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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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

James Winthrop Lays Out the Battle of Bunker Hill

Here’s another account of the Battle of Bunker Hill from an American participant. In early 1818 the Analectic Magazine published the map of the battle shown above (image courtesy of Maps of Antiquity). Before publication that magazine’s editors had run it by, among others, James Winthrop (1752-1821), librarian at Harvard College from 1772 to 1787 and later a Massachusetts judge.

The next issue of the magazine published a letter from Winthrop commenting on that map. Apparently, after it was published, he’d found he had more to say:
As far as I can recollect, I believe the plan to be generally correct. The railed fence was, I think, as far as a quarter of a mile from the curtain belonging to the redoubt. There was room for a body of troops to enter that way, which was one circumstance that discomfited our men. There was no such grove as is represented on the plan. There were two or three trees near the fences, and, I believe, not more than that number. I remember two field pieces at the rail fence which covered our left.

When I first got there, generals [Joseph] Warren and [Israel] Putnam were standing by the pieces and consulting together. Very few men were at that part of the lines. I went forward to the redoubt, and tarried there a little while. Mr. James Swan [1754-1830] and myself were in company. Finding that a column of the enemy were advancing toward our left, and not far from Mystic river, we pointed them out to the people without the redoubt, and proposed that some measure should be taken to man the fence, which, when we passed, we had considered as slightly guarded. We two, in the style of the times, were appointed a committee for that purpose. We went directly to the rail fence, and found a body of men had arrived since we had left it. Possibly three hundred would not be an estimate far from the truth.

As soon as we had got to the middle of the line, the firing commenced from the redoubt and continued through our left. The field pieces stood there, and nobody appeared to have the care of them. After an obstinate dispute, our people were driven from the redoubt, and the retreat was rapid from our whole line. I saw one or two young men, in uniform, try to muster a party to bring off the field pieces, but they could not succeed.

In coming down Bunker’s Hill, at the place where the British [later] built their fort, I met a regiment going up, and joined company, still in hopes of repelling the invaders. I have since learned that it was Col. [Thomas] Gardner’s regiment. He being badly wounded was removed, and his regiment was not deployed.

When the firing commenced from the redoubt, the smoke rose from the lower part of the street. A man near me pointed to it as “the smoke from the guns.” This shows that the fire was in a line with the redoubt and the middle of the rail fence. By laying a ruler from the middle of the rail fence, as marked upon the plan, and over that side of the fort next the main street, it will cross the northern side of the square where the court-house stood. After the destruction of the town, the places of the court-house and meeting-house were cleared of the ruins to form the present square. An irregular mass of buildings was also removed in front of the present hotel, and extended that corner of the square to its present magnitude. As well as I can conclude from this statement, I am inclined to believe the plan nearly correct.
Not the most dramatic account, is it? All the actual fighting got subsumed into the phrase “obstinate dispute.” Later reference books said Winthrop was wounded in that battle, but, if he was, he wrote nothing about that.

However, Winthrop wrote a little more a couple of months later.

TOMORROW: Let’s try this again, Judge Winthrop.

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