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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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Was Col. Paul Dudley Sargent Wounded at Bunker Hill?

The Wikipedia entry on Col. Paul Dudley Sargent of the Massachusetts and Continental Army is only the latest description of him that says he “was wounded at Bunker Hill.” (In fact, that part of the sentence comes right out of the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography for 1895.) But was he? Well, that depends on what one means by “at Bunker Hill.”

On 20 Dec 1825, Sargent sent his recollections of that battle to Samuel Swett, who was gathering information for an expanded edition of his book. Sargent wrote:
I made application three times that day to be permitted to march my regiment to Charlestown, but General [Artemas] Ward feared my post [at Ralph and Elizabeth Inman’s farm in east Cambridge] would be attacked, and for once judged right, for a large schooner, with from five to six hundred men, attempted to gain the landing, but the wind against her and the tide turning, she returned.

About 4, P. M., General Ward permitted me to march my regiment with one called his own to Charlestown, but too late to do any good. Gen. [Israel] Putnam, then on Prospect Hill, sent an officer to order me on to the hill, but finding I did not attend to his order, he sent a second, who I took no notice of. A third came open mouth, saying Gen. Putnam says the devil of hell is in you all, you will be all cut to pieces.

The words were scarcely uttered when I was left with Lieut. Col. [Jonathan] Ward and my waiter. I had before this received a scratch from a four pound shot—the same shot took off Lt. Col. Ward's catouch box, and knocked down a subaltern behind him. I returned to head quarters.
Swett relied on that letter in his History of Bunker Hill Battle (1826), saying that Sargent was “slightly wounded,” evidently in west Charlestown short of the peninsula. Swett didn’t quote or mention the letter, however.

Richard Frothingham cited Sargent’s letter with a quote in a footnote in his 1849 History of the Siege of Boston. But Swett objected that that book gave the impression that Sargent had refused Putnam’s order to go onto Breed’s Hill, where the main battle was fought. By “the hill” Sargent meant Prospect Hill, where Putnam was trying to organize a defense after the British army had taken the peninsula; in refusing to go there, Sargent was refusing to pull back to a fortified position, as well as refusing to take orders from a Connecticut man.

In fact, Swett and Frothingham both interpreted Sargent’s phrase the same way, as their dueling pamphlets eventually made clear. Swett’s two-page objection to Frothingham on this point might have been a proxy for their bigger dispute over Putnam’s role in the battle. Swett might also have been pushed to that public objection by complaints from the Sargent family, who were quite protective about the colonel’s reputation.

In any event, Col. Sargent and his regiment never made it onto the Charlestown peninsula—though not for lack of trying. His “scratch” came near Bunker’s Hill, and after the main fight. Still, it was a wound, and it was during the overall battle. I think Sargent’s recollection is most valuable in demonstrating Gen. Ward’s worry about where else the British forces might attack. While we can look back in perfect hindsight, on 17 June 1775 no one knew which direction the fighting would go.


Jim Padian said...

Interesting series of posts, but I'm confused by Putnam's rank: Colonel in some, General in others.

rfuller said...

From the hair style and the tailoring, I highly doubt that pic is from 1774. Try 1814.

J. L. Bell said...

Israel Putnam arrived at the siege as a colonel but was promoted to general by the Connecticut legislature in late April. I think Thompson Maxwell’s recollection of him as a colonel at this battle was mistaken.

J. L. Bell said...

John Trumbull also wasn’t doing portraits in 1774; most of his work came after the war. The original sketch was passed down in the Sargent family, but I don't know when or where it was published with this caption. Perhaps that date was supposed to mean it showed Sargent as a younger man.

J. L. Bell said...

Now that I look more closely, I note that the signature on the engraving (which may or may not have been on the original sketch) says "J. T. 1776."

J. L. Bell said...

And now that I think of it, Thompson Maxwell apparently met Putnam first as a senior ranger in the French & Indian War, and that may have affected how he remembered the man’s rank.

banjoseth said...

I feel certain the drawing purporting to be Sargent was created posthumously. Its style is strikingly dissimilar to known examples of Trumbull's sketches of revolutionary figures and in fact looks far more like drawings made during one of the other of the more recent periods when enthusiasm for the revolution was at a high pitch. Sargent family wishful thinking, perhaps?

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. What we see is said to be “from a portrait" by Trumbull, presumably adapted for some form of engraving. It probably does reflect some of the aesthetics of a later period. Of course, there could also be confusion.

At least one member of the Sargent family was a serious historian: Winthrop Sargent (1825-1870). His writing about Col. Paul Dudley Sargent seems solid and careful on details (though at times relying on family history). But almost every family has a tendency to preserve the best image of their ancestors.