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, September 28, 2013

Unpacking Bunker Hill

Don Hagist has an interesting article about Bunker Hill at All Things Liberty: The Journal of the American Revolution. While framed [!] as a discussion of Howard Pyle’s famous (and still missing) painting of a doomed British advance, the essay is really a fine dissection of some myths and misconceptions about the battle.

For instance:
Although British soldiers did use knapsacks (that didn’t look anything like Pyle’s), they didn’t wear them on that day. Why would they? The knapsack carried nice things like spare shoes, shirts and socks, great for a long campaign but silly to lug along when attacking a fort only a mile away from your barracks.

In preparation for the assault, General [William] Howe explicitly ordered the troops to march with only “with their Arms, Ammunition, Blankets, and provisions;” the latter two items because he correctly anticipated that they’d spend the night camped under the stars after the attack. Knapsacks remained behind in barracks like they usually did, to be brought up later in wagons when an encampment was firmly established.

Pyle can’t be blamed too heavily, though; authors have for years written that British troops hauled their knapsacks up Bunker Hill, one even doing so after presenting the order to carry only blankets.
A footnote elaborates:
The error appears as early as 1794 when Charles Stedman wrote that the troops were “encumbered with three days provisions, their knapsacks on their backs” and estimated their total burden at 125 pounds. Although Stedman served in America (but not at Bunker Hill) and is in many ways reliable, his estimate of the soldier’s burden is nearly twice other estimates for a fully loaded soldier – and the men at Bunker Hill were not fully loaded.
I still love that painting, but Don’s essay forces me to look at its details in a new way.

1 comment:

rfuller said...

I first heard this from Mark Nichipor who used to work for the NPS. He said there was zero mention of knapsacks in the orders.

The troops at Bunker Hill probably carried their blankets on their backs in "blanket rolls", wrapped around a leather strap, slung over one shoulder. Typically done throughout most of the war by the British, whenever possible.