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Chapter 41


The sound of drum and trumpet, the clatter of hoofs, the rattling of gun-carriages, and all the other military din and bustle in the streets of Boston, soon apprised the Americans on their rudely fortified height of an impending attack. They were ill fitted to withstand it, being jaded by the night's labor, and want of sleep; hungry and thirsty, having brought but scanty supplies, and oppressed by the heat of the weather. Prescott sent repeated messages to General Ward, asking reinforcements and provisions. Putnam seconded the request in person, urging the exigencies of the case. Ward hesitated. He feared to weaken his main body at Cambridge, as his military stores were deposited there, and it might have to sustain the principal attack. At length, having taken advice of the council of safety, he issued orders for Colonels Stark and Read, then at Medford, to march to the relief of Prescott with their New Hampshire regiments. The orders reached Medford about 11 o'clock. Ammunition was distributed in all haste; two flints, a gill of powder, and fifteen balls to each man. The balls had to be suited to the different calibres of the guns; the powder to be carried in powder-horns, or loose in the pocket, for there were no cartridges prepared. It was the rude turn out of yeoman soldiery destitute of regular accoutrements.

In the mean while, the Americans on Breed's Hill were sustaining the fire from the ships, and from the battery on Copp's Hill, which opened upon them about ten o'clock. They returned an occasional shot from one corner of the redoubt, without much harm to the enemy, and continued strengthening their position until about 11 o'clock, when they ceased to work, piled their intrenching tools in the rear, and looked out anxiously and impatiently for the anticipated reinforcements and supplies.

About this time General Putnam, who had been to headquarters, arrived at the redoubt on horseback. Some words passed between him and Prescott with regard to the intrenching tools, which have been variously reported. The most probable version is, that he urged to have them taken from their present place, where they might fall into the hands of the enemy, and carried to Bunker's Hill, to be employed in throwing up a redoubt, which was part of the original plan, and which would be very important should the troops be obliged to retreat from Breed's Hill. To this Prescott demurred that those employed to convey them, and who were already jaded with toil, might not return to his redoubt. A large part of the tools were ultimately carried to Bunker's Hill, and a breastwork commenced by order of General Putnam. The importance of such a work was afterwards made apparent.

About noon the Americans descried twenty-eight barges crossing from Boston in parallel lines. They contained a large detachment of grenadiers, rangers, and light infantry, admirably equipped, and commanded by Major-general Howe. They made a splendid and formidable appearance with their scarlet uniforms, and the sun flashing upon muskets and bayonets, and brass fieldpieces. A heavy fire from the ships and batteries covered their advance, but no attempt was made to oppose them, and they landed about 1 o'clock at Moulton's Point, a little to the north of Breed's Hill.

Here General Howe made a pause. On reconnoitering the works from this point, the Americans appeared to be much more strongly posted than he had imagined. He descried troops also hastening to their assistance. These were the New Hampshire troops, led on by Stark. Howe immediately sent over to General Gage for more forces, and a supply of cannon-balls; those brought by him being found, through some egregious oversight, too large for the ordnance. While awaiting their arrival, refreshments were served out to the troops, with "grog," by the bucketful; and tantalizing it was, to the hungry and thirsty provincials, to look down from their ramparts of earth, and see their invaders seated in groups upon the grass eating and drinking, and preparing themselves by a hearty meal for the coming encounter. Their only consolation was to take advantage of the delay, while the enemy were carousing, to strengthen their position. The breast-work on the left of the redoubt extended to what was called the Slough, but beyond this, the ridge of the hill, and the slope toward Mystic River, were undefended, leaving a pass by which the enemy might turn the left flank of the position, and seize upon Bunker's Hill. Putnam ordered his chosen officer, Captain Knowlton, to cover this pass with the Connecticut troops under his command. A novel kind of rampart, savoring of rural device, was suggested by the rustic general. About six hundred feet in the rear of the redoubt, and about one hundred feet to the left of the breastwork, was a post and rail-fence, set in a low foot-wall of stone, and extending down to Mystic River. The posts and rails of another fence were hastily pulled up, and set a few feet in behind this, and the intermediate space was filled up with new mown hay from the adjacent meadows. This double fence, it will be found, proved an important protection to the redoubt, although there still remained an unprotected interval of about seven hundred feet.

