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 18, 2019

Pvt. Simon Fobes: “fully resolved to go as far as my officers did”

Simon Fobes was a nineteen-year-old provincial soldier when he fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. More than forty years later he moved to Ohio, and in 1835 one of his sons wrote down his recollections of the Revolution. That memoir was published in Historical Collections of the Mahoning Valley in 1876.

Fobes’s ancestors had first settled in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, under the name Forbes, but lost the R to the nascent Boston accent before his own branch moved to Canterbury, Connecticut. He was born there in 1756. Not owning much property, Simon’s parents moved the family again to Amherst when he was about fourteen.

At his father’s urging, Simon Fobes became a minuteman. But he was visiting relations back in Canterbury when the fighting started in Lexington. He got the news in Union, raced home, “made some change of clothing, took my gun and accouterments, and started, in company with some others, for Cambridge.” Once there, Fobes enlisted for the rest of the year in the company of Capt. Eliakim Smith of Hadley, Lt. Col. Jonathan Ward’s regiment.

Around midday on 17 June 1775, Fobes’s regiment was ordered onto the Charlestown peninsula. He told his son:
Soon after the firing, on that memorable day, had begun, about one-half of our regiment marched, as a re-enforcement, from Cambridge to Charlestown Neck, where the British were continually firing. There we lay awhile, waiting for orders. When the orders came we marched on behind the buildings, as well as we could, across the Neck, which was partially flooded, it being high water.

When we started from the fort, in Cambridge, marching in double files, I was near the center of the detachment, fully resolved to go as far as my officers did. In crossing the Neck I soon perceived that fully one-half of our soldiers were missing, and I was now near the front of the detachment.

As we ascended the hill the other side of the Neck, the musketballs whistled merrily. I noticed my officers dodging, first one way, then the other. For my part I knew not which way to dodge. A ball struck my gun near the lock as I was carrying it on my shoulder, and split off a piece of the stock. All this, together with the frequent meeting of our men, bringing off the wounded and the dying, made it a trying time for young soldiers. I can not tell which way or how my hair stood, for it seemed to me it stood every way.

As we were hurrying on without much order, some one called to us to come that way, and there was a good place. We advanced to a post and rail fence through a shower of musket-balls, where we made a stand.

I discharged my gun three times at the British, taking deliberate aim as if at a squirrel, and saw a number of men fall. I had become calm as a clock. When loading my gun the fourth time, I happened to cast my eyes around, and, to my astonishment, my fellow-soldiers were running at full speed down the hill. I had heard no orders to retreat. That instant my sergeant, who stood near me, started to follow them.

Then it was I saw a company of British regulars marching rapidly toward us. I finished loading my gun as quick as I could. When they had got within a few rods of us, however, I fired it off at them, and then ran for my life. At the same time the British were ordered to halt, make ready, and fire.

The balls whistled again, but did no material injury. One of my mates received a flesh wound. Firing down hill they shot over us.

A very large number of men, both old and young, had now collected. All seemed to be bustle and tumult. Charlestown, now wrapped in flames, added greatly to the interest of the scene. I saw the lofty steeple when on fire. It trembled and fell to the ground. Our officers, with evident anxiety and perplexity, were running to and fro, endeavoring to devise some plan by which we could drive the British from the hill.

A noted officer (I do not recollect his name) now stepped forward, and marched round in the crowd calling for volunteers to attempt the retaking of the hill. A large body of us volunteered, and we marched on near to the neck, where our commander came upon General [Israel] Putnam. Our soldiers were very poorly equipped, nearly one-half being armed with old rusty guns without bayonets. I was so fortunate as to have a good gun and bayonet.

The British had now paraded on the top of the hill with heavy artillery. While General Putnam and our commanding officer were talking together, a cannon-ball struck the stone wall near the former. After conversing awhile, General Putnam wheeled his horse and rode off.

Prudence seemed to direct that the attempt should be abandoned. After remaining in suspense until near dark, we were dismissed, and with our officers marched back to our tents.

In the mean time some of our soldiers had been to Cambridge, and got a pail of rum for us to drink when we returned. It being hot weather, I had become very thirsty and was much fatigued. At the door of the tent stood a pail, containing water as I supposed, with a pint tin cup in it. Some one asked me to drink. I took the cup and dipped it almost full, and drank the most of it before I was aware that it was rum. I was very much startled, fearing the consequences of what I had done. Being very weary, I lay down, and was soon asleep, and did not awake until the next morning.

When I arose I found that my fears were not realized. I had sustained no material injury, as in ordinary circumstances I doubtless should have done, and I was ready to do my duty as usual.
After Gen. George Washington arrived, Fobes’s regiment was moved to Dorchester on the southern wing of the siege. In September he volunteered to join Col. Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Québec, but that’s another story.


Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Yet more proof that 18c N.E. folk weren't afraid to drink water.

Ben Jacques said...

What a great story! So much better than what we get in most historical accounts.

Here's a link to my story of several enslaved men from Stoneham who fought at Bunker Hill.

Ben Jacques