J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 24, 2019

Isaac Freeman’s Petition

This item appeared in the 1 Jan 1781 Boston Gazette, issued by Benjamin Edes:


Your publishing the following Copy of a Petition presented to the General Assembly in their late Sessions, may probably amuse some of your Readers, at this barren Season of the Year for News.

The Commonwealth of MASSACHUSETTS.

To the Honorable Senate, and Honorable House of Representatives, in General Court assembled.

November 1st, 1780.

The memorial of Isaac Freeman, (a poor negro) humbly sheweth,

That your memorialist, in the face of death and danger, enter’d the service of this country, on that auspicious and ever memorable, and thrice happy day, the 19th of April, 1775, which glorious morn gave birth to the independence of America. No sooner was the alarm given, that a band of the British villains, robbers, and cut-throats had begun the horrid slaughter, by sheding the blood of a number of the worthy inhabitants of Lexington; but their blood cryed from the ground for vengeance, and demanded of all the Sons of Freedom, to repair to arms, and revenge the injury done their bleeding country—I enter’d the service on that blessed occasion, and have fought and bled in the cause of the country; and remain a faithful soldier to this hour.

Your memorialist would beg leave to acquaint your honors, that in the second battle that was fought in June following, on Bunker’s Hill, he in the retreat, lost a very good fire-arm, his knapsack, containing one handkerchief, shirts, hose, &c. &c. which cost him in that day, forty or fifty hard dollars, for which be never has received one farthing; tho’ others have been fully and generously rewarded for their losses by former Houses of Assembly, whose noble example of rewarding merit, and doing justice, he doubts not will ever be the paths your honors will delight to step in, and hereby encourage good soldiers in your Honors service; his losses and services, he thinks, ought to go hand in hand, and therefore humbly begs leave further to observe to your Honors——

That your memorialist was the happy man (tho’ a poor negro) that put an end to the life of that bold, and of course, dangerous man, Major [John] Pitcairn, with eight or ten others that day, besides wounding a number of other villains; in the execution of which service, your memorialist received three very bad wounds from the British pirates; in this wounded and bleeding condition, he continued like a bold soldier, fighting for the country, till he was obliged with the heroes of the day, to retreat, which was worse than death to a soldier, and give up the ground to those (British hell-hounds,) and all for want of the help of those cowardly commanders and the poltroon fellows under their command, whose i[n]f[amou]s names I conceal, who lay during the whole action at the back of the hill out of danger:

Had they like men come on, instead of the shame and disgrace of that day, a most compleat victory would have taken place, and the whole of the British army would, by the close of that day, been snuggly sent DOWN DOWN to the abode of shame, disgrace and despair; whose just fate they would have received my hearty amen and amen, as those did which I sent there in battle.—

And very happy happy would it have proved to the United States, if that infallible rule had been adopted on this occasion, of the Great, the Wise and ever memorable General and Protector OLIVER CROMWELL, Esq; of Blessed Memory———(To PAY WELL and HANG WELL.) And had their frighted commanders been made an example of, with some of their hen-peck’d comrades
Would not those wretches, who now in triumph sing,
Have grac’d a gibbet, and adorn’d a string?
Sure I am that justice would have taken place, and the world been rid of a very tame set of J—k–ss–s, who live only to discourage better solders, and much time saved which has been taken up in court-marshals, to try cowardly leaders; and at this day, not one British officer, or British soldier, would have been found in any part of America.

By the conduct of the above frighted fellows, I was deprived that pleasure which I so earnestly wished to see, which was, to have seen the Britons turning their backs, cover’d with shame, disgrace and slaughter, as with a garment,—with everlasting destruction tripping at their heels, to enclose Tom Gage, & the remainder of his army in the same net.

Your memorialist now looks up to the seat of justice, which your Honors now fills with dignity, under a new, and he trusts, is the happiness Constitution now in being under Heaven, and which he prays GOD to establish to the end of time, and crown your Honors with eternal glory.

