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.

Follow by Email


Friday, June 22, 2007

Who Coined the Phrase "Till You See the Whites of Their Eyes"?

For most of the 1800s, American historians happily attributed the phrase “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes” to either Israel Putnam or William Prescott, commanders at the Battle of Bunker Hill. As I discussed yesterday, there was disagreement about which of those men issued such an order, with Putnam getting an early lead but Prescott winning in the end.

Then British historian Thomas Carlyle (shown here, courtesy of NNDB.com) published his massive History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great from 1858 to 1865. And American readers couldn’t help noticing that Carlyle quoted Prussian documents about ordering soldiers not to shoot “till you see the whites of their eyes” decades before Bunker Hill.

That made authors change how they described the quotation. In Winsor’s Memorial History of Boston (1881), Edward Everett Hale wrote:

All along the American lines the order had been given which the officers remembered in the memoirs of Frederick’s wars: “Wait till you can see the whites of their eyes.”
He added this explanatory footnote:
Prince Charles, when he cut through the Austrian army, in retiring from Jägendorf, gave this order to his infantry: “Silent, till you see the whites of their eyes.” This was on May 22, 1745; and this order, so sucessful that day, was remembered twelve years after at the battle of Prague, when the general Prussian order was, “By push of bayonets; no firing till you see the whites of their eyes.”
Since then many reference books and websites attribute the “whites of their eyes” phrase to “Prince Charles of Prussia” at Jägendorf. He wasn’t using it in the same context as during Bunker Hill; he wanted his men to sneak through a larger Austrian force, so they shouldn’t attract attention by, say, shooting off their guns. But the clear implication is that he deserves credit for the coinage. Additionally, the citation reminds us not to simply accept our American tradition about Putnam or Prescott coining the phrase.

That’s where I thought the story ended. You know: the received version, and the slightly more interesting, less flattering reality. And then I started to look into the sources. Ironically, I found that all references to Prince Charles of Prussia at Jägendorf are a received version, too. They reproduce errors by Hale (or whomever he relied on):
  • The small town was Jägerndorf, with an additional R.
  • Carlyle called the Prussian commander “Margraf Karl”; the title of margraf or margrave should be translated as marquess, not prince.
  • Carlyle actually quoted a “whites of their eyes” command even earlier in his book, in discussing the Battle of Mollwitz in 1741. But he didn’t credit a particular commander, and he didn’t cite a source, as in his later two references, so in this case Carlyle himself might have written too exuberantly.
Hale assumed that American officers of the 1770s were familiar with the Prussian tradition of “till you see the whites of their eyes.” The Prussian army was highly admired in that period, and had been allies of the British in 1757 during the Seven Years’ War (though not in the War of the Austrian Succession in the 1740s).

I therefore searched for the phrase “white(s) of the(ir) eye(s)” in newspapers and other material printed in colonial America. I figured it might have shown up in reports from Europe or articles about how great Frederick the Great really was. But I couldn’t find a single example.

It’s possible that “whites of their eyes” was printed in English books and magazines, which were then shipped to America and read by military-minded gentlemen. It’s also possible that the Prussian phrase circulated among British officers posted to North America; both Putnam and Prescott were officers in the French and Indian War, and Putnam was particularly close to a set of British counterparts.

But it’s also possible that:So I started this posting thinking the answer to its question is a Prussian prince, and I come out thinking the answer is probably a Prussian margrave, but I’m less sure. That’s the trouble with reading stuff.


Me said...

Das Weisse in den Augen Sehen

Not sure who coined it, but we do use that phrase in Germany. ;)

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that useful Old World info. It might turn out that the phrase "see the whites of their eyes" goes back well before the 1740s, and has no single father (or mother).

I found that most American print references to "the whites of the eyes" in the late 1700s and early 1800s refer to people rolling their eyes, in either terror or disbelief. That produced a different image of the British storming Bunker Hill:

"You call this a redoubt? Honestly, it looks like you just started it last night. And those clothes! Haven't you people heard of dressing in uniforms?" Rolls eyes. BANG!

NJDave said...

So, Lets see - The movie script on the Charlestown side of the river woould be:


GEN. ISREAL PUTNUM and his officers, climb the west side of the hill in total silence. Upon reaching the top, they survey the terrain.

Accross the bay, the outlines of buildings comprising a colonial city takes shape bathed in moonlight, with an occaisional lantern glow. In the Bay & Back Bay, they observe several various Royal Navy warships floating in silence.

We are too far from Boston to effect a battle, and too far from the road to engage them properly. Nor can we protect our flanks. Those Bloody backs could easily march past us out of range.

(Pointing halfway to Boston) That smaller rise there may suit us. We would be so close they would not be able to effectively form their lines. From there I can extend our left flank to the sea, and snipers in Charlestown can cover our right.

Fine. I'll plant our artillery here to cover our retreat. (pauses to change subject) Colonel, you'll be working with inexperienced men. No war experience, no real training to speak of. Can you get these men ready to fight in 6 hours?

They have enough jealousy remembered from Lexington & Concord. If they can follow my orders, they'll fight enough. I'm more concerned about ammunition supply. We have nary enough for an extended battle.

When everything is completed here, I'll return to Cambridge to petition for more shot. In the mean time, give our boys the ole Prussian speach our officers gave us in the last war.

dfogleman2 said...

The Swedish General Fersen used the phrase in ordering his cavalry to use their pistols rather than carbines in an attack against the Danish cavalry at the Battle of Lund in 1676.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m sure Gen. Fersen gave his orders in Swedish. And that’s the issue with quotations—the wording matters as well as the thought. Did Fersen’s statement (for which I can’t find a source, but then I don’t read Swedish) make its way to Prussia and thence to Britain? Did the same idea occur in several cultures?

Since this posting went up almost ten years ago, I’ve found new material on “whites of their eyes” at Bunker Hill. The phrase was established in British military circles decades before that battle. But there’s also strong evidence that Gen. Putnam actually said it in June 1775.