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Chapter 40

MORE TROOPS ARRIVE AT BOSTON--GENERALS HOWE, BURGOYNE, AND CLINTON-- PROCLAMATION OF GAGE--NATURE OF THE AMERICAN ARMY--SCORNFUL CONDUCT OF THE BRITISH OFFICERS--PROJECT OF THE AMERICANS TO SEIZE UPON BREED'S HILL-- PUTNAM'S OPINION OF IT--SANCTIONED BY PRESCOTT--NOCTURNAL MARCH OF THE DETACHMENT--FORTIFYING OF BUNKER'S HILL--BREAK OF DAY, AND ASTONISHMENT OF THE ENEMY.


While Congress had been deliberating on the adoption of the army, and the nomination of a commander-in-chief, events had been thickening and drawing to a crisis in the excited region about Boston. The provincial troops which blockaded the town prevented supplies by land, the neighboring country refused to furnish them by water; fresh provisions and vegetables were no longer to be procured, and Boston began to experience the privations of a besieged city.

On the 25th of May, arrived ships of war and transports from England, bringing large reinforcements, under Generals Howe, Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton, commanders of high reputation.

As the ships entered the harbor, and the "rebel camp" was pointed out, ten thousand yeomanry beleaguering a town garrisoned by five thousand regulars, Burgoyne could not restrain a burst of surprise and scorn. "What!" cried he, "ten thousand peasants keep five thousand king's troops shut up! Well, let us get in, and we'll soon find elbow-room."

Inspirited by these reinforcements, General Gage determined to take the field. Previously, however, in conformity to instructions from Lord Dartmouth, the head of the war department, he issued a proclamation (12th June), putting the province under martial law, threatening to treat as rebels and traitors all malcontents who should continue under arms, together with their aiders and abettors; but offering pardon to all who should lay down their arms, and return to their allegiance. From this proffered amnesty, however, John Hancock and Samuel Adams were especially excepted; their offences being pronounced "too flagitious not to meet with condign punishment."

This proclamation only served to put the patriots on the alert against such measures as might be expected to follow, and of which their friends in Boston stood ready to apprise them. The besieging force, in the mean time, was daily augmented by recruits and volunteers, and now amounted to about fifteen thousand men distributed at various points. Its character and organization were peculiar. As has well been observed, it could not be called a national army, for, as yet, there was no nation to own it; it was not under the authority of the Continental Congress, the act of that body recognizing it not having as yet been passed, and the authority of that body itself not having been acknowledged. It was, in fact, a fortuitous assemblage of four distinct bodies of troops, belonging to different provinces, and each having a leader of its own election. About ten thousand belonged to Massachusetts, and were under the command of General Artemas Ward, whose head-quarters were at Cambridge. Another body of troops, under Colonel John Stark, already mentioned, came from New Hampshire. Rhode Island furnished a third, under the command of General Nathaniel Greene. A fourth was from Connecticut, under the veteran Putnam.

These bodies of troops, being from different colonies, were independent of each other, and had their several commanders. Those from New Hampshire were instructed to obey General Ward as commander-in-chief; with the rest, it was a voluntary act, rendered in consideration of his being military chief of Massachusetts, the province which, as allies, they came to defend. There was, in fact, but little organization in the army. Nothing kept it together, and gave it unity of action, but a common feeling of exasperated patriotism.

The troops knew but little of military discipline. Almost all were familiar with the use of fire-arms in hunting and fowling; many had served in frontier campaigns against the French, and in "bush-fighting" with the Indians; but none were acquainted with regular service or the discipline of European armies. There was a regiment of artillery, partly organized by Colonel Gridley, a skilful engineer, and furnished with nine field-pieces; but the greater part of the troops were without military dress or accoutrements; most of them were hasty levies of yeomanry, some of whom had seized their rifles and fowling-pieces, and turned out in their working clothes and homespun country garbs. It was an army of volunteers, subordinate through inclination and respect to officers of their own choice, and depending for sustenance on supplies sent from, their several towns.

Such was the army spread over an extent of ten or twelve miles, and keeping watch upon the town of Boston, containing at that time a population of seventeen thousand souls, and garrisoned with more than ten thousand British troops, disciplined and experienced in the wars of Europe.

In the disposition of these forces, General Ward had stationed himself at Cambridge, with the main body of about nine thousand men and four companies of artillery. Lieutenant-general Thomas, second in command, was posted, with five thousand Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island troops, and three or four companies of artillery, at Roxbury and Dorchester, forming the right wing of the army; while the left, composed in a great measure of New Hampshire troops, stretched through Medford to the hills of Chelsea.

It was a great annoyance to the British officers and soldiers, to be thus hemmed in by what they termed a rustic rout with calico frocks and fowling-pieces. The same scornful and taunting spirit prevailed among them, that the cavaliers of yore indulged toward the Covenanters. Considering episcopacy as the only loyal and royal faith, they insulted and desecrated the "sectarian" places of worship. One was turned into a riding school for the cavalry, and the fire in the stove was kindled with books from the library of its pastor. The Provincials retaliated by turning the Episcopal church at Cambridge into a barrack, and melting down its organ-pipes into bullets.