——And notwithstanding the loss of blood and treasure, &c. &c. has not yet been rewarded: I stand ready whenever call’d into the field by your Honors command, to step forth and spill the last drop of blood in the defence of your Honors lives, estates, and this much injured country, and resign my life as every good soldier ought to do, when I hope to join those noble Martyrs who are inroll’d in the catalogue of fame, in the other world, who fought, bled and died in the cause freedom and liberty, and there to mix (tho’ a poor negro) with a Charles the XII, a Cromwell and a Warren, who are now set down in peace, crown’d with everlasting joy and glory.

I now close with hoping your Honors will take into your most serious consideration, my case, with my wounds and loss of blood and treasure; and grant a poor negro such recompence as your Honors, in your great wisdom and goodness shall seem meet; and he, in duty bound, will ever pray.

The two lines of poetry that appear in the midst of this petition were derived from a couplet in “Cruelty and Lust” by John Pomfret (1667-1702):
Does not that wretch, who would dethrone his king,
Become the gibbet, and adorn the string?
Those words might appear to declare the importance of royalty, but Pomfret presented them as coming from the mouth of a cruel, lustful monarch. So even though this petition had to rewrite them for a republican context, the underlying sentiment was compatible.

TOMORROW: How did the Massachusetts legislature respond to this petition? What can we make of it as a historical document?

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Jacob Frost’s Compensation for “Capitivity”

Back in 2017 I looked into a sketch titled “The Young Provincial” and published in The Token, for 1830.

An edition of the collected works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (above right) attributed that sketch to him. But, as literary scholars have concluded and I confirmed, the author was really the Rev. William Bourn Oliver Peabody (above left). Producing an example of the 2016 meme “You” and “The Guy She Told You Not to Worry About.”

I also concluded that “The Young Provincial” was based on the story of Pvt. Jacob Frost, captured at the Battle of Bunker Hill, but fictionalized enough that we can’t rely on it for historical detail.

I came across another period source on Jacob Frost. After his return from captivity to Tewksbury, he petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for support. The legislature summed up his request this way:
That he was a Soldier in Capt. Walkers Company in Colo. Bridges Regiment, and was in the Battle at Bunker Hill, where he was wounded, barbarously used & taken prisoner carried to Boston, & afterwards to Halifax, from whence he made his Escape out of Goal, last Sepr.

That he lost a Gun. & other Articles amounting to £4.13/ . And praying for allowance &c.
On 28 Oct 1776 the General Court resolved to pay “Twenty Eight pounds, Eighteen shillings to Jacob Frost in full for his Wages thirteen Months and a half, while in Capitivity, and for things lost in the Battle.”

Frost had been shot in the leg, locked in the Boston jail where most of his fellow prisoners died from their wounds, moved out of the colony to Nova Scotia, and then escaped and made his way back. But he was still framing his request in terms of lost wages and property. And the legislature agreed he deserved some compensation or reward.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Dr. Ezekiel Brown in the Concord Jail

Yesterday we found Ezekiel Brown back in his native town of Concord. He had left as a boy, his poor family seeking better farmland, and returned as a young man with enough skills and drive to set up a shop—only to be locked in jail for debt on the eve of the Revolution.

Brown rejoined his family in Concord in 1781, having read a bunch of medical books and served in the Continental Army for four years as a military surgeon. He entered private practice. Soon Dr. Brown’s neighbors again elected him to town offices and invited him to join the Social Club.

But then the war ended. From London, Brown’s old creditor Frederick William Geyer contacted his father-in-law—Duncan Ingraham of Concord, another member of the Social Club. Together the two men resumed Geyer’s lawsuit for debt.

In February 1786, Brown signed a certificate stating he had witnessed the death of Moses Parker in the Boston jail back in 1775, a document now held by the Boston Public Library. Two months later, Ingraham and Geyer won a judgment against him of more than £500.

