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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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thompson Maxwell Sets Up Stakes on Breed’s Hill

Thompson Maxwell left at least three memoirs of his life; I’ve previously puzzled over his accounts of the Boston Tea Party.

In the autumn of 1818 Maxwell reportedly dictated the first memoir of his military service to Gen. James Miller (later a character in the first chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter).

Here is the old veteran’s account of June 1775, up to the Battle of Bunker Hill:
I then took command, agreeable to [ensign’s] rank in my company under Captain Wilkinson [actually Capt. Josiah Crosby and Lt. Daniel Wilkins]. We were formed into regiments, my company in Colonel James Reed’s regiment, and engaged for eight months.

Next fight was that of Bunker Hill. On the sixteenth of June Colonel Reed was ordered to Charlestown neck. About twelve o’clock the same day a number of our officers passed us and went on to Bunker Hill. General [Artemas] Ward with the rest returned and went to Cambridge. In the evening Colonel [William] Prescott passed with his regiment. My brother Hugh Maxwell was the senior Captain in this regiment; he stepped out and asked Colonel Reed and myself if we would come on to the Hill that night. We did so, we went on to Breed’s Hill.

We found Colonel [Israel] Putnam there, with Colonel Prescott’s command. Colonel Prescott requested my brother Hugh to lay out the ground for the intrenchment. He did so; I set up the stakes after him. Colonel Prescott seemed to have the sole command.

Colonel Reed and I returned to our command on the neck about eleven o’clock, P.M. At day in the morning, we again went on to the Hill, found Putnam and Prescott there. Prescott still appeared to have command; no other regiment was there but Prescott’s through the night.

Captain Maxwell after day suggested, in my hearing, to Colonel Prescott the propriety of running an intrenchment from the N. E. angle of the night’s work, to a rail fence leading to Mystic River. Colonel Prescott approved, and it was done. I set up the stakes after my brother.

About seven o’clock I saw Colonels Putnam and Prescott in conversation; immediately after Putnam mounted his horse and went full speed toward Cambridge. Colonel Reed ordered all his men to their commands; we returned and prepared for action. At eleven o’clock, A.M. we received orders from Colonel Prescott to move on. We did so. We formed by order of Prescott down by the rail fence, and part on the entrenchmemt. We got hay and wadded between the rails after doubling the fence by post and rails from another place.
It’s obvious that Maxwell was trying to provide evidence on the question of whether Prescott or Putnam was in command during the battle, a burning historiographical question in the early 1800s. But I think the real value of his account is showing the improvised nature of the provincials’ planning, with officers hurrying back and forth.

Thompson Maxwell’s niece Priscilla wrote a memoir of her father, Capt. Hugh Maxwell. That book described how Hugh was badly wounded at Bunker Hill, but said nothing about him having helped to lay out the American defense lines. However, Hugh Maxwell had experience as both a rural surveyor and a military officer, so that detail in his younger brother’s recollections strikes me as credible.

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