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, June 21, 2014

Samuel Paine: “all the Horrors of War, Death & Rebellion”

Here’s another eyewitness account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, from a different perspective. Samuel Paine was a Loyalist who moved from Worcester to Boston in June 1775 “after passing thro’ too many Insults and too Cruel Treatment.”

On 22 June, Paine wrote to his brother in London with an update on the war:
After the Concord Expedition Affairs took a turn. A Large Army was immediately raised, & every Passage to the Town of Boston invested, the Prov’l Congress, conducted Extremely well, put their Army on Pay, by issuing a Large Sum of Paper Currency, and they appeared very formidable, having Plenty of Artillery. In various Rencontres with the King’s Troops they got the Better, were flush’d with Victory & held a British Soldier in the highest Contempt, but the surrender of the Important Fortress of Ticonderoga to the American Arms, heightened their Enthusiasm.

In this situation of their Minds last Friday night, being very dark, Many Thousands took Possession of a High Hill in Charlestown (called Bunker’s) that commanded the whole of this Town, & before Morn’g they had compleated a Redoubt, & such Intrenchments as did Honor to the Engineer, & this Town lay Exposed to a fire which must have ruined it unless prevented. As soon as it was discovered from Cops Hill, near the ferry on which is a fine Battery, the Lively, Glasgow, & Battery began to play, and a most furious Cannonade began upon the Rebels, which they return’d seven Times upon the Town. Instead of Quitt’g their post large Reinforcements were sent from Cambridge Head Quarters of their Army. Matters here began to be Serious.

About 1 o’clock all the Grenadiers & light Infantry of the whole Army, reinforced to about 3,000 under the Conduct of the Gallant Lord Howe [actually his brother, Gen. William Howe], & [Col. James] Abercromby Embarked from the Long Wharf, with 12 Brass Pieces & landed at a Point of Land back of Charlestown, in full view of the Rebels, who still kept their Post. The Troops being annoy’d from some Houses in Charlestown, the ships threw Carcases into it, and in a few min. the whole Town was in flames, a most Awful, Grand & Melancholy Sight. In the Mean, the Troops marched on toward the Hill for the Intrenchments, under a most heavy fire of Artillery, on both sides.

Never did I see such a Day; I was on Beacon Hill in full Prospect. In about thirty Min’s the Troops were nigh the works exposed to an amazing Fire of small Arms, for by this Time, the Rebels amounted to 10,000. In a few min’s we heard the shouts of the British Army, whom we now saw Entering the Breast Works & soon they entered, and a most terrible slaughter began upon the Rebels, who now were every one shifting for himself. The Troops pursued them over the Neck, beyond [Robert] Temples House, & were Masters of the Field of Battle. The Troops have suffered Extremely, there being about 24 Officers killed & near 60 wounded and about 700 Rank & File killed & wounded.

The Rebels lost a vast many, among whom was Doct. [Joseph] Warren, a noted Rascal, & Willard Moore of Paxton a Lt. Col. We have about 30 Prisoners here, some of whom are to be Executed. After the firing ceased I went over, & Good God, what a Sight, all the Horrors of War, Death & Rebellion. The British Army is encamped upon the High Hills in Charlestown, in fine Spirits, [and] will advance into the Country as soon as possible, laying waste & desolation wherever they go.
In fact, the British military was so spent by the battle that they didn’t make another large attack for the rest of the siege. Nor did they execute any of the American prisoners, though many died of their wounds in the Boston jail. But Paine’s predictions reveal one aspect of the emotional response to the bloody battle.

Paine’s letter is also notable for how much strength it ascribes to the provincial forces: up to 10,000 men, capable of “a most heavy fire of Artillery.” American veterans tended to downplay their numbers, and the artillery support was small and sporadic. Paine also didn’t describe the three waves of the British advance as most American witnesses did.

The recipient of this letter, Dr. William Paine, served as a British army surgeon for most of the war. In the late 1780s, however, he returned to Worcester and eventually cofounded the American Antiquarian Society with Isaiah Thomas. The society published this letter in 1909.


EJWitek said...

In fairness to General Howe, he had planned a massive assault with about 3,500 British regulars once Washington seized Dorchester Heights, ironically on the sixth anniversary of the Boston Massacre. Howe had learned his lessons from Bunker Hill and the British attacking force was to leave their heavy packs back, were specifically forbidden to load their weapons, and were ordered to mount a bayonet attack on Washington's forces on Dorchester Heights.
As the British forces were being rowed out to Castle William, one of the worst rain storms to hit Boston in over 25 years drenched the troops, blew down houses, and made any assault by water impossible. Howe was forced to delay the assault for 24 hours. The storm raged for almost two days and Howe was convinced by the Royal Navy Commander that the delay made naval support out of the question. Howe reluctantly canceled the assault.
Any assault on Dorchester heights by Howe would have been a grand spectacle whose outcome surely was not foreordained. But Howe was now forced to abandon Boston.
Sometimes too much is made of the British reaction to Bunker Hill. Howe certainly was not reluctant to mount an assault once Washington placed artillery on Dorchester Heights. One of the strange things about the Revolutionary War is just how many times British commanders lost the initiative through circumstances or just plain lethargy.

J. L. Bell said...

It's true that Gen. Howe ordered preparations for an attack on American positions in March 1776, but his heart doesn't seem to have been in it. He aborted that move after that bad weather, and later said he'd given those orders only because "the honor of the troops" demanded it.

Almost immediately after Bunker Hill, Howe began writing to contacts in Britain about the wisdom of pulling out of Boston rather than trying to pacify Massachusetts through another attack on the American lines. He soon brought Gen. Thomas Gage around to the position rather. If Howe had had enough ships before winter set in, he would have left in 1775.

So I don't think it's unfair to Howe to point out that he didn't try to attack over land from Boston and Charlestown again until the end of the siege, and then only briefly. That was his considered strategy, and it appears to have been well founded.

As to whether Howe's experience at Bunker Hill made him overly reluctant to attack American positions later in the war, that's another question.

EJWitek said...

Howe did more than order preparations. In fact, British troops were rowed out to Castle William, and the Royal Navy was prepared to transport them for a night assault on the American position. Generals just don't issue these kinds of orders if they are not serious. There is little doubt that had the storm not come up those troops would have attacked.
Whatever Howe's dissembling when he returned to England, there would have been an assault on Dorchesterr Heights if the weather had not intervened.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, those were the preparations that Howe ordered. I don't believe I expressed any doubt that the attack would have proceeded if not for the weather. The question is whether Howe's heart would have been in it.

The quotation about "the honor of the troops" isn't from "Howe's dissembling when he returned to England." It's from the diary of engineer Archibald Robertson written immediately after Howe called off the attack. After Montresor and Percy and others recommended against proceeding, according to Robertson, "the General said it was his own Sentiments from the first, but thought the Honour of the Troops Concerned."

Had the attack proceeded, win or lose, Howe might well have kept his doubts to himself. But those don't read like the words of a man feeling gung-ho for an attack.

EJWitek said...

Howe ordered 3,500 British Regulars to make a bayonet assault, at night, with unloaded weapons, up a cliff against fortified troops who he had to know outmanned him. An amphibious assault, as difficult as there is. He, and his officers, army and navy, knew that the occupation of Boston was untenable if those guns remained on Dorchester Heights. The fact remain that Howe was willing to make this assault and suffer the consequences. I doubt that anybody's "heart" was in it.