Naturally, that made the Social Club meetings more rancorous. The oldest members of the group, later called the Social Circle, remembered Dr. Brown as the main reason that it broke up in the 1780s. Lemuel Shattuck wrote that he was a “notorious disturber” who wouldn’t let anyone else speak. John S. Keyes described him as “that hot-headed, long-winded, hard-used, rough-tongued, ill-bred, ‘jack at all trades,’” who “would out-talk his neighbors, especially choleric old Duncan Ingraham.”

On the other hand, Grindall Reynolds, who wrote a profile of Brown in 1871 later published in The Centennial of the Social Circle in Concord, took the doctor’s side of the quarrel. Reynolds made much of the fact that Brown was an American military veteran while Geyer was a Loyalist and Ingraham had Loyalist leanings before the war.

According to Shattuck, Dr. Brown offered to pay his debt in “government securities”—presumably at full face value. But 1786 was at the height of the economic crisis that provoked the Shays Rebellion. The market value of those securities was low. Ingraham refused the offer. There was no way Brown could raise enough cash. At depressed prices, even his property in the center of Concord couldn’t cover the debt.

Ingraham and Geyer had Brown committed to the Concord jail on 13 May 1787. The doctor escaped at some point but was locked back up on 8 May 1788. After a move to the Cambridge jail, the creditors finally agreed to let Brown go free in June 1789.

By then Dr. Brown and his wife Mary had seven children, the oldest fourteen and the youngest an infant. Their best option was to leave Concord for Maine, where Brown or his father had received a land grant before the war. The family settled on about 500 uncultivated acres in what was then Clinton and is now Benton. For the third time Dr. Brown set to work establishing himself.

Ultimately, Dr. Ezekiel Brown was able to regain his social and financial footing. He made his house a tavern. His sons held town offices and cleared their own farms. In 1818 the Revolutionary veteran applied for a federal pension. He stated that he was in reduced circumstances and had “lost the use of my left arm and hand by reason of an ague” while still supporting his wife, two widowed daughters (one “insane”), and a grandson.

Under the 1820 pension law, however, the federal government said Brown owned too much property to need support. He and the selectmen of his town petitioned Congress to approve a pension, but it doesn’t look like that happened before his death in 1824 at the age of eighty.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Ezekiel Brown in the Boston Jail

When the British army put Thomas Kettell and other provincial prisoners from the Battle of Bunker Hill into the Boston jail, one of the men they found there was Ezekiel Brown (1744-1824) of Concord.

Robert Gross discusses Brown at length in The Minutemen and Their World. He was born in Concord, but his poor father moved the family back and forth between Groton and Dunstable. Brown returned to Concord at the age of twenty-two with no property but enough education to set up as a scrivener and clerk. Soon he had his own shop and wife.

In 1772 Brown bought a house, barn, and land near the center of town, as shown above. (Once the headquarters of the local D.A.R., it appears now to be a private residence.) Brown took out two mortgages for a total of £203, presumably using that money to buy goods for his business. His neighbors elected him to minor town offices.

In May 1773, however, the Boston dry-goods firm of Nathan Frazier and Frederic William Geyer sued Brown for a debt of almost £275. He lost his appeals in court, and on 14 December he was locked in the Boston jail as a debtor. Geyer made the unusual choice to keep paying the costs to keep Brown in jail.

Ezekiel Brown was thus confined in Boston through the Tea Party, the arrival of Gen. Thomas Gage and royal troops, the “Powder Alarm,” and the outbreak of war in his home town. What was he doing all that time? Studying medical books.

Most of the provincial prisoners from Bunker Hill were wounded, and Brown helped to care for them. In a petition to the Massachusetts General Court he stated:
on the 18th June the day after the Battle of Bunker Hill the Prisoners being Provincials who were taken by the Ministeral Army & brought into Boston Goal he gave his attendance and gave them all the relief in his power visited them dressd their Wounds & assisted Doctr Miles Whitworth in administering medicines to them from l8th. June 1775. to March 1st. 1776
The legislature granted Brown £8 on 24 Jan 1777. Even though most of those prisoners had died, they agreed that he had performed good service.

