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 21, 2011

“He will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins”

Yesterday I quoted what I think is the earliest printed version of the story of Abijah Willard recognizing his relative William Prescott on the redoubt before the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Richard Frothingham included a slightly different version of the story in his History of the Siege of Boston, first published in 1849:
To inspire confidence, Colonel Prescott mounted the parapet and walked leisurely around it, inspecting the works, giving directions to the officers, and encouraging the men by approbation, or amusing them with humor. One of his captains, understanding his motive, followed his example while superintending the labors of his company. This had the intended effect. The men became indifferent to the cannonade, or received the balls with repeated cheers.

The tall, commanding form of Prescott was observed by General [Thomas] Gage, as he was reconnoitring the Americans through his glass, who inquired of Councillor Willard, near him, “Who the person was who appeared to command?”

Willard recognized his brother-in-law.

“Will he fight?” again inquired Gage.

“Yes, sir; he is an old soldier, and will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins!”

“The works must be carried,” was the reply.
Frothingham cited a handwritten memoir of Col. Prescott by his namesake son. (As usual, I’ve broken up the single long paragraph in Frothingham’s book to make the text easier to read online.)

In 1875, Frothingham submitted that manuscript to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and it was published in the society’s Proceedings and in a booklet called The Battle-field of Bunker Hill. The anecdote is nearly the same:
As Governor Gage and his staff, with some other officers, were watching the progress of the battle from Copp’s Hill in Boston, he handed his glass to Colonel Willard, one of his council, and asked him to look and see if he knew the person who appeared to have the command of the rebels. He looked, and told the governor he knew him well; it was Colonel Prescott, his brother-in-law, and that he was sorry to see him there. “Will he fight?” inquires the governor. “Yes,” replied Colonel W., “he is an old soldier; he will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins; it will be a bloody day, you may depend on it.” “The works must be carried,” was the reply.
The manuscript included another anecdote about Prescott and Willard:
Colonel Prescott had determined never to be taken alive. A few months before the battle, while he commanded a regiment of minutemen, his brother-in-law, Colonel Willard, was at his house; and, endeavoring to dissuade him from the active part he was taking against the king’s government, among other things, suggested that, if he should be found in arms against it, his life and estate would be forfeited for treason. He replied: “I have made up my mind on that subject; I think it probable I may be found in arms, but I will never be taken alive. The Tories shall never have the satisfaction of seeing me hanged.”
As for the relationship between the two men, Willard’s first wife, Elizabeth, was Prescott’s older sister. She had died in 1751. By the Battle of Bunker Hill, Willard was on his third wife. The two men also shared the experience of serving as officers during the wars against the French. They didn’t live in the same town, however, or even the same county, and I’m not sure if there’s any evidence independent of these anecdotes that the men kept in close touch.

TOMORROW: Yet another version.

(Photo of the Prescott statue at the Bunker Hill Monument above by rjones0586, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)


Kim said...

Could you tell us where Willard did live? I grew up around the corner from Prescott's house and know it well and my ancestor from Hollis, NH was with him that day--I'd love to know more about Willard--sorry if I missed a post that told us the info!

J. L. Bell said...

Abijah Willard lived in Lancaster, Massachusetts. He had farms elsewhere, and was reportedly carrying seed to one of those farms when he heard about the fighting on 19 April 1775 and headed to Boston.