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, December 10, 2008

“A Chaplain...Insisted on Performing Service”

Yesterday I quoted a gentleman in Machias, Maine, quoting Col. William Prescott on “The first man who fell in the battle of Bunker Hill.” A similar anecdote appeared in Samuel Swett’s lengthy essay on the battle, first published as an appendix in an 1818 edition of David Humphreys’s biography of Gen. Israel Putnam:

This fire [from H.M.S. Somerset] was for some time without effect, but the men venturing in front of the works, one of them was killed by a cannon shot. A subaltern informed Col. Prescott, and inquired of him what should be done. “Bury him,” he was told.—

“What,” said the astonished officer, “without prayers!” A chaplain, who was present, insisted on performing service over this first victim, and collected many of the soldiers around him, heedless of peril.

Prescott ordered them to disperse; but religious enthusiasm prevailing, the chaplain again collected his congregation, when the deceased was ordered to be taken and buried in the ditch. At this time a number of the men went off and never returned.
Swett later published this essay as a standalone book, and in that edition he named his source:
We did so [printed the anecdote] on the authority of Col. Prescott himself, and one of his Capts. as reported to us by Hon. Wm. Prescott, of Boston, the only son of Col. Prescott, and who has ever worthily supported the honour of his name.
So both versions of the story come ultimately from Col. Prescott. They apparently reached print through different routes, with slightly different details. I think in the end they basically confirm each other.

TOMORROW: Who was that first American casualty at Bunker Hill?


Bob said...

What do you suppose happened to the body? Is is still under the Charlestown sod?

J. L. Bell said...

First of all, if I were out in the hot sun, digging a redoubt while cannon balls and shot fell around me, I might not dig another hole, even if I liked the guy. I might take advantage of the earth already being moved and bury him that way.

As for whether a headless corpse would still be there, we know that the British army buried bodies on the field shortly after the battle, and that the locals dug up bodies after the siege ended. So this body could have been moved at either of those times.

We also know that Charlestown is one of most densely developed parts of Boston, with only the top of Breed’s hill preserved—as long as we don’t count the foundation for a very tall stone obelisk. So that construction could have disturbed the body.

Finally, we know the first impromptu burial involved no coffin, much less embalming. So even if the corpse was never disturbed, I doubt it’s in the sod. I think it is the sod.

Bob said...

PILE the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.