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 16, 2007

Setting the Scene for Bunker Hill

After one session of the Boston Early American History Seminar this year, someone—perhaps Brendan McConville or Alan Rogers—suggested that the Battle of Bunker Hill would make a good movie. I responded by describing this scene from the morning of 17 June 1775, before the battle began in earnest.

EXT. COPP’S HILL IN THE NORTH END - DAY

GEN. THOMAS GAGE, his officers, and some well-dressed Loyalist Councilors climb the east side of the hill, the sounds of cannon growing louder. They reach the top and gaze at the scene below.

On the far side of the hill, the Royal Artillery in dark blue coats are firing cannon across the Charles River onto Charlestown. Warships in the bay fire shot and shells as well. Flames are rising from the small town opposite. A large body of men can be seen moving around the rise behind the town.

A couple of the gentlemen, including ABIJAH WILLARD, pull out small spyglasses. An aide hands GAGE a long brass telescope, which he peers through. A masking shot and handheld camera simulate GAGE’s view through the lens. On the far hill, men are piling up dirt with shovels, building a redoubt. A man in a long coat and broad-brimmed hat, PRESCOTT, strides back and forth along the new wall.

WILLARD
(looking through a smaller spyglass)
Good lord, that’s Captain Prescott!
GAGE
What’s that, Mr. Willard? What can you see?
GAGE hands WILLARD his telescope. WILLARD puts it to his eye. Another POV shot of PRESCOTT walking along the parapet as WILLARD speaks. A younger officer starts to walk the same way. The provincials keep digging. Cannons keep booming.

WILLARD
That man in command of the little redoubt, Your Excellency -- he’s Mr. William Prescott, a gentleman of Groton. My late wife, my first late wife, was his sister. He was promoted captain in the last French war, on Cape Breton. I suppose they call him “colonel” now -- last autumn, as I heard, the rebels chose him to command a regiment --
GAGE
Yes, yes. The only question is, Will they fight?
WILLARD
As to his men, I cannot answer for them.
(lowers the telescope to look at GAGE)
But Prescott will fight you to the gates of Hell.

This anecdote appears in John Stockton Littell’s notes for Alexander Graydon’s Memoirs of His Own Time (1846 edition), credited to a manuscript supplied by Col. Prescott’s grandson, the Rev. Edward G. Prescott. Interestingly, Richard Frothingham’s History of the Siege of Boston (1849) cites the same manuscript but says Willard’s answer was, “Yes, sir; he is an old soldier, and will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins!” Caleb Butler’s History of the Town of Groton (1848) mentions that manuscript as well, but not the Willard anecdote. It’s not clear how, if this anecdote happened as described, word of the conversation came back to the Prescotts. But it’s just too good to toss out.

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