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, July 02, 2014

“It has been copied so many times, for the last fifty years”

It’s no surprise that British soldiers composed a song about the Battle of Bunker Hill, as quoted yesterday. After all, they won the fight, and then they had several months in Boston to fill. What’s surprising is that the song was printed and preserved in American broadsides and archives.

It’s conceivable that the song was first printed inside Boston during the siege by one of the remaining Loyalist printers, and a copy of that remained after the evacuation. However, there’s strong evidence that Massachusetts youths of the Revolutionary generation passed along the song.

Complicating the picture a bit is that in 1811 the Boston printer Nathaniel Coverly reissued the verses on a broadside headlined “BATTLE OF BUNKER HILL. This Song was composed by the British, after the engagement.” That had the same text and punctuation as the earlier printing, but Coverly broke the long rhyming lines in two to produce twenty-four stanzas instead of twelve. That broadside could have reinforced and distorted people’s memory of the song from Revolutionary times, but people don’t seem to have noticed it.

After the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, Samuel Swett began to work on his History of Bunker Hill Battle. On 17 Apr 1826 a Quincy man named John Marston (1756-1846) wrote this to him:

Agreeably to your request, I send you a copy of the British song, on the battle of Bunker Hill. I will not vouch for its perfect correctness. It has been copied so many times, for the last fifty years, there are probably some mistakes and omissions.

You will observe a word is wanting at the end of the fourteenth verse, to rhyme with “danger.” I believe the meaning of the word wanting is, coward or cowardice. It was a favorite object of the British to represent us as cowards, and that we could not fight except behind stone walls and breast-works.
Marston’s handwritten copy was headed, “A song on the battle of Bunker Hill, composed by one of the British army, June, 1775, Tune—‘When Sawney up to London came.’” Compared to the previously printed texts, Marston omitted two stanzas and occasional words, and transposed two other stanzas.

In addition, in 1838 E. C. Wines wrote this about visiting Bunker Hill in A Trip to Boston, in a Series of Letters to the Editor of the United States Gazette:
I considered myself fortunate in having so excellent a guide as Major [Benjamin] Russell, who, he says, was on the spot the day when the battle occurred, and saw the whole of it, though, as he was but a mere stripling, he took no active part in it. Being, however, a “looker-on in Venice,” he is familiar with every locality and with all the incidents of the day. He gave me a minute and graphic account of the battle, specifying all the leading events, and pointing out the place where each one happened.

Among other things, he repeated a doggerel description of the battle, written by a common British soldier, who afterwards deserted to the Americans, and used to sing it in the American camp. It has no poetical merit, but as the Major declares it to be perfectly accurate in its facts, and as it has never yet appeared in print, I venture to transcribe it.
Wines then wrote out a ten-stanza version of the song. Despite being Boston’s leading Federalist publisher, Russell (1761-1845, shown above) apparently didn’t know that those lines had been published at least three times before.

Thus, Bostonians who were teenagers during the Battle of Bunker Hill preserved this British army song about the fight and helped it get into history books over half a century later.

TOMORROW: So who wrote those lines? And why do we remember a different version?

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