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, June 22, 2011

“You will have bloody work to-day”

Yet another version of the Abijah WillardWilliam Prescott anecdote I’ve been discussing appeared in The Prescott Memorial, a genealogy published in 1870 by William Prescott, M.D.

That book quoted manuscript material from “Dr. Oliver Prescott, Jr., who was a nephew of Colonel William Prescott, and intimate in his family”; he had heard Col. Prescott often “relate a variety of anecdotes and incidents in his experience while in the army,” which he subsequently wrote down. In 1870, those pages were owned by “Miss Harriet Prescott of Cambridge, Mass.”

This version of the tale goes:
On the morning of the battle [of Bunker Hill], Governor [Thomas] Gage, the British commander, viewed the American works from an elevated position in Boston (Copp’s Hill), and called upon the tory refugees to see if they knew the commanding officer.

Abijah Willard, a mandamus counsellor, whose wife was a sister to Colonel Prescott, having viewed the works with the glass, informed Gage that he knew the commander well, “It is my brother-in-law, Prescott.”

“Will he fight?” asked Gage.

“Yes,” replied Willard, “that man will fight h—l, and if his men are like him you will have bloody work to-day.”
Each version of the story quotes Willard’s reply differently, though all three replies convey the same warning about Prescott’s bellicosity.

So what can we conclude? It seems certain that young men in the Prescott family heard this story as they grew up. They had no written source, and consequently the stories diverged before the mid-1800s. Nevertheless, all three versions contain the same core elements: Uncle Abijah Willard, Gen. Gage, Col. Prescott in the redoubt, the question “Will he fight?”

But there’s a question I’ve learned to ask about all early stories of British officials during the siege of Boston: How could Americans have known? Given that there was a, you know, war going on, how could the Prescott family have learned about Willard’s conversation with Gage?

Paul Lockhart describes the difficulty of Willard recognizing Prescott at the distance from Charlestown to Boston, and it would be even harder for Prescott to have heard Willard. Furthermore, as described in his entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Willard evacuated in 1776, worked as a commissary for the British army, and settled in New Brunswick after the war. So even if he had remained friends with Prescott up until the war began, he wasn’t around to pass on this story.

After Willard died in 1789, his third wife, the former Mary McKown, came back to Massachusetts until her own death in 1807. As for Willard’s surviving children:
  • daughter Elizabeth Wales also returned and died in Lancaster in 1822. Family historian Joseph Willard described her as “a very bright, intelligent lady, full of vivacity and conversation.”
  • daughter Anna Goodhue became the wife of a U.S. senator (shown above) and died in Lancaster in 1858. Joseph Willard also had nice things to say about her, though he didn’t describe her as a conversationalist.
  • son Samuel might never have left Lancaster, and lived there well into the 1800s.
That leaves the possibility that Abijah Willard’s widow or children heard the story from him and later passed it on to Col. Prescott or his family. Or maybe they took some statement Willard made about Prescott always being ready to fight and attached it to a very dramatic moment. It seems significant that the Prescott boys grew up believing that the tale involved Willard, not just any Loyalist.

Nevertheless, if Willard couldn’t have recognized Prescott at that distance, then the tale is a myth. Alas.


EJWitek said...

