Robert Tomes.

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

. (page 23 of 126)
Online LibraryRobert TomesBattles of America by sea and land. With biographies of naval and military commanders (Volume 01) → online text (page 23 of 126)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

provincial troops were not even inconve
nienced, for, as the summer breeze quick
ened toward evening, the dark clouds of
smoke were driven aside, and the enemy
so revealed to view, that each American
musket could mark its victim in the clear
light of the summer afternoon.

The British came on as before, firing
at every step as they advanced. The
Americans, more obedient than on the
former occasion, reserved their fire until
the enemy were close to them, and then
sent forth a murderous volley. The Brit
ish troops bore it well, notwithstanding
its fatal effect upon their ranks, and held
their ground. The second volley stag
gered them, however, and sent them fly
ing back. Their officers did their best to
rally them ordering, threatening, and
even trying to goad them back to their
duty with the points of their swords. It
was, however, nil in vain : the men fled
to the bottom of the hill. Howe was con
spicuous among the officers in their efforts
to encourage the troops by their words

and own daring example. He was con
stantly in the van during the attack up
on the fence ; and, as one after another
of his aids was shot down, and his men
were falling back, he was left almost
alone, exposed as a prominent mark to
the whole American line of sharp-shoot
ers. But neither his example, his com
mands, nor his threats, could induce his
troops to advance in the face of the ter
rible fire of their foes. They continued
their retreat, and in great disorder ; some
even rushed to the shore, and sprang in
to the boats.

At this moment, the thousands of pa
triots who beheld the scene, from every
neighboring point of view, were cheered
with almost certain hope of final victory ;
while the British looked on from Boston
with anxious alarm. Burgoyne;who was
a witness of the whole action from Copp s
hill, acknowledged that the moment was
critical, for he saw that Howe s forces
were staggered. He declared loudly that
it Avould require the utmost exertion ol
all the officers, from the generals down
to the subalterns, to repair the disorder
which the hot and unexpected fire of the
Americans had produced. A long pause
now ensued, while Howe and his gener
als were striving to reform their disor
dered troops.

Prescott, in the meanwhile, pointing to
the heaps of the dead and dying, which
lay scattered on the hill to within a few
yards of the works, reminded his men of
the good service they had done, and en
couraged them to meet with the same
spirit the next attack. "If they are
driven back once more," said he, " they




will never rally again." The men an
swered him with a cheer, and cried out,
" We are ready for the red-coats again !"
The colonel, however, felt more anxiety
than he cared to express. He knew that
the ammunition was failing ; and so long
had he been expecting in vain the arri
val of reinforcements, that he almost gave
up all hope Of any aid reaching him in
time. The British still hesitated about
renewing the attack ; and the pause ap
peared so long, that the Americans began
to hope that the work of the day was
over, and that the victory was theirs.

While Prescott was anxiously await
ing reinforcements, Putnam was doing his
best to bring them. He rode to the rear
of Bunker s hill, and, meeting with a regi
ment of Massachusetts men, detailed some
for work on the fortifications, and sent
the rest to do duty at the fence. He
found Gridley falling back, with the view
of covering, as he said, the retreat of the
patriots, and tried to bring him to the
ground again, but did not succeed. Put
nam was indefatigable, but failed to get
the aid which he hoped, and returned to
his post.

Howe now determined upon another
assault. Some of his officers loudly op
posed it, saying it would be downright
butchery to lead the men against the ter
rible American fire. The general, how
ever, insisted, declaring that British hon
or was at stake. They must " fight, con
quer, or die," as it would never do for
English soldiers to give way before a
rabble rout of rustic rebels ; and, besides,"
he continued, " there is no chance now to
retreat, as all the boats are on the other

side of the river." General Clinton ar
riving at this moment, and bringing with
him a timely reinforcement of four hun
dred marines, the men were encouraged,
and resigned themselves, though with a
disheartened air, to the seemingly des
perate orders of their commander. Howe
had learned wisdom from the " rustics,"
and prudently assumed their mode of
warfare. His troops were ordered to re
serve their fire until close to the works,
which it was now determined to make
the main object of attack. The artillery
was, moreover, to be applied more effect
ually, and to be brought up in such a
position as to rake the breastwork and
fence. Clinton and Pigot were to lead
the left division, against the redoubt;
while Howe had reserved for himself and
his grenadiers and light-infantry the at
tack on the breastwork.

