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, February 15, 2014

A Solid Source for the “Whites of Their Eyes” Tradition

“Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes” is the most famous quotation arising from the Battle of Bunker Hill. Authors have debated which American officer said it, which has been another way of debating who was in command. In recent decades most historians have treated those words as a legend, or at least a tradition that can’t be verified.

That tradition doesn’t benefit from the fact that for a long time the earliest chronicle known to quote the line was the biography of George Washington by Mason Weems, whose tales of cherry trees and praying in the snow at Valley Forge have become exemplars of American mythology.

This month I got lucky in some digital databases and found an earlier source for the “whites of their eyes” tradition, with a clear chain of transmission from the battlefield.

The story starts with David Humphreys’s publication of An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major-General Israel Putnam in 1788. That book’s description of Bunker Hill does not include the quotation. It also suggested that Dr. Joseph Warren was directing the New England forces in his new capacity as a Massachusetts major general.

The Rev. Josiah Whitney (1731-1824), minister in Brooklyn, Connecticut, followed that up with his most famous parishioner, Israel Putnam. The retired general said that Warren had come onto the battlefield as a volunteer, not a commissioned officer, and didn’t presume to take command. Putnam died in 1790, and Whitney described their conversation in a footnote to his sermon A Sermon Occasioned by the Death of the Honorable Major-General Israel Putnam, of Brooklyn.

Ten years later, the Rev. Elijah Parish (1762-1825) of Byfield, Massachusetts, published An Oration, Delivered at Byfield, February 22d, 1800, the Day of National Mourning for the Death of General George Washington. On page 15 he added his own footnote describing the Battle of Bunker Hill. Parish, who originally came from Lebanon, Connecticut, said he’d discussed that battle with his older colleague Whitney.

Parish wrote:

Putnam was the commanding officer of the party, who went upon the hill the evening before the action: he commanded in the action: : he harangued his men as the British first advanced, charged them to reserve their fire, till they were near, ‘till they could see the white of their eyes,’ were his words.—At the second assault he commended their former calmness, assured them “they would now do much better,” and directed them “to aim at the officers.” They obeyed. The fire was tremendous. ‘My God,’ said said Putnam, in telling the story, ‘I never saw such a carnage of the human race.’

These things he related to the Reverend Mr. Whitney, his Minister, by whose permission they are now published.
Parish repeated this story in a history textbook he cowrote with the Rev. Dr. Jedidiah Morse, A Compendious History of New England (1804).

Thus, we have a clear line of transmission for the quotation:
  • Gen. Israel Putnam reminiscing to Rev. Josiah Whitney, probably between 1788 and 1790.
  • Whitney passing on an interesting anecdote to Rev. Elijah Parish between 1790 and 1800.
  • Parish publishing the story twice in the early 1800s, enough to bring it to the attention of the Rev. Mason Weems by 1810.
That doesn’t mean Putnam coined the “white of their eyes” phrase, but it’s more likely that he said those words at Bunker Hill, just as a few veterans reported later. Eventually the phrase evolved into the now-famous “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.”

TOMORROW: When Howe said “not to fire before he could see the whites of their eyes.”


Hugh Harrington said...

Outstanding work. Wonderful to not only debunk myths but to also verify would-be myths. Well done!

Jim Padian said...


I recall reading somewhere (can't recall where) that New Hampshire's Stark placed a stake some fourth yards in front of the rail fence. He cautioned his men not to fire until the regulars had advanced past it.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm so skeptical most of the time that it's refreshing to find a tradition with a solid foundation.

J. L. Bell said...

The anecdote about Col. Stark and the stake appears in many books, but the earliest source I've found (so far) is from an 1874 letter. The writer said that Washington often repeated the anecdote, but offered no source for that information.

John Johnson said...

Philbrick talks about this myth in his book on Bunker Hill. His conclusion is that while the phrase may not have been uttered, it certainly fits other advice that was given by the leaders there that day such as Prescott's command to "aim at their hips", or Stark's command to "aim at the half-gaiters".

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there's never been any doubt that the New England officers told their men to hold their fire until the British were close enough to be good targets. But the "whites of their eyes" phrase was the one that became iconic.

Interestingly, that phrase wasn't "aim for the whites of their eyes," which might have felt too violent.

Paul Lockhart titled his recent history of Bunker Hill The Whites of Their Eyes, but he too stated that phrase rested on tradition. One wouldn't expect to find the earliest publication in a footnote to an obscure lecture about a commander who wasn't even at the battle.

Steve MC said...

What I love about history is how it always surprises. I'd heard the "gaiters" version as a debunking of the "eyes" version. Is it known that Stark give his own command about that?

Also, aiming directly for the eyes wouldn't be wise 'cause the body would give a much larger target. And when shooting downhill, one should aim lower than normal.

J. L. Bell said...

In a quick search, the earliest source for the story of John Stark telling his men not to fire until they could see the redcoats' gaiters was Headley's Washington and His Generals from 1847.

I agree that shooting at the body provides a bigger target, and most of the orders refer to that. But in this case I'm considering what orders Americans most remember from this battle. It was the bloodiest battle of the war in North America, and the most famous quotation involves not firing one's gun.

Steve MC said...

Thanks. I'm not a historian, simply an enthusiast, but as for why modern Americans remember that command, I'd guess it's because of how it rolls like poetry, with three rhymes.

And those who were there might've remembered it best because the order would've underscored a fear they all had - that they didn't have enough ammunition.

J. L. Bell said...

It is a poetic line, with assonance and a metaphor. (No one really waited that long to fire.)

Focusing on that order also turned a battlefield loss into a personal victory. The Americans couldn't remember "Hold this hill!" with pride, for example. But they could remember not firing till the redcoats were close.

As it happened, the Battle of Bunker Hill won the siege of Boston for the Americans by inflicting so much damage on the British army that its commanders quickly started to advocate pulling out of the town and starting over somewhere else. But Americans didn't know that for a long time.