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, February 16, 2014

A Old English “Whites of their Eyes”?

On 1 June 1794, the Royal Navy fought a fleet of French warships in the eastern Atlantic, an action that became known (in Britain, anyway) as “the Glorious First of June.”

There are two connections between this fight and America. First, the French warships were escorting a grain convoy from the U.S. of A. to Revolutionary France, and Britain wanted to interrupt that supply.

Second, the British commander was Adm. Richard Howe, by then Earl Howe (shown above), who with his brother Gen. Sir William Howe had once commanded the British forces in North America.

Because that battle was so close to London, before the month was out the the Gentleman’s Magazine published a detailed account of the action dated 14 June from “a Naval Correspondent of high Rank.” Among his comments:
Never was so much havock, and so complete a victory, gained in so short a time. Earl Howe plainly convinced the Sans culottes that he could yet shew them the Old English way of fighting, “not to fire before he could see the whites of their eyes.” The crews of the ships that sunk all perished; a fine gang for Old Davy indeed!
This presents an interesting foil to the report that I quoted yesterday, about Gen. Israel Putnam saying he’d given an order at Bunker Hill for his soldiers not to fire until they could see the whites of their enemies’ eyes. In between when Putnam reportedly made that claim (before he died in 1790) and when it appeared in print (in 1800), a British commander was quoted as using the same phrase. To add to the irony, Admiral Howe’s brother had commanded the troops facing Putnam in 1775.

The Gentleman’s Magazine correspondent suggested that holding fire till you see the white of their eyes was “the Old English way of fighting” (presumably as opposed to new-fangled, Revolutionary, Sans culottes methods). One might therefore expect to find a lot of earlier uses of the phrase in British military sources. But I haven’t turned up any. An equivalent phrase is documented in German sources in the mid-1700s, but that’s not “the Old English way of fighting,” is it?

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