The British officers were determined
to carry the American works at all haz
ards of toil and death. They were en
couraged by the .discovery that the
"rebels "were almost without ammuni
tion, and the fact from the raking fire
which the English ships and batteries
succeeded in keeping up across Charles-
town neck that the Americans had but
little chance of receiving reinforcements.
The troops were ordered, if their fire
should prove ineffectual, to carry the
works at the point of the bayonet. To
lighten them for this active service, the
men were told to throw off their knap
sacks ; and some of the soldiers, on that
hot day, stripped themselves to their

Prescott now beheld the steady ap-



[PART n.

proach of the British with unusual anxi
ety. His ammunition was reduced to a
few artillery -cartridges. These he or
dered to be opened, and the powder they
contained to be distributed to his troops,
begging them " not to waste a grain of
it, and to be sure to make every shot
tell." A few only of the Americans had
bayonets to their muskets, and these were
stationed at the most exposed points of
the redoubt. Such were the desperate
straits to Avhich the rest were reduced
for want of means of defence, that they
collected together heaps of stones, to use
as missiles against the enemy; and the
men, laying hold by the barrels, bran
dished their muskets, and declared that
they would beat back the British with
the butt-ends.

Howe first made a show of attack on
the rail-fence, but he soon concentrated
his force against the works. His artille
ry was so brought to bear, that it swept
the breastwork from end to end, and drove
its defenders into the redoubt. Prescott
saw the success of this manoeuvre, and
feared the fatal result. He was, however,
firm in his determination to resist to the
last, and continued resolutely to give his
orders, with his usual calmness. His men,
whose powder was reduced to little more
than a single charge each, were again and
again ordered to reserve their fire until
the latest moment. When the enemy
had reached within twenty yards of the
redoubt, the word " Fire !" was given, and
the Americans sent forth another of their
volleys, with the usual terrific effect : the
British ranks were broken by the numer
ous dead, and the whole body staggered

momentarily ; but the columns quickly
formed again, and, without returning the
fire, advanced steadily forward. As usual,
the English officers suffered the most by
the American fire, several of them having
been killed, and General Howe himself
wounded in the foot. He continued, how
ever, to lead on his troops, without giving
a momentary regard to his own suffering.

The Americans, with hardly any am
munition left, could no longer fire their
fatal volleys ; and their shots were so
scant, that the British troops succeeded
in marching up to the redoubt, and be
gan to scale its w r alls. A spirited young
Irish officer was the first to mount the
parapet, which he had just reached, shout
ing, " The day is ours !" when he was shot
down, and with him fell those who had
immediately followed. Major Pitcairn.
who commanded the British in the skir
mish at Lexington, was among the earli
est on the wall, and, as he mounted, cried
out, " Now for the glory of the marines !"
when he was toppled over by a mortal
shot, from a negro volunteer.

The British soldiers now began to
swarm over, while the Americans inef
fectually attempted to resist them by
hurling stones at them. This only en
couraged the enemy, for they were con
scious that the ammunition of the re
doubt was exhausted. The strnsro-le now


was hand to hand. The British had the
advantage of their bayonets and reserved
fire, but the Americans made a manful
resistance with the stocks of their mus
kets. It was, however, in vain. Gener
al Pigot had succeeded, by the aid of a
tree, in mounting the wall ; and, spring-




ing down into the redoubt, was followed
by swarms of his men, whose bristling
bayonets filled the space within; and
their thronging steps, stirring up the
ground, raised such a cloud of dust, that
the outlet of the fortress could scarcely
be seen. Colonel Prescott, seeing that
all hope of further successful resistance
was gone, ordered his men to retreat.
Driven as they were into a corner, it was
difficult for them to get out. Some scram
bled over the top of the walls, and others
had to cut their way through the oppo
sing enemy. Prescott himself was the
last to retire, and only succeeded in es
caping by striking down, with his sword,
bayonet after bayonet, thrust at his life.
He retained his martial bearing through
out. " lie did not run, but stepped along,
with his sword up." Notwithstanding his
cool and deliberate movements, he got
off unharmed, although both his " banyan
and waistcoat were perforated in several

As the British took possession of the
American works, they set up a loud huz
za of triumph. They then reformed, and
began to fire upon the retreating provin
cials, doing more havoc than they had
yet done. Warren was at this moment
killed by a shot through the head ; and,
as he was among the last to leave the
works, there were none to carry him from
the field. Colonel Gardner was killed ;
Gridley and Bridge were wounded ; and
a number of other officers, with many
privates, suffered.

