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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Thursday, March 26, 2009

“So as to give me a sight of my own brain.”

George Harris (1746-1829) was a captain in His Majesty’s 5th Regiment of Foot during the siege of Boston. He was badly wounded in the Battle of Bunker Hill, as he described in this letter:

We had made a breach in their fortifications, which I had twice mounted, encouraging the men to follow me, and was ascending a third time, when a ball grazed the top of my head, and I fell deprived of sense and motion.

My lieutenant, Lord Rawdon, caught me in his arms, and, believing me dead, endeavoured to remove me from the spot, to save my body from being trampled on. The motion, while it hurt me, restored my senses, and I articulated, “For God’s sake, let me die in peace.”

The hope of preserving my life induced Lord Rawdon to order four soldiers to take me up, and carry me to a place of safety. Three of them were wounded while performing this office (one afterwards died of his wounds), but they succeeded in placing me under some trees out of the reach of the balls.

A retreat having been sounded, poor Holmes [Harris’s servant] was running about, like a madman, in search of me, and luckily came to the place where I lay just in time to prevent my being left behind; for when they brought me to the water’s edge, the last boat was put off, the men calling out they “would take no more.”

On Holmes hallooing out, “It is Captain Harris,” they put back, and took me in. I was very weak and faint, and seized with a severe shivering; our blankets had been flung away during the engagement; luckily there was one belonging to a man in the boat, in which wrapping me up, and laying me in the bottom, they conveyed me safely to my quarters.

The surgeons did not at first apprehend danger from the contusion, notwithstanding the extreme pain I felt, which increased very much if I attempted to lie down. A worthy woman, seeing this, lent me an easy chair, but this being full of bugs, only added to my sufferings.

My agonies increasing, and the surgeons observing symptoms of matter forming (which, had it fallen on the brain, must have produced instant death, or at least distraction), performed the operation of trepanning, from which time the pain abated, and I began to recover; but before the callous was formed, they indulged me with the gratification of a singular curiosity—fixing looking-glasses so as to give me a sight of my own brain.

The heat of the weather, and the scarcity of fresh provisions, added greatly to the sufferings of the wounded. As patience was the only remedy for the former, I trusted to it for relief; and for the latter, the attention of the surgeon, and a truly benevolent family in Boston, who supplied me with mutton-broth, when no money could purchase it, was a blessing for which I can never be sufficiently thankful.
The aide who edited Harris’s memoir added: “He also preserved, and afterwards presented to his eldest daughter, in memorial of the owner’s devoted zeal and affection, a silver button which had belonged to the grenadier who lost his life in attempting to save his captain’s.” Wouldn’t it have been more noble to present some silver to the grenadier’s daughter?

Harris survived to fight in more campaigns of the war, including the conflict over the Caribbean island of Santa Lucia. His career really took off during the British conquest of India, and he was made the first Baron Harris when he retired.

Back here is another glimpse of Lord Rawdon at Bunker Hill, from another future general in the British army, Martin Hunter.


Rob Velella said...

What a great post - I love reading about morbid stuff, like viewing your own brains.

relee said...

I've enjoyed reading the accounts of the seige of Breed's Hill,Bunker Hill.

Where these hills named after British or Boston individuals?


J. L. Bell said...

Both. The hills were named after local landowners in the period when Massachusetts was a British colony in America.

Roger W. Fuller said...

Interesting, the cite about a silver button plucked from a grenadier. Enlisted men's buttons in the British Army were of pewter, or, more often, tinned iron. Officers wore gilt or silver buttons, depending on what the officially prescribed metal was for officers to wear in a given regiment. If silver, this might indicate Harris's savior was a grenadier officer, unless silver indicates the optical color and not the actual substance the button was made from.

Anonymous said...

Wow - a leader with an actual brain!

How common is that any more?

relee said...

Have any bloggers read William Martin's "Back Bay',Harvard Yard',or 'Cape Cod'?