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, June 16, 2014

Capt. Bancroft’s “severe struggle to escape out of the fort”

I’ve been quoting the account of the Bunker Hill battle set down by a grandson of Capt. Ebenezer Bancroft reportedly around 1826. When we last left the captain and his Dunstable men, the British had made their third advance on the Breed’s Hill redoubt and had flanked it on the west side, overwhelming the provincial defenses.

Capt. Bancroft is quoted as saying:
As I was loading my gun the last time, and just withdrawing the ramrod, an officer sprang over the breastwork in front of me and presented his piece. I threw away the rammer which was in my hand, and instantly placed the muzzle of my gun against his right shoulder, a little below the collar-bone, and fired, and he fell into the trench. This was my twenty-second fire that day. The wound it gave was in the same place as that by which Pitcairn died, and as near as I can recollect the person I shot answered the description of that officer who was found mortally wounded in our trench.
Bancroft thus became yet another claimant for the honor of having killed Maj. John Pitcairn as he entered the redoubt. In an article published in the first Journal of the American Revolution collection, I argue that British sources show that Pitcairn was mortally wounded before he reached the redoubt, and none of those American stories is likely to be accurate. Bancroft may have killed another, less notable officer.

Whomever he shot at, Bancroft now had an unloaded gun with enemy soldiers swarming in from all sides.
I had then a severe struggle to escape out of the fort, the gateway of which was completely filled with British soldiers. I held my gun broadwise before my face and rushed upon them, and at first bore some of them down, but I soon lost my gun, a remarkably long one, which I had taken from the French at Chamblee, in the old French war.

I leaped upon the heads of the throng in the gateway and fortunately struck my breast upon the head of a soldier, who settled down under me so that I came with my feet to the ground. Directly as I came to the ground a blow was aimed at me, with the butt of a gun, which missed my head but gave me a severe contusion on the right shoulder.

Numbers were trying to seize me by the arms but I broke from them, and with my elbows and knees cleared the way so that at length I got through the fort. The last man I passed stood alone, and the thought struck me that he might kill me after I had passed him. As I ran by him I struck him a blow across the throat with the side of my hand. I saw his mouth open, and I have not seen him since.

A shower of shot was falling all around me as I ran down the hill. One struck my hat, several marked my clothes, one struck me in the left hand, and served off the forefinger. Our men were all in advance of me, and I was almost, if not entirely, alone, from the time I left the fort till I came to Charlestown Neck, on which there was not a man to be seen.

I thought it might be some protection from the fire of the floating batteries, to go behind the buildings, but on turning the corner I found Col. [Samuel] Gerrish with a body of men posted there. I said to him, “Colonel Gerrish, are you here? I hope to God you will be killed, but I will not stay to die with you,” and took the street again.

By this time I grew very faint with fatigue and loss of blood. There was a horse tied by the side of the common, and I made towards him. Colonel James Varnum saw me and came to me. He took me by the arm and led me to the horse. While he was with me, the ball of the last cannon I heard that day passed within a foot or two of me and struck the ground, at a short distance before me. We found the owner of the horse by him, and he cheerfully offered him to me to ride to Cambridge.
Many people criticized Col. Gerrish for his behavior on 17 June 1775, but he remained in the army until August, when he was court-martialed and cashiered for how he behaved in a lesser confrontation with the enemy.

Though Bancroft lived and died in Massachusetts, his grave (shown above, courtesy of Find a Grave) is located in New Hampshire. That’s because the sliver of Dunstable containing the cemetery where he was interred was later found to be across the state border.


EJWitek said...

Interesting that Captain Bancroft was able to count and remember precisely how many rounds he fired that day (22). Also of interest is the fact that Captain Bancroft was attacked with the butt of a muzzle when the British Marines and Infantry mounted bayonet charges at Bunker Hill. There was little in 18th century warfare that was as devastating as a British bayonet charge; far more frightening than a musket volley. Although, it should be noted that the British socket bayonet, which didn't have a muzzle lock, was well known to fall off in the heat of battle.

Peter Fisk said...

"As I ran by him I struck him a blow across the throat with the side of my hand. I saw his mouth open, and I have not seen him since. "

= possibly the first successful karate chop in American military history.

Don N. Hagist said...

Bancroft's recollection that he'd fired 22 rounds suggests (to me) that he cartridge pouch held that many cartridges. If he knew he used every single one, he'd easily know how many rounds he'd fired.
Examination of exhumed American remains from the Baylor Massacre show that British soldiers were not adverse to using musket butts as well as bayonets when in hand-to-hand combat. As effective as they are for initial contact, bayonets can bend and break with repeated use.

Anonymous said...

I think I would have completely and thoroughly soiled myself had I been in Bancroft's shoes that day. The mad rush out of the redoubt sounds horrifying.