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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Sunday, June 19, 2016

“That day at Bunker Hill!”

You may have noticed that yesterday’s posting about Bunker Hill differed from the two that preceded it. It didn’t include any nineteenth-century poetry.

This posting corrects that omission. After Sarah Loring Bailey published the story of Pvt. John Barker and Capt. Benjamin Farnum in 1880, it inspired Annie Sawyer Downs to include the story in a long poem for the celebration of Andover’s sestercentennial sixteen years later.
The grass was green upon the lawn
The corn waved dark and tall.
And all day long the oriole,
Whistled his silvery call.
But what the veil, the film, the cloud
That frights the air of June?
And what the hush, the dread, the fear,
To which hearts beat in tune?

And why do men set faces hard
And eyes of women fill?
While trembling age and eager youth,
Press to the distant hill?
No courier swift swept through the street
With beat of martial drum,
And none could tell how the dread news
To Andover town had come.

Only that e’er the cannon’s roar,
Turned every heart's blood chill,
The voice was heard, “Stand fast! They fight
To-day at Bunker Hill.”
Dark rolled the smoke, when on the breeze
Was borne a deaf’ning shout
“We’ve beat the red coats off the field,
We hold the frail redoubt!”

Then there was mounting in hot haste
And hurrying to and fro,
For Doctor, Nurse, and Parson French
Swift to the field must go.
More weary hours wore slow away,
Again the mighty sound,
“A second time the red coats flee,
Once more they leave the ground.”

O maids and wives, and mothers dear,
Whose sad eyes watched the fire,
God grant though on that summer day
You lost your hearts’ desire,
That steadfast pride and courage high
Were yours through earthly ill,
For a great state was born that day,
That day at Bunker Hill!

Loud and still louder roared the guns,
Thick smoke hid all the sky,
And still the silvery oriole
Sang in the chestnut high.
At last the word, “Our powder gone,
We’ve turned us down the hill,
Content to prove this summer day,
This day at Bunker Hill!

That farmer lads can shake a crown
And lay proud England low,
And on a field they have not tilled
Such fearful harvest sow!”
Shot fell like rain on Charlestown Neck,
And brave the deeds oft told,
Of Bailey, Farnum, Frye, and Poor,
And stout John Barker bold.

For he was private in the ranks,
But last in the retreat;
When Captain Farnum struck by shell,
Fell just across his feet,
He lifted and he held him high
Full in the redcoats’ view
And shouted loud, “Now hold on Ben,
The Reg’lars sha’ n’t have you!”

A hundred years have come and gone,
And still in stirring verse,
The children of North Andover
John Barker’s deed rehearse,
And in the old-fashioned burying ground,
Shady and green and still,
On a mossy stone you oft may read,
“He fought at Bunker Hill.”

He fought the fight, he kept the step,
Loyal, and brave, and true,
For a free land he paid the price
Comrades, that day for you.
So lowly kneel, and softly tread,
In the graveyard under the hill
Fame writes aloft no prouder line,
Than, “Fought at Bunker Hill.”

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