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, August 29, 2007

The Provincial Army Moves Forward

Two days ago, I quoted Capt. John Barker of the King’s Own (4th) Regiment on how on 26 Aug 1775 the Continental Army had started to entrench Ploughed Hill in Charlestown, one rise closer to the British lines. That advance was led by Gen. John Sullivan (shown here), and involved 1,000 men in a “fatigue party” to do the digging and 2,400 soldiers to guard them.

The Royal Artillery started to reply on the 27th, and kept up their fire for several days, as recorded by Boston selectmen Timothy Newell.

27th Sabbath. Cannonading from the lines at Charlestown on new works—a nearer approach, also much firing of small arms.

29th. Several bombs from Do. [i.e., Charlestown] on Do. [new works] in the night.

30th. Do. in the night—Do. Bombarding from the lines on Bunkers Hill.

1st Sept. Do. almost constant firing from the Centinels at each other. New works arise upon the Neck by the Provincials who approach very near.
Augustus Mumford, the adjutant of Col. James Mitchell Varnum’s regiment, and another soldier had their heads shot off in this barrage. They thus became the first men from Rhode Island to die in the war.

The Continental artillery used a nine-pounder cannon and other guns to take out some of the British floating batteries, as Gen. Sullivan proudly described in his letter to the New Hampshire Committee of Safety (which historian Richard Frothingham noted should be dated 29 August instead of 29 July.)
on Saturday morning,...I was preparing to take possession of Ploughed Hill, near the enemy's encampment at Charlestown. This was done on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning a heavy cannonading ensued, which lasted through the whole day.

The floating batteries and an armed vessel attempting to come up and enfilade us as I expected, I opened a battery which I had prepared on purpose; cut away the sloop’s foresail; made her shear off; wounded one floating battery, and sunk another yesterday. They sent round a man-of-war to Mistick River, drew their forces from Boston, formed a long column, and prepared to come out; but finding our readiness to receive them, declined the combat.

Last evening they began to throw bombs, but have as yet done no damage. Their cannon has been more successful, having killed three or four. . . .

The powder you write for, gentlemen, it is impossible to obtain at present. We have had but six tons from the south ward, which is but half a pound per man for our army, and what we had before was a shocking store. We hope for some every day...
Sullivan said the army didn’t have enough gunpowder to send some north to New Hampshire, but he was certainly using what was available.

In contrast, Gen. George Washington emphasized the need for gunpowder in a letter to the New York Provincial Congress the next day:
Our Situation is such, as requires your immediate Assistance and Supply in that Article. We have lately taken Possession of a Hill considerably advanced towards the Enemy, but our Poverty prevents our availing ourselves of any Advantage of Situation. I must therefore most earnestly intreat, that Measures may be taken to forward to this Camp, in the most safe and expeditious Manner whatever Amunition can be spared from the immediate and Necessary Defence of the Province.
Washington wrote much the same to the Continental Congress on the 31st, describing the advance and the British barrage, but not the cannon fire from his own army. Describing that detail as Sullivan had done might have made his desire for more gunpowder seem less urgent.

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