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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Friday, June 22, 2007

Who Coined the Phrase "Till You See the Whites of Their Eyes"?

For most of the 1800s, American historians happily attributed the phrase “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes” to either Israel Putnam or William Prescott, commanders at the Battle of Bunker Hill. As I discussed yesterday, there was disagreement about which of those men issued such an order, with Putnam getting an early lead but Prescott winning in the end.

Then British historian Thomas Carlyle (shown here, courtesy of NNDB.com) published his massive History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great from 1858 to 1865. And American readers couldn’t help noticing that Carlyle quoted Prussian documents about ordering soldiers not to shoot “till you see the whites of their eyes” decades before Bunker Hill.

That made authors change how they described the quotation. In Winsor’s Memorial History of Boston (1881), Edward Everett Hale wrote:

All along the American lines the order had been given which the officers remembered in the memoirs of Frederick’s wars: “Wait till you can see the whites of their eyes.”
He added this explanatory footnote:
Prince Charles, when he cut through the Austrian army, in retiring from Jägendorf, gave this order to his infantry: “Silent, till you see the whites of their eyes.” This was on May 22, 1745; and this order, so sucessful that day, was remembered twelve years after at the battle of Prague, when the general Prussian order was, “By push of bayonets; no firing till you see the whites of their eyes.”
Since then many reference books and websites attribute the “whites of their eyes” phrase to “Prince Charles of Prussia” at Jägendorf. He wasn’t using it in the same context as during Bunker Hill; he wanted his men to sneak through a larger Austrian force, so they shouldn’t attract attention by, say, shooting off their guns. But the clear implication is that he deserves credit for the coinage. Additionally, the citation reminds us not to simply accept our American tradition about Putnam or Prescott coining the phrase.

That’s where I thought the story ended. You know: the received version, and the slightly more interesting, less flattering reality. And then I started to look into the sources. Ironically, I found that all references to Prince Charles of Prussia at Jägendorf are a received version, too. They reproduce errors by Hale (or whomever he relied on):
  • The small town was Jägerndorf, with an additional R.
  • Carlyle called the Prussian commander “Margraf Karl”; the title of margraf or margrave should be translated as marquess, not prince.
  • Carlyle actually quoted a “whites of their eyes” command even earlier in his book, in discussing the Battle of Mollwitz in 1741. But he didn’t credit a particular commander, and he didn’t cite a source, as in his later two references, so in this case Carlyle himself might have written too exuberantly.
Hale assumed that American officers of the 1770s were familiar with the Prussian tradition of “till you see the whites of their eyes.” The Prussian army was highly admired in that period, and had been allies of the British in 1757 during the Seven Years’ War (though not in the War of the Austrian Succession in the 1740s).

I therefore searched for the phrase “white(s) of the(ir) eye(s)” in newspapers and other material printed in colonial America. I figured it might have shown up in reports from Europe or articles about how great Frederick the Great really was. But I couldn’t find a single example.

It’s possible that “whites of their eyes” was printed in English books and magazines, which were then shipped to America and read by military-minded gentlemen. It’s also possible that the Prussian phrase circulated among British officers posted to North America; both Putnam and Prescott were officers in the French and Indian War, and Putnam was particularly close to a set of British counterparts.

But it’s also possible that:So I started this posting thinking the answer to its question is a Prussian prince, and I come out thinking the answer is probably a Prussian margrave, but I’m less sure. That’s the trouble with reading stuff.

14 comments:

Me said...

Das Weisse in den Augen Sehen

Not sure who coined it, but we do use that phrase in Germany. ;)

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that useful Old World info. It might turn out that the phrase "see the whites of their eyes" goes back well before the 1740s, and has no single father (or mother).

I found that most American print references to "the whites of the eyes" in the late 1700s and early 1800s refer to people rolling their eyes, in either terror or disbelief. That produced a different image of the British storming Bunker Hill:

"You call this a redoubt? Honestly, it looks like you just started it last night. And those clothes! Haven't you people heard of dressing in uniforms?" Rolls eyes. BANG!

NJDave said...

So, Lets see - The movie script on the Charlestown side of the river woould be:

EXT. BUNKER’S HILL - NIGHT - LIGHT OF A NEARLY FULL MOON REFLECTING OFF WATER, BUILDINGS, ETC.

GEN. ISREAL PUTNUM and his officers, climb the west side of the hill in total silence. Upon reaching the top, they survey the terrain.

Accross the bay, the outlines of buildings comprising a colonial city takes shape bathed in moonlight, with an occaisional lantern glow. In the Bay & Back Bay, they observe several various Royal Navy warships floating in silence.

PUTNAM
We are too far from Boston to effect a battle, and too far from the road to engage them properly. Nor can we protect our flanks. Those Bloody backs could easily march past us out of range.

PRESCOTT
(Pointing halfway to Boston) That smaller rise there may suit us. We would be so close they would not be able to effectively form their lines. From there I can extend our left flank to the sea, and snipers in Charlestown can cover our right.