While Knowlton and his men were putting up this fence, Putnam proceeded with other of his troops to throw up the work on Bunker's Hill, despatching his son, Captain Putnam, on horseback, to hurry up the remainder of his men from Cambridge. By this time his compeer in French and Indian warfare, the veteran Stark, made his appearance with the New Hampshire troops, five hundred strong. He had grown cool and wary with age, and his march from Medford, a distance of five or six miles, had been in character. He led his men at a moderate pace to bring them into action fresh and vigorous. In crossing the Neck, which was enfiladed by the enemy's ships and batteries, Captain Dearborn, who was by his side, suggested a quick step. The veteran shook his head: "One fresh man in action is worth ten tired ones," replied he, and marched steadily on.

Putnam detained some of Stark's men to aid in throwing up the works on Bunker's Hill, and directed him to reinforce Knowlton with the rest. Stark made a short speech to his men now that they were likely to have warm work. He then pushed on, and did good service that day at the rustic bulwark.

About 2 o'clock, Warren arrived on the heights, ready to engage in their perilous defence, although he had opposed the scheme of their occupation. He had recently been elected a major-general, but had not received his commission; like Pomeroy, he came to serve in the ranks with a musket on his shoulder. Putnam offered him the command at the fence; he declined it, and merely asked where he could be of most service as a volunteer. Putnam pointed to the redoubt, observing that there he would be under cover. "Don't think I seek a place of safety," replied Warren, quickly; "where will the attack be hottest?" Putnam still pointed to the redoubt. "That is the enemy's object; if that can be maintained, the day is ours."

Warren was cheered by the troops as he entered the redoubt. Colonel Prescott tendered him the command. He again declined. "I have come to serve only as a volunteer, and shall be happy to learn from a soldier of your experience." Such were the noble spirits assembled on these perilous heights.

The British now prepared for a general assault. An easy victory was anticipated; the main thought was, how to make it most effectual. The left wing, commanded by General Pigot, was to mount the hill and force the redoubt, while General Howe, with the right wing, was to push on between the fort and Mystic River, turn the left flank of the Americans, and cut off their retreat.

General Pigot, accordingly, advanced up the hill under cover of a fire from field-pieces and howitzers planted on a small height near the landing-place on Moulton's Point. His troops commenced a discharge of musketry while yet at a long distance from the redoubts. The Americans within the works, obedient to strict command, retained their fire until the enemy were within thirty or forty paces, when they opened upon them with a tremendous volley. Being all marksmen, accustomed to take deliberate aim, the slaughter was immense, and especially fatal to officers. The assailants fell back in some confusion; but, rallied on by their officers, advanced within pistol shot. Another volley, more effective than the first, made them again recoil. To add to their confusion, they were galled by a flanking fire from the handful of Provincials posted in Charlestown. Shocked at the carnage, and seeing the confusion of his troops, General Pigot was urged to give the word for a retreat.

In the mean while, General Howe, with the right wing, advanced along Mystic River toward the fence where Stark, Read and Knowlton were stationed, thinking to carry this slight breastwork with ease, and so get in the rear of the fortress. His artillery proved of little avail, being stopped by a swampy piece of ground, while his columns suffered from two or three fieldpieces with which Putnam had fortified the fence. Howe's men kept up a fire of musketry as they advanced; but, not taking aim, their shot passed over the heads of the Americans. The latter had received the same orders with those in the redoubt, not to fire until the enemy should be within thirty paces. Some few transgressed the command. Putnam rode up and swore he would cut down the next man that fired contrary to orders. When the British arrived within the stated distance a sheeted fire opened upon them from rifles, muskets, and fowling-pieces, all levelled with deadly aim. The carnage, as in the other instance, was horrible. The British were thrown into confusion and fell back; some even retreated to the boats.

There was a general pause on the part of the British. The American officers availed themselves of it to prepare for another attack, which must soon be made. Prescott mingled among his men in the redoubt, who were all in high spirits at the severe check they had given "the regulars." He praised them for their steadfastness in maintaining their post, and their good conduct in reserving their fire until the word of command, and exhorted them to do the same in the next attack.

