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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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

More about Bunker Hill from James Winthrop

In 1818, the same year he responded to a map of Bunker Hill published in the Analectic Magazine as quoted yesterday, James Winthrop wrote another letter about the battle published in the North American Review. That second letter was dated 18 June—i.e., right after the battle’s anniversary.

Winthrop was also responding to a statement in Henry Dearborn’s recently published account of the battle, which said that American soldiers had prepared the rail fence “by the direction of the ‘committee of safety,’ of which James Winthrop, Esq. who then, and now lives in Cambridge, was one, as he has within a few years informed me. Mr. Winthrop himself acted as a volunteer on that day, and was wounded in the battle.”

Winthrop insisted that wasn’t right:

I lived in Cambridge all the summer of 1775, and among others was present at the battle of Bunker Hill, on the 17th of June, in that summer. The army was then upon the state establishment [i.e., the Massachusetts army was not yet part of the Continental Army]. About one o’clock, or a little after it, an alarm was given in this vicinity. James Swan, Esq. was then resident here. We two armed ourselves and went down together to Charlestown. A little beyond the College, General Joseph Warren overtook us. We were both known to him and exchanged the passing compliment. But as he was on horseback we did not join company.

When we passed over Bunker Hill, we went immediately to that part of the lines, where the rail-fence stood. There were two fieldpieces there, but no artillery-men with them. Generals [Israel] Putnam and Warren were in conversation by one of them. We spoke with them, and then passed on toward the redoubt. The two generals were standing, and General Putnam had hold of the briddle of his horse; there were then very few, if any men at the fence. When we got to the redoubt, we did not enter, but spent a little time in viewing the situation of the ground and of the enemy. We supposed, from the position of the British troops, that their intention was to advance between our intrenchment and the Mystic river, and that it would become necessary to have that part of our line well guarded. We expressed our opinion, and some of the people about us desired us to go and see if any sufficient force was there. We two accordingly went over to the rail-fence, and being arrived near the place where we had seen the two generals, and where the fieldpieces were still standing, the firing commenced. I did not see either General Putnam or General Warren afterwards on that day.

I have not now the command of dates, but think it was only a few days after this, when the army was taken into continental pay, and General [George] Washington took the command. [Artemas] Ward, Putnam and [William] Heath were general officers, and continued to be generally respected. I never heard any blame cast on General Putnam, and it was about fifteen years after this that he died in peace.

It is altogether a mistake, that either I, or my brother [John Winthrop], was ever on the Committee of Safety. About a month after the battle, if I rightly recollect, the government [i.e., the official Massachusetts General Court] was organized according to the charter, and the Committee of course ceased.
Winthrop’s second letter was thus in basic agreement with his first, which isn’t surprising since he wrote them around the same time. Once again he didn’t provide a complete account of the battle as he’d seen it. He didn’t describe the actual fighting. He didn’t describe the retreat off the peninsula. Dearborn wrote that Winthrop was wounded at the battle, but Winthrop’s own letter says nothing about that.

The North American Review letter was mostly about who was in command of the American forces and what Israel Putnam did. Those were hotly debated questions in the early 1800s, with Putnam’s descendants being particularly keen to make their views known.

The fact that Winthrop was disclaiming the distinction of being on the Committee of Safety and not talking about his wound suggests he might have provided a broad and honest perspective of the battle, rather than puffing himself up. Then again, Winthrop may have bragged to Dearborn and felt pressure to openly disclaim those lies once they became public. Winthrop’s reputation wasn’t the highest—but was his problem being deceitful or too honest?

TOMORROW: Assessing James Winthrop.

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