"Not yet; steady, steady!"
On came the foe, in even line:
Nearer and nearer to thrice paces nine.
We looked into their eyes. "Ready!"
A sheet of flame! A roll of death!
They fell by scores; we held our breath!
Then nearer still they came;
Another sheet of flame!
And brave men fled who never fled before.
Back to the astounded shore.
Three youths, none of whom could have been more than seventeen years of age, lounged before a certain tavern in the town of Cambridge. It was a cool, bright day, early in the afternoon of June 12, 1775.
Two of the party occupied a portion of a weather-stained bench. The third, short and stocky, with a brow none too mild nor pleasant, sprawled upon the fresh green grass at their feet. All were dressed in the habiliments of the Colonial soldier. Nearby, in various attitudes of similar inactivity, some earnestly engaged in conversation, others jesting lightly, others pitching quoits, were other New England volunteers.
Suddenly a shout came from down the street. Householders and merchants alike dashed wildly to door. Dogs barked. The faint clanging of a bell reached the ears of the soldiers at the tavern. The startling, brazen notes grew louder and louder. Up the road, bridle gripped in one hand, handbell in the other, came Jonathan Wirth, the town-crier.
At the tavern he slowed up his frothy steed, but only sufficiently long to bawl out his message in the well-known shrill tones with which the townspeople had learned of late to readily identify him without sight. Those were troublous times. Jonathan Wirth, in his official capacity, had indeed become a well-known figure. Now, as he galloped up before the tavern, every lounging soldier and civilian was on his feet and anxiously alert.
"Hearken! Hearken!" cried the newcomer, hushing his bell that he might be better understood. "'Tis news of a proclamation from the autocrat Gage that I bring you! He doth say that he will offer free pardon to all rebels who will lay down their arms and return to their allegiance, save only the ringleaders, John Hancock and Samuel Adams, whose crimes are 'too flagitious to be condoned.' All Provincials taken in arms are to be put to the gallows!"
Instantly he spurred on again, toward the entrenchments of Prospect Hill. Behind, at the tavern, he left a very excited and indignant party. One of the soldiers—an officer—struck his fist a terrible thwack against the side of the building, and swore prodigiously. Then he commenced to harangue those within earshot, who crowded sympathetically forward, and joined in the tirade against the British general and his staff in Boston whenever opportunity offered. Finally the officer retired, whereupon the soldiers broke up into groups and for some time continued to discuss the recent news among themselves.
The three young Colonials previously mentioned retired to the bench which they had formerly occupied. Only one—the dark-visaged boy, whose name was Shawmut Dinwoodie—seemed placable of nerve enough to sit down. His companions were still too excited for any such indolent posture, and stood, gesticulating and talking with great fervor. The taller of the two—Joel Whittaker—had removed his hat. With one hand he wiped his broad, hot forehead. With the other he formed a fist, and shook it menacingly off in the direction of Boston town.
"Does Gage take us for children, to be frightened at his impertinent threats?" cried Joel.
"Does he think for a moment that we would ever think of surrendering, and leaving the noble Hancock and Adams in his unmerciful hands? Their punishment—undoubtedly death—would be an everlasting shame to every Colonist."
"But one must think of himself, Joel," remarked Shawmut Dinwoodie from his position on the bench. "The British are strong, and, after all, laying down arms may be better for us than hanging from a tree or post."
The hatless young soldier turned swiftly. His lips curled in scorn. His eyes blazed down upon the half-reclining speaker with such indignation that the other youth could not meet the look with steadfastness and turned his gaze awkwardly awry. The face of the third boy also displayed his disgust at such remarks. His fingers involuntarily knotted. His cheeks burned red.
"What is this we hear?" demanded Joel Whittaker. "If you did not wear that uniform, Shaw Dinwoodie, from the way you speak I would say that you were either a hireling of Gage, else a Tory in sympathy with his views! The shame of heaven on you!"
"By all that is good and true, Shaw Dinwoodie, if you utter more such unpatriotic remarks I swear you will have to fight me till one or the other of us cannot rise!" stormed Joel's companion, Ben Dwight, taking a step forward. "God be praised for the cause we espouse that there are not more like you in the Committee of Safety! 'Twere a fine thing for tyranny be it so!"
Apparently of the opinion that he had made a mistake, the lounging Continental attempted to smooth over his utterances. But with little success. His comrades treated him with such coolness that presently he arose and strolled down the road in the direction of the barracks at the university grounds.
The Battle of Bunker Hill from and old print.
"A good riddance, Joel; I never liked the fellow overmuch," declared Ben. "Sometimes I have fancied him a Tory at heart, so lukewarm are his expressions."
"I share your dislike for Shawmut," said Joel. "But unfortunately our country is rife with men of similar principle. They are too weak-kneed to assert themselves for either side, ready to jump to the one which promises to gain the upper hand. When the battle goes against their compatriots, they desert at the first sign. But let us return to our command at the barracks ourselves. We can air our opinion about this latest proclamation of General Gage as we go along."
At the time this account opens the army of New England men was busily pressing its siege of Boston. The soldiers extended about the town in a great semi-circle of approximately sixteen miles, with about a thousand men to the mile. All the way from Jamaica Plain to Charlestown Neck they stretched.
The headquarters were at Cambridge, where some of the university buildings had been utilized for barracks. To General Artemas Ward had been entrusted the chief command, under the direction of the Committee of Safety. Although in excellent spirits the little Provincial army was poorly equipped. Many who volunteered could not be provided with uniforms, and wore their every-day garb. Their arms were also limited, consisting for the most part of the clumsy, uncertain-firing flintlock musket, some of which were provided with crude bayonets from the blacksmith's forge, but many of which lacked even this important adjunct to hand-to-hand engagements.
