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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Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Slow Spread of Official News about Bunker Hill

In response to this week’s question about George Washington on 17 June 1775, the day of the Battle of Bunker Hill, a few people guessed he was in New York on the way to the siege lines. In fact, he didn’t leave Philadelphia until the morning of 23 June, a full week after he agreed to be commander-in-chief. His letters make clear that even he didn’t expect his departure to take that long.

Washington reached New York on 25 June, and there opened a dispatch from Boston with a report on the fighting in Massachusetts. (Adding to the chronological confusion, the letters Washington sent during his journey north all appear to be misdated by one day.) The dispatch that Washington read that day brings up another mystery.

News of the first shots at Lexington on the morning of 19 Apr 1775 reached New York on the afternoon of 23 April, according to the comprehensive table at the back of David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride. So a little less than five days.

Yet the report on Bunker Hill arrived in New York eight days after the battle, even assuming that no dispatch rider departed until light on 18 June. Why the difference?

On 18 June, the day after the fight, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress appointed a six-man committee to “prepare a letter to the Continental Congress on the late attack of the king’s troops at Bunker’s hill, &c.” That committee included Joseph Hawley, James Warren, Dr. Benjamin Church, and James Otis, Sr.—all heavy hitters. But the congress was then officially leaderless with Dr. Joseph Warren missing and feared dead. On the afternoon of 19 June, the legislature chose James Warren (shown above, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts) as its new president.

On 20 June, the Provincial Congress reviewed its committee’s report on the battle, “paragraph by paragraph,” and ordered it to be copied and sent. Their dispatch referred to an “anonymous letter from Boston” numbering the British casualties at “about one thousand,” which turned out to be more accurate than the committee thought.

That was probably the letter that Washington opened in New York five days later. So the mail riders weren’t slow. The Provincial Congress delayed its report until its committee had a good sense of what had happened and/or could put a good spin on events. It thus seems likely that Gen. Washington and his party had heard brief, early rumors about the Bunker Hill battle before they reached New York City.

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