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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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Myth, Memory, and What Really Happened at Bunker Hill

This essay comes to Boston 1775 from guest blogger Brad Cornelius, a freelance historical writer with an M.A. in European History living in Troy, New York. His latest project is writing corporate histories for established companies and institutions.

In the historical vernacular, to identify something as a myth is to label it as a misconception at best and an outright lie at worst. However, if we accept the broader definition of myth common to other social sciences, myths reveal as much information about the past as any solid historical fact.

In their simplest form, myths are stories that explain the origins of peoples or things. You don’t have to be Joseph Campbell to understand why such myths are useful to the societies that create them. In the half century that followed the battles of 1775, Americans were consciously creating a new nation. Recording the historical origins of this new nation also produced myths because both pursuits sought to define a new people, establish their core values, and chart an ideological course.

From the first shot fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the military actions of the Revolutionary War became infused with myth-like meaning that created difficult situations for later historians. A prime example of this process can be found in the events surrounding the battle of Bunker Hill that took place on June 17, 1775.

The traditional narrative of the battle is quite simple. Colonial forces occupied and fortified Breed’s Hill on a peninsula in Boston harbor. British forces took heavy casualties during their three assaults on the hill, dislodging the colonial forces only as the rebels ran low on ammunition and opted for a controlled retreat.

The first pitched battle of the Revolution became legendary due to the actions of high-profile individuals, the heavy casualties inflicted on the British, and the escape of all unwounded colonial forces. As the early decades of the nineteenth century passed, the men who fought on Breed’s Hill became the “greatest generation” of a young nation.

Fifty years after the battle, dignitaries like the Marquis de Lafayette and Daniel Webster gathered to lay the cornerstone for the monument that stands on the site today. Much like our generation, those behind the monument’s construction sensed the inevitable passing of the men behind important events. Just as collecting oral histories from World War II vets is popular today, the directors of the Bunker Hill Monument Association seized the opportunity to document the recollections of the battle’s surviving veterans who attended the 1825 ceremony.

As the reports began to accumulate, the directors became profoundly disturbed and perplexed by what they revealed. As part of the centennial celebration of the battle in 1875, the president of the Bunker Hill Monument Association, George Washington Warren, described how his predecessors reacted to the problem of myth and memory in The History of the Bunker Hill Monument Association During the First Century:

While the survivors of the Revolution were convened in Boston to attend the laying of the corner-stone of the Monument, their several depositions were taken of their reminiscences of the Battle. But the accounts they gave were confused and conflicting; so much so that no reliable information could be obtained from them.

At a meeting of the Directors, General [William] Sullivan stated to the Board “that he had possession of the papers containing the accounts given by the survivors of the Battle of the 17th June, 1775, and that he proposed to hold them subject to the inspection of the Directors exclusively.” His proposal was assented to, as the most expedient course to be adopted. Where they are now, nobody knows.
In the past two decades, advances in cognitive psychology and its related disciplines have taught us a great deal about memory formation and the workings of the brain. Historians now understand that where history is dependent on human memory, it is also subject to the shortcomings of the human mind. Lacking this perspective, the historians of the Bunker Hill Monument Association were perplexed by discrepancies in the veterans’ memories and chose to ignore the troublesome data – perhaps even destroy it.

The lost recollections would be a valuable source for any modern historian. We would arrive at some firm conclusions about the path of the battle through contemporaneous sources and analyze the veterans’ accounts in relation to those known facts, pinpointing useful information through a sort of triangulation. Careful analysis of the veterans’ words would allow us to describe the meaning memories of the battle carried within their society. The Bunker Hill Monument stands as a physical representation of that meaning, but the directors of the Monument Association were ill-equipped to deal with the quirks of memory and thus a wealth of sources was lost.

We would like to think that the most important events, those heavy with meaning for the United States, are immune to the uncertainty that accompanies myth creation. In reality, such events deserve our most critical attention. Where meaning is of the utmost importance, human memory often bends in its service, and it falls to the historian to explain both the events as they happened and the cultural meaning ultimately attached to them. Only through such a dual explanation can historians approximate the true nature of past events and honor their myth-like meaning in American culture.

