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, June 15, 2015

The Broken Officer of Bunker Hill

This is a detail of a print titled “An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17th, 1775.”

Versions of this image are on display right now in both the Boston Public Library’s “We Are One” exhibit and the Massachusetts Historical Society’s “God Save the People” exhibit. Here’s a link to the B.P.L.’s page for the full picture.

The engraving is credited to Bernard Romans, a native of Holland who had emigrated to Britain and then to North America in the 1750s. He explored parts of Florida and the southern frontier, then journeyed north on business.

When the Revolutionary War broke out, Romans was in Connecticut. He raised a small force to attack Fort George in New York, enjoying the same success as Ethan Allen in seizing Fort Ticonderoga but not the same fame.

In his “Exact View” of the battle we know best as Bunker Hill, Romans took a perspective from a point west of the Charlestown neck, putting the Breed’s Hill redoubt on the left of his frame as shown above and Charlestown in flames farther back toward the right. As shown in the detail, he or his colorist depicted the provincial soldiers in unlikely blue uniforms.

“General [Israel] Putnam” was the only individual Romans’s key identified by name, but that Connecticut officer wasn’t the picture’s biggest figure. There are two men in the left foreground, gesticulating on either side of a cannon. A number 8 hovers over one of their heads. The key at the top identifies that man as “Broken Officer.”

Yes, that’s Maj. Scarborough Gridley, youngest son of the artillery regiment’s commander, who chose to trade potshots with a British warship from Cobble Hill rather than go onto the peninsula where the real battle was.

Scar Gridley wasn’t cashiered from the Continental Army until September 1775, meaning Romans must have created this engraving after that date. The prominence he gave to that embarrassing detail of the battle suggests that his American public was interested in Maj. Gridley’s removal.


John Johnson said...

Can you think of any reason why Romans would have put the defending forces in blue uniforms and then have Gridley not in uniform?

Maybe just a reflection of the current state of affairs when he did the piece?

J. L. Bell said...

The British army had different uniforms for the infantry and the artillery. The infantry wore red coats with different colors of “facings” (lapels, cuffs, &c.), and the artillery wore blue coats with red facings. I suspect Romans and his colorist decided to depict the American infantry in the uniform colors that Washington estbalished by example (blue with buff facings), and then chose a contrasting style for the American artillerists in the foreground. If so, he was depicting the provincial forces as more professional than they were at that early point.

John Johnson said...

That's an angle I hadn't considered, since Continental Artillery also wore blue with red facings, as did several of the independent artillery companies that were formed before & during 1775.