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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Friday, June 15, 2007

Bunker Hill "By Some Mistake"?

Yesterday I noted the ongoing little kerfuffle over whether it would be more accurate to call the Battle of Bunker Hill the “Battle of Breed’s Hill.” We can do that, I figure, right after we change the name of the Battle of Gettysburg to the “Battle of lots of places all around Gettysburg, but not, you know, right in the middle of town.” It might be a little more accurate, but it wouldn’t really be worth it.

But in one way the distinction between Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill may have really mattered.

In the immediate aftermath of the battle, many New Englanders thought it had been a debacle for their side. The British military had driven provincial troops from a fortified position and moved closer to Cambridge headquarters. Hundreds of men had been killed, wounded, or captured, including the head of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Dr. Joseph Warren. The artillery had lost five of the six cannons it took into the battle. All those artillery companies’ officers and a few other officers were in various shades of disgrace.

Provincials consoled themselves with news of the heavy British losses. Only as time went on did it become clear that the battle had discouraged the British army from trying to break the siege again. Then the Battle of Bunker Hill gradually turned into an American success story.

In the meantime, the Provincial Congress formed a committee of inquiry to look into what happened. This committee’s report was mainly supposed to put the American cause in the best possible light for London readers, but there was also the question of what had gone wrong. The committee delivered their report on 25 July. Before getting down to the business of lambasting Crown policies, it said:

...commanders of the New England army had, about the 14th ult. [i.e., of last month], received advice that General [Thomas] Gage had issued orders for a party of the troops under his command to post themselves on Bunker’s Hill. . . .

Accordingly, on the 16th ult., orders were issued, that a detachment of 1000 men should that evening march to Charlestown, and intrench upon that hill. Just before nine o’clock they left Cambridge, and proceeded to Breed’s Hill, situated on the further part of the peninsula next to Boston, for, by some mistake, this hill was marked out for the intrenchment instead of the other.
However, exactly a month later Col. William Prescott wrote to John Adams in Philadelphia:
On the 16th of June, in the evening, I received orders to march to Breed’s Hill in Charlestown, with a party of about one thousand men. . . .

We arrived at the spot, the lines were drawn by the engineer, and we began the intrenchment about twelve o’clock; and plying this work with all possible expedition till just before sun-rising, when the enemy began a very heavy cannonading and bombardment.
And then there’s a 12 July letter from a man named Samuel Dyer (perhaps a Boston officeholder of that name), passing on secondhand news:
that the engineer and two generals went on to the hill at night and reconnoitred the ground; that one general and the engineer were of opinion we ought not to intrench on Charlestown Hill [apparently meaning Breed’s Hill] till we had thrown up some works on the north and south ends of Bunker Hill, to cover our men in their retreat, if that should happen, but on the pressing importunity of the other general officer, it was consented to begin as was done.
So which account is correct? We don’t have a written record of the orders issued on 16 June, if they were ever written down. All of these accounts come from after the battle, and are thus tinged by that oldest and deepest of human motivations, the desire to cover your own arse.

Prescott insisted that he went to Breed’s Hill as ordered. The Provincial Congress committee said the orders were for Bunker’s Hill, but an officer—implicitly Col. Richard Gridley, commander of the American artillery regiment—“marked out [the wrong hill] for the intrenchment.” The stories Dyer heard absolved both Prescott (who wasn’t involved in the decision) and Gridley (who advised against it), and blamed an unnamed general for choosing Breed’s Hill without adequate preparation behind the lines. And that doesn’t even get into the question of who that general was, or whether Dyer’s information is reliable.

All I can be sure about the choice of Breed’s Hill for the provincial redoubt are that:So if American security hinged on the subtle distinction between Bunker’s Hill and Breed’s/Charlestown Hill, it wasn’t wise to send those men out in the middle of the night to find the right spot.

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