The Americans at the rail-fence, in the
meanwhile, had gallantly held their posi-

* Frothinghum.

tion, having resisted all attempts to turn
their flank. When, however, they saw
that the redoubt was in possession of the
enemy, and that their comrades were in
full retreat, they also retired, but with
wonderful regularity for such raw troops.
Their steady courage and excellent or
der saved Prescott s force from being ex
terminated; for, by defending the rear,
they prevented the British troops from
surrounding the American main body,
and thus cutting off its retreat. General
Putnam steadily withdrew his men, from
their position at the base, up the ascent
of Bunker s hill, where he strove to bring
the rest of the retreating forces to a stand.
He rode to the rear of the troops, while
the British bullets w r ere flying thick and
fast about his head, and entreated them
to turn again and front the enemy. " We
can make a stand here !" he cried ; " we
can stop them yet. In God s name, form
and give them one shot more !" The
slaughter continued dreadful; and still
" Old Put," nothing daunted, stopped an
artillery-piece, and, pointing it against
the pursuers, stood by it until the Brit
ish bayonets were almost at his breast.
Pomeroy, too, another veteran, planting
himself with his broken musket in his
hand at the side of the resolute Putnam,
endeavored by his words and example to
rally his retreating comrades. The tor
rent, however, could not be stayed : the
patriots continued their flight over the
top and down the side of Bunker s hill,
across Charlestown neck (terribly galled
as they fled by a fire from the English
men-of-war and batteries), and into the
country, until they reached Cambridge.



The British did not continue the pur
suit, although General Clinton earnestly
begged Howe to follow up his success by
pushing on his troops to Cambridge. He
seemed, however, satisfied at present with
his hardly-earned victory. His men were
exhausted by the day s work, and discour
aged by the loss of their comrades, among
whom the carnage had been so terrible.
It was getting late, moreover, it being
past five o clock when the British in pur
suit reached Bunker s hill. Here they
paused, and, receiving additional forces
from Boston, spent the night in raising
abreastwork to protect the position.

When Colonel Prescott reached Ward s
headquarters at Cambridge, he found the
general in great alarm, lest the enemy
should advance upon him and catch him
when so ill prepared for resistance. Pres
cott, however, set his mind somewhat at
ease, telling him he did not think that
the British would be in a very exulting
mood after that day s success. The colo
nel, after receiving Ward s thanks for his
gallant conduct, declared that it was true
lie had been vanquished, but that the en
emy had no reason to triumph ; for, if
the handful of men under his command,
though exhausted by fatigue and hunger,
had been supplied with sufficient ammu
nition and with bayonets, he could have
held his position. He offered, moreover,
to retake the hill that very night, if fif
teen hundred men, properly equipped
and supplied, should be given him. But
the more cautious Ward was not disposed
to accede to this daring proposition.

The loss of the British in killed and
wounded, in this momentous conflict, w r as

at least one thousand and fifty-four, while
that of the Americans was no more than
four hundred and fifty.

Though forced to retreat, the Ameri
cans gained a great moral victory, while
the British sustained equally a defeat.
The raw militia had proved that they
could not only stand the fire of regular
troops, but that they could resist them
effectually, with a fair hope of victorious
success. Critical judgments severely con
demned the conception of the enterprise
as rash, but all united in praising the
courage and steadiness with which it was
executed. An orator in the British house
of commons could not withhold his admi
ration of the American gallantry on the
occasion : " To a mind," he said, " which
loves to contemplate the glorious spirit
of freedom, no spectacle can be more af
fecting than the action at Bunker s hill.
To see an irregular peasantry, command
ed by a physician, inferior in number,
opposed by every circumstance of can
non and bombs that could terrify timid
minds, calmly wait the attack of the gal
lant Howe, leading on the best troops in
the world, with an excellent train of ar
tillery, and twice repulsing those very
troops, who had often chased the chosen
battalions of France, and at last retiring
for want of ammunition, but in so re
spectable a manner that they were not
even pursued who can reflect on such
scenes, and not adore the constitution
of government which could breed such
men ? *