By then Brown was free, his creditor Geyer having left with the British military. Though father of a growing family, he joined the Continental Army for five months as a surgeon’s mate to continue his medical training. In 1777 he enlisted again, this time as a regimental surgeon, and served through January 1781, mostly in northern New York. Elaine G. Breslaw’s Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic: Health Care in Early America states that Brown didn’t have a lot of medical training, but he had as much as many colleagues.

After his military service, Dr. Brown returned to Concord, set up a practice, and rose in local society again. He became a member of the town’s Social Club. Then the war ended, and his financial troubles returned.

TOMORROW: Geyer’s father-in-law.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Thomas Kettell: Underage Prisoner after Bunker Hill

One of the last survivors of the Battle of Bunker Hill was Thomas Kettell, who died on 17 Sept 1850. He had lived seventy-five years after the battle, long enough to see the Bunker Hill Monument (for which he subscribed $5) not only started but completed.

The Boston Evening Transcript stated that Kettell was ninety years old when he died and

the last survivor of four brothers, all of whom bore arms in the revolutionary war. At the age of fourteen he was taken prisoner by the British, when they burnt Charlestown at the battle of Bunker Hill. He afterwards served in several campaigns in the Massachusetts forces.
Since Thomas was born on 23 Feb 1760, he was actually fifteen during the battle. He was definitely a prisoner of war for a short time. Newspapers from September 1775 list him among the provincials held by the British after the battle, but he’s the only one noted as “(a lad, dismissed),” or freed.

I haven’t found a record of Thomas Kettell’s later military service. There’s no entry for him in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War and no pension file, despite his long life.

Thomas was born and raised in Charlestown. There were a lot of Kettells in that town, including at least one more Thomas Kettell born five years before. This Thomas came from a family of bakers but went into silversmithing. He became an established Charlestown businessman, also serving as clerk of the Middlesex Canal corporation.

Thomas Bellows Wyman’s Genealogies and Estates of Charlestown (1879) called Kettell “a gentleman of the old school, rigid and unyielding in manners, and of the like firm integrity.” An obituary reprinted in the Baltimore Sun stated:
During a life of nearly a century he was esteemed by all who knew him, for the uprightness and integrity of his character, his kind manners, and his observance of all the duties of a citizen and sincere christian.
Given Kettell’s long life and his career in Charlestown, I presume that he had plenty of chances to tell his story of what happened on 17 June 1775. What did he see during the Battle of Bunker Hill? What part of the provincial forces was he attached to, or was he a civilian caught up in the action? What was his experience as a young prisoner of war?

Sadly, I haven’t found any account by or attributed to him. Aside from the 1775 newspapers and the 1850 obituaries, we’d never know that young Thomas Kettell had any connection to the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Thomas’s older brother John left a May-September 1775 diary that Richard Frothingham quoted several times in his History of the Siege of Boston (which renders Thomas’s first name as “Timothy” in the only mention of him). If that document ever turns up, perhaps it mentions Thomas’s release from captivity.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Myths of Lt. Col. James Abercrombie’s Death

Lt. Col. James Abercrombie (1732-1775) led the battalion of British grenadiers, detached from their regiments, at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was mortally wounded, becoming the most senior British officer to die in the fight.

Not only did Abercrombie outrank all the other British dead, but he was known to be close to Gen. Thomas Gage and he was a Scotsman. Some combination of those factors meant that his death almost immediately began to accrete myths like barnacles on an underwater wreck.

Don Hagist wrote about Abercrombie at the Journal of the American Revolution, quoting from a letter the lieutenant colonel dictated to solidify the real story:
The grenadiers and light infantry were the first to land on Charleston Neck at a point out of American musketry range. Here they formed, the grenadiers into a line facing the rail-fence breastwork that extended from the redoubt down to the shore, the light infantry into a column for their advance along the beach to the right. Two regiments formed on the left facing the redoubt. While the grenadiers advanced with deliberate slowness as a distraction, the light infantry trotted along the beach. It was expected that the narrow beach would provide an avenue around the end of the breastwork. Unknown to the attackers, the Americans had constructed a barrier across the beach and manned it. . . .