Also was the army poorly disciplined. Without previous military training of any description, used only to fighting their battles with the Indians individually or in small, hastily-gathered groups, they had come to depend each upon his own resources to a great extent. So when the call to arms against the British suddenly sounded, the vast majority of the Colonists responded willingly, but submitted reluctantly to the orders of the few officers who could be found to command them.
The military object of the Provincial army was to compel the British, who held Boston, to evacuate and take to their ships. As there was no American fleet, it was manifestly impossible to destroy or capture the enemy forces. Therefore, a retirement seemed the only way to annul their present power.
And there seemed but one way to bring this retirement about. This was for the Colonists to seize and fortify as many as possible of the neighboring hills which commanded the town. From these vantage points round shot could be pouted into Boston until the situation would become so uncomfortable for those in possession they would be only too glad to take to the salt water again. The most important of these elevations were those in Charlestown on the north, and in Dorchester on the southeast.
Gage was not slow himself to note the danger to his troops by reason of the hills. He straight-way made up his mind that to secure himself and maintain his foothold in Boston, he must take possession of at least the hills of Charlestown and Dorchester as early as possible. To his intense gratification, shortly after making this resolve, he was reinforced by the arrival of Howe, Clinton and Burgoyne, with sufficient men to bring his force up to ten thousand.
Now feeling the utmost confidence in an ultimate victory, but wishing to give the Colonial army a chance to surrender before their dreaded marksmen should decimate his own command, General Gage issued his historical proclamation of June 12th, to which reference has already been made.
Everywhere this stirred up the Provincials—not with fear, as Gage and his staff had so fondly hoped, but with renewed animosity. Scarcely anything the British commander could do could have done his cause greater injury, nor cemented the bonds of loyalty of the rebels more closely together. They were veritable maddened hornets upon receipt of the insulting and menacing proclamation, ready to sting the encroachers of their domain at the slightest provocation.
The reply of the Committee of Safety to this proclamation was one to delight the heart of every patriot of the fair new country. Orders were immediately issued for the assembling of a force of twelve hundred men in Cambridge. This force, in complete ignorance of their destination or purpose, but wild and eager for any venture that smacked of action, was made up of portions of the regiments of Prescott, Frye and Bridge, in addition to a fatigue party of two hundred Connecticut troops with intrenching tools, consisting of spades, shovels, axes and pickaxes.
At sunset of June 16th, the troops, including Samuel Gridley's company of artillery, paraded on Cambridge Common. Following this, each soldier was furnished with packs and blankets, and ordered to take sufficient rations for twenty-four hours.
Then it was that President Langdon, of Harvard College, uttered a prayer whose impressiveness was never forgotten by the hundreds of soldiers and townspeople who heard it with bared heads and humble hearts but indomitable spirit.
Among these uniformed listeners were the three youths already introduced. They also were to go on this unknown, mysterious mission. At the end of the benediction, two of the young Colonials looked up with calm, fearless faces. The other appeared morose and agitated.
At nine o'clock, with many other soldiers whose homes were in Cambridge, Joel, Ben and Shawmut, bade their relatives a brief but heart-felt good-by. With his mother's kiss still warm upon his ruddy cheek, and a tear in his eye, Joel Whittaker strode away, keeping step with the valiant soldiers by his side, of whom, as luck had it, Ben was very next. Shaw Dinwoodie was farther down the line. He did not face the direction of his going with the bold, determined look of the other two lads. On the contrary his step was listless, and often he looked back as if he were anxious to remain. Could his friends have witnessed these movements their righteous disgust for him would have been much intensified.
Word had been passed that not a word was to be spoken, and absolutely no unnecessary noise made. In this manner, under the bright starlight of that warm June night, the expedition moved up the road, mysteriously and silently, going in the direction of Charlestown Neck. The dull thud of many boots, treading as softly as possible, and behind the occasional rattle of the well-greased wheels of the wagons carrying the intrenching tools, wrapped in gunny sacks and blankets to obviate friction, or the hoof-beats of horses pulling the two heavy field-pieces of Gridley's artillery corps, were all that might have been heard.
A few paces in advance of the column were two sergeants carrying dark-lanterns. Directly behind came Colonel William Prescott, who was in charge of the expedition, Captain Samuel Gridley and Colonel Knowlton. In addition to being chief officer of the artillery, Captain Gridley had been given control of any engineering problems that might arise. Colonel Knowlton was at the head of the two companies of Connecticut troops.
In the meantime, General Isaac Putnam—"Old Put," as he was affectionately called—had been sent on ahead on horseback to Charlestown Neck, to make sure that all was clear. Here, with Major Brooks, of Bridge's regiment, Putnam, the veteran fighter and hero of the colonists even then, awaited the arrival of Prescott's expedition.
Soon they were seen marching silently along through the darkness. With the addition of the admired and beloved "Old Put" to their ranks, the arriving men felt mightily like giving a loud huzzah, so heartened were they. But no noise must be made, so they had to welcome him with their smiles, while the officers issued orders for every one to load his musket with two balls.
Ben leaned toward Joel, and said in a low tone: "Whatever our undertaking, we must succeed with so brave and resourceful an officer along as General Putnam. I am now ready to face anything."