Putnam rode about Bunker's Hill and its skirts, to rally and bring on reinforcements which had been checked or scattered in crossing Charlestown Neck by the raking fire from the ships and batteries. Before many could be brought to the scene of action the British had commenced their second attack. They again ascended the hill to storm the redoubt; their advance was covered as before by discharges of artillery. Charlestown, which had annoyed them on their first attack by a flanking fire, was in flames, by shells thrown from Copp's Hill, and by marines from the ships. Being built of wood, the place was soon wrapped in a general conflagration. The thunder of artillery from batteries and ships, the bursting of bomb-shells; the sharp discharges of musketry; the shouts and yells of the combatants; the crash of burning buildings, and the dense volumes of smoke, which obscured the summer sun, all formed a tremendous spectacle. "Sure I am," said Burgoyne in one of his letters,--"Sure I am nothing ever has or ever can be more dreadfully terrible than what was to be seen or heard at this time. The most incessant discharge of guns that ever was heard by mortal ears."

The American troops, although unused to war, stood undismayed amidst a scene where it was bursting upon them with all its horrors. Reserving their fire, as before, until the enemy was close at hand, they again poured forth repeated volleys with the fatal aim of sharpshooters. The British stood the first shock, and continued to advance; but the incessant stream of fire staggered them. Their officers remonstrated, threatened, and even attempted to goad them on with their swords, but the havoc was too deadly; whole ranks were mowed down; many of the officers were either slain or wounded, and among them several of the staff of General Howe. The troops again gave way and retreated down the hill.

All this passed under the eye of thousands of spectators of both sexes and all ages, watching from afar every turn of a battle in which the lives of those most dear to them were at hazard. The British soldiery in Boston gazed with astonishment and almost incredulity at the resolute and protracted stand of raw militia whom they had been taught to despise, and at the havoc made among their own veteran troops. Every convoy of wounded brought over to the town increased their consternation, and General Clinton, who had watched the action from Copp's Hill, embarking in a boat, hurried over as a volunteer, taking with him reinforcements.

A third attack was now determined on, though some of Howe's officers remonstrated, declaring it would be downright butchery. A different plan was adopted. Instead of advancing in front of the redoubt, it was to be taken in flank on the left, where the open space between the breastwork and the fortified fence presented a weak point. It having been accidentally discovered that the ammunition of the Americans was nearly expended, preparations were made to carry the works at the point of the bayonet; and the soldiery threw off their knapsacks, and some even their coats, to be more light for action.

General Howe, with the main body, now made a feint of attacking the fortified fence; but, while a part of his force was thus engaged, the rest brought some of the field-pieces to enfilade the breastwork on the left of the redoubt. A raking fire soon drove the Americans out of this exposed place into the enclosure. Much damage, too, was done in the latter by balls which entered the sallyport.

The troops were now led on to assail the works; those who flinched were, as before, goaded on by the swords of the officers. The Americans again reserved their fire until their assailants were close at hand, and then made a murderous volley, by which several officers were laid low, and General Howe himself was wounded in the foot. The British soldiery this time likewise reserved their fire and rushed on with fixed bayonet. Clinton and Pigot had reached the southern and eastern sides of the redoubt, and it was now assailed on three sides at once. Prescott ordered those who had no bayonets to retire to the back part of the redoubt and fire on the enemy as they showed themselves on the parapet. The first who mounted exclaimed in triumph, "The day is ours!" He was instantly shot down, and so were several others who mounted about the same time. The Americans, however, had fired their last round, their ammunition was exhausted; and now succeeded a desperate and deadly struggle, hand to hand, with bayonets, stones, and the stocks of their muskets. At length, as the British continued to pour in, Prescott gave the order to retreat. His men had to cut their way through two divisions of the enemy who were getting in rear of the redoubt, and they received a destructive volley from those who had formed on the captured works. By that volley fell the patriot Warren, who had distinguished himself throughout the action. He was among the last to leave the redoubt, and had scarce done so when he was shot through the head with a musket-ball, and fell dead on the spot.

While the Americans were thus slowly dislodged from the redoubt, Stark, Read and Knowlton maintained their ground at the fortified fence; which, indeed, had been nobly defended throughout the action. Pomeroy distinguished himself here by his sharpshooting until his musket was shattered by a ball. The resistance at this hastily constructed work was kept up after the troops in the redoubt had given way, and until Colonel Prescott had left the hill; thus defeating General Howe's design of cutting off the retreat of the main body; which would have produced a scene of direful confusion and slaughter. Having effected their purpose, the brave associates at the fence abandoned their weak outpost, retiring slowly, and disputing the ground inch by inch, with a regularity remarkable in troops many of whom had never before been in action.

