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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Monday, June 20, 2011

“Colonel Prescott will fight you to the gates of Hell!”

In The Whites of Their Eyes, his new book on the Battle of Bunker Hill, Paul Lockhart treats the story (dramatized here) of Abijah Willard recognizing Col. William Prescott on the redoubt on Breed’s Hill dismissively. In fact, he relegates the tale to a footnote. (Well, at least it’s not an endnote.)

Lockhart writes:
It’s a stirring anecdote, to be sure, but undoubtedly apocryphal. The closest [Gen. Thomas] Gage could have been to the fighting was Copp’s Hill—and if he was there, neither [Gen. Henry] Clinton nor [Gen. John] Burgoyne remarked upon it. And at that distance—over one thousand yards lay between Copp’s Hill and the summit of Breed’s—the idea that Willard could have seen and recognized Prescott, given the primitive optics of the day and the amount of gunsmoke that must have hung in the air, seems implausible at best.
Since I’m rather fond of that anecdote, I decided to check into when it appeared on the scene. The earliest version I’ve found appeared in the back of Memoirs of His Own Time, by Alexander Graydon, published in 1846. That book was edited by John Stockton Littell, who added appendixes about Revolutionary events and figures. In one of those, Littell wrote:
Gage, with his officers and others in whom he had confidence, went up to Beacon Hill to reconnoitre; after having looked through his telescope for some time, he handed it to a Mr. Willard, a mandamus counsellor, and describing the leader of the American troops as head and shoulders above the works, asked him who it was, and if the rebels would fight. Willard told him, that it was his brother-in-law, Prescott; “as to his men,” said he, “I cannot answer for them; but Colonel Prescott will fight you to the gates of Hell!”
Littell stated that his source for those facts was “a MS. of his friend, the late estimable and Reverend Edward G. Prescott, a grandson of Colonel Prescott.”

TOMORROW: But I found other versions as well.


RFuller said...

I'm rereading Christopher Hibbert's Redcoats and Rebels, and he uses this same quote.

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, it’s a terrific story, full of visual images and emotions, and authors have been using it (with different punchlines) for over a century and a half. Personally I prefer the “gates of hell” version, but that seems no more or less reliable than the other two.