"He is truly a great leader, and the bravest of men," answered Joel in the same guarded voice. "I have heard that one time when a boy he climbed to the top of a high tree. A limb broke with him, and he was precipitated headlong toward the ground. Most fortunately, his coat caught on the tip of a lower branch. There he hung, helpless, head down, for some moments, his young companions frightened half to death. One of those below had a rifle, and was known to be a good shot. `Old Put,' after trying vainly to extricate himself, finally calmly told the boy with the gun to try to shoot off the branch which held him prisoner. This called for a shot close to Putnam's own person, but the young sharp-shooter, still importuned, attempted it. The branch was neatly severed by the bullet, and down came the luckless climber, sprawling and clawing like a dislodged raccoon. Save for a few bruises he was quite unhurt."
Joel had barely finished this little story when Colonel Prescott announced that he would no longer keep his men in suspense as to the object of their undertaking. He then went on quietly to explain that the Committee of Safety, through Dr. Warren, its president, had secured information that the British planned an early attempt at occupation of the principal heights in the vicinity of Charlestown—probably Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill—and had ordered him (Prescott) to proceed without delay to fortify the former, if not both.
Before proceeding farther a consultation of officers was held. This resulted in Colonel Prescott, by virtue of Putnam's rank and deeds and. experience, turning over much of the leadership of the expedition to that seasoned soldier. It was also decided, during the council, that, in accordance with the general purpose of the project, if not the exact letter of it, it would be better to make sure of the fortification of Breed's Hill before devoting attention to Bunker Hill, since the former elevation was nearer Boston and offered fine opportunity to those holding it to bombard the city, as well as the shipping in the harbor.
There can be little doubt that, in thus departing from the strict text of his orders, Prescott made a mistake which might have proved fatal indeed had not the enemy blundered still more seriously. For the advanced position on Breed's Hill was not only exposed to attacks in the rear from an enemy who commanded the water, as did the British, but the line of retreat was ill-secured, and by seizing upon Charlestown Neck, it would have been easy for the redcoats, with small loss, to have compelled the Provincials to surrender. From such a disaster Prescott's force was saved, as it turned out, only by the stupid contempt which the enemy felt for them, or rather their over-confidence in their own strength and strategy.
Be that as it may the fact remains that, after detaching a small portion of his force to guard lower Charlestown, the main body of Prescott's troops passed on to Breed's Hill, which commanded the main road to Boston and was connected with Bunker Hill by a ridge. The former height reached an altitude of sixty-two feet; the latter, one hundred and ten feet. A road ran over Bunker Hill, around Breed's Hill, to Moulton's Point.
Across Bunker Hill, the men silently followed this road, then around the base of Breed's Hill, till they came to its most accessible side—the southern—where they made ascent. The easterly and westerly sides of this height were quite steep. On the east, at its base, were brick-kilns, clay pits, and much sloughy land. The westerly portions of both eminences contained fine or-chards, to bear an abundance of delicious fruit a little later in the summer, but now the chief crop was hay, as attested by the extensive belts of maturing grasses to be seen here and there.
It was midnight. A herculean task confronted the small army of liberty-loving men. Only four hours of darkness remained in which to work in secrecy toward fortifying the height. With the break of dawn, discovery was inevitable. For then all movements and erections on the crest of the hill would be plainly visible to the eyes of the British on board the men-of-war Falcon, Lively and Somerset, lying in Charles River, as well as to the enemy force occupying Copp's Hill, just across the stream.
So Colonel Gridley lost no time in marking out the boundaries for the proposed entrenchments. Noiselessly the pick-axes and shovels were unloaded from the wagons and passed out. The men unslung their packs, stacked their arms, and seizing the digging implements set to work with a zeal. The officers worked side by side with them, General Putnam himself for a time making the dirt fly only a few paces from Joel and Ben, until he was called elsewhere. Every soldier of them had made up his mind that he would work as he had never worked before; that, when morning did break, the redcoats should have the surprise of their lives.
Few words were spoken, and these in an undertone. Most of the time the men had only the dim light of the starry heavens to guide them, except when, with the aid of the dark-lanterns, some urgent and particular problem had to be better illuminated. No one was allowed to strike a match, to smoke, under penalty of death. Only the deep, heavy breathing of the laborers, the soft thud of projected earth, and the occasional sharp click of a shovel against an unexpected stone, broke the stillness of the night; and these apparently did not reach the alert hearing of the unsuspecting enemy sentinels pacing the decks of the shipping in the nearby watercourse, since their faint, regular calls of "All's well!" continued to be heard by the hard-working Provincials on Breed's Hill.
Shortly after the intrenchments had been well started, General Putnam rode back to Cambridge, as it was foreseen by this time that reinforcements were likely to be needed upon the morrow.
The short June night ended all too quickly for the Americans. But their labors had not been in vain. In their midst stood some stalwart-looking intrenchments which, when the British discovered them for the first time from the deck of the Lively, in the early light of the morning, quite dumfounded them. It took several looks on the parts of the British officers of the craft to assure them that the new erections of Breed's Hill were really all they first appeared. Then the captain of the vessel, in a violent rage, sent a shot screaming across the way from one of his heavy twelve-pounders. This was followed by several other discharges. And a few minutes later the sister ships of the Lively awoke to the situation, and from the Falcon and Somerset the deep roaring of other naval guns were heard. Added to the fire directed towards Prescott's men, came shots from the cannon of the British on Copp's Hill in Boston.
To show their contempt for this bombardment, the patriots, despite the danger, continued steadily at the task of strengthening their defenses. Of course the booming of the guns could easily be heard in Boston, as well as in Cambridge. In both towns people rushed out of their houses to see what had happened, and when the truth was known house tops, trees and steeples were sought by the anxious inhabitants for a better view.
