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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Thursday, July 03, 2014

A Different Point of View on the “Bunker Hill” Song

As I discussed yesterday, in post-Revolutionary Boston young veterans of the war preserved and passed around the words to a song about the Battle of Bunker Hill written from the British point of view.

They had different things to say, however, about who had written that song:
  • The first surviving broadside says it was “Composed by the British Soldiers,” and an 1811 reprint says it was “Composed by the British.”
  • A handwritten copy of the verses kept by the merchant John Marston credited “one of the British army.”
  • The historian Samuel Swett apparently had a broadside headlined “Composed by a British Officer after the engagement.”
  • Either working with more information or splitting the difference between his sources, Swett labeled the lines “Extracts from a song said to be written by a British Serjeant” in his 1826 book.
  • Finally, in the 1830s newspaper publisher Benjamin Russell told a visitor that the song had been “written by a common British soldier, who afterwards deserted to the Americans, and used to sing it in the American camp.”
I’m inclined to think the song came from the British enlisted ranks rather than from an officer. Whether or not that lyricist deserted, some deserter may well have carried the lyrics across the siege line. Russell was in the American camp until August 1775 (when his father grabbed him), so he could have heard the song first- or second-hand. But of course there could have been a lot of distortion in memory or oral tradition over the next sixty years.

And there was even more distortion to come! Sometime in the mid-1830s the Boston printer Leonard Deming reprinted the song once more. His broadside said “Battle of Bunker Hill” had been “Composed by a British Officer, the day after the Battle, June 17, 1775.”

And something curious happened as Deming’s shop put the lyrics into print. His text matches the earlier broadsides closely through the bottom of the first column. Then the next stanza is based on lines that had appeared toward the end of the preceding versions, with some changes. It says:
Brave Howe is so considerate,
As to guard against all dangers;
He allow’d each half a gill this day,
To rum we are no strangers.
The earliest printed version said:
Brave Howe is so considerate, as to prevent all danger,
He allows us half a pint each day, to him we are not strangers:
The Deming broadside reproduced two more stanzas intact, but then the American typographers apparently got fed up with all that British boasting. For the rest of the song they rewrote nearly every verse to criticize the British commanders and praise the Americans. The new lines went:
And when the works were got into,
And put them to the flight, sir,
They pepper’d us, poor British elves,
And show’d us they could fight, sir.

And when their works we got into,
With some hard knocks and danger;
Their works we found both firm and strong,
Too strong for British Rangers.

But as for our Artillery,
They gave all way and run,
For while their ammunition held,
They gave us Yankee fun.

But our commander, he got broke,
For his misconduct, sure, sir;
The shot he sent for twelve pound guns,
Were made for twenty-fours, sir.

There’s some in Boston, pleas’d to say,
As we the field were taking,
We went to kill their countrymen,
While they their hay were making.

For such stout whigs I never saw,
To hang them all I’d rather;
By making hay with musket balls,
Lord Howe cursedly did bother.

Bad luck to him by land and sea,
For he’s despis’d by many;
The name of Bunker Hill he dreads,
Where he was flogg’d most plainly.

And now my song is at an end,
And to conclude my ditty;
’Tis only Britons ignorant,
That I most sincerely pity.

As for our King and William Howe,
And General Gage, if they’re taken,
The Yankees will hang their heads up high,
On that fine hill call’d Beacon.
Compare those lines, especially the last, with the original.

There’s no indication on the Deming broadside that it didn’t offer the original lyrics, so later authors took those lines to be authentic. There’s even a lesson plan from the Library of Congress using the 1830s broadside as a Revolutionary text. It says, “within hours of the battle, it also inspired an unknown British officer to set down his own impressions in verse. As you read his account of the bloody day and notice his clear respect for his enemies, you might think about how a different point of view can shed new light on even the most familiar events.”

So here I am shedding new light with a different point of view. We don’t know who wrote the original song, but we know the lyrics on the Deming broadside from the 1830s were not written by a British officer in 1775.

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