It is not clearly exactly when the grenadiers became aware of the failure of the flanking movement, but they fatefully continued their advance towards the breastworks. Progress was perilously slow…because of a series of fences, brick kilns, enclosures and other obstructions. . . . The battered light infantry battalion, having withdrawn from the barricade on the beach, reformed into a line near their initial staging area. The shape of the coastline put them behind the advancing grenadier battalion. From this disadvantageous position they opened fire. The distance was too great to have any material effect on the enemy, but the impact on the grenadier battalion was disastrous.

This friendly fire incident is occasionally mentioned by historians, but the importance of it is largely overlooked. . . . In a letter dated three days after the battle, Abercrombie indicated that “our Light Infantry killed many of the Grends.” After ordering them to desist, the friendly fire abated for eight or ten minutes, but then the light infantry “gave me a plumper & killed two officers & 3 private.” He used the vernacular “plumper” to refer to a volley of lead. . . . Of particular importance was that the grenadiers’ commander, Abercrombie himself, was among the wounded.
In my own J.A.R. article about who really killed Maj. John Pitcairn, I quoted an 1880 Massachusetts local history which said Salem Poor shot Abercrombie “As that officer sprang on the redoubt.” That was how American sources described his death. But the lieutenant colonel had been taken out of action much earlier, before the final British push against the main provincial position. In addition, from 1775 the British press reported that Abercrombie was a victim of what we now call friendly fire—shot “supposed accidentally from some of his own soldiers.”

As with Pitcairn, Americans wanted to believe that their soldiers killed such an important officer at the climax of the battle. Therefore, Abercrombie was listed among the officers shot storming the redoubt on Breed’s Hill. And after both Peter Salem and Salem Poor got credit for killing Pitcairn, one American author decided that Salem Poor must have killed Abercrombie instead.

John Trumbull’s painting of the death of Dr. Joseph Warren reflects the American belief that Abercrombie should have died at the end of the battle and near the center of the action. The detail above portrays the lieutenant colonel lying dead at the redoubt as Maj. John Small steps over (on?) him. In the key that identified figures in the painting, Trumbull acknowledged that he didn’t know what Abercrombie actually looked like.

Another legend of Abercrombie’s death appeared in the 14 Oct 1775 Pennsylvania Ledger, quoting the Public Ledger of London:
A letter from an officer who was wounded at the late engagement at Boston, says, that when the troops were very near the trenches, the rebels called out to Col. Abercrombie, who was among the first of the troops, “Abercrombie, we won’t miss you.” However, the Colonel got into the trenches unhurt, and was run through the body. When he was dying, he told the officers about him, that if they took Gen. [Israel] Putnam prisoner, not to hang him as he was a brave fellow.
That story was reprinted in many American newspapers and, through Samuel Swett’s early history of the battle, many history books. It’s attached to inaccurate information—Abercrombie wasn’t “run through” but shot—and seems unlikely.

Lt. Col. Abercrombie didn’t die until 22 June. At first doctors didn’t think his wound would be fatal, but then infection set in. Back in 2014, I quoted a description of his death from the British press. The August 1775 Scots Magazine said the musket ball had pushed “a toothpick-case, which he had in his waistcoat pocket, along with it. . . . part of the toothpick being got so far, it baffled the art of the surgeons, and began to mortify.” Don’s article quotes the 17 Aug 1775 Edinburgh Advertiser saying something very similar except that the fatal foreign body was “part of the pen case…which he had in his side pocket.” I have no idea why those reports differed.

