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, July 09, 2012

Samuel Russell Trevett’s Story of Bunker Hill

As I’ve been describing, in the Battle of Bunker Hill the field officers of the American artillery didn’t cover themselves with glory:
The latter two pulled back, one even after Gen. Israel Putnam had met him and ordered him forward again at gunpoint.

The exception to that pattern was Capt. Samuel Russell Trevett of Marblehead. He was assigned to follow Maj. Gridley, but when he realized his superior wasn’t budging he defied orders and advanced to Charlestown on his own. Trevett and his company were the only American artillerists active in the thick of the battle.

Trevett described some of his experience in a letter he wrote on 2 June 1818:
I commanded a company of artillery from the town of Marblehead, attached to Col. Richard Gridley’s regiment, stationed at Cambridge. About one o’clock in the afternoon of the 17th of June, 1775, I left Cambridge with my company, for Bunker’s Hill. When about a quarter of a mile from the Colleges, I saw Gen. Putnam pass upon a horse towards the town of Cambridge, and in 15 or 20 minutes I saw him pass in like manner towards Charlestown.

When I arrived at Bunker’s Hill, on the north west side, I there saw Gen. Putnam dismounted, in company with several others. I halted my company, and went forward to select a station for my pieces, and on my return, saw Gen. Putnam as before; the American and English forces being then engaged.—

I proceeded on with my company, and soon after joined that part of the American force at the rail fence, towards Mystic river, the Americans commenced a general retreat. As I was descending the north west side of Bunker’s Hill, I again saw Gen. Putnam in the same place, putting his tent upon his horse. I asked him where I should retreat with the field piece I had brought off, he replied to Cambridge, and I accordingly marched my company to Cambridge.
Unfortunately, Trevett wrote that letter to answer questions about whether Putnam was in command during the battle—a consuming issue for authors in the early 1800s. Trevett didn’t leave a full account of the battle, which means we’re missing his memory of the most interesting parts.

We don’t have Trevett’s experience of the fighting, when apparently he and his men fired grapeshot at the advancing British troops from the rail fence. We don’t have his full description of the retreat, in which his company dragged off a four-pounder cannon—the only American field-piece in Charlestown not captured by the enemy. We don’t know if Trevett agreed with Gen. Putnam that backward artillery officers were responsible for losing the peninsula, and that “one of these officers ought to be punished with death.”

Worst of all, we don’t have Trevett’s memory of how he felt when Putnam reported that the artillery officer who had refused orders to go back into the fight was named Trevett.

TOMORROW: The Massachusetts government tries to clean up this mess. And have I mentioned that I’ll be speaking about the new commander-in-chief’s response to the whole situation on Tuesday at 7:00 P.M. at Anderson House?

[The photo above shows the house in Marblehead where Samuel Russell Trevett was born in 1751, as photographed by Daniel Sterner of the Historic Buildings of Connecticut and Massachusetts blogs. Sterner has a new book out: A Guide to Historic Hartford, Connecticut.]


rfuller said...

So how come historically the Gridleys come off smelling like a rose? There are memorials to them in their hometown, for example. Perhaps I missed something?

J. L. Bell said...

There's a big memorial to Col. Richard Gridley in the Canton cemetery, erected in the late 1800s. The major proponent of that memorial was Daniel Huntoon, who wrote a lot of articles about Gridley in historical and Masonic magazines and in a local history. Hunton also overstated Gridley's rank (major general instead of colonel) and downplayed the evidence that Washington had lost confidence in him by the fall of 1775. So one reason the Gridley name retains a good reputation is literally selective memory.

Another reason is that all authors, including Huntoon, put all the blame on Scarborough Gridley, criticizing the colonel only for too much paternal faith in his son. (Sometimes Capt. Samuel Gridley, mistaken for the colonel's son, also gets a little blame.)

Col. Gridley did serve in three wars over thirty years. Unlike his son, he did go onto the Charlestown peninsula during the Battle of Bunker Hill, suffering a wound from the shelling. So those qualities allow people to admire Gridley for personal bravery even if his administration had a lot of flaws.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

I've not seen any reference of Trevett firing Grape, or I missed it. Do you have a source perchance? Always trying to perfect "1775" until I get a publisher. Thanks for the posts on the artillery. They are ignored too much in modern books, but clearly, it was a big deal, as they were are quickly court-martialed afterwards.

J. L. Bell said...

As this posting discusses, we don’t have a lot of first-hand sources about what Trevett and his company did. I wrote “apparently” to indicate that doubt, but basically believe that the conditions of the battle dictated that grape or canister shot would have been most effective against the advancing British lines. The accounts of Putnam firing cannon mention those types of shot.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

Understood, thank you!