PUTNAM
Fine. I'll plant our artillery here to cover our retreat. (pauses to change subject) Colonel, you'll be working with inexperienced men. No war experience, no real training to speak of. Can you get these men ready to fight in 6 hours?

PRESCOTT
They have enough jealousy remembered from Lexington & Concord. If they can follow my orders, they'll fight enough. I'm more concerned about ammunition supply. We have nary enough for an extended battle.

PUTNAM
When everything is completed here, I'll return to Cambridge to petition for more shot. In the mean time, give our boys the ole Prussian speach our officers gave us in the last war.

dfogleman2 said...

The Swedish General Fersen used the phrase in ordering his cavalry to use their pistols rather than carbines in an attack against the Danish cavalry at the Battle of Lund in 1676.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m sure Gen. Fersen gave his orders in Swedish. And that’s the issue with quotations—the wording matters as well as the thought. Did Fersen’s statement (for which I can’t find a source, but then I don’t read Swedish) make its way to Prussia and thence to Britain? Did the same idea occur in several cultures?

Since this posting went up almost ten years ago, I’ve found new material on “whites of their eyes” at Bunker Hill. The phrase was established in British military circles decades before that battle. But there’s also strong evidence that Gen. Putnam actually said it in June 1775.

Lindsey Weathers said...

I love American history but this is the best written article I've seen in 12 years thank you

William Robbins said...

Whether the phrase was used or not, as the muskets in use at Bunker Hill (Breed's Hill) could not reliably hit a man beyond approx 80 yards, they had to wait till the Brits got close enough to see the whites of their eyes anyway. I tested this years ago; the range ends up being about 60 yards. But then, I wasn't crouching in the dirt behind a rampart with my face pressed against my musket, sweating under a summer sun and trembling with nervousness and fear...

J. L. Bell said...

There were a few ways that soldiers at Bunker Hill remembered their officers telling them to hold their fire until it was most effective. The "whites of their eyes" version was repeated by several people and appeared in early sources. It's dramatic enough to be memorable.

Jennifer Lanza said...

I am a descendant of Colonel William Prescott. This is very interesting.

J. L. Bell said...

This posting is over twelve years old now, and my thoughts have changed from further research. I'm working to pull those together for a new article. I hope you find other postings on Col. William Prescott to be interesting.

Anonymous said...

Reading from "The Prescott Memorial", a book on the genealogy of the Prescott family published in Boston, 1870, a couple stories provided by Col. Prescott's nephew, Dr. Oliver Prescott, are briefly related including one told to him and often repeated by Col. Prescott about the battle of Bunker Hill.

There is no mention of Col. Prescott making the "whites of their eyes" speech and generally the family did not attribute this quote to him. However, a brief interlude with General Putnam after the battle reveals some of the personality of Col. Prescott. Gen. Putnam had left the redoubt prior to the battle, taking the entrenchment tools away with a group of men and promising to return with reinforcements and ammunition. Neither the men nor the ammunition returned.

During the battle, the first two attacks were repulsed with heavy losses on the British side. On the third attack, the troops were holding until they ran out of ammunition and resorted to hand-to-hand fighting until forced to retreat.

When Col. Prescott found Gen. Putnam later, he inquired the cause of his failing to fulfill his engagement. Gen. Putnam replied, "I couldn't get the dogs to go", to which Col. Prescott replied, "If you had said to them come, you would have found men enough". Frankly, this is a simple yet profound statement on leadership. I have no doubt that his leadership and further exhortations were well-interpreted by his troops who inflicted grievous British casualties.

J. L. Bell said...

Since writing this post in 2007, I've done more research about the "white of their eyes" quotation, some of it shared on this blog.

Last spring I combined those postings and other work into a comprehensive article. And my computer died, but not without first failing to back up for a week.

So in the next week I really should recreate that article in time for next month's anniversary of the battle.

Unknown said...

It should be noted that "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" was the standing order to the Swedish Carolean soldiers of the 30-years War. Despite being vastly outnumbered in almost every battle, they managed to defeat the Catholic league during the 30-year-war and ensured the survival of Protestantism on the continent.

"Don't fire until you see the white of their eyes" meant that a much larger proportion of their shots would hit, creating a psychological effect as their volley slammed into the enemy ranks. It also took a great deal of courage, as it meant marching resolutely towards the enemy, under constant fire, in order to get into range.

The 30-Years-War was fought in what is now Poland and Germany, and the tactics used by the Swedes during the Battle of Breitenfeld pretty much invented modern Warfare; any military figure, whether Prussian, British, or American, would have studied it by the 18th century. It is likely it was a common saying amongst soldiers.

J. L. Bell said...

My full research on the provenance of the “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes” phrasing, as of June 2020, is in this article at the Journal of the American Revolution.

The Swedish connection sounds interesting, and it would be good to see a source with those words quoted.

As my article shows, in English the phrase seems to have been most closely connected to the Royal Navy rather than to land tactics.