Several observations:
a. Lockhart's statement that neither Howe nor Clinton mentioned Gage being on Copp's Hill the day of the battle is hardly dispositive. In fact, Copp's Hill is precisely where one would expect Gage, who had extensive combat experience, to have been during the battle. The British had deployed an artillery battery on Copp's Hill to provide fire support for the assault and the hill provided the best panoramic view of the battle. Gage was responsible for coordination with the prickly and incompetent Admiral Graves whose fleet was providing artillery and boat support for this most tricky of all assaults, an amphibious landing. It's logical that given Gage's training, experience, and responsibilities that Copp's Hill is where he would have set up his command HQs.
b. The British discovered the rebels fortifying Bunker Hill before dawn but the actual assault didn't occur until shortly after noon. Initally the British Navy responded with an artillery assault, stopped by the sleeping Admiral Graves, but later continued under Gage's orders. It's difficult to believe that the British had a sustained bombardment of the rebel fortifications for over six hours or so and were still able to support an amphibious assault with artillery fire.So there had to be significant periods in those six hours in which the smoke was dissipated.
c. There are several accounts that state that Prescott jumped onto the ramparts and walked up and down on top of the fortifications during the morning in an effort to boost morale and defy the British. Surely, he would have been conspicuous to someone observing him from afar who was very familiar with him.
d. Given the state of monocular technology at the time of the battle, it is barely possible that someone on Copp's Hill could have spotted Prescott walking on top of the ramparts. But, that's a long shot.
e. Prescott's children or grandchildren could have heard the story from someone who was on Copp's Hill. If Gage had set up his command post on that hill, undoubtedly it was filled with staff officers and curious Tories anyone of whom could have spread the story.
f. Wouldn't Willard have referred to Prescott as his "brother" rather than "brother-in-law"?
g. There's no way we will know if the anecdote is factual but as the newspaperman says in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance","This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".

J. L. Bell said...

Observations in turn:

a) Different historians have written different things about Gage’s location on 17 June 1775. I suspect he was at the Province House for most of the day. As commander-in-chief he had to attend to the possibility of a provincial attack from another direction, just as Gen. Ward worried about a British attack in Roxbury and stuck to his own headquarters. It is notable that this anecdote is the only evidence that Gage was ever on Copp’s Hill that day, and one version of the Prescott family tale says he was on Beacon Hill instead.

b) There was indeed a pause in the British shelling in the middle of the morning, according to Peter Brown’s account. However, Charlestown was burning for a lot of that time, providing another source of smoke.

c) This point and the last are somewhat at odds. The Prescott family tale portrayed the colonel as walking along the edge of the redoubt during a barrage to encourage his men. Perhaps he did so after the first fatal hit, and jumped down when before the artillery really opened up again. It’s possible that Prescott was distinctive enough in his walk or his dress (that long coat) for someone to recognize him all the way from Boston. But we don’t have much evidence that Prescott and Willard knew each other so well.

e) This point still leaves us with the question of how the tale got back to the Prescott family. Just like Willard, almost all British officers, Council members, and other Loyalists likely to be in Gage’s circle left Boston in 1776 and didn’t come back. And evaluating historical anecdotes usually requires finding evidence, not just possibilities.

f) Yes, I believe the eighteenth-century locution would have been “brother.” Or perhaps “my late wife’s brother.” All the more evidence that what we have are nineteenth-century retellings.

g) And I’d be happy to include this episode in a Bunker Hill movie. I just wish I could believe it wholeheartedly as nonfiction.

EJWitek said...

I have never bought into the various suppositions that Gage was at Provincial House during the battle. He was still Commander of HM's forces in North America and militarily responsible. Gage had seen a lot of action on mainland Europe, Scotland, Canada and in the colonies. I can't see him either personally resisting watching the battle or coordinating it from some prime location like Copp's Hill. He may have been at Provincial House part of the time but I don't see him resisting his professional or personal instincts to remain indoors reviewing Commissary reports. Besides, the noise in Boston from all of that British artillery must have been deafening.
The British didn't set fire to Charlestown until sometime after 3PM.
I would point out that Willard and Prescott both served in the militia and both were involved in the seige of Louisburg in 1745 and ten years later in the expedition that resulted in the expulsion of the Acadians from Canada. Could they have bonded then? We don't know.
I think the use of the term "brother-in-law" most undermines the credibility of the anecdote. Perhaps some exchange did occur between Gage and Willard that was later embellished. But I agree that the anecdote as it presntly stands lacks sufficient corroboration to be considered authentic.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the reminder about the British not deliberately setting fire to Charlestown until mid-afternoon.