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, July 07, 2012

The Gridley Legacy: From Louisburg to Cobble Hill

Continuing my quotation from Alexander H. Everett’s 1836 oration on the Battle of Bunker Hill, here’s how he described the action of Maj. Scarborough Gridley of the Massachusetts artillery:
Major Gridley had been ordered to proceed with his battalion from Cambridge to the lines; but had advanced only a few yards beyond the neck, when he made a halt, determined, as he said, to wait and cover the retreat which he considered inevitable.—At that moment Colonel [James] Frye [1709-1776], whose regiment was in the redoubt, but who, being on other duty, as I remarked before, had not yet joined it, was riding towards the hill, and found Major Gridley with his artillery in the position I have described. Frye galloped up to him and demanded what it meant.—

“We are waiting to cover the retreat.”—

“Retreat?”—replies the veteran, “who talks of retreating?—This day thirty years ago I was present at the taking of Louisburg, when your father with his own hand lodged a shell in the citadel. His son was not born to talk of retreating. Forward to the lines!”—

Gridley proceeded a short distance with his artillery, but, overcome with terror,—unequal to the horrors of the scene,—he ordered his men back upon Cobble Hill to fire with their three pounders upon the Glasgow and the floating batteries.

The order was so absurd that Captain [Samuel Russell] Trevett refused to obey it, and proceeded with his two pieces. He lost one of them by a cannon shot on Bunker Hill: the other he brought to the lines. This little fragment of Major Gridley’s battalion, was the only reinforcement of artillery that came into action.
At another point Everett explained, “In the war of 1745, when Massachusetts alone raised an army of three thousand two hundred men for the expedition against Cape Breton, he [Richard Gridley] commanded the artillery, and with scientific accuracy pointed the mortar which on the third fire threw into the citadel of Louisburg a shell that occasioned its surrender.”

Everett later incorporated his oration into the short biography of Dr. Joseph Warren published in Jared Sparks’s Library of American Biography. It’s the earliest mention I’ve found of either Richard Gridley’s mortar marksmanship at Louisburg or his son’s excuses at Bunker Hill. Everett didn’t state his sources, but from then on those statements were in the American historical record.

The picture above is Bernard Romans’s “Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown,” published in Philadelphia in September 1775 and provided by the National Archives. The artillery commander in the foreground shooting toward a warship, labeled “8,” is identified by the key atop the color version  (available at the John Carter Brown Library) as “Broken Officer.” However, Romans wasn’t on the scene, and that figure might be confused with a different American artillerist, not Scar Gridley.

The performance of the American artillery corps at Bunker Hill is a major part of my talk at Anderson House in Washington, D.C., next Tuesday: “Washington’s Artillery: Reengineering the Regiment Between Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights.”

TOMORROW: Three artillery captains and one general on Bunker’s Hill.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Everett's description of Gridley senior's role at Louisbourg is a fine example of historical romance. The fortress did capitulate on 17 June 1745 (O.S.) but not in response to a well-placed mortar round striking the "citadel." George Rawylk's Yankees at Louisbourg (1967) while interpretively dated and improved and enriched by subsequent research by Parks Canada historians like B.A. Balcom, still provides a sound narrative. Of the factors leading to Louisbourg's capitulation, Rawlyk wrote: "Many factors combined to persuade [French commander] du Chambon on the night of June 24 (N.S.) that he should consider capitulating...the frontal assault preparations being made by the New Englanders, the arrival of four additional warships to reinforce Warren's already formidable squadron, the scarcity of gunpowder...the widespread damage to the town caused by over 6,000 New England cannon-balls and shells...and the bad mauling the Island Battery [guarding the harbor mouth] was receiving..." DC

Dr. Sam Forman said...

John, Wish I could be there for your July 10th talk at Anderson House SOC in Washington, DC. While you are there, look at their archives' copies of 1764 Crown Manual, Norfolk, and Pickering militia drills. They possess multiple Massachusetts editions - most autographed to officers you may recognize - of the pre- and early Revolutionary era. These are part of what I understand to be the best library of 18th century militaria in the U.S.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Don! I'm not surprised the tradition about Gridley's marksmanship doesn't match the realities of the siege of '45. I'd really like to know if that tradition was current in 1775, when the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was convinced that Gridley was the finest artillerist on the continent, or if it arose later.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Sam, for the tips!