The Pennsylvania Ledger also quoted a speech that Abercrombie supposedly delivered two hours before his death:
My friends, we have fought in a bad cause, and therefore I have my reward, as the rest have had that have gone before me; had I fell in fighting against the enemy, I had died with honour, but posterity will brand us for massacreing our fellow subjects; therefore, my friends, sheath your swords till you have an enemy to engage with.
I’ve found this printed in the 27 July 1775 Middlesex Journal and Evening Advertiser, so it definitely circulated in Britain. It’s almost certainly propaganda from someone supporting the Americans, using Abercrombie’s good name to discourage men from joining the British military.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Pvt. Simon Fobes: “fully resolved to go as far as my officers did”

Simon Fobes was a nineteen-year-old provincial soldier when he fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. More than forty years later he moved to Ohio, and in 1835 one of his sons wrote down his recollections of the Revolution. That memoir was published in Historical Collections of the Mahoning Valley in 1876.

Fobes’s ancestors had first settled in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, under the name Forbes, but lost the R to the nascent Boston accent before his own branch moved to Canterbury, Connecticut. He was born there in 1756. Not owning much property, Simon’s parents moved the family again to Amherst when he was about fourteen.

At his father’s urging, Simon Fobes became a minuteman. But he was visiting relations back in Canterbury when the fighting started in Lexington. He got the news in Union, raced home, “made some change of clothing, took my gun and accouterments, and started, in company with some others, for Cambridge.” Once there, Fobes enlisted for the rest of the year in the company of Capt. Eliakim Smith of Hadley, Lt. Col. Jonathan Ward’s regiment.

Around midday on 17 June 1775, Fobes’s regiment was ordered onto the Charlestown peninsula. He told his son:
Soon after the firing, on that memorable day, had begun, about one-half of our regiment marched, as a re-enforcement, from Cambridge to Charlestown Neck, where the British were continually firing. There we lay awhile, waiting for orders. When the orders came we marched on behind the buildings, as well as we could, across the Neck, which was partially flooded, it being high water.

When we started from the fort, in Cambridge, marching in double files, I was near the center of the detachment, fully resolved to go as far as my officers did. In crossing the Neck I soon perceived that fully one-half of our soldiers were missing, and I was now near the front of the detachment.

As we ascended the hill the other side of the Neck, the musketballs whistled merrily. I noticed my officers dodging, first one way, then the other. For my part I knew not which way to dodge. A ball struck my gun near the lock as I was carrying it on my shoulder, and split off a piece of the stock. All this, together with the frequent meeting of our men, bringing off the wounded and the dying, made it a trying time for young soldiers. I can not tell which way or how my hair stood, for it seemed to me it stood every way.

As we were hurrying on without much order, some one called to us to come that way, and there was a good place. We advanced to a post and rail fence through a shower of musket-balls, where we made a stand.

I discharged my gun three times at the British, taking deliberate aim as if at a squirrel, and saw a number of men fall. I had become calm as a clock. When loading my gun the fourth time, I happened to cast my eyes around, and, to my astonishment, my fellow-soldiers were running at full speed down the hill. I had heard no orders to retreat. That instant my sergeant, who stood near me, started to follow them.

Then it was I saw a company of British regulars marching rapidly toward us. I finished loading my gun as quick as I could. When they had got within a few rods of us, however, I fired it off at them, and then ran for my life. At the same time the British were ordered to halt, make ready, and fire.

The balls whistled again, but did no material injury. One of my mates received a flesh wound. Firing down hill they shot over us.

A very large number of men, both old and young, had now collected. All seemed to be bustle and tumult. Charlestown, now wrapped in flames, added greatly to the interest of the scene. I saw the lofty steeple when on fire. It trembled and fell to the ground. Our officers, with evident anxiety and perplexity, were running to and fro, endeavoring to devise some plan by which we could drive the British from the hill.

A noted officer (I do not recollect his name) now stepped forward, and marched round in the crowd calling for volunteers to attempt the retaking of the hill. A large body of us volunteered, and we marched on near to the neck, where our commander came upon General [Israel] Putnam. Our soldiers were very poorly equipped, nearly one-half being armed with old rusty guns without bayonets. I was so fortunate as to have a good gun and bayonet.

