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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Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Shape of the Redoubt on Breed’s Hill

This picture shows a detail of a map I found in the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection Online. I haven’t found the secret to linking directly to the image, but it’s number 808558, titled “A Plan of the Action at Bunker’s Hill, on the 17th of June 1775.” The map was published in the late 1800s by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

The box in the upper left quadrant shows the redoubt on top of the rise known as Breed’s Hill. Provincial troops under Col. William Prescott started to fortify that area during the night of 16-17 June 1775, and it became the focus of the British military’s attack the next day. It’s where the Bunker Hill Monument now stands.

The inset in the lower right quadrant is labeled as the same redoubt. Even at this resolution, it’s easy to see that the two shapes don’t look anything alike.

The main map with the rectangular redoubt was copied from a plan of the battlefield created by Lt. Thomas Page of the Royal Artillery and published after he returned to London. Page was a trained surveyor who was actually on the field in 1775. He remained in Boston for months, continuing to help map and lay out fortifications without people shooting at him from nearby, which cartographers agree is a big help when it comes to concentrating on details.

The inset on the right was copied from an image published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in London in September 1775. The Dublin edition of that magazine published a similar image later that year. It shows an irregular shape between two lines of fortifications. So far as I know, the magazine gave no source or authority for that image.

In fact, I don’t think there is any reliable source for the Gentleman’s Magazine image. All the sources from both sides of the battle say that the provincials laid out a small, rectangular redoubt, not the strange, elaborate shape shown there. I think the magazine knew that its readers were eager for news of this shocking battle in the colonies, so it published or perhaps even created unreliable material to fill that demand. A British marine lieutenant named John Clarke also published a detailed account of the battle for Londoners; they didn’t know that he’d been court-martialed for drunkenness, collected secondhand information, and embellished freely.

The Gentleman’s Magazine image was rediscovered and reprinted in the mid-1800s by American historians. In the 1851 edition of his History of the Siege of Boston (and perhaps in the 1849 edition as well), Richard Frothingham copied the image on page 198, calling it a “curious memorial of the battle”; he gave more space to Page’s map, and his text described a square redoubt. Also in 1851, Benson J. Lossing’s Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution copied the image on page 540; Lossing wasn’t rigorous about sources if they stood in the way of a good story or a good picture, and he included none of Frothingham’s skepticism.

As a result, the strange picture of the redoubt was recopied into more American books and maps in the late 1800s, though no one seems to have tried to reconcile it with the sources showing and describing a square structure. I don’t think anyone who was in Charlestown in 1775 would have recognized the structure portrayed in The Gentleman’s Magazine.

Oddly enough, that strange shape does appear on a powderhorn displayed by a museum in Boston as an authentic artifact of the war. A powderhorn that has a number of other odd features, and can’t be traced back earlier than 1933.


Anonymous said...

Hi John - Regarding the oddly shaped redoubt on Bunker's Hill... I haven't tried to research this rigorously, but, if memory serves, Lord Percy, while retreating from Lexington and Concord, chose to re-enter Boston via the Charlestown peninsula. He had his rear guard build a redoubt on Bunker Hill, which I think they maintained for a couple weeks. Perhaps the oddly shaped redoubt represents Percy's redoubt, which would might have been visited by Lt. Page.

Just a thought...

Thanks for all your blogs - they are an endless source of interest.

R. Stein

J. L. Bell said...

You’re right that the Percy’s men camped in Charlestown on the evening of 19 April 1775, and must have erected some sort of barrier.

The odd plan of a redoubt was specifically labeled in the Gentlemen’s Magazine as “An Accurate PLAN of the Entrenchments thrown up on Bunker’s Hill, by the Provincials, and forced by General Howe, June 17th, 1775.”

So there was either great confusion or simple fraud.

Thanks for your kind words about the blog!

Unknown said...

Quite possibly the false redoubt inset was intended to give loyalists here and at home the impression of a much more formidable colonial position than was reality, as to counter perception of the regulars' unexpectedly and comparitively marginal battle performance.

J. L. Bell said...

That's possible, but I suspect overly generous to the motives of the people who created the image.