party of two hundred. Colonel William
Prescott, of Pepperell, was appointed to
command the Massachusetts detachment;
Captain Thomas Knowlton, a favorite of
Putnam, and an officer in his regiment,
led the Connecticut men. The two field-
pieces and forty-nine artillerymen were
in charge of Captain Samuel Gridley, a
son of Colonel Richard Gridley, who was
the chief-engineer of the enterprise, and
was to plan the fortifications about to be

The men came, as had been ordered,
provided with all the intrenching-tools
that could be found in the camp, and
with packs, blankets, and provisions for
twenty-four hours (it was supposed, for
that had been the order). They were not
informed of the precise object of the en
terprise in which they were about to en
gage. Their leader, Prescott, had received
a written order from General Ward, direct
ing him to proceed that evening to Bun
ker s hill, build fortifications there, and to
defend them until relieved. This order
was, however, not to be communicated to
his force until they had reached Charles-
town neck.

Colonel Prescott presented himself in
full uniform, being equipped with a three-
cornered hat, a top-wig, and a single-breastr
ed blue coat, with facings, and lapped up
at the skirts ;" and, as he paraded his men,
his tall figure, thus magnificently arrayed,




and his military bearing for he was a
veteran, having served as a lieutenant at
the siege of Louisburg were the admi
ration of his raw and miscellaneously-
clothed troops. He had, moreover, not
only the look und spirit of a good soldier,
but was known to be a most determined
patriot. A few months before this time,
while he commanded a regiment of min
ute-men, his brother-in-law, Colonel Wil-
lard, was at his house, and endeavored to
dissuade him from the active part he was
taking against the king s government.
Upon his being reminded that if he should
be found in arms against his sovereign, his
life and estate would be forfeited, Pres-
cott replied : " I have made up my mind
on that subject. I think it probable I
may be found in arms, but I will never be
taken alive. The tories shall never have
the satisfaction of seeing me hanged."
Such was the resolution of the man who
was intrusted with the important com
mand at Bunker s hill.

The men having been reviewed on the
common by General Ward, President
Langdon offered up an earnest prayer,
and dismissed the force with a blessing.
It was nine o clock w r hen they began
their march, which had been purposely
delayed until that late hour, in order that
it might be under the cover of the dark
ness of the night, and that the enemy
might thus remain unsuspicious of the
movement. Each man was ordered to
keep the utmost silence ; and, with two
men carrying dark lanterns in front, they
thus continued their still and groping
march to Charlestown neck, where they
came to a halt. Here the veteran Put

nam rode up, and Major Brooks joined
them. A guard now having been de
tached to the town of Charlestown, the
main body cautiously continued their
march along Charlestown neck, to the
base of Bunker s hill, where there was
another halt, when Prescott communi
cated his orders to his chief officers.

A question now arose as to the hill to
be fortified. Bunker s hill was the place
specified in the written orders ; but, as
Breed s hill was nearer Boston, it was
thought by most of the officers to be
the most suitable for the purpose intend
ed. There seemed considerable difficul
ty in coming to a decision ; but, as the
night was passing, Gridley declared there
was no longer any time to spare, and it
was finally determined to proceed to
Breed s hill, and there erect the main
fortifications although, at the earnest
persuasion of General Putnam, it was al
so agreed to raise some works on Bun
ker s hill as well. The men were now
marched farther along to the heights of
Breed s hill, and, when near the top, they
halted, stacked their guns, threw off their
packs, and prepared for the duty of the
night. Gridley marked out the lines rap
idly, and at twelve o clock had his men
fairly at work.

In the meantime, Prescott was greatly
anxious lest the labors of the provincials
should be detected by the British. He
sent a party below to patrol the shore,
and keep a close watcli upon the men-of
war lying in Charles river, within gun
shot, and upon the battery at Copp s hill,
at the north end of Boston, just across
the river. Prescott might well be anx-


[PART 11.

ious, with the enemy so threateningly
near, and who, if once aroused, before the
American works were completed, would
be sure to defeat the whole enterprise.
The patriots had so far succeeded, by
their exceeding caution, in escaping ev
ery danger. They had passed the neck
in safety, under the very guns of a man-
of-war stationed to guard that approach.
There was now more occasion than ever
for watchfulness, as their present position
was commanded by no less than three
armed vessels and several floating batte
ries, whose guns pointed directly at the
height where the Americans, as they busi
ly worked, were totally unprotected. As
their thousand spades were diligently
plied, the progress was rapid ; and the
men continued their labor without inter
ruption, listening with eager ears to the
bell-watches of the British men-of-war,
and the " All s well !" of the sentries on
the opposite shores. Prescott himself, as
the night was passing, became more and
more anxious. He continued to urge on
his men constantly to increased effort;
and went down himself to the shore, to
watch the enemy, and try if he could
catch the least sound of movement among
the ships or the troops. He could hear
nothing, in the quiet summer night, but
the hour-watches striking, and the sen
tries cry, and returned up the hill with
words of renewed encouragement and
hope. The men went to work with great-
er spirit than ever ; and Colonel Prescott
saw, with great satisfaction, as the dawn
of morning approached, the intrenchment
rising fast : for he was particularly anx
ious to have a screen for his raw troops,

since he believed it would be difficult to
keep them, however firm in their patriot
ism, steady enough to stand for the first
time in an open field against artillery and
well-disciplined soldiers.