The British had now paraded on the top of the hill with heavy artillery. While General Putnam and our commanding officer were talking together, a cannon-ball struck the stone wall near the former. After conversing awhile, General Putnam wheeled his horse and rode off.

Prudence seemed to direct that the attempt should be abandoned. After remaining in suspense until near dark, we were dismissed, and with our officers marched back to our tents.

In the mean time some of our soldiers had been to Cambridge, and got a pail of rum for us to drink when we returned. It being hot weather, I had become very thirsty and was much fatigued. At the door of the tent stood a pail, containing water as I supposed, with a pint tin cup in it. Some one asked me to drink. I took the cup and dipped it almost full, and drank the most of it before I was aware that it was rum. I was very much startled, fearing the consequences of what I had done. Being very weary, I lay down, and was soon asleep, and did not awake until the next morning.

When I arose I found that my fears were not realized. I had sustained no material injury, as in ordinary circumstances I doubtless should have done, and I was ready to do my duty as usual.
After Gen. George Washington arrived, Fobes’s regiment was moved to Dorchester on the southern wing of the siege. In September he volunteered to join Col. Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Québec, but that’s another story.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Refighting Bunker Hill with the Angry Staff Officer

This is the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. For an overview of the action this year, I’m pointing to the Angry Staff Officer’s article “Warfighter: Bunker Hill.”

It sets aside the mysteries, ambiguities, and evidence that historians focus on, and also applies modern military terms to the situation in 1775. Here’s a taste:
On the night of June 16, Col. [William] Prescott with chief engineer Richard Gridley and about 500 men crossed Charlestown Neck and occupied Breed’s Hill. Equipped with survivability equipment, they began construction of a fighting position on the height of the crest. During the night, ISR assets on the Royal Navy ships in the harbor spotted the movement and called for fire on the hill. Rounds began to impact, but the guns soon fell silent: Admiral Richard [sic—Samuel] Graves had been awoken by the firing and ordered the men to cease fire. Working all night, the Patriots dug a substantial fortification on Breed’s Hill with earthworks and firing platforms. When the sun rose, the British found that the height had been seized and fortified.

During the morning hours, more men arrived on the neck and began improving the fighting positions. An earthen trench was constructed down the left side of the redoubt. Just behind it, the New Hampshire and Connecticut troops constructed additional defenses extending to the left using log fences and stone walls to erect a position that ran down the slope towards the Mystic River. Between the fence and the trench, pioneers dug three v-shaped trenches to tie in the trench and the fence. This still left the extreme left vulnerable to flanking parties moving along the coast, so Col. [John] Stark led a detachment down the bluff to the river and emplaced a series of rock walls in depth. He then placed detachments of marksmen behind each wall, with strict fire control measures. He drove a stake forty yards in front of this position, with instructions for his men to aim at the enemy’s feet; this compensated for the natural rise of the musket and would place their fire center mass.

Arrayed across the dominant heights, the Patriot forces overlooked the key terrain where the British would have conduct an amphibious landing. Between this beach and the heights lay a series of swamps and rail fences that served as natural obstacles that would disrupt British movement and maneuver.

Secondary fighting positions were constructed on Bunker Hill to the rear of Breed’s Hill to serve as a fallback position for Patriot forces should they be forced to retrograde.


With their navy, the British brought significant fires dominance to the battlefield. Naval gunfire began again in the early morning hours of June 17 to suppress the Patriot lines. Over 100 guns were brought to bear on the enemy lines. This sustained fire was also meant to disrupt Patriot movement, but the natural lay of the land allowed Patriots to maneuver their forces in relative safety. In the afternoon, the British landed 12 pound and 6 pound batteries on the beach to provide additional suppressive fire.

The Patriots had four guns in position between the Connecticut and Massachusetts troops, but their gunners abandoned the field prior to the battle and so negated the majority of effects of the guns.


