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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Monday, February 17, 2014

Seeing “Whites of Their Eyes” Everywhere and Nowhere

After Liz Covart tweeted about my post tracing a variation of “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes” to Israel Putnam, I had an interesting chat about the quotation on Twitter with Alexander Rose, author of Washington’s Spies.

We agree that it’s unlikely Putnam coined the phrase in 1775, that probably many officers in the British Empire had said such words to many infantrymen and sailors. That seems even more likely given yesterday’s quotation credited to Adm. Richard Howe in 1794, which hints that the phrase had already become linked (at least in Englishmen’s minds) to “the Old English way of fighting.”

But if the quote was really so common, I wonder, why doesn’t it appear in several British or American sources before 1794? I’ve searched in all the databases I have access to, including Google Books, books on Archive.org, Readex’s Archive of Americana, Founders Online, and British History Online. Using those resources let me push back the publication date as far as I have. I’ve found the phrase “whites of their eyes” in other eighteenth-century contexts—medical, veterinary, even religious—but not military.

Many modern books and articles credit particular British military officers with saying some variation on “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes” at specific battles in the mid-1700s. But those statements don’t appear in print until the mid-1800s, after the phrase had already become famous in American history.

For example, Gen. Sir Andrew Agnew is said to have told his troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 not to fire “till they saw the white of their een.” But I can’t find a written report of Agnew saying those words before Thomas Maccrie published The Memoirs of Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw about a descendant in 1850. (That quotation evolved into “Dinna fire till ye see the whites o’ their e’en!” by the time of The Agnews of Lochnaw in 1864. Curiously, in the April 1841 United Service Magazine a veteran officer put the words “Dinna fire, men, till ye see the wheights of their eyes” into the mouth of Lt.-Col. William Gordon of the 50th Regiment during the Peninsula War against Napoleon.)

In January 1806 The Gentleman’s Magazine published a letter from “W.P.” crediting Capt. Robert Faulknor of the Royal Navy with saying, “My boys, hold hard, I’ll tell you when to fire; let us see the whites of their eyes first.” That was supposedly in 1761 during a fight between the Bellona and the French Courageux. Of course, forty-five years elapsed between the battle and the letter, which offered no other information to back up its statement. Did anyone record Faulknor’s words at the time? Were they the inspiration for Adm. Howe?

Wikipedia says Gen. James Wolfe (shown above) gave an order about “whites of their eyes” during the attack on Quebec of 1759. But its citation for that order is a book from 1960. Wolfe got a huge amount of press in colonial America after that battle. His orders and subordinates’ battle reports were widely reprinted. So why can’t we find an eighteenth-century source for such an order?

Of course, as more printed materials, especially British periodicals, are digitized, the key words could pop up in a mid-1700s publication. They could even be visible now, but hidden by imperfect scanning and transcription, variations in wording, or dialect like the Scottish variations above. But so far they’ve eluded me.

I’m not saying that lack of evidence means no eighteenth-century British military officer told his men, “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” or the like. In fact, there’s a strong argument that because the phrase pops up in different military sources around 1800 it had probably spread orally before then. But if we credit those words to a particular man at a particular time, we should have solid evidence for that attribution, not just a claim made decades later.


Yoni said...

Here's a theory for you. I think this was a mid-seventeenth century phrase popular in the Royal Navy. In that context, it actually makes sense. It would be the injunction from a particularly determined commander to hold fire until the ships were laid directly alongside each other, reserving the broadside for the moment of maximal impact, albeit at the risk of paying a terrible price. So the injunction not to fire "until you see the whites of their eyes" was the mark of a particularly bold commander. (It's also possible that improving standards of gunnery and better cannon helped retire the phrase from common naval usage.)

I think the contemporary citations help bear this out. Two from the monitor, both published at the onset of the Seven Years War, referring to the War of Austrian Succession. One from a retired Admiral, referring to a naval engagement in 1760, during the Seven Years War. And Admiral Howe's own use - given that Howe made post-captain during the War of Austrian Succession, and was an active commander during the Seven Year's War.