Among those alarmed by the cannonading was Israel Putnam, who had reached Cambridge but who had found General Ward, in charge of the soldiers there, reluctant to send reinforcements for fear that the enemy might attack the town, in which event every available man would be needed for its protection. At sound of the first shot "Old Put" surmised instantly that the earthworks of his compatriots had been discovered by the Royalists. At once he secured a fresh horse, and started back posthaste for Breed's Hill.
As the galloping officer neared the unfinished redoubt, he could plainly see the tall figure of the brave Prescott outlined against the gray sky of early day. Walking coolly and leisurely back-wards and forwards on the parapet, for all the world as though he were taking a little pre-breakfast exercise, the dauntless Colonel, fully exposed to the thundering guns from the men-of-war of the British, directed his men on in their task. Like Trojans they were toiling, inspired by the fearlessness of their leader. Higher and higher arose the earthworks. No time was taken to reply to the enemy. That could come better later on.
The sun arose red. The air soon became close and oppressive. There was every sign that the day would become intensely hot. Putnam, casting aside his hat and coat, seized a shovel and piled into the work with the toiling soldiers. He had gigantic strength; none of them could swing a shovel quite as fast, or with quite as great a load, as he. From group to group he passed with his flashing implement, encouraging and demonstrating. Those inclined to shirk were ashamed; those who thought they were working hard found they had, in some mysterious manner, been lent new powers.
But nature was not to be thwarted entirely by heroic resolve. All night those men had either tramped or toiled without a wink of sleep. In many cases the scanty rations carried along had already been consumed. Coupled to fatigue were the demands of hunger, especially thirst, as there was practically no water to be had upon the Hill.
Noting this, General Putnam once more set out for Cambridge. He had made up his mind to make another and more urgent appeal of General Ward for assistance, but this time for provisions and powder and water, as well as troops. Unmindful of his appearance, thoughtful only of the succor of his men, the veteran farmer-soldier dashed away upon his mettlesome charger. In his shirt sleeves, an old white felt jammed carelessly upon his head, riding with the free and easy grace of an Indian plainsman, his figure was so picturesque that more than one man behind watched him with interest until he disappeared behind the rugged obtrusion of Bunker Hill.
Again General Ward showed reluctance to imperil Cambridge by sending a portion of his defences to the relief of the little expedition holding Breed's Hill. But Putnam would not give up; he advocated so earnestly that finally Ward gave in, and promised to order one third of General Stark's New Hampshire regiment to march to Charlestown. Supplies were also to be forthcoming, but as powder was very scarce owing to most of the explosive having been previously commandeered by the British, only a limited number of barrels could be dispatched, it was said, and most of this had come through the daring action of Major John Langdon who, six months previously, had all but single-handed captured it from the Royalist custodians of Fort William and Mary, at Newcastle.
It was close to ten o'clock that morning before Putnam was able to start back to his comrades. On his way thither he met Major Brooks, whom Colonel Prescott, irksome at Putnam's tardiness, had dispatched to Cambridge upon a similar purpose. Major Brooks wheeled about, and together they galloped toward the scene of activity, the dull boom! boom! of the big guns still throbbing the air at intervals.
Joel Whittaker was one of the first to espy the approaching figures of the two officers. With his chum Ben he had been toiling upon the earthworks, amid the random shots of the British batteries, and had just taken time to straighten up for a brief breathing spell.
"Look yonder, Ben!" he announced. "Tis 'Old Put' and Major Brooks both returning. I can spell gladness and success in the very swing of Putnam's gait and the wave of his free arm."
"The good Lord grant your surmise be true," said Ben, spitting the dry dust out of his drier throat. "I am about parched for a touch of water."
When, a few minutes later, the officers arrived with the good tidings of reinforcements and replenishments soon to come, a cheer went up that must have reached British ears and made them wonder.
By this time, with only one man killed as a result of the enemy all-morning shooting, most of the men had ceased labor, for the redoubt—eight yards square, with a breastwork extending one hundred yards on a line with its eastern side—was now substantially finished. General Putnam, observing the idle pickaxes and shovels, suggested the desirability of now taking a detachment of men for the purpose of also erecting works upon Bunker Hill, as a second rallying-point in case the Colonials were ultimately driven from their present stand.
To this, however, Colonel Prescott remonstrated, declaring that if any of the men began to intrench on the other height the enemy might cut them off unexpectedly and thus place those on Breed's Hill in a bad situation. But Putnam's persuasion at length prevailed, and about eleven o'clock volunteers to go to Bunker Hill were called for.
Although weary and hot and thirsty, both Joel and Ben stepped to the front for this duty. On the other hand, Shawmut Dinwoodie, much fresher because of the fact that he had worked only half-heartedly and had begged a portion of another soldier's canteen under the pretension that he was in a torture of thirst, slunk back. Such is the difference in boys as well as men.
So Joel and Ben, together with a company of other valiant patriots, took up intrenching tools and made their way along the ridge to the adjacent hill, led by the unconquerable Putnam. Here, for upwards of an hour, they worked energetically and heroically. But about twelve o'clock, before they could accomplish a great deal, their movements were so hampered by renewed and heavier firing from the enemy, that Putnam, believing an attack was soon to be forthcoming, ordered the men back to Breed's Hill, while he, provoked that the promised reinforcements had not yet arrived, started off a third time for Cambridge.
In the meantime the frigate Glasgow and the transport Symmetry, of the British fleet, were doing their best to rake Charlestown Neck. Simultaneously the man-of-war Somerset and two floating batteries at the ferry, as well as the battery on Copp's Hill, were pouring a heavy fire on the redoubt of the patriots. And this was augmented by the Lively and Falcon, whose guns swept the low grounds in front of Breed's Hill.