Both parties panted for action; the British through impatience of their humiliating position, and an eagerness to chastise what they considered the presumption of their besiegers; the Provincials through enthusiasm in their cause, a thirst for enterprise and exploit, and, it must be added, an unconsciousness of their own military deficiencies.

We have already mentioned the peninsula of Charlestown (called from a village of the same name), which lies opposite to the north side of Boston. The heights, which swell up in rear of the village, overlook the town and shipping. The project was conceived in the besieging camp to seize and occupy those heights. A council of war was held upon the subject. The arguments in favor of the attempt were, that the army was anxious to be employed; that the country was dissatisfied with its inactivity, and that the enemy might thus be drawn out to ground where they might be fought to advantage. General Putnam was one of the most strenuous in favor of the measure.

Some of the more wary and judicious, among whom were General Ward and Dr. Warren, doubted the expediency of intrenching themselves on those heights, and the possibility of maintaining so exposed a post, scantily furnished, as they were, with ordnance and ammunition. Besides, it might bring on a general engagement, which it was not safe to risk.

Putnam made light of the danger. He was confident of the bravery of the militia if intrenched, having seen it tried in the old French war. "The Americans," said he, "are never afraid of their heads; they only think of their legs; shelter them, and they'll fight for ever." He was seconded by General Pomeroy, a leader of like stamp, and another veteran of the French war. He had been a hunter in his time; a dead shot with a rifle, and was ready to lead troops against the enemy, "with five cartridges to a man."

The daring councils of such men are always captivating to the inexperienced; but in the present instance, they were sanctioned by one whose opinion in such matters, and in this vicinity, possessed peculiar weight. This was Colonel William Prescott, of Pepperell, who commanded a regiment of minute men. He, too, had seen service in the French war, and acquired reputation as a lieutenant of infantry at the capture of Cape Breton. This was sufficient to constitute him an oracle in the present instance. He was now about fifty years of age, tall and commanding in his appearance, and retaining the port of a soldier. What was more, he had a military garb; being equipped with a three-cornered hat, a top wig, and a single-breasted blue coat, with facings and lapped up at the skirts. All this served to give him consequence among the rustic militia officers with whom he was in council.

His opinion, probably, settled the question; and it was determined to seize on and fortify Bunker's Hill and Dorchester Heights. In deference, however, to the suggestions of the more cautious, it was agreed to postpone the measure until they were sufficiently supplied with the munitions of war to be able to maintain the heights when seized.

Secret intelligence hurried forward the project. General Gage, it was said, intended to take possession of Dorchester Heights on the night of the 18th of June. These heights lay on the opposite side of Boston, and the committee were ignorant of their localities. Those on Charlestown Neck, being near at hand, had some time before been reconnoitered by Colonel Richard Gridley, and other of the engineers. It was determined to seize and fortify these heights on the night of Friday, the 16th of June, in anticipation of the movement of General Gage. Troops were draughted for the purpose from the Massachusetts regiments of Colonels Prescott, Frye and Bridges. There was also a fatigue party of about two hundred men from Putnam's Connecticut troops, led by his favorite officer, Captain Knowlton; together with a company of forty-nine artillery men, with two field-pieces, commanded by Captain Samuel Gridley.

A little before sunset the troops, about twelve hundred in all, assembled on the common, in front of General Ward's quarters. They came provided with packs, blankets and provisions for four-and-twenty hours, but ignorant of the object of the expedition. Being all paraded, prayers were offered up by the reverend President Langdon, of Harvard College; after which they all set forward on their silent march.

Colonel Prescott, from his experience in military matters, and his being an officer in the Massachusetts line, had been chosen by General Ward to conduct the enterprise. His written orders were to fortify Bunker's Hill, and defend the works until he should be relieved. Colonel Richard Gridley, the chief engineer, who had likewise served in the French war, was to accompany him and plan the fortifications. It was understood that reinforcements and refreshments would be sent to the fatigue party in the morning.

The detachment left Cambridge about 9 o'clock, Colonel Prescott taking the lead, preceded by two sergeants with dark lanterns. At Charlestown Neck they were joined by Major Brooks, of Bridges' regiment, and General Putnam; and here were the waggons laden with intrenching tools, which first gave the men an indication of the nature of the enterprise.

Charlestown Neck is a narrow isthmus, connecting the peninsula with the main land; having the Mystic River, about half a mile wide, on the north, and a large embayment of Charles River on the south or right side.

It was now necessary to proceed with the utmost caution, for they were coming on ground over which the British kept jealous watch. They had erected a battery at Boston on Copp's Hill, immediately opposite to Charlestown. Five of their vessels of war were stationed so as to bear upon the peninsula from different directions, and the guns of one of them swept the isthmus, or narrow neck just mentioned.