Where did Israel Putnam pick it up? Perhaps while he was shipping back and forth from Havana, as part of the ill-fated British expedition during the Seven Year's War.

It doesn't, as you and others have pointed out, make a whole heck of a lot of sense as a command to militia men. Wait until you can see the whites of their eyes, and they may survive the initial volley and storm your position. But it's just the sort of salty dialogue that an old warhorse like Putnam might've slung around as he tried to buoy the spirits of his troops - reaching back to his own distant past in an effort to sound less like a farmer, and a little more like a soldier.

What's really interesting is that I can't find any earlier citations for land battles. And I'd honestly be surprised if any turned up. I suspect it was Putnam who first adapted the naval phrase, and that other authors later borrowed it.

The Monitor No. 49, Saturday, July 10, 1756: "You must needs have heard, Sir Andrew, how the French captains are reported to have addressed their crews in the last war when they spied any of our great ships:
Chear, my good boys; you are in no danger, the ships look formidable, indeed, but they have p-l-y captains, very worthy peaceable men who will do you little harm, possibly they may make a flourish or give you a broadside or two at a distance, but they have dropt their old way of not firing till they see the whites of your eyes."

The Monitor No. 105, Saturday, December 10, 1757:
"...and that our admirals would become as terrible as their predecessors, who never fired until they could see the white of their enemy's eye, and were not daunted at a superior force."

The Monthly Visitor, April 1798 (Letter from a Yellow Admiral - and old retired sailor - excoriating Lord Chatham):
"Was not I with Commodore Elliot, when we took all Thurot's squadron, after a brisk action of seven glasses? D-mme! We laid them close along-side, and did not fire a gun until we could see the white of their eyes."

J. L. Bell said...

Excellent! The citations from 1794 and 1806 are also both from the Royal Navy, and the former hints at an “Old English” tradition rather than a single commander’s coinage.

It’s interesting that the now-earliest citation in English actually uses the phrase to refer to how French naval captains used to behave.

Yoni said...

As I read that source, it's a little bit recursive - it's how an English essayist reported that French captains remembered the former habits of English captains - and, implicitly, it's what the English captains would've been telling their crews in times of old. It's possible that it's an accurate report. But it's much more likely, given how few Englishmen would've been in a position to record the orders of French naval captains in the middle of a war, that the essayist is placing this bit of dialogue in the mouth of the French captain for maximal political effect.

Either way, I think the central point remains - that it was a naval phrase signaling an inclination for close combat.

Anonymous said...

I imagine (note that key word), given that musket fire was largely inaccurate at distance, and had to be fired in volley to be effective, that it must have been common to hold fire until your enemy was close.

Jack Parker

J. L. Bell said...

Any shooting is more accurate the closer the target is, and commanders always want to stop their soldiers from wasting their shots. So whether it was cannon or muskets, commanders would have urged their men not to fire until the enemy was closer than they'd probably like. "Whites of their eyes" proved to be a notable (and not strictly accurate) way that idea was expressed, so we're looking to trace the development and memory of that phrase.

Jon von Briesen said...

I am sorry that I have nothing to add on the origins of the "whites of their eyes" directives. I do have the following account from a 5th-grt-grdfthr's acct. of service, for the 1832 pension application:

"... was out again in this militia under Capt. Fancher for three weeks near Fort Independence - thinks this was when Washington went Southward after Cornwallis. Thinks Eben Scofield was lieutenant - were attacked in that place & had [an engagement] with them & drove them back Genl. Heath came there and told us not to fire till we could see the buckles on the enemy's shoes"

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for sharing that quote. There are other variations as well. Adm. Nelson was said to have told his gunners not to fire until they could see the sailors on the other side blink at the flash.

James said...

To add on Parker's comment. My guess it's a phrase that was in use in various forms. from the beginning of individual firearms