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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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Suspicions About the Provincials' Ammunition

The Battle of Bunker Hill inflicted a shocking number of casualties on the British army: over 1,000 men wounded or killed, or about 40% of all the soldiers involved in the fighting.

The army quickly moved its wounded across the Charles River to Boston, where both regimental surgeons and civilian doctors were pressed into service. Nevertheless, many men died of their wounds. That gave rise to suspicions and complaints about what the Yankees had been firing.

British surgeon Alexander Grant wrote in a letter to Westminster on 23 June 1775:

I have been up two nights, assisted with four mates, dressing our men of the wounds received the last engagement; many of the wounded are daily dying, and many must have both legs amputated. The provincials had either exhausted their ball, or they were determined that every wound should prove mortal; their musquets were charged with old nails and angular pieces of iron, and from most of our men being wounded in the legs,

we are inclined to believe it was their design, not wishing to kill the men, but leave them as burdens on us, to exhaust our provisions and engage our attention, as well as to intimidate the rest of the soldiery.
Dr. Grant went on to write Observations on the Use of Opium in Removing Symptoms Supposed to Be Owing to Morbid Irritability.

Pvt. Thomas Sullivan recorded even darker suspicions in his journal, available as From Redcoat to Rebel:
GREAT many died of their wounds after coming from the field, the weather in that part being so very hot in summer, that the wounds of several men mortified, and it was supposed the Enemy Poisoned some of their Balls, so that some of the wounds were uncurable. There was not above 300 of the wounded men [for comparison, Sullivan counted 706 “rank and file wounded”], that were cured fit for service; most of them as well as the troops getting a bloody flux, which killed numbers of them.
A 24 June letter from a Boston merchant to his brother in Scotland, probably published in a British newspaper before being reprinted in American Archives, also claimed that “by parcels of ammunition that were left on the field, their balls were all found to be poisoned.” Customs official Richard Reeve wrote to Sir George Howard on the same date about the provincials using a “poisonous mixture.”

I think these suspicions reflected British shock and anger more than Yankee ingenuity. The provincials on Bunker Hill ran out of powder and ball, which is why they had to retreat during the redcoats’ third assault. At the end some fired scraps of metal or pebbles from their guns rather than lead balls—out of desperation, not deviousness. And in that situation, it’s hard to believe they would have left behind unused “parcels of ammunition.” I also wonder what poison could survive the gunpowder explosion that propelled a ball from a musket.

British observers seem to have suspected the worst when wounded soldiers died of the flux, or dysentery. But, as Judith Cataldo described back in August, the same flux epidemic was sickening and killing Massachusetts families that summer of 1775. The period was already conducive to paranoid rumors about one’s foes, and there’s nothing like a horrible, bloody fight to make people think even worse thoughts.

(Howard Pyle’s painting of Bunker Hill, shown above, is still missing, according to the F.B.I.’s database on stolen art.)

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