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, March 19, 2008

How Bunker Hill Appears in John Adams

Yesterday I wrote of ways the H.B.O. miniseries John Adams shifts some history and geography to let its title character and his wife witness some famous Revolutionary events they didn’t actually see.

The miniseries also shows Abigail Adams and her children viewing the Battle of Bunker Hill from a high spot in Braintree. That really did happen. I’m not sure they could have seen all the details that the quick special-effects shot shows. Rather, I suspect they saw smoke and flame rising from Charlestown as it burned, and heard the booming artillery. But that was scary enough.

Abigail was already worrying about an amphibious assault on the nearby coast. On 16 June, the day before the Bunker Hill battle, she had written John, “We now expect our Sea coasts ravaged. Perhaps, the very next Letter I write will inform you that I am driven away from our, yet quiet cottage.”

John Quincy Adams was about to turn nine years old that month. Here’s how he recalled the start of the war for his little brother Thomas Boylston Adams in a letter dated 3 Apr 1813:

I remember the melting of the pewter spoons in our house into bullets immediately after the 19th of April, 1775. I remember the smoke and the flames of Charlestown which I saw from the orchard on Penn’s Hill. I remember the packing up and sending away of the books and furniture from the reach of [Gen. Thomas] Gage’s troops, while we ourselves were hourly exposed for many months to have been butchered by them.
And here’s another J. Q. Adams letter about the event from 1846, this time to someone outside the family:
my mother with her children lived in unintermitted danger of being consumed with them all in a conflagration kindled by a torch in the same hands which on the 17th of June lighted the fires of Charlestown. I saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard Britannia’s thunders in the battle of Bunker’s Hill, and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own, at the fall of [Dr. Joseph] Warren, a dear friend of my father, and a beloved Physician to me. He had been our family physician and surgeon, and had saved my forefinger from amputation under a very bad fracture.
The Adams family did not, however, see wounded and dying American soldiers after that battle. It was on the other side of Boston, after all. That would have been a hell of a long way for a bleeding man to limp.

As for father John, the miniseries shows him using news of the Battle of Bunker Hill to finally convince the reluctant Continental Congress to adopt the New England troops as the Continental Army, and to appoint George Washington as its commander-in-chief. That’s not only wrong, it’s impossible. Congress voted to support the army on 14 June 1775, and appointed Washington the next day. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought two days later, and the news didn’t reach Philadelphia until a few days after that.

A lot of public scenes in the John Adams miniseries so far are combinations of separate events: the two major trials following the Boston Massacre have become one, the tea protests of 1773 have melded with the attacks on Customs men in 1769-70, the Massachusetts delegates to the Second Continental Congress are introduced as delegates to the First, and so on. But showing an event on 17 June as necessary to motivate important decisions on 14 and 15 June seems like a serious distortion of the facts.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this- I don't subscribe to HBO but love John Adams, and so was interested to know how accurate this miniseries is.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this info. We are enjoying the miniseries but both my wife and I (we both grew up in separate MA towns) were confused by the geography. This helps explain a lot.

Unknown said...

I live in Braintree Massachusetts, and the two houses (along with the mansion) you see in the miniseries still stand in present day Quincy (which split from Braintree in 1792.) After Abigail and John Quincy watch the battle (which was too far away to actually see the detail HBO provided) from Penn's Hill, the soldiers march home from Boston. However, in the miniseries they came from the direction of Weymouth and Hingham. This would have been impossible as the Fore River Bridge wasn't built. They had to have come from present day Quincy (Old Braintree) through present day Dorchester to to come from Boston. So when they past the Adams' house on the right, they really should've been coming from the left.