The struggle on Bunker s hill might

* Governor Jolinstonc, in a speech in the house of com
mons, October 30, 1775.




well be condemned on stragetic princi
ples, for nothing was gained in a purely
military point of view. It had, however,
a great influence in promoting the patri
otic cause ; it gave increased hope to the
defenders of that cause, and lessened the
confidence of its opponents. The most in
veterate tories in Great Britain acknowl
edged, when they heard of this dearly-
bought victory, that " affairs wore a seri
ous aspect in America ;" and none now
pretended that " with a couple of regi
ments" the whole of the colonies could
be subjected. The friends of America
were no less elated than its enemies were
depressed. When Washington heard of
the struggle at Bunker s hill, his first
question was, whether the militia had
stood the fire of the British regulars. On


being told that they had, he answered,
" The liberties of the country are safe."
Though joy was the more common
feeling throughout the country at the re
sult of the contest, there was a universal
grief at the loss sustained in the death
of Warren. Howe passed the highest eu-
logium on him when he said, as he saw
the body of the illustrious patriot lying
upon the battle-field, that " his death was
worth to the British five hundred of the
provincials." WARREN was still a young
man when he gave up his life to the cause
of his country. He was born in 1740, at
the farmhouse of his father in Roxbury.
Though of comparatively humble origin,
lie enjoyed the best opportunities of cul
ture that his country afforded. He grad
uated at Harvard college, and studied
medicine under the most eminent physi
cian at Boston, where he himself prac

tised his profession, and rapidly reached
its highest rank. Though devoted to his
art, his impulsive nature soon exhibited
a warm sympathy with the patriot cause
and he took an active part in the liberal
colonial politics of his day. He boldly
joined the bands of the " Sons of Liber
ty," and became conspicuous as a leader
among this brotherhood pledged to the
cause of freedom. He was a man cool
and judicious in counsel, and yet fervid
and even eloquent in utterance. He had
so much the reputation of an orator, that
he was chosen to deliver, in 1771, the ora
tion commemorative of the Boston mas
sacre. In 1775, he volunteered to per
form the same duty, for no other reason
than because the British officers had
threatened to take the life of any man
who should venture upon its perform
ance. Warren s offer was accepted, and
the day arrived. The meetinghouse was
the place appointed, and the British offi
cers seemed determined upon executing
their threat, for they filled the pews, the
aisles, and even the pulpit, with armed
soldiers. The young orator was obliged
to make his way, by means of a ladder,
through a window, to a back part of the
pulpit. The audience, though threaten
ing in look, kept a profound silence, while
Warren began his oration. Such was the
power of his earnest eloquence, that even
his military auditors, w T ho had come steel
ed to vengeance, were softened to tears
of sympathy and compassion for those
martyrs of freedom whose sacrifice the
youthful orator so feelingly described.

Warren was so highly esteemed in New
England, that he was chosen to succeed




John Hancock as president of the provin
cial Congress ; and when hostilities with
Great Britain were imminent, he received
the commission of major-general. A con
temporary of Warren has said : " He was
valued in private life for his engaging
manners, and as a physician for his pro
fessional abilities. The death of an ami
able consort had made his life of the
greatest importance to his children; he
was willing, however, to risk it in the ser
vice of the public. His intrepidity and
zeal for the cause he had espoused, to
gether with the electing voice of the pro
vincial Congress, induced him to enter
upon the military line. Within four days
after his appointment to a major-general
ship, he fell a noble sacrifice to the natu
ral rights of mankind. He was of a mid
dling size, and of a lowish stature. The
ladies pronounced him handsome."

