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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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Benjamin Pierce’s Story of Bunker Hill

In March 1818, the Port-Folio magazine published Henry Dearborn’s account of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Dearborn was a veteran of that battle and the war that followed, later a Secretary of War, and finally a general during the War of 1812. So of course people respected his version of history, right?

Certainly not! Dearborn bluntly criticized Gen. Israel Putnam (shown here). Among other things, he wrote that the Connecticut general “remained at or near the top of Bunker Hill until the retreat. . . . He not only continued at that distance himself during the whole of the action, but had a force with him nearly as large as that engaged.” Within weeks Putnam’s son Daniel and others leapt to the late general’s defense.

Dearborn fought back, gathering recollections from other veterans of the battle who didn’t recall “Old Put” as a leader that day. One was Benjamin Pierce. In a letter dated 17 May 1818 he told Dearborn:
I have read your “Account of the Battle of Bunker’s-hill,” and consider it to be more like the thing itself, than any statement I have ever seen.

I think our Army broke ground on the evening of the 16th of June; and the Battle was on the 17th. I went on to the Hill about eleven o’clock, A. M., on the 17th; when I arrived at the summit of Bunker’s hill, I saw two pieces of cannon there standing, with two or three soldiers standing by them, who observed they belonged to Captain [John] Callender’s Company, and said that the Captain and his officers were cowards, and that they had run away.

General Putnam there sat upon a horse; I saw nobody at that place when I arrived there, but the General and those two or three soldiers. General Putnam requested our Company, which was commanded by Captain John Ford of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, to take those two pieces of cannon, and draw them down; our men utterly refused, and said they had no knowledge of the use of artillery, and that they were ready to fight with their own arms.

Captain Ford then addressed his Company in a very animated, patriotic, and brave strain, which is the characteristic of the man; the Company then seized the drag-ropes and soon drew them to the rail-fence, according to my recollection, about half the distance from the redoubt on Breed’s-hill to Mystic-river. I think I saw General Putnam at that place, looking for some part of his sword; I did not hear him give any orders nor assume any command, except at the top of Bunker’s-hill, when I was going to the field of battle.

I remained at the rail-fence, until all the powder and ball were spent. I had a full view of the movements of the enemy; and I think your statement of the order of the day and of the two contending armies, is correct and cannot be denied with the semblance of truth.

Excuse an old soldier.
Other soldiers described Putnam being much more active, almost frenetic, especially in regard to other abandoned cannon—but not at the rail fence, where Pierce’s and Dearborn’s companies stationed themselves. Thus, they didn’t see Putnam exercise much authority, but other men did, and were still fond of “Old Put.”

According to Liz Covart’s article in the Journal of the American Revolution, the controversy over Dearborn’s attack on Putnam helped to cost him the race for governor of Massachusetts. Ironically, a few years later Benjamin Pierce won two terms as governor of New Hampshire. (In between those terms he lost once to a candidate named John Bell. Pierce’s son Franklin would later win an even bigger election.)

Pierce’s letter is typical of a lot of first-person accounts of the Bunker Hill battle written in the midst of the Dearborn-Putnam controversy: so focused on the question of whether Putnam was in the fight and/or in command that it omits most of the writer’s own experience. Did Ford’s men fire the cannon they took to the fence, and how effectively? What was it like to fight there “until all the powder and ball were spent”? Alas, Pierce didn’t say.

1 comment:

Steve Mark said...

On this 240th anni of Bunker Hill Day, I celebrate by thanking JL Bell for a smart, highly readable and enjoyable morning read.