The Provincials laid low, but a sharp lookout was kept, nevertheless. The big round balls, many separately, but others cunningly linked together by steel bars and chains, came whistling and screeching through the still, sultry air. Fortunately the great majority of them either fell short of the little earthwork or went harmlessly overhead.
Suddenly, in the midst of the thundering din, Ben clutched the arm of his young companion.
"Look, Joel,—look! The redcoats! They come!" cried Ben.
It was true. Now, under cover of the furious cannonading, barges and boats filled with scarlet-uniformed troops were seen making for a landing at Moulton's Point on the southwest corner of the peninsula. Slowly heavily-laden small craft came forward, propelled by numerous Royalist oarsmen. Presently the first boat landed in good order—then a second—then a third—then others—till the shoreline in the vicinity was all but blotted out by the bright-colored, pompous regimentals of the calm-acting, deliberate enemy.
Courageous as they were to a man, ready as they were to face the great host confronting them in spite of their own small force, no Colonial there was foolish enough to believe that there was any chance of holding off such an enemy unless assistance should come within the next hour. Why did not Putnam return? Why did not Ward, at Cambridge, keep his promise of additional troops? Why must their dauntless leader, "Old Put" endanger his life by these needless repeated journeys? Silently, some boldly aloud, the suffering men cursed Ward for his negligence. Nor did the sympathetic officers discipline the latter for their temerity.
But scarcely had such thoughts begun to shape themselves when the belated reinforcements came up. These were even larger than at first promised, consisting of the whole regiments of Colonels Reed and Stark of New Hampshire, also a company of artillery under Captain John Callendar.
The reaction of this happy arrival set the defenders of the height into a spontaneous cheer, especially when it was noted that the familiar form of Israel Putnam was also present. Through the enfilading fire that streaked across the Neck the newcomers had come without the loss of a man, strange to say.
By this time twenty-eight barges of British had landed at Moulton's Point, under the command of Generals Sir William Howe and Pigot. These had carried the Fifth, Thirty-eighth, Forty-third and Fifty-second battalions of infantry, also two companies of grenadiers, and two of light infantry. They had seemed in no hurry to make an offensive, but loitered on the shore, finally partaking of food, while General Howe reconnoitered the American position, and awaited reinforcements which he had solicited from Gage as soon as he saw that strong assistance had come up for the "rebels."
Putnam declared that when the intelligence of the landing of the British reached Cambridge, two miles distant, there was great excitement in the camp and throughout the town. Drums beat to arms, bells were rung, and the people and military units were speeding in every direction.
At about two o'clock the reinforcements for Howe arrived, landing at the present navy-yard. These consisted of the Forty-seventh battalion of infantry, a battalion of marines, and some grenadiers and light-infantry. The entire force of about four thousand was commanded by the most skillful British officers then in Boston. Not only that, but every Royalist preparing to attack the undisciplined, poorly-equipped Provincials was a drilled soldier, trained in the art of war, well-armed, and well-clothed and fed.
During the forenoon Gage had earnestly discussed with Howe and Pigot the best means of ousting the Americans from their position on Breed's Hill. There was one sure and obvious method—to go around by sea, up the Mystic River, and take possession of Charlestown Neck, thereby cutting off the Colonials from the mainland and starving them out.
But it was thought that time was too precious to adopt so slow a method, for should the Americans succeed in planting a battery of siege guns on their elevation, the British position in Boston would be placed in great jeopardy. Therefore, it was decided, a direct assault upon Breed's Hill was most likely to prove speedily effective. It was unanimously agreed that these "peasants" could not withstand the charge of England's choicest soldiers; indeed, it was gravely doubted if they would stay and fight at all, once they saw the Regulars close to them.
So Gage accordingly watched the proceedings, now nearing a climax, buoyant with hope. In a few hours, he told himself, the disgrace of Lexington would be wiped out, and the stubborn, wicked rebellion put to an end!
Before the final reinforcements of the enemy had disappeared Colonel Prescott had arranged most of his forces for the coming onslaught, but now he saw fit to change some of them. While the British troops were forming, he sent Gridley's artillery, with its two field-pieces, and Colonel Knowlton, with his two hundred Connecticut men to a position about two hundred yards in the rear of the redoubt.
Here nature had formed something of a breastwork of her own. What seemed an old ditch ran along the base of a fence. The latter consisted of a low stone wall upon which the occupant of the land had some day placed a series of stout rails. Some of these were broken, but were quickly' replaced with other rails secured from an adjacent fence, following which the soldiers jammed in the interstices a compact filling of new-mown hay which they gathered in a nearby field. This crude breastwork, if not capable of shedding all bullets directed its way, would at least prove a partial shelter and screen the movements of its holders from the approaching enemy.
Captain Callendar's company of artillery was directed to join Gridley's artillery in defending the open space between the rail fence and the redoubt itself.
On wheeling his horse, after seeing that the cannon were properly placed, Colonel Prescott suddenly encountered Dr. Joseph Warren. This young President of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts had recently been appointed a major-general in the army of his colony. Though suffering from sickness and exhaustion, Dr. Warren, bent on assisting the little army on Breed's Hill, had hurried thither from Water-town, seven miles distant.
Colonel Prescott immediately saluted, inquired after the health of his superior officer, and offered to turn over the command to him.
But Warren shook his head decidedly. "I am come to fight as a volunteer, and feel honored in being allowed to serve under so brave an officer as yourself," he stated.
