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, June 17, 2020

Bringing Back a Source on the Bunker Hill Battle

Samuel Swett was one of the early historians of the Battle of Bunker Hill. He published a long essay titled “Historical and Topographical Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle” as an appendix to an 1818 reprint of David Humphreys’s biography of Gen. Israel Putnam.

The battle’s 50th anniversary came in 1825, bringing more interest from the public and more accounts from veterans. Some of those old men came to Charlestown for a public ceremony. Swett used interviews with them and his earlier research to publish Notes to the Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle at the end of 1825, quoting the sources he had used for the earlier essay and more.

Unfortunately for us, Swett didn’t tailor his publications and particularly his quotations around providing a comprehensive picture of the battle. Rather, in his own words, he wrote “for the defence of Gen. Putnam, did he need any.” In 1818 Gen. Henry Dearborn had published an article in The Port Folio basically saying that Putnam had been useless during the battle. This set off years of historiographical (and political) debate. Swett published a lot of evidence favoring Putnam, but he left out other testimony that later historians would have liked to see.

This spring I stumbled across two affidavits that Swett sent to the Boston Daily Advertiser for publication at the end of 1825. He had quoted parts of both in his Notes, and those quotations have been cited by many historians since. But as far as I can tell, scholars haven’t used the other parts of these documents, which offer more details about the battle. So I’m going to quote them in full. (As usual, I’ve added paragraph breaks for easier online reading.)

The first affidavit appeared in the Boston Daily Advertiser on 20 Dec 1825, and in a few other newspapers after that. This was how Swett introduced the source:
Col. JOS[eph]. WHITMORE, of Newburyport, a native of Charlestown, brought up there as an apprentice by Richard Devens, Esq., well known in both those places as a witness of the highest respectability, Aug. 6, 1818, stated before a magistrate, Hon. Eben. Moseley, “that he was a Lieutenant in a company from Newburyport, commanded by Capt. Benj. Perkins, and which was raised and marched to Cambridge soon after Lexington battle.”
Capt. Perkins’s company was evidently assigned to Abraham Watson’s house in Cambridge. Lt. Whitmore’s account:
While their company were at their quarters at ’Squire Watson’s, about a mile from the Colleges, an alarm was given on the 17th, [June] 1775. The company immediately formed, marched to Cambridge, and received orders from Gen. [Artemas] Ward to march to Charlestown. Col. Whitmore thinks the company arrived upon Breed’s Hill between 2 and 3 o’clock.

Soon after the company reached the hill, the British reinforcement landed, formed into columns, and marched up the hill. Col. Whitmore with a part of his company went down to the left of the redoubt, near some trees which were standing, and there received an attack. The British were twice repulsed, but the third time they made the attack with great fury, and drove the Americans from their works.

On the retreat, Col. Whitmore was wounded in his thigh. The Colonel states, that at the very moment he was wounded, Gen. [Joseph] Warren fell, and was within six feet of him.

As it respects Gen. Putnam, Col. Whitmore states, that he knew Gen. Putnam perfectly well, that he was well acquainted with him in the old French war—that he saw General Putnam on Breed’s Hill, when he went on with his company, and also on the retreat, soon after he was wounded, on the side of the hill.

He says, that well knowing Gen. Putnam, and the General knowing him, he said to him, “General, sha’nt we rally again?”

Gen. Putnam said, “yes, as soon as we can—are you wounded?”

Col. Whitmore answered that he was, but thought he should get over it.
Swett quoted Whitmore’s words starting at “with a part of his company…” and ending with “…are you wounded?”

A petition to the Massachusetts government printed in John J. Currier’s 1906 History of Newburyport shows that to “get over it” Whitmore had to go home and receive medical care until 8 August. In March 1776 he asked the General Court to reimburse him for that cost since he hadn’t taken a bed in an army hospital.

TOMORROW: Another voice from Newburyport.

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