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, December 09, 2008

“Besmeared with His Blood and Brains”

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 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.
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.

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.


A Staunch Whig said...

Is this story one in the same with the story of Asa Pollard (History of the Siege of Boston by Frothingham, p. 126)?

J. L. Bell said...

You’re getting ahead of me! Yes, Prescott’s tale of a man hit by a cannon ball was connected with the name of Asa Pollard. This week’s postings will focus on the early sources on that incident, and how well they fit together.

A Staunch Whig said...

Ooops! Sorry. I think, without looking it up, that Ketchum's Decisive Day aludes to a man getting his brains blown out (as you write above) and separately to Asa, suggesting there are two similar events, though I had doubted this.

A Staunch Whig said...

I have recently found a way to access Archive of Americana, but found that the Newburyport Herald is not listed beyond 1824. Can you recheck your reference? (Otherwise, is it possible there are different tiers to Archive of Americana?)

J. L. Bell said...

This morning I accessed the Archive of Americana through the Boston Public Library, and it listed the Newburyport Herald through October 1825.

I have P.D.F. versions of the articles I cited, so I searched for those again. They didn’t come up with searches for unique phrases, but they did when I asked the database to spit out every article in the Herald in 1825 with the word “Bunker.” So they’re there; we just have to cajole the system.

I’ve long found the Archive of Americana to be quirky, sometimes spotting things and sometimes not. It’s a great tool, but not an exact one.