Prescott now completed his final arrangements. While Dr. Warren retired to the redoubt, where its original constructors were to fight. A few troops recalled from Charlestown after the British landed, and a part of Warner's company lined the cart-way on the right of the earthworks. Three companies were also stationed in the main road at the foot of Breed's Hill.
Joel Whittaker and Ben Dwight clutched muskets back of the rail fence. It was probably the most hazardous position of all—this one with Knowlton's brave Connecticut followers. That is why the two young patriots had asked to leave their own company in the redoubt.
As for Shawmut Dinwoodie, the redoubt held him. Despite the fact that it seemed the safest place, he was nervous and frightened, and had all he could do to keep from showing it to his comrades.
It was now three o'clock in the afternoon. The Americans, alert for the first movement from the enemy, saw it put into execution.
The dense, closely massed troops upon the shore at Moulton's Point began to quiver. Two strong flank guards moved out from the main body. The enemy heavy artillery commenced to play upon the American positions. At the same time the watchers saw a blue flag displayed as a signal. Immediately the guns upon Copp's Hill, also those from the British ships and floating batteries, began to project round shot at the same targets. And a furious cannonading was likewise opened upon the right wing of the Provincial army at Roxbury, undoubtedly to prevent reinforcements being sent by General Thomas to Charlestown.
Now Gridley and Callender, with their field-pieces, returned a feeble response to the heavy barks of the enemy guns. Some of the shots took effect, and a cheer went up from the hill. But it was not for long. Soon the American fire ceased.
Hurrying forward,General Putnam found that Captain Callendar had left his post, along with most of his men. Of the few faithful men remaining, the veteran general furiously inquired after their officers. When told that the cartridges remaining seemed too large for the bore of the field-pieces and they could not be loaded, he swore that they could be loaded. Thereupon, he seized a cartridge in his hands, broke it open with a pickaxe, and loaded the missles it contained with a ladle, firing it at the oncoming Regulars himself.
The gunners then relieved the dauntless officer, ashamed at the conduct of Callendar and their own lack of resourcefulness, and did valiant work with the loose ball and powder, cutting huge holes in the ranks of the oncoming British, which, however, were immediately closed as they continued to come on.
Galloping over to Bunker Hill, Putnam encountered the deserting Callendar and some of his followers. Angrily the general ordered him to return with his command to Breed's Hill, but the artillery officer refused, declaring that he was completely out of cartridges.
At this Putnam dismounted, examined Callendar's boxes of ammunition, and disclosed a number of cartridges. Thereupon he cursed the cowardly officer in his righteous indignation, and ordered him to immediately return under penalty of death, at which Callendar complied.
But he did not remain long in his new post. His men were disgusted with him, and left the field-pieces, refusing flatly to serve under him. Obtaining muskets they joined their comrades behind the rail fence and in the redoubt, ready to give their lives gladly with weapons with which they were more familiar. The fact is, most of the cannon by this time were disabled by the fire of the enemy, and the cannister exhausted.
Under cover of the discharges from their artillery, the British moved slowly forward in two divisions, General Howe with the right wing, and General Pigot with the left. It was evidently the intention of the former to attempt to penetrate the American line at the rail fence; the latter, to storm the redoubt.
Howe now ordered his cannon to be loaded with grape, but they soon became useless on account of the miry ground encountered at the base of the hill. Small arms now became their reliance, as they had become also the reliance of the Patriots.
Silently and grimly the British troops, burdened with their heavy knapsacks and accouterments, toiled up the ascent of Breed's Hill in the sultry heat of the hot mid-afternoon. The grenadiers, the tallest and finest-looking men in the British army, who could be readily distinguished by their high caps and other peculiarities of dress, led the attack.
All was still behind the American defenses. For all one might know now, the intrenchments had been deserted. But it was a misleading appearance—one, in truth, little understood by the enemy. For within those breastworks, and in reserve behind the hills, crouched fifteen hundred determined, sinew-hardened men, ready, at a prescribed signal, to fall upon the advancing foe.
With their companions, Joel and Ben lay behind the rail fence, musket barrels trained across the topmost rail, eyes ranging the sights, fingers just touching the triggers. Up came "Old Put." As he passed by, he said quietly:
"Men, you are marksmen, and know our powder is low. Don't one of you fire until you see the white of their eyes! Then aim at the waistbands of their handsome coats!"
The Royal troops were not more than eight rods distant when the Provincials, breathless and intent, received the order to shoot. Already the King's men had begun to fire a few random shots, but the reply they received quite stunned them. A great sheet of musketry flame spread along the rail fence, the rattle of the Patriots' guns was a veritable deafening clatter. Those rugged men had been trained since childhood to bring a squirrel out of the highest oak with no mark upon him but a shattered head. Now the gaping front ranks of the advancing British spoke eloquently of their skill with powder and ball.
Bewildered, the enemy staggered—and halted. The ground about them was strewn with the dead and wounded. But gamely the Royalists recovered, and took another step forward.
Again that withering, blinding sheet of yellow fire along the parapet of rails, stone and grass! This time the Americans had coolly picked out the redcoated officers, Joel seeing the big grenadier captain at whom he aimed pitch forward and fall as he leaped forward with uplifted sword to cleave the boy's own head. Ben, too, shot an officer, a lieutenant of marines, as the soldier was about to fire at the bold General Putnam, who rode hither and thither, careless of the flying bullets, while he issued orders to his men.
Aghast at the terrific slaughter, and particularly at their great loss of leaders, the British now turned and slowly retired, firing as they went.
