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 17, 2011

“The enemy fir’d very warm from Boston”

One of the standard sources on the Battle of Bunker Hill is a letter written on 25 June 1775 by Peter Brown of Westford, who served in Col. William Prescott’s regiment. The Massachusetts Historical Society displays the letter in its online exhibit about the battle.

The battle begins:
after tarrying on parade till Nine at Night [on 16 June], we march’d down, on to Charleston Hill against Copts hill in Boston, where we entrench’d & made a Fort, ten Rods long, and eight wide, with a Breastwork of about eight more, we work’d there undiscovered till about five in the Morning, when we saw our danger, being against Ships of the Line, and all Boston fortified against us,

The danger we were in made us think there was treachery and that we were brought there to be all slain, and I must and will say that there was treachery oversight or presumption in the Conduct of our Officers, for about 5 in the morning, we not having more than half our fort done, they began to fire (I suppose as soon as they had orders) pretty briskly for a few minutes, then ceas’d but soon begun again, and fird to the number of twenty minutes, (they killd but one of our Men) then ceas’d to fire till about eleven oClock when they began to fire as brisk as ever, which caus’d many of our young Country people to desert, apprehending the danger in a clearer manner than others who were more diligent in digging, & fortifying ourselves against them.

We began to be almost beat out, being fatigued by our Labour, having no sleep the night before, very little to eat, no drink but rum, but what we hazzarded our lives to get, we grew faint, Thirsty, hungry and weary.—

The enemy fir’d very warm from Boston, and from on board their Ships till about 2 oClock when they began to fire from Ships that lay in Ferry way and from a ship that lay in the river against us, to stop our reinforcement, which they did in some Measure one cannon cut three Men in two on the neck,

Our Officers sent time after time for Cannon from Cambridge in the Morning & could get but four, the Captn of which [Samuel Gridley?] fir’d a few times then swung his Hat three times round to the enemy and ceas’d to fire, then about three o Clock there was a cessation of the Cannons roaring, soon after we espied as many as 40, boats or barges coming over, full of troops it is supposed there were about 3000 of them, and about 700 of us left…
Read the whole letter here.

In the same letter Brown told his mother in Newport, “I do a Clerk or Orderly Sergants business; which requires much care but the Duty is easier, and the pay higher than a private Soldiers.” His ability to write got him that job, and let him record an ordinary soldier’s experience of the battle. Other than this letter, very little is known of Peter Brown.


lifford46 said...

Something is known about Peter Brown after Bunker Hill from his entry in Mass. Soldiers and Sailors. He married Olive Dunsmoor, the daughter of a Scotch-Irish immigrant who settled in Lancaster, Mass.Peter and Olive settled in Lunenburg; in his deeds he first calls himself "blacksmith," then "yeoman" and "gentleman." His family genealogy can be found in the genealogy of Lunenburg written by George Cunningham--see archive.org.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, that looks like our man. Thanks for the pointer. It looks like Cunningham's manuscript was never published, or published only in limited form. I'll highlight this when the battle anniversary comes around.