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 30, 2014

Hope and Pain on Bunker Hill

Yesterday I quoted the start of a 12 July 1775 letter from Richard Hope, surgeon for the British army’s 52nd Regiment in Boston. That was actually Dr. Hope’s second report on the Battle of Bunker Hill to relatives back in England. He had sent another letter (probably now lost) immediately after the battle, and he had some corrections to make.
I doubt not but my Sister Sukey has given you and the rest of my friends a particular account of the action, to whom I wrote immediately after; but I erred very largely in my list of the killed and wounded on our side, as I only made it from my own conjecture and observation and no other returns had then been given on to the Commander in Chief of the losses of the several Regiments; I mentioned our having lost in killed and wounded five hundred men, sorry am I to contradict that report, for on a minute examination I find our numbers are more than double.

General [William] Howe who commanded that day had about two thousand men and six pieces of cannon; the rebels had upwards of six thousand in their Redoubt and breastworks; all the houses of Charlestown were lined with men, and during the engagement they received three different reliefs of a thousand each time; yet did our small army charge with so much bravery, as to gain a compleat victory: and put the rebels to a total rout in spite of their superior numbers, and advantageous situation, who left their cannon behind them and part of their wounded.

As the men posted in the houses began to fire on our troops which galled them horribly as they advanced, General Howe was obliged to send orders to our ships and a battery of twenty four pounders at Boston to burn the town; this was soon effected, and the enemy found the place too hot for them, so they joined their party in the redoubt, who pelted our men with such a continued heavy fire, that it was more like the report of thunder than of muskets.

The 52nd. Regiment had three Captains killed in the field, the Major and two Subalterns are since dead of their wounds, and three Captains and two Subalterns remain very badly wounded, three of them in much danger; We had about thirty killed on the spot of our private men, and eighty wounded, a fourth part of whom will die, forty seven of the worst cases with the whole sick of the Regiment were for want of room in the general Hospital forced on me; this is quite unpresidented to oblige a regimental Surgeon to bear the charge in time of war of wounded soldiers, and this injustice will be above forty pounds out of my pocket, a noble recompence for nineteen years service; then the fatigue is so great that I have not had five hours rest any night since the action; so that thro’ weakness of body, uneasiness of mind, and being half starved, I am brought low enough.

This victory is of important consequence, otherwise the enemy would have soon burnt Boston and annoyed our fleet, but we had too many men fell to be able to pursue the fugitives, or to thin them in their retreat, and the only advantage we have gained by the conquest is a spot of ground to encamp on which we have stronly [sic] fortified, about two miles from it the rebels have an amazing redoubt on the top of a very high hill with every kind of work for defence, that it would take twenty thousand to enable the General to attack it.

In short our little army is so much reduced by the two battles, that if Britain does not arouse from her lethargy and send out three parts of her fleet and a reinforcement of at least twenty thousand men, she may bid adieu to her empire in the western world, and we that are already here engaged in her cause, must fall victims to it; and I would not give a hundred pound for an estate of a thousand a year on the life of any man in this army. It would pierce a heart of stone to hear the daily shrieks and lamentations of the poor widows and fatherless left desolate and friendless three thousand miles from home in a land of wretches worse than savages, for even savages exceed them in humanity.
Like the 22 June letter from Loyalist Samuel Paine, Dr. Hope’s account provides a very high estimate of the number of provincials involved in the battle. Instead of two British advances stopped late by musket fire followed by a third successful charge, Hope described “a continued heavy fire” from the rebel positions.

Paine wrote of expecting the king’s troops to “advance into the country, laying waste & devastation wherever they go.” In contrast, Dr. Hope felt that the provincials’ new fortifications on Winter Hill and Prospect Hill were much too formidable to attack. In fact, he warned that Britain might soon lose its “empire in the western world.”

That difference between the Paine and Hope letters might be due to the time elapsing between them as the new situation became clear to the royal authorities. However, after reading several of the army surgeon’s letters, I think that his temperament was involved. Whether in Québec or Boston or New York, Dr. Hope always found something to complain about. His letters home express a lot of pain and very little hope.


Don N. Hagist said...

So, Paine expressed Hope, and Hope expressed pain. Interesting...

J. L. Bell said...

Yep, that's Howe to Gage it.

G. Thomas Fitzpatrick said...


But a never-before seen description of Bunker Hill, however cursory, is valuable.

Chaucerian said...

The poor fellow seems to believe that his position as a surgeon should entitle him to better treatment in the workplace. How sad.

J. L. Bell said...

Hope's main grievance seems to be that he's paying for the wounded men's food out of his own pocket, at least until he's reimbursed.

No word in this letter on what sort of support staff Hope had, but the one quotation from these letters that I've seen in a book is his complaint about the poor quality of surgeon's mates in Québec a few years earlier. Hope seems to have always seen something to complain about.

Dr. Sam Forman said...

John, is that illustration of Bunker Hill from the late 1850s Harper's Weekly or somewhere else? It appears to me to be a realistic impression from the British side at the point of landing near Moulton's Point.

J. L. Bell said...

That image was made by Alonzo Chappel.