About the same time the wing of the enemy attacking the redoubt also was driven back. A great shout went up from the Colonial forces when this fact was noted. It was the first noise, aside from the discharge of their weapons, that they had made since the beginning of the onslaught, and seemed to relieve them immensely. Several at the fence, leaped over the rails with the intention of pursuing, but were restrained by their more prudent officers.
Confident that the British would soon re-attack, General Putnam rode over to Bunker Hill and to the rear of it to urge on reinforcements. At the farther end of Charlestown Neck were gathered troops who dared not cross the isthmus on account of the deadly cannon balls that raked it. To this point Putnam galloped his horse in a great haste to hurry the new troops forward before the enemy returned. He entreated, threatened, encouraged them. Lashing his animal with the flat of his sword he rode backward and for-ward across the Neck, through the hottest fire, endeavoring by his example to convince them there was no danger. The balls, however, threw up clouds of dirt about him, and the soldiers for the most part were so perfectly convinced that the veteran was invulnerable and bore a charmed life, that only a limited percentage of them ventured to follow him across the hearth of spattering death.
At last, with these, he tried to rally the reinforcements which had already reached the protection of the west side of Bunker Hill. In vain he tried to induce them to expose themselves long enough to join those holding the front lines. He ordered, coaxed, ridiculed, and threatened them. Some of the more cowardly he knocked down, in his ire and impatience, with his broad fist. But all in vain; the men persisted that they could not fight without their officers. Putnam offered to lead them himself. Then they excused themselves upon the grounds that the cannon were deserted and they "stood no chance without them."
Here, indeed, the battle appeared in all its horrors. In the midst of the confusion, in which one man scarcely knew whether or not he could depend upon the loyalty of his fighting mate in a pinch, the British forces were again seen advancing, and Putnam hurried away to rejoin those on Breed's Hill.
This time the British troops had been rein-forced by four hundred marines from Boston, under Major Small, a Loyalist well-known to Putnam. Boldly led by Howe the one wing began the advance toward the rail fence in the same formation as before, while the other wing, under Pigot, started for the redoubt proper.
It must have been a mournful march for the Britishers, as they had to cross over the dead bodies of scores of their fellow soldiers. But, with true English courage and tenacity, they pressed onward, now cloaked from the straining gaze of the Patriots by a great haze of smoke which began to envelop the heights occupied by them. This was caused by a severe conflagration which had started in Charlestown, just in front, as the result of a number of hot shot fired from the battery of the enemy at Copp's Hill. The buildings of the town were of wood in those days. In a very short time the flames had spread until more than two hundred structures were burning.
In the veil of pungent vapor, the British hoped to rush unobserved up to the breastworks, scale them, and drive the Americans out at the point of the bayonet.
But at just the right moment to save the brave defenders of Breed's Hill, a gentle breeze, which appeared to the Colonials like the succoring breath of a guardian angel—the first zephyr that had been felt that torrid day—came from the west and swept the smoke seaward, exposing to full view of the Americans the rapidly advancing columns of the enemy, who fired as they approached, but with little execution. Colonels Brener, Nixon and Buckminster were wounded, while Major Moore was killed, however.
As before the Colonials reserved their own fire. Not until the British were within the prescribed distance again, did they shoot. Then their volley was terrible. The storm of leaden hail laid low whole ranks of officers and men. It seemed that a scythe had gone through them. In places redcoat lay upon redcoat. The accuracy of aim of the defenders was wonderful to behold.
Human beings could not withstand such carnal violence as this. The British line wavered, re-coiled. Their remaining officers, in a frenzy, ordered them on. They stepped forward, only to meet a second deluge of bullets. Once more great swathes were cut in their ranks by the unerring shots of the concealed Americans.
For a few moments General Howe, at the head of his men, found himself entirely alone. Immediately around him all had either fallen or beaten a retreat.
Joel Whittaker had just succeeded in reloading his musket. His bloodshot eyes glistened as they rested upon the bewildered British chief. What a chance to win glory for himself!—aye, to help the cause for which he fought by downing one of its greatest enemies! He had not missed his aim yet. How easy it would be!
Deliberately he raised his gun to his eye. Deliberately he aimed at the left breast of the great British leader. Then, just as he was pressing the trigger, his muscles seemed to become paralyzed. A picture had arisen between his sights and the officer—a picture of this man's brother, the beloved Lord Howe whom his own father had followed through the French and Indian War.
With a sigh, the youth turned his unsteady musket in another direction, and a more luckless man received its fatal charge. The noted British general probably never realized how close he came to being killed that day by a boy who cherished the memory of his intrepid kinsman.
In various places the British line gave way to the punishment inflicted upon it by the Provincials. It required the utmost exertions of the remaining officers, from the generals down to the subalterns, to repair the disorder which this hot and unexpected fire had produced. All their efforts were at first fruitless, the Royalists having retreated in great confusion to the shore.
General Clinton, who had beheld the progress of the battle with mortified pride, crossed over the river in a boat, followed by a small reinforcement, and joined the broken army with the purpose of bolstering it up for a third charge. Some of the British officers objected to another attempt in the face of what they had already received, but when it became known that a number of the survivors had heard, in the heat of the last onslaught, an incautious Provincial in the redoubt (this individual was, in fact, none other than the cowardly Shawmut Dinwoodie) declare the ammunition was almost exhausted, the remonstrators took heart and concurred in once more making an attack, this time to do or die.
So again Howe rallied his men. But this time he changed his tactics. He had discovered the weakness of the point that lay between the breastwork and the rail fence. His purpose was to lead his left wing thence, with the artillery. While a show of attack should be made at the rail fence on the other side, by Pigot's wing, his own detail was to rush the redoubt with bayonets.
