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 24, 2014

The Russells’ Poetic Broadside on Bunker Hill

After the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Ezekiel Russell print shop in Salem issued “AN ELEGIAC POEM” on the battle. That broadside probably appeared toward the end of 1775 since a note on its bottom said Russell’s almanacs for the following year were “now in the press.”

The Russell broadside is a useful snapshot of how New Englanders wanted to remember the battle in 1775:

Now justly called (by the Regulars) BLOODY-HILL, situated two miles from the head-quarters of the Regulars at BOSTON, and one mile northward from the centre of the town of CHARLESTOWN, in NEW-ENGLAND, in AMERICA, which was wantonly and inhumanly set on fire and consumed, previous to the engagement: This town contained one large meeting-house, about three hundred dwelling-houses, a great number of which were large and elegant, besides one hundred and fifty or two hundred other buildings, whereby about six or seven hundred of its distressed inhabitants are now forced from their dwellings, and obliged to seek new habitations for themselves, many of whom having left, on this calamitous occasion, their houses, cloaths, furniture, and in short every thing that was valuable, depend at this time entirely on the benevolent charity of their kind and simpathizing brethren and friends in the country; who have the unfeigned and hearty thanks of all such as have been relieved: May whole kindness, shewn to the distressed people who have been obliged to take refuge from that or any other town, be rewarded an hundred fold in this world, and in the world to come may they receive life everlasting, is the sincere and fervent wish of every true Friend to the RIGHTS and LIBERTIES of the AMERICAN COLONIES!—

We are sure an attempt to delineate the horrible and shocking situation the distressed souls were in, that still remained in that unfortunate town, at the time the cannonading began, would melt the stoutest heart, and give a shock to the human imagination, which would very far surpass the compass of this sheet; but the relation of this wicked and cruel affair may perhaps hereafter afford matter of speculation to the Historian, and serve to fill many pages in the history of AMERICA.—

What soul but must be filled with horror at viewing the aged and decrepit ones begging for the assistance of the youth, who were now flying through the red-hot cannon balls and smoke occasioned by the flames of their dwellings? What heart but must melt at beholding the Women with their helpless little ones around them, in the greatest confusion seeking a refuge from the devouring jaws [of] destruction, and from the violent fury of their cruel and barbarous enemies? It is said this diabolical transaction was executed by orders from that arch-traitor and worst of villains T[homas] G[age], whom posterity will forever curse, so long as his name shall be remembered.—

This bloody battle was fought about four o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday the seventeenth of JUNE, one thousand seven hundred and seventy five, between an advanced party of seven hundred Provincials, and fourteen regiments and a train of artillery, of the Ministerial forces, the former of whom after bearing about two hours, with the utmost fortitude and bravery, as severe a fire as perhaps ever was known, and many having fired away all their ammunition, they were over-powered by numbers, and obliged to leave the intrenchments, with three pieces of cannon, and retreat about sun-set to a small distance over Charlestown-neck.—

By the returns made in the Provincial and Ministerial Armies it appears, that there were of the Provincials one major-general, one colonel, one lieutenant-colonel, two captains, three lieutenants, and ninety privates, killed, among which number, to the inexpressible grief of our whole army, is that honorable, renowned, and magnanimous Hero, MAJOR-GENERAL JOSEPH WARREN, Esquire, who commanded on this occasion, as also the brave and intrepid Colonels [Thomas] GARDNER and [Moses] PARKER; there were one lieutenant and two hundred and fifty privates wounded: Total killed and wounded three hundred and twenty four.—

On the side of the Regulars there were one lieutenant-colonel, four majors, eleven captains, thirteen lieutenants, one ensign, one hundred and two serjeants, one hundred corporals, seven hundred and fifty-three rank and file, killed; one quarter-master, three majors, fifteen captains, nineteen lieutenants, six ensigns, and five hundred and four wounded; Total of killed and wounded, fourteen hundred and fifty.—

The above account, which contains in substance as accurate a detail as can be collected from the different advices received from Boston and elsewhere, of the transactions of both armies on that ever-memorable seventeenth of June, is here annexed to the proceeding Poem, and printed in this form at the request of a great number of Friends to the AMERICAN CAUSE, to whom (but more especially those belonging to the Continental Army, who may have this sheet very cheap) it is recommended to preserve, not only as a token of gratitude to their deceased Friends, we mean those immortal and heroic WORTHIES, who lately so nobly bled in defence of the RIGHTS, LIBERTIES, and PRIVILEGES of NORTH-AMERICA: This sheet may be thought necessary to keep in eternal remembrance the heroic BATTLE of CHARLESTOWN, where a few hundreds of Americans several times repulsed eight times their number of Ministerial Troops of Great-Britain.
This broadside greatly overstated the number of British involved in the battle and the number of those troops killed, apparently by double-counting the wounded. It also understated the number of Americans engaged, their casualties, and the number of cannon they left on the field (five).

Evidently in 1775 the people of Massachusetts recalled Dr. Warren as leading the American forces, but in later years authors repeated Col. William Prescott’s story that the doctor had refused a command position. The broadside’s description of the British attack as lasting “two hours” is an interesting contrast to Samuel Paine’s account of an assault taking about an hour.

After that far-from-brief introduction came an all-too-long set of verses. Just a taste:
ADIEU to wanton songs and foolish joys,
  To idle tales that fill the ear,
A mournful theme my heart employs,
  And hope the living will it hear.
A horrid fight there hap’d of late,
  ’Twas on June seventeen,
When a great number met their fate
  In fighting on the green.
Yes, hundreds of poor souls are dead,
  In battle they were slain,
Both sides met with a heavy stroke,
  T’ rehearse it gives me pain.
You can read the whole poem, and view the broadside, at the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website.

As I noted back here, Isaiah Thomas reported that the Russell shop printed a lot of ballads decorated with coffins like this one. Thomas first stated that Russell’s wife Sarah composed the elegiac verses, but later penciled in a note that “a young woman” working in the shop did so. (I still think it was Sarah.)

TOMORROW: But wait, there’s more!

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