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, July 01, 2014

“A SONG Composed by the British Soldiers…”

This is the last day the Boston 1775 staff is accepting entries into the Bunker Hill Poetic Challenge, with the prize of a paperback copy of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill. Many thanks to all who have shared their verses so far.

For inspiration in case you haven’t entered yet, here’s the full text of “A SONG Composed by the British Soldiers, after the Battle at Bunker-Hill, on the 17th of June, 1775.”

The broadside that preserves these lines, in the collection of the Boston Public Library, doesn’t state a publisher or a date. The use of the long S and other typography suggest that it was produced in the eighteenth century, probably after 1775 but within recent memory of the battle.

The lyrics are most definitely from the redcoats’ point of view:
It was on the seventeenth by break of Day, the Yankees did surprise us,
With their strong works they had thrown up, to burn the town and drive us;
But soon we had an order came, an order to defeat them;
Like rebels stout they stood it out, and thought we ne’er could beat them.

About the hour of twelve that day, an order came for marching,
With three good flints and sixty rounds, each man hop’d to discharge them;
We marched down to the long wharf, where boats were ready waiting,
With expedition we embark’d, our ships kept cannonading.

And when our boats all filled were, with officers and soldiers,
With as good troops as England had, to oppose who dare control us;
And when our boats all filled were, we row’d in line of battle,
Where showers of ball like hail did fly, our cannon loud did rattle.

There was Cops-Hill battery near Charlestown, our twenty-fours they play’d;
And the three frigates in the stream, that very well behaved.
The Glasgow frigate clear’d the shore, all at the time of landing,
With her grape shot and cannon balls, no Yankees ne’er could stand them.

And when we landed on the shore, we draw’d up all together,
The Yankees they all man’d their works, & thought we’d ne’er come thither:
But soon they did perceive brave Howe, brave Howe, our bold commander,
With grenadiers and infantry, we made them to surrender.

Brave William Howe on our right wing, cry’d boys fight on like thunder,
You soon will see the rebels flee, with great amaze and wonder;
Now some lay bleeding on the ground, and some fell fast a running,
O’er hills and dales & mountains high, crying zounds brave Howe’s a coming.

They began to play on our left wing, where Pigot he commanded,
But we return’d it back again, with courage most undaunted;
To our grape shot and musquet ball, to which they were but strangers,
They thought to come with sword in hand, but soon they found their danger.

And when the works we got into, and put them to the flight, sir,
Some of them did hide themselves, and others died with fright, sir;
And when their works we got into, without great fear or danger,
Their works were made so firm and strong, the Yankees are great strangers.

But as for our artillery, they all behaved dinty,
For while their ammunition held, we gave it to them plenty;
But our conductor he got broke, for his misconduct sure sir,
The shot he sent for twelve pound guns, was made for twenty-four, sir.

There is some in Boston please to say, as we the field were taking,
We went to kill their countrymen, while they their hay were making;
But such stout whigs I never saw, to hang them all I’d rather,
For making hay with musquet balls, and buck-shot mixed together.

Brave Howe is so considerate, as to prevent all danger,
He allows us half a pint each day, to him we are not strangers:
Long may he live by land and sea, for he’s belov’d by many,
The name of Howe the Yankees dread, we see it very plainly.

And now my song is at an end, and to conclude my ditty;
It is the poor and ignorant, and only them I pity;
And as for their king that John Hancock, and Adams if they’re taken,
Their heads for signs shall hang up high upon the hill call’d Beacon.
This song is thus yet another example of British voices saying that Americans wanted Hancock to be their king.

These lines were passed down and reprinted in the early republic, which raises a couple of questions:
  • How did Americans come to know about such an anti-Yankee song popular among British soldiers?
  • How did we come to remember the song with different words?
TOMORROW: A tortuous publishing history.

(Photo above by Jerry Callaghan, courtesy of Friends of Minute Man National Park. It shows members of the 63rd Regiment of Foot reenacting unit.)


G. Lovely said...

The stanza that starts
"But as for our artillery, they all behaved dinty,"
is confusing. Is that a British or Rebel speaking? Assuming 'a dinty' is a positive thing, it seems like a Brit, but when it references the 12 pound / 24 pound error it seems like a Rebel talking about the mistake is supplying the wrong power for the cannon, no?

John Johnson said...

Is the Adams mentioned Samuel Adams or John Adams? I'm guessing it's Samuel Adams, as I don't recall John Adams being referred to in that manner before?

J. L. Bell said...

I think the word “dinty,” or “dainty,” is supposed to be a compliment—i.e., the Royal Artillery behaved as they should have. But they were hampered by the error of one administrator who supplied cannon balls that were too large.

Ironically, Capt. John Callender’s American artillery company experienced a similar problem, discovered that their gunpowder cartridges were too large for their cannon.

J. L. Bell said...

The Adams is Samuel Adams. After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Gen. Thomas Gage issued a proclamation offering a pardon to all rebels who laid down their arms, John Hancock and Samuel Adams excepted. That paired the two men for many years.

There are stories from throughout the war of people trying to keep the “brace of Adamses” straight. Gradually John eclipsed his older cousin on the world stage.

G. Lovely said...

Looking into the word 'dinty' a bit, and it appears as a term used by the British ordinance survey in the 18th century. (Look below for link, and note the grid labels on the second line). Combined with the 12/24 pound reference in the poem, I hope you'll tell us the poet was in the artillery.


J. L. Bell said...

That "DINTY" appears to be just a fluke of the alphabet when laid out in a square a particular way. I suspect the song's "dinty" was a form of "dainty," with the meaning closest to "scrupulous" in Dr. Johnson's Dictionary. But the main attraction of "dinty" appears to be that it was a near-rhyme for "plenty."

I don't have a suspect for the author of this poem, and it may well have been a group effort.