The enemy was so long making preparations for the third attack that the Americans began to imagine none others were forthcoming. They had time to refresh themselves a little, and to take stock of their exact situation. While many of their number had fallen, they knew that the enemy had suffered a great deal more. Their worst fears were caused by the scarcity of ammunition. Only a few rounds remained. These were distributed by Prescott, with the admonition to every man to use his bayonet, if he had one, when his last shot would be gone, or to club his gun. Some of the soldiers even gathered the loose stones in the redoubt, bent upon selling life as dearly as possible should the call be made.
At last the British began to move once more toward the Heights. The Americans observed the change in formation with an uneasy feeling. On, on came the British, nearer and nearer. In a short time they were again coming up the side of Breed's Hill, their artillery was put in action, and the heavy charges of grape began to rake the defences in a heartrending manner to those back of them.
When the enemy was within twenty rods of them, the Provincials fired for the first time. As in the past, their aim was true, and the slaughter great. Among the British who fell at this volley were Colonel Abercrombie and Majors Williams and Speedlove.
But the enemy pressed on with bull-dog pertinacy, encouraged by the havoc being made by their artillery, which sent its balls through the sallyport directly into the redoubt, and played such destruction along the exposed breastwork that its brave defenders were obliged to desert it for the shelter of the earthwork enclosure.
Now the last grains of powder were rammed into the guns of the weary defenders. Grimly they awaited the next charge.
It came. There was a heavy volley from the artillery, another from the muskets of the British, a great rush of the enemy, and some of them sprang for the parapet of the redoubt. One of the first of these was Major Pitcairn, who had led the troops at Lexington. With the cry, "Now for the glory of the marines!" he gained the top of the redoubt. But the words were no sooner out of his mouth than the brave fellow was shot down by a negro volunteer within the walls with his last bullet. Simultaneously the final shots of most of the other Americans were then discharged.
Following came such a struggle at close quarters as none of the participants could ever forget to their dying day. Thrusting with bayonet, battering with gunstock, striking with bare fist, leveling to the ground with stones and other missles that came to hand, the Provincials fought their way foot by foot through the heavy ranks of the enemy. Some walked backward, keeping at bay one or more of the British at a time with their crude weapons. Just outside the redoubt, Dr. Warren, bravely clubbing his powderless gun, fell, the victim of a musket ball through the head. As he was falling, a British grenadier lunged at his body with bayonet, but the chivalrous British officer, Major Small, warded off the wicked thrust.
The retreating Colonial soldiers made toward Bunker Hill, always under heavy fire from the enemy. Here new reinforcements had recently arrived, and after some intrenching work under the direction of Israel Putnam, had started to the relief of their sadly oppressed compatriots on Breed's Hill. But they had gone only a short distance, when a musket ball entered the groin of Colonel Gardner, their commander, and frightened and confused they had turned back. No amount of persuasion on the part of General Putnam, who constantly exposed himself in his efforts to stem the tide of fear and confusion that existed now, could produce any degree of relief in the lamentable situation.
Meanwhile, the Americans at the rail fence, under Stark, Reed and Knowlton, reinforced by Clark, Coit, Chester's Connecticut companies, and a few others, maintained their ground with great firmness, as they still had some ammunition left. Both Joel and Ben were wet with perspiration, and their hands and faces grimy with dirt and powder stain. All along they had fought with might and main beside their older comrades back of the rails and hay. While many of their original number lay dead or wounded about them, a strong force still remained. Around Joel's left wrist was wound his handkerchief, covering a slough made by an enemy bullet. Ben had a bayonet cut in his leg. Both youths were weak with thirst and fatigue, but neither thought of resting.
This little force at the fence had thus far successfully resisted every effort of the enemy to turn their flank. Well was it that they did, for thereby they saved the main body, retreating from the redoubt, from being cut off.
But when they saw their comrades, with their chief, flying toward Bunker Hill, they too lost heart and beat a retreat after them.
Putnam, riding madly up, used every means to keep them firm. He commanded, pleaded, cursed like a man bereft. Now he was at this point, now at that one, ever where the troops were scattered and in a panic.
"Make a stand here!" he exclaimed. "We can stop them yet! In God's name, give them one shot more! Curse ye, for cowards, would ye see the redcoats master ye without winking an eye-lash?"
The gallant old Pomeroy, now in his seventieth year, who had ridden more than a hundred miles on his horse to join the men on the heights, also added his importunities for a halt. However, though some of the men stood by, among them Joel Whittaker and his friend Ben Dwight, who added their own pleas, the majority kept on in their flight—among them Shawmut Dinwoodieand the others, after some display of resistance, perforce had to follow them.
As they retreated across the Neck, numbers of the Americans were killed by the fire from the British boats. The undaunted Putnam finally marshaled them on Winter Hill and Prospect Hill.
The British did not follow up their questionable success, but seemed content to rest upon Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill, which they proceeded to fortify.
The American loss in this engagement was one hundred and fifteen killed and missing, and three hundred and five wounded, with thirty-two taken prisoner. The British loss was reported as two hundred and twenty-six killed, and eight hundred and twenty-eight wounded. Several Americans had shamefully deserted to the enemy's side at the last moment, among them the weak-spined Shawmut Dinwoodie.
Despite the victory of the King's arms, the moral advantage was felt to be entirely on the side of the Americans. It was they who were elated by the day's work, while it was the British who were dispirited. The belief of the latter that the Colonials could not fight was dispelled that day forever.