Across this isthmus, Colonel Prescott conducted the detachment undiscovered, and up the ascent of Bunker's Hill. This commences at the Neck, and slopes up for about three hundred yards to its summit, which is about one hundred and twelve feet high. It then declines toward the south, and is connected by a ridge with Breed's Hill, about sixty or seventy feet high. The crests of the two hills are about seven hundred yards apart.

On attaining the heights, a question rose which of the two they should proceed to fortify. Bunker's Hill was specified in the written orders given to Colonel Prescott by General Ward, but Breed's Hill was much nearer to Boston, and had a better command of the town and shipping. Bunker's Hill, also, being on the upper and narrower part of the peninsula, was itself commanded by the same ship which raked the Neck. Putnam was clear for commencing at Breed's Hill, and making the principal work there, while a minor work might be thrown up at Bunker's Hill, as a protection in the rear, and a rallying point, in case of being driven out of the main work. Others concurred with this opinion, yet there was a hesitation in deviating from the letter of their orders. At length Colonel Gridley became impatient; the night was waning; delay might prostrate the whole enterprise. Breed's Hill was then determined on. Gridley marked out the lines for the fortifications; the men stacked their guns; threw off their packs; seized their trenching tools, and set to work with great spirit; but so much time had been wasted in discussion, that it was midnight before they struck the first spade into the ground.

Prescott, who felt the responsibility of his charge, almost despaired of carrying on these operations undiscovered. A party was sent out by him silently to patrol the shore at the foot of the heights, and watch for any movement of the enemy. Not willing to trust entirely to the vigilance of others, he twice went down during the night to the water's edge; reconnoitering every thing scrupulously, and noting every sight and sound. It was a warm, still, summer's night; the stars shone brightly, but every thing was quiet. Boston was buried in sleep. The sentry's cry of "All's well" could be heard distinctly from its shores, together with the drowsy calling of the watch on board of the ships of war, and then all would relapse into silence. Satisfied that the enemy were perfectly unconscious of what was going on upon the hill, he returned to the works, and a little before daybreak called in the patrolling party.

So spiritedly, though silently, had the labor been carried on, that by morning a strong redoubt was thrown up as a main work, flanked on the left by a breastwork, partly cannon-proof, extending down the crest of Breed's Hill to a piece of marshy ground called the Slough. To support the right of the redoubt, some troops were thrown into the village of Charlestown, at the southern foot of the hill. The great object of Prescott's solicitude was now attained, a sufficient bulwark to screen his men before they should be discovered; for he doubted the possibility of keeping raw recruits to their post, if openly exposed to the fire of artillery, and the attack of disciplined troops.

At dawn of day, the Americans at work were espied by the sailors on board of the ships of war, and the alarm was given. The captain of the Lively, the nearest ship, without waiting for orders, put a spring upon her cable, and bringing her guns to bear, opened a fire upon the hill. The other ships and a floating battery followed his example. Their shot did no mischief to the works, but one man, among a number who had incautiously ventured outside, was killed. A subaltern reported his death to Colonel Prescott, and asked what was to be done. "Bury him," was the reply. The chaplain gathered some of his military flock around him, and was proceeding to perform suitable obsequies over the "first martyr," but Prescott ordered that the men should disperse to their work, and the deceased be buried immediately. It seemed shocking to men accustomed to the funeral solemnities of peaceful life to bury a man without prayers, but Prescott saw that the sight of this man suddenly shot down had agitated the nerves of his comrades, unaccustomed to scenes of war. Some of them, in fact, quietly left the hill, and did not return to it.

To inspire confidence by example, Prescott now mounted the parapet, and walked leisurely about, inspecting the works, giving directions, and talking cheerfully with the men. In a little while they got over their dread of cannon-balls, and some even made them a subject of joke, or rather bravado; a species of sham courage occasionally manifested by young soldiers, but never by veterans.

The cannonading roused the town of Boston. General Gage could scarcely believe his eyes when he beheld on the opposite hill a fortification full of men, which had sprung up in the course of the night. As he reconnoitered it through a glass from Copp's Hill, the tall figure of Prescott, in military garb, walking the parapet, caught his eye. "Who is that officer who appears in command?" asked he. The question was answered by Counsellor Willard, Prescott's brother-in-law, who was at hand, and recognized his relative. "Will he fight?" demanded Gage, quickly. "Yes, sir! he is an old soldier, and will fight to the last drop of blood; but I cannot answer for his men."

"The works must be carried!" exclaimed Gage.

He called a council of war. The Americans might intend to cannonade Boston from this new fortification; it was unanimously resolved to dislodge them. How was this to be done? A majority of the council, including Clinton and Grant, advised that a force should be landed on Charlestown Neck, under the protection of their batteries, so as to attack the Americans in rear, and cut off their retreat. General Gage objected that it would place his troops between two armies; one at Cambridge, superior in numbers, the other on the heights, strongly fortified. He was for landing in front of the works, and pushing directly up the hill; a plan adopted through a confidence that raw militia would never stand their ground against the assault of veteran troops; another instance of undervaluing the American spirit, which was to cost the enemy a lamentable loss of life.


Washington Irving