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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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Capt. Bancroft and the Sight of the Enemy

Yesterday I started quoting from the reminiscence of the Battle of Bunker Hill credited to Ebenezer Bancroft, captain of a company from Dunstable, Massachusetts.

According to Bancroft, Col. William Prescott had given him charge of two cannon left in the redoubt on Breed’s Hill by the artillery company of Capt. Samuel Gridley. Bancroft had fired a couple of times, causing no damage but, he later claimed, nonetheless affecting the battle:
By this time the British had landed. They learned that we had cannon on the right or most westwardly part of the fort, which was probably the reason they did not attempt to flank us on that quarter till the close of the action. We were not able to use these cannon in the action because the enemy advanced and the firing commenced before we had time to dig down the bank far enough to use them against the enemy. Still as the few shots that were fired gave the enemy notice that we had artillery and prevented their attempting to turn our right flank, it must be regarded as a very important circumstance, for had they attempted it, they would have succeeded, and we should not have had more than a shot or two at them. I was fully persuaded that the moment they attempted this point, we could no longer maintain our fort, and the event showed that I was not mistaken, for it was not more than four minutes after they turned this flank before we were obliged to retreat.

The British troops had begun their march. They were steadily and confidently advancing directly in our front. Our men turned their heads every minute to look on the one side for their fellow soldiers who had gone off with the tools and for the reinforcements, which were expected, and on the other to see a sight to most of them new, a veteran enemy marching on firmly to the attack, directly in their front. It was an awful moment.

The enemy had advanced perhaps half the way from their station toward us, and our men seeing no reinforcements began by a simultaneous movement to draw off from the east side of the redoubt. This in my opinion was the very crisis of the day, the moment on which every thing depended. Col. Prescott hastened to them, and I followed him. We represented with earnestness that they must not go off, that if they did all would go; that it would disgrace us to leave, at the bare sight of the enemy, the work we had been all night throwing up; that we had no expectation of being able to hold our ground, but we wanted to give them a warm reception, and retreat. It is but justice to these men to say that they cheerfully took their places again, and maintained them as bravely as any that fought on that day.

As the enemy were advancing within gunshot, Col. Prescott and the officers gave orders to the men to take particular notice of the fine coats [of the officers and sergeants], and aim as low as the waistband, and not to fire till ordered. A firing of eight or ten guns commenced before orders, at the left of the redoubt, but was immediately stopped. We wished the fire to be held till the enemy were within six rods.

Our first fire was shockingly fatal. There was scarcely a shot but told. The enemy were thrown into confusion and retreated a short distance. Their lines were broken, and it was some minutes before they had conveyed their dead and wounded into their rear. A scattering fire was still kept up by our men.

They formed again and advanced, and were a second time driven back in the same confusion. They formed a third time and flanked us. A body of reinforcements which had come up in the rear of the redoubt, gave them a fire. At this moment, as I understood, Gen. [Joseph] Warren fell. Our ammunition was now nearly expended, which the enemy probably learned by those who had fired away all their powder, throwing stones, which were abundant in the trench. We were soon surrounded on all sides. The enemy had advanced on each side of the point of the redoubt, and were pouring into the gateway. The day was over, and we had nothing more but to retreat as well as we could.
Did Bancroft survive? (Well, of course he did since we have this recollection. But how?)

TOMORROW: Out of the redoubt.

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