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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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Battle of Bunker Hill: two boys' views

The British and New England armies fought the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775. It was the first pitched battle of the Revolutionary War, and one of the most costly battles for the British army of the entire era. The Massachusetts Historical Society has an excellent online exhibit about the battle. Here are memories of the event from two teenaged boys who were caught up in it on opposite sides.

Martin Hunter was a seventeen-year-old lieutenant in the 52nd Regiment of the British army. Eventually he became a general and governor of New Brunswick. His memories of Bunker Hill are oddly concerned with trivia:

It was very extraordinary, but that morning, the 17th of June, the 52nd had received an entire new set of arms, and were trying them at marks, when they received orders to march immediately to Charlestown Ferry, with one day’s provisions. I may add that, singularly enough, not a firelock had missed fire. . . .

Charlestown was set on fire by the frigate, and before the action began the whole town was burning. In the steeple of the church several people were seen, while the body of the church was in one entire blaze; and as they could not get out, they were seen from Boston to fall with the steeple. . . .

Lord Rawdon, now Earl of Moira, was lieutenant in the 5th Regiment; he received a shot through a cat-skin cap that he wore that day, and desired me to observe how narrowly he had escaped being shot through the head. He, with many other officers, asked me to go and look for a surgeon for Major Williams; but though a very young soldier, I had sense enough to know that I was much safer close under the works than I could be at a few yards from it, as the enemy could not depress their arms sufficiently to do any execution to those that were close under, and to have gone to the rear to look for a surgeon would have been almost certain death; indeed, the Major was not a very great favourite, as he had obliged me to sell a pony that I had bought for seven and sixpence.

John Greenwood was a Boston boy, fifteen years old, who had enlisted in the provincial army as a fifer. On the day of Bunker Hill, he had just been reunited with his mother after months apart, but then lost her in the confusion of Charlestown's evacuation.
Not finding my mother at Mr. Grout’s on my return, and not knowing where she was, I let the horse go, saddle and all, to find the way home the best way it could, and down I went toward the battle to find the company I belonged to, then about two miles off. As I passed through Cambridge common I saw a number of wounded who had been brought from the field of conflict. Everywhere the greatest terror and confusion seemed to prevail, and as I ran along the road leading to Bunker Hill it was filled with chairs and wagons, bearing the wounded and dead, while groups of men were employed in assisting others, not badly injured, to walk. Never having beheld such a sight before, I felt very much frightened, and would have given the world if I had not enlisted as a soldier; I could positively feel my hair stand on end. Just as I came near the place a negro man, wounded in the back of his neck, passed me and, his collar being open and he not having anything on except his shirt and trousers, I saw the wound quite plainly and the blood running down his back. I asked him if it hurt much as he did not seem to mind it; he said no, that he was only going to get a plaster put on it, and meant to return. You cannot conceive what encouragement this immediately gave me; I began to feel brave and like a soldier from that moment, and fear never troubled me afterward during the whole war.

As good luck would have it I found the company I belonged to stationed on the road in sight of the battle, with two field-pieces, it having been joined to the regiment commanded by Colonel John Patterson from Stockbridge (afterward the 12th Massachusetts Bay Regiment). Captain Bliss, who had given me permission the day before to go a distance of more than twenty miles, was astonished to see me, and asked how I had returned so soon. I thought I might as well appear brave as not and make myself to be thought so by others, so I told him that, having heard cannon firing early in the morning, I considered it my duty to be with my fellow-soldiers; that I had run all the way back for that purpose, and intended to go into the battle to find them—which I certainly would have done, as big a coward as I was on setting out to join my companions. The cause of my fears then was, I presume, being alone, for I cannot say that I ever felt so afterward. I was much caressed by my captain and the company, who regarded me as a brave little fellow.

As my father lived near the ferry [in Boston] my brothers were at this point and, the river being only half a mile wide, saw the whole battle. The wounded were brought over in the boats belonging to the men-of-war, and they were obliged to bail the blood out of them like water, while those very boats carried back fresh troops who stood ready to reinforce those engaged. My brother told me that the wives, or women, of the British soldiers were at the ferry encouraging them, saying: "D—— the Yankee rebels, my brave British boys; give it to them!" He observed likewise that the soldiers looked as pale as death when they got into the boats, for they could plainly see their brother redcoats mowed down like grass by the Yankees, the whole scene being directly before their eyes. The Americans were all chiefly marksmen, and loading their guns each with a ball and five buck-shot, reserved their fire until the English troops had advanced within pistol range. I was told the enemy fell like grass when mowed, and while they were filling up their ranks to advance again the Yankees gave them the second fire with the same effect, two or three dropping at the discharge or every gun.

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