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, July 12, 2012

“A few artillery cartridges were discovered…”

As I wrote back here, during the Battle of Bunker Hill the two provincial artillery companies ordered to the redoubt on Breed’s Hill in Charlestown discovered a problem with their supplies. The cloth or paper packets of gunpowder in their carriage boxes were too big to fit inside their cannon.

In the course of the battle those artillery companies just sort of melted away. Gen. Israel Putnam led a few of those companies and some infantrymen in trying to use the cannon, but to limited effect.

Inside the redoubt, Col. William Prescott made use of the artillery regiment’s abandoned powder, according to his son. The story picks up after the soldiers in the redoubt had repelled the second British advance:
Nearly the whole front rank was swept away by the first fire of the Americans, so that General [William] Howe was seen standing almost alone, two of his aids having fallen by his side, if my recollection serves me. This was a triumph, and was felt as such by the soldiers; but it was destined to be short-lived.

The interval was now longer, and Colonel Prescott again went among his men, encouraging and assuring them their enemies could never be rallied again if they were once more driven back. They cheered him; said they were ready for the red coats again. . . . Colonel Prescott, however, foresaw with great concern that their ammunition must be nearly exhausted, and, on conferring with his officers, found his worst apprehensions confirmed. He learned from them that the men had little, almost no, ammunition left, and he knew that they were destitute of bayonets. A few artillery cartridges were discovered, which he ordered to be opened, and the powder distributed among the soldiers, exhorting them not to waste a kernel of it, but to make it certain that every shot should tell. . . .

The [British] artillery was directed to the opening between the breastwork and the rail fence, and. from the position they took, they raked the breastwork, drove the men into the redoubt, and did much execution within it. The grenadiers and infantry advanced under the command of Generals Howe, [Henry] Clinton, and [Robert] Pigot upon the southern and eastern sides of the redoubt, making the attack on three sides of it at the same time. A few straggling muskets only were discharged as they advanced.

The Americans having, some only one, and none more than three or four, rounds of ammunition were now directed to reserve their fire till the enemy were within twenty yards, when they poured on them a deadly volley, which made them waver for an instant, and then they sprang forward without returning it. The fire from the redoubts was continued for a few minutes, but soon slackened for want of ammunition, and the British advanced to the wall, which then served as a cover to the front ranks of their columns against the fire of the Americans. Those of the latter who had no bayonets were ordered to retire to the back part of the redoubt, and fire on the enemy as they shew themselves on the parapet.

The redoubt was entered at the southern side or angle. The first officer and whole front rank were shot down as they mounted, among them the gallant Major [John] Pitcairn, as I have always understood. [British sources say Pitcairn had already been fatally wounded by this point and never mounted the redoubt.]

By this time, the ammunition of the Americans was wholly exhausted. The discovery of another cannon cartridge furnished powder for the last muskets that were fired. The Americans, destitute of bayonets, had nothing but the butts of their guns to resist the entrance of the enemy with, and many of them used the barrels after the stocks were broken. The British had entered the redoubt, and were advancing, when Colonel Prescott ordered a retreat.
Prescott’s son composed this account based on his father’s comments and his own reading at some point before he died in 1844. (William, Jr., was only twelve in 1775 and not at the siege.) The document was published in the 1870s by historian Richard Frothingham and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

(The image above accompanies this behind-the-scenes essay from the National Park Service about statue conservation, using the Prescott statue beside the Bunker Hill Monument as an exemplar.)

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