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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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Propaganda account of Bunker Hill

On 27 October 1775, the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport, who became the President of Yale College in 1778, copied into his diary an item that had appeared first in the New-York Journal on 5 Oct, then in the Providence Gazette on 21 Oct. It was labeled as an “Extract of a genuine letter from an Officer on board one of the King's ships at Boston to his Friend in London, dated June 23, 1775." This letter wasn't genuine.

Looking at the article with any skepticism shows it must have been concocted for American propaganda purposes: to reassure Americans that although the New England army had nominally lost the Battle of Bunker Hill and had to retreat, really they had won, and in the most daunting fashion. As I've previously written, Stiles was a sucker for tall tales that reassured his Whig convictions.

The newspaper item said, in the voice of a British naval officer:

early on the 17th [of June, 1775]...we were immediately ordered to land some battalions, and in the mean time our great guns were fired against those who appeard to be busily employed at the battery: whether our shot did not reach far enough to create any confusion among them, or it was owing to their resolution, I cannot say; but certain it is, that the moment they discovered the landing of our troops, they formed in order of battle; and so far from retreating as we expected, they marched towards us with the utmost coolness and regularity.
All other sources agree that the provincials didn't march toward the British landing parties, but remained behind their fortifications—as wisdom dictated they should. But in reading this document it's important to know that after the Battle of Bunker Hill the provincial army was awash in recriminations and accusations of cowardice. Some officers involved in the battle had already been court-martialed, and others would be. Claiming that the Americans all behaved "with the utmost coolness and regularity" could reassure some nervous New Yorkers about the Continental Army.

Nothing could exceed the panic and apparent dislike of most of the King's troops to enter into this engagement; even at the landing, several attempted to run away, and five actually took to their heels in order to join the Americans, but were presently brought back, and two of them hung up in terrorem to [i.e., to frighten] the rest.—
This hanging of two British soldiers before the battle got into Thomas J. Fleming's Now We Are Enemies (also published as The Story of Bunker Hill) in a dramatic scene at the end of chapter 9. No contemporaneous source besides this newspaper item mentions such an event. The author of this letter invented the incident to assure Americans that British soldiers didn't like their orders and British commanders were tyrannical.

The Generals perceiving the strength and order of the Provincials, ordered a reinforcment to join the troops already landed, but before they came up, the cannonading on both sides began. The Provincials poured down like a torrent, and fought like men who had no care of their persons; they disputed every inch of ground, and their numbers were far superior to ours.
It's interesting to note that some post-war American accounts, such as that by John Greenwood, claimed that the provincials in this battle were far outnumbered by the regulars. But during the war, it was more important for propaganda to highlight popular support for the insurgency. In fact, it's hard to gauge the strength of the Americans in this battle because the real question was not how many troops were available or were ordered into the fight, but how many advanced beyond Charlestown Heights and actually engaged the enemy.

The King's troops gave way several times, and it required the utmost efforts of the Generals to rally them: at the beginning of the engagement many of them absolutely turned their backs, not expecting so hot a fire from the Americans; the latter feigned a retreat, in order as we suppose to draw our troops after them, and by that means to cut them in pieces; and we are informed that General Ward had a reserve of upwards of 4000 men for that purpose. The King's troops concluding that the Americans quitted the field through fear, pursued them under that apprehension, but did not proceed far enough to be convinced by that fatal experience, which was, as we hear, designed for them, of their mistake.
So the Americans' retreat off the hill was simply a clever ruse! Unaccountably, the British didn't fall for it.

The engagement lasted upwards of four hours, and ended infinitely to our disadvantage. The flower of our army are killed or wounded.
The Battle of Bunker Hill was a disastrous victory for the British army, with 226 dead and over 800 wounded, including many officers. But it's telling that this letter doesn't mention a single officer among those casualties, even though the reputed recipient would naturally wonder about his or her own relatives, friends, and acquaintances in the army. Most genuine letters that British officers sent home after the battle named names—lots of names.

During the engagement Charles Town was set on fire by the King's troops, in order to stop the progress of the Provincials, who, after their sham retreat, returned to attack them; but I think it was a wanton act of the King's troops, who certainly, after they had joined the main body of our army, had no occasion to take that method of retarding the return of the Americans, who, upon perceiving that General Ward stood still with his reserve, laid aside their intentions.
British cannon fire set Charlestown alight early in the battle, not during an American counterattack that escaped notice of all other observers. It's possible that this letter's author was criticizing Gen. Artemas Ward for not being more aggressive. By fall, he had been replaced as top commander by Gen. George Washington, and thus might have been fair game.

Our troops are sickly, and a great number are afflicted with the scurvy, occasioned by want of fresh provisions. I heartily wish myself with you and the rest of my friends, and the first opportunity that offers I will sell out and return [i.e., give up his officer's commission], for at the best only disgrace can arise in the service of such a cause as that in which we are engaged. The Americans are not those poltroons I myself was once taught to believe them to be; they are men of liberal and noble sentiments, their very characteristic is the love of liberty: and though I am an officer under the King of Great-Britain, I tacitly admire their resolution and perseverance against the present oppressive measures of the British government.
Stop me when you start to sense an American point of view peeping through this "genuine letter from an Officer on board one of the King's ships at Boston."

1 comment:

Jimmy said...

That is a very cool story.