There were memorable officers, too,
who fell on the British side. Lieutenant-
Colonel Abercrombie was killed while

leading on his grenadiers up the hill. As
his soldiers were bearing him from the
field, he begged them to spare his old
friend Putnam. "If you take General
Putnam alive, don t hang him, for he s a
brave man," were among his dying words,
which showed how his brave heart was
beating true to a noble gallantry in its
latest pulsations. Major Pitcairn was also
greatly beloved, and his death sincerely
mourned. " I have lost my father !" cried
his son, who was of the same regiment.
" We all have lost a father !" was the ui>
terance of each soldier in it. Spendlove
and Addison, too, were gallant men; the
former a veteran of forty years service,
and the latter a worthy . collateral de
scendant of the gentle author of " The
Spectator." Only a single aid-de-camp of
Howe, so fatal to the British officers had
been the struggle, lived to reach England
Lieutenant Page whose escape from
the bloody conflict on Bunker s hill made
him memorable.*


A Sad New-England Sabbath. The Anxieties of the British at Boston. The Stir in the American Camp. Arrival of
Washington. His Life. Personal Appearance. The Effect of his Presence in the Camp. A Council of War. Or
ganization of the Army. Reform and Discipline. Wants. Want of Government. Want of Respect. Want of
Uniformity. Want of Clothing. Want of Powder. Want of Money. No Lack of Spirit.


IT was an unusual Sunday for New
England, the day after the bloody
struggle on Breed s hill. The British
cannonade disturbed the peace of the
sabbath with its threatening roar. "It
has not ceased yet, and it is now three

June 18,

o clock, sabbath afternoon," writes Mrs.
Adams. "It is expected they
will come out over the Neck to
night, and a dreadful battle must ensue.
Almighty God ! cover the heads of our

* Frothin<rham.




countrymen, and be a shield to our dear
friends." A rumor was abroad that the
British were about to march to Cam
bridge, and take dreadful revenge for the
slaughter they had suffered on the previ
ous day. From the whole country round
crowds w T ere hurrying to the American
camp. Some were volunteers, coming
with their muskets on their shoulders, to
proffer their aid in the approaching dan
ger ; and many were fathers, too old to
bear arms, mothers, wives, and daugh
ters, who, with hearts stifled with com
pressed doubts and fears, anxiously sped
on their way, and breathlessly caught
the joyful word of hope or the agonizing
sentence of despair. They came to hear
of the life or the death of those they
loved. It was a day of mourning to ma
ny, and not a joyful sabbath to a single
soul. The country was in the agony of
its trial, and the throes of its suffering
sorely wrung the hearts of the bravest.

The British, however, were in no hu
mor or condition to execute the ven
geance which was feared. Their victory,
with its terrific slaughter, had staggered
them more than an ordinary defeat. As
the dead, during that whole day, were
borne through the streets of Boston, offi
cers and soldiers looked upon the remains
of their comrades with gloomy thoughts,
to which they gave utterance in murmurs
against their leaders, on account of the
sacrifice they had wrought.

Those inhabitants still left in the city
whose sympathy was with the patriotic
cause, could not conceal their indigna
tion at an army which seemed deter
mined, at any cost of blood, to crush out

American liberty. It was feared by the
British generals that the " rebels" of Bos
ton would arise in their rage, attack and
burn the town. All "unsuspected" citi
zens were called upon to relieve the mili
tary guards by establishing night-patrols.
Governor Gage issued a proclamation, re
quiring the inhabitants to surrender up
their firearms, and declaring that " all
persons in whose possession any firearms
may hereafter be found shall be deemed
enemies to his majesty s government."
Gage was alarmed, and only thought now
of defence, and not of active hostilities.
He had good occasion for anxiety, when
he saw from day to day the increased ani
mation of the patriotic spirit, and the ac
tivity with which the Americans prepared
to sustain the cause of their country.

The American camp was soon astir with
the daily arrivals of fresh troops from all
parts of New England. The patriots, al
though anxiously expectant of an attack
from the British, were now in high spir
its, and they even longed to " speak with
them again." The militia had learned a
great deal at Bunker s hill, and they be
came not only more cautious and vigi-
lant,but tolerably skilful in availing them
selves of the means and appliances of
military art. They at once set about
throwing up various kinds of defence,
and busied themselves in intrenching the
heights which they commanded in the
neighborhood of Boston. General Put
nam, as usual, was indefatigable. After

Online LibraryRobert TomesBattles of America by sea and land. With biographies of naval and military commanders (Volume 01) → online text (page 23 of 126)