The British were forced to move all supplies via boat across the river, slowing their rate of supply and reinforcement significantly. The 6 pounder battery commander neglected to conduct a precombat inspection prior to deployment and found to their chagrin that their caissons were filled with 12 pound shot rather than 6 pound shot. This denied General [William] Howe his mobile fire support that he was counting on for close in fires.

On the Patriot side, they were already dangerously short of gunpowder. Each soldier had only about 30-40 rounds of ammunition. Lack of an overall field commander meant that there was no one individual tasked with overseeing logistics from the assembly area to the forward line of troops. This oversight would play an outsized role in the coming fight.
Now that we’ve reviewed the big picture, I’ll get into the smaller stories and questions.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

An Archive about Commemorating Bunker Hill

The Raab Collection is offering for sale an archive of documents collected by the Bunker-Hill Memorial Association as it built the monument in Charlestown and commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Raab Collection webpage says the collection was “assembled in the 1870s” and refers to “George Washington Warren’s binding.” Warren (1813-1883) wrote The History of the Bunker Hill Monument Association in 1877, having been a mayor of Charlestown.

Most of the documents appear to be about promoting and planning the Bunker Hill Monument, even including budget estimates. That stone tower was the project of the generation that came after the Revolutionaries, in many cases literally. The leading voice was William Tudor, Jr., son of the first Judge Advocate General of the Continental Army. The engineer was Loammi Baldwin, Jr., son of the officer who oversaw the northern edge of Boston harbor during the siege.

The association also organized the commemoration of 1825. The Marquis de Lafayette came to Boston to help lay the tower’s cornerstone. Daniel Webster delivered an oration, just as he would nearly two decades later when the stone obelisk was finally finished. Both men are represented in the archive. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison couldn’t come, but they sent letters included here.

The volume includes some first-person accounts of the battle, such as a short statement by Robert Steele about his experience as a provincial drummer:
I Robert Steele of Dedham in the County of Norfolk… Listed 17 days before Bunker Hill fight in Col [Ephraim] Doolittle’s Regiment. After Major Mores [Willard Moore] was wounded, I was ordered down the hill to get some run [rum] to dress his wounds with Benjamin Blood. When we got to the shop the man was down cellar to keep out of the way of the shots which were fired from the gun boats that lay in the river. He asked who was there we told him our errand he then said take whatever you want. We delivered some rum and ran back as soon a possible but before we had time to reach spot they were retreating.
I quoted a longer telling from Steele back here. Note that that letter rendered his companion’s name as Benjamin Ballard, not Benjamin Blood; Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors agrees with the former. The picture of Steele’s letter in the archive show he was also asking for money since he’d lost his pension for not being poor enough.

I’d be pleasantly surprised if there are detailed new accounts from veterans in this collection. Warren’s history and the Raab Collection would no doubt highlight those. Rather, it’s about the effort to memorialize the event.

At least one collection of such accounts did come out the semicentennial event as historians swarmed over the old soldiers who attended. I’ll discuss what happened to that archive in this year’s run of postings on the history and memory of Bunker Hill.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

A Graphic Profile of Phillis Wheatley

Earlier this week, Dave Kellett’s Sheldon comic strip featured a single panel titled “Anatomy of Phillis Wheatley.” Around a picture of the young poet are remarks on her life and legacy.

Back in 2011 I discussed why I think it’s mistaken to say Wheatley “had to go to court to prove” that she wrote her poems. That’s an exaggerated reading of what Henry Louis Gates wrote about her, which was in turn an exaggerated reading of the testimonial that Boston clergymen and other notables supplied for her book.

The comic also states, “She was even offered an audience with the king of England.” That’s based on an early biographical profile written by a great-grandniece of Susannah Wheatley, the woman who owned and raised Wheatley. She wrote in 1834 that Phillis Wheatley declined the invitation and returned to Boston after learning that her mistress was in poor health. Wheatley’s best biographer, Vincent Carretta, said the story is “plausible,” but she herself made no mention of it.

Thanks to Eric Gjovaag for alerting me to this strip.