For more information on war, meaning, and memory, Brad Cornelius recommends G. Kurt Piehler’s Remembering War the American Way (Washington: Smithsonian Books, 1995). Thanks, Brad!


Chris the Woburnite said...

These were depositions taken fifty years after the battle, subject to the distortions of age, repeated self-aggrandizement, etc., so I would expect there to be great discrepancies among them. But oh to have those depositions!

In any event, reading of the actions of those directors 185 years ago I am reminded again of a line from the John Ford film, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, when an editor declines to reveal idol-bashing truths: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

- Chris H.

JimCooke said...

John Quincy Adams writes:

"Today was the day of reception of the President of the United States, by the city of Boston. Tyler comes with his Cabinet to attend the celebration of the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument—a costly pageant got up by the most respectable Webster supporters. The cornerstone was laid by LaFayette in 1825 on which occasion Webster delivered an eloquent discourse. Today, he is to deliver another. The object now is to glorify him. This invitation to the president and his Cabinet is a political device of Webster’s. The reception of the President had all the appearances of cordiality, not-with-standing a drenching rain to cool it. His Accidency is lodged at the Tremont House, at enormous expense. He was entertained with a sumptuous dinner by the city council. I was invited but sent an excuse.

What a name in the annals of mankind is Bunker Hill! What a day was the 17th of June 1775! I shall never forget it! And what a burlesque upon them both is an oration upon them by Daniel Webster, and a pilgrimage by John Tyler and his Cabinet of slave-drivers to desecrate the solemnity.
I have throughout my life had an utter aversion to all pageants and public dinners, and never attend one when I can decently avoid it. Now, with the ideal association of the thundering cannon, which I heard, and the smoke of burning Charlestown, which I saw with my mother from the top of Penn’s Hill on that awful day. Now: Combined with this pyramid of Quincy granite, and Daniel Webster spouting, and John Tyler’s nose, with a shadow outstretching that of the monumental column—how could I have witnessed all this without an unbecoming burst of indignation, or of laughter? Daniel Webster is a heartless traitor to the cause of human freedom: John Tyler is a slave-monger! What have these to do with the Quincy granite pyramid on the brow of Bunker Hill? What have these to do with a dinner at Faneuil Hall, but to swill like swine, and grunt about the rights of man?"
Quincy, June 16, 1843

"John Quincy Adams: A Spirit Unconquerable!"

Willy said...

I disagree that these "memoirs"would be a valuable source today.The original examiners correctly determined that they were grossly erroneous and wisely destroyed them.Unfortunately even today there are a plethora of "pseudo-veterans"who continue to distort history seeking self glorification.I have met a few of them,they are pitiful.
I think we have a very good grasp of what happened at Bunker's Hill that day;certainly not 100% will ever be known,but the same situaton exists with every historical event.
Good riddance to this boakum.

Brad said...

Willy, thanks for responding to my post. I agree that we have a fairly good idea of how things unfolded on that day in 1775. The missing accounts may have shed some light on some small details, but that isn't the real value I see in them. The lies men told about themselves, or the self deceptions they willingly or unconsciously embraced would provide valuable cultural information about how the men wanted to be seen within their society. The accounts, inaccuracies and all, would provide a glimpse into the minds and motivations of historical actors. And that (to paraphrase Collingwood) is the idea of history.

Laurence Badagliacca said...

I fully agree with Brad as to the value of these, possibly ahistoric, accounts. I have a particular interest as my 4th great-grandfather, William Warren [no relation to Joseph] was wounded in the battle. Family legend has him present at the 1825 laying of the Bunker Hill Monument cornerstone. Perhaps he gave one of these depositions. I have seen some reports that the depositions were given to the Massachusetts Historical Society. They have told me that they have no record of these depositions.