The main retreat was across Bunker's Hill, where Putnam had endeavored to throw up a breastwork. The veteran, sword in hand, rode to the rear of the retreating troops, regardless of the balls whistling about him. His only thought was to rally them at the unfinished works. "Halt! make a stand here!" cried he, "we can check them yet. In God's name, form and give them one shot more."

Pomeroy, wielding his shattered musket as a truncheon, seconded him in his efforts to stay the torrent. It was impossible, however, to bring the troops to a stand. They continued on down the hill to the Neck and across it to Cambridge, exposed to a raking fire from the ships and batteries, and only protected by a single piece of ordnance. The British were too exhausted to pursue them; they contented themselves with taking possession of Bunker's Hill, were reinforced from Boston, and threw up additional works during the night.

We have collected the preceding facts from various sources, examining them carefully, and endeavoring to arrange them with scrupulous fidelity. We may appear to have been more minute in the account of the battle than the number of troops engaged would warrant; but it was one of the most momentous conflicts in our revolutionary history. It was the first regular battle between the British and the Americans, and most eventful in its consequences. The former had gained the ground for which they contended; but, if a victory, it was more disastrous and humiliating to them than an ordinary defeat. They had ridiculed and despised their enemy, representing them as dastardly and inefficient; yet here their best troops, led on by experienced officers, had repeatedly been repulsed by an inferior force of that enemy,--mere yeomanry,--from works thrown up in a single night, and had suffered a loss rarely paralleled in battle with the most veteran soldiery; for, according to their own returns, their killed and wounded, out of a detachment of two thousand men, amounted to one thousand and fifty four, and a large proportion of them officers. The loss of the Americans did not exceed four hundred and fifty.

To the latter this defeat, if defeat it might be called, had the effect of a triumph. It gave them confidence in themselves and consequence in the eyes of their enemies. They had proved to themselves and to others that they could measure weapons with the disciplined soldiers of Europe, and inflict the most harm in the conflict.

Among the British officer's slain was Major Pitcairn, who, at Lexington, had shed the first blood in the Revolutionary war.

In the death of Warren the Americans had to lament the loss of a distinguished patriot and a most estimable man. It was deplored as a public calamity. His friend Elbridge Gerry had endeavored to dissuade him from risking his life in this perilous conflict, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," replied Warren, as if he had foreseen his fate--a fate to be envied by those ambitious of an honorable fame. He was one of the first who fell in the glorious cause of his country, and his name has become consecrated in its history.

There has been much discussion of the relative merits of the American officers engaged in this affair--a difficult question where no one appears to have had the general command. Prescott conducted the troops in the night enterprise; he superintended the building of the redoubt, and defended it throughout the battle; his name, therefore, will ever shine most conspicuous, and deservedly so, on this bright page of our Revolutionary history.

Putnam also was a leading spirit throughout the affair; one of the first to prompt and of the last to maintain it. He appears to have been active and efficient at every point; sometimes fortifying; sometimes hurrying up reinforcements; inspiriting the men by his presence while they were able to maintain their ground, and fighting gallantly at the outpost to cover their retreat. The brave old man, riding about in the heat of the action, on this sultry day, "with a hanger belted across his brawny shoulders, over a waistcoat without sleeves," has been sneered at by a contemporary, as "much fitter to head a band of sickle men or ditchers than musketeers." But this very description illustrates his character, and identifies him with the times and the service. A yeoman warrior fresh from the plough, in the garb of rural labor; a patriot brave and generous, but rough and ready, who thought not of himself in time of danger, but was ready to serve in any way, and to sacrifice official rank and self-glorification to the good of the cause. He was eminently a soldier for the occasion. His name has long been a favorite one with young and old; one of the talismanic names of the Revolution, the very mention of which is like the sound of a trumpet. Such names are the precious jewels of our history, to be garnered up among the treasures of the nation, and kept immaculate from the tarnishing breath of the cynic and the doubter.

NOTE.--In treating of the battle of Bunker's Hill, and of other occurrences about Boston at this period of the Revolution, we have had repeated occasion to consult the History of the Siege of Boston, by Richard Frothingham, Jr.; a work abounding with facts as to persons and events, and full of interest for the American reader.

Washington Irving