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 17, 2007

Timothy Newell Reports on Bunker Hill

Just back from this year’s Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, and in time to post Boston selectman Timothy Newell’s account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, which occurred 232 years ago today.

Newell probably wrote this diary entry on 18 June or later, given its comment on “the night following.” There are a lot of other problematic details in this diary entry as well, showing his limited perspective inside the besieged town and his political preferences.

The Provincials last night began an Entrenchment upon Charlestown (say Bunker’s Hill) before sunrise.

The Tartar Man of War and the battery from Corps hill began a cannonade about 2 oClock AM.

Genl. [William] Howe with [blank] pieces of Cannon and three thousand Men landed on Charlestown point and marched up to the Redoubt after a great slaughter of Thirteen-hundred and twenty five of the Regulars killed and wounded—one hundred and twelve officers included—and of Provincials fifty killed and one hundred and eighty wounded and missing—among whom were Dr. [Joseph] Warren and Colonel Robinson killed—the Garrison gave way—a constant fire from the Men of War &c. all the night following—only three from one company and fourteen from another of the Regulars brought off.

18th. Skirmishes most of the day—divers killed and wounded.
From Newell’s Boston perspective, the provincials fortified Bunker’s Hill. He didn’t see Breed’s Hill as different.

At first I thought “Tartar Man of War” might refer to the name of a British naval ship. But I checked the names of the ships firing on Charlestown: the Lively, Somerset, Symetry, and Falcon. I then realized that Newell was communicating not a fact but his political opinion: that the royal forces were behaving like the proverbially tyrannical Tartars—not that actual Tatars are any more tyrannical than any other ethnic group.

“Corps hill” is usually called “Copp’s Hill.” Gotta love that Boston accent.

The Massachusetts Historical Society’s published transcription of Newell’s diary says the cannonade began at “2 oClock AM.” Most accounts agree it began at daybreak, when the British military spotted the redoubt. So that might be a transcription error for “7 oClock AM,” or perhaps the two o’clock time should be applied to the start of Howe’s attack in the next sentence.

As for deaths, Newell was correct that Dr. Joseph Warren was killed in the provincial lines. But no “Col. Robinson” was. Perhaps Newell heard that Lt. Col. John Robinson of Westford was killed (he wasn’t even wounded), or that Col. Lemuel Robinson of Dorchester was (he wasn’t even in the battle). And the one Massachusetts colonel who was fatally shot, Thomas Gardner of Cambridge, lingered until July.

Newell wrote that there were 3,000 British soldiers in the battle; the standard estimate is 2,600, so close enough. In the casualty figures Newell’s biases come through more clearly. The British suffered 226 dead and 828 wounded, so Newell’s report of those casualties was too high by 25%. The provincial losses are estimated as 140 dead, 271 wounded, 30 captured, or nearly twice as bad as Newell’s figures. His accounting of casualties was wishful writing.

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