For more than a hundred and fifty years, American historians have been quoting Col. William Prescott on the first death at the Battle of Bunker Hill, without being able to cite the original source of this quotation and thus without knowing how reliable it might be.
Thanks to the Archive of Americana newspaper database, I found Prescott’s words were first published in the Machias [Maine] Star, probably in late May 1825. I’m quoting the reprint of that item in the Newburyport Herald, 7 June 1825. Originally the following letter was printed as a single paragraph; I’ve added breaks and their accompanying quotation marks:
As every thing relating to the Battle of Bunker Hill is of peculiar and increasing interest at the present time, I will communicate what I heard the venerable Col. Prescott relate, a few years before his death, respecting that event, in which he acted so important a part. I will endeavor to give it in his own words.The Maine newspaper referred to the writer as “Major Butterfield,...[who] is well known as a man of intelligence, and is a curious inquirer in such matters.” With the fiftieth anniversary of Bunker Hill coming up, editors knew readers would be interested in details of the battle.
“The first man who fell in the battle of Bunker Hill was killed by a cannon ball which struck his head. He was so near me that my clothes were besmeared with his blood and brains, which I wiped off in some degree with a handful of fresh earth.
“The sight was so shocking to many of the men that they left their posts and ran to view him. I ordered them back, but in vain. I then ordered him to be buried instantly; when a man, who from his appearance I judged to be a subaltern [i.e., subordinate] officer, came up and throwing his arm around me exclaimed, ‘Dear Colonel, are you going to bury him without sending for a minister and having prayers?’
“I replied, ‘This is the first man that has been killed, and the only one that will be buried to-day. I put him out of sight that the men may be kept in their places. God only knows who, or how many of us, will fall before it is over. To your post, my good fellow, and do your duty.’[”]
Who it was that fell the first victim on that altar will probably never be known, otherwise his name ought to be handed down, with that of [Dr. Joseph] Warren, as long as Bunker Hill shall continue to be an eminence.—If that ball had fallen a few feet differently, it might have produced a serious effect on the result of that battle.
Machias, May 23d, 1825.
Was Butterfield really in a position to hear the colonel’s story “a few years before” Prescott died in 1795? According to Sketches of Alumni of Dartmouth College, Butterfield was born in Townsend, Massachusetts, in 1769. Prescott was very important man in Pepperell, one town to the east. So I suspect Butterfield heard this story when he was a young man interested in military affairs, and carried the memory with him when he moved to Maine. He may not have recalled Prescott’s words exactly, but he probably had a vivid memory of the gory details.
TOMORROW: Another version of the same story.