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, June 17, 2008

Robert Steele: drummer at Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on 17 June 1775. This recollection of the fight is from a letter that Robert Steele (1760-1833) wrote to William Sumner on 10 July 1825, preserved in the Samuel Swett Papers at the New-York Historical Society. Steele was a young drummer in Ephraim Doolittle’s regiment, commanded that day by Maj. Willard Moore of Paxton.

the British…marched with rather a slow step up to our entrenchment, and the battle began. The conflict was sharp, but the British soon retreated with a quicker step than they came up, leaving some of their killed and wounded in sight of us. They retreated towards where they landed and formed again…came up again and a second battle ensued which was harder and longer than the first, but being but a lad and this the first engagement I was ever in, I cannot remember much more…than great noise and confusion. One or two circumstances I can, however, distinctly remember. . . .

About the time the British retreated a second time, I was standing side of Benjamin Ballard, a Boston boy about my age, who had a gun in his heads, when one of our sergeants came up to us and said, “You are young and spry, run in a moment to some of the stores and bring some rum. Major Moore is badly wounded. Go as quick as possible.”

We threw down our implements of war and run as fast as we could and passed over the hill…down to Charlestown Neck and found there was a firing in that quarter. We heard the shot pass over our heads, which I afterwards understood were thrown from a floating battery in Mystic River and from the shipping on the Boston side of the Neck.

We however immediately passed on and went into a store, but see no one there. I stamped and called out to rally some person and a man answered is from the cellar below. I told him what we wanted, but he did not come up, nor did we see him at all. I again told him what we wanted and asked him why he stayed down cellar. He answered, “To keep out of the way of the shot,” and then said, “If you want anything in the store, take what you please.”

I seized a brown, two-quart, earthen pitcher and drawed it partly full from a cask and found I had got wine. I threw that out and filled my pitcher with rum from another cask. Ben took a pail and filled with water, and we hastened back to the entrenchment on the hill, when we found our people in confusion and talking about retreating. The British were about advancing upon us a third time. Our rum and water went very quick. It was very hot, but I saved my pitcher and kept it for sometime afterwards.
Up top is an image of the grave marker for Steele and his wife Lydia in Westwood, Massachusetts, photographed and kindly posted on Flickr by Michael Femia.

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