When morning broke, so diligent had
been the Americans, that they had al
ready fortified their position with a re
doubt almost complete, and an intrench
ment of six feet in height. All this, more
over, had been done in such silence and
secrecy, that nothing was observed or
suspected by the British, until the sailors,
as day dawned, saw from the decks of
the men-of-war the American fortress,
which had risen upon the hill during the
night as if by magic. The captain of the
Lively immediately put a spring on his
cable, and, hauling in, opened a fire on
the works. This was done without or
ders ; and, upon the admiral being made
aware of it, it ceased momentarily, and
then each of his ships opened its broad
side and played unceasingly upon the
hill. The British battery on Copp s hill
also joined in with a brisk cannonade.

The firing aroused all Boston
and the neighboring suburbs ;
and the inhabitants poured out, taking
their positions on the housetops, the roofs
of the churches, and the hills, looking
anxiously at what was going on. The
patriots continued their work, in spite
of the fatigue of the night s labor and
the heat of the summer sun, as it came
out, dartiiig its burning rays upon them.
For awhile, the firing from the British
ships and the battery on Copp s hill did
no damage, as the provincials were pro
tected by the intrenchments. A private,

June 17.




however, having ventured out, was struck
down by a ball and instantly killed. This
created quite a panic among the raw
troops, and some of the men made off in

Colonel Prescott, in order to reassure
his inexperienced soldiers, now mounted
the parapet, and, walking deliberately
upon it, encouraged them at their work,
and talked laughingly of the chances of
war. At this moment, General Gage was
watching with his glass the patriot move
ment on the hill, and, seeing a tall per
son on the top of the works, asked Coun
cillor Willard, at his side, " Who is that
person, giving orders ?" " It s my broth
er-in-law Prescott," was the answer. " Will
he fight?" inquired the general. "Yes,
sir," replied Willard ; " he s an old soldier,
and will fight while there is a drop of
blood left in his veins!" "The works
must be carried," was all that Gage said
in rejoinder.

Colonel Prescott, succeeding in allay
ing the panic, and getting his men again
at work, the fortifications continued to
make fair progress ; although the day, as
it advanced, became fearfully hot, and
the troops suffered greatly, not only from
the heat, but from excessive fatigue and
want of refreshments, which they had
strangely neglected to provide them
selves with. The men at last began to
grow discontented, and some murmured
loudly. The officers took up their cause,
and urged the colonel to send to General
Ward, at Cambridge, for other men to
take the place of those who had worked
all night. Prescott refused, saying : " The
<meiny will not dare to attack us ; and if

they do, they will be defeated. The men
who have raised the works are the best
able to defend them ; already they have
learned to despise the fire of the enemy.
They have the merit of the labor, and
shall have the honor of the victory."

The patriots were certainly becoming
fast inured to warfare, under the severe
discipline of Prescott, who gave them a
foretaste of the summary mode of doing
business in the time of war, by the man
ner in which he disposed of their com
rade, the first killed by a cannon-ball.
His death was reported to the colonel by
one of the subaltern officers, who asked
what was to be done with the body.
" Bury it," replied Prescott. " The chap
lain," says Irving, describing this scene,
" gathered some of his military flock about
him, and was proceeding to perform suita
ble obsequies over the first martyr, but
Prescott ordered that the men should
disperse to their work, and the deceased
be buried immediately." The object of
the colonel was, no doubt, to remove as
soon as possible from the thoughts of his
agitated men this by no means unusual
event of battle, upon which they were
disposed to dwell with a persistency of
grief quite unsuitable and inconvenient
to the occasion.

The British troops now began to move,
and evidentlv with the view of attacking

* O

the American works on Breed s hill. Gen
eral Gage had held a council of his offi
cers in the morning, when there was a
dispute respecting the plan of operations.
Some, of whom Clinton was one, had ex
pressed themselves strongly in favor of
lauding in the rear, and, by thus cutting




off the retreat of the patriots from the
hill, proposed to hem them in within the
peninsula between two British fires : oth
ers, and among them Gage, who decided
the question, were for crossing directly
from Boston, and attacking them in front.
This was the bolder expedient, but far
the more dangerous, and which would
probably never have been entertained,
had it not been for the general s absurd
contempt of the prowess of the provin

The Americans heard the commotion
in the British camp with some degree of
anxiety. As the sound of the wheels of
the artillery-wagons rattling in the streets
of Boston, and of the beating to quarters
of the troops with drum and fife, came
across the waters, it startled the raw mi
litia with such an alarming expectation
of approaching battle, that they began to
show considerable solicitude for relief.
Their officers now urged again upon Pres-
cott to send to General Ward for fresh
men as substitutes for those on the
ground, who were completely worn out
by the night s fatigue and the want of
refreshment. Prescott would not listen
to anything which should deprive the
men then under his command of the glo
ry which he earnestly believed would be
the result of the day, but was induced to
send a messenger, soliciting reinforce
ments and a supply of provisions.

Ward had been already urged to send
aid to Prescott early in the morning, by
General Putnam, whose experienced eye

Online LibraryRobert TomesBattles of America by sea and land. With biographies of naval and military commanders (Volume 01) → online text (page 21 of 126)