Life of George Washington

On the 20th of June, he received his commission from the president of
Congress. The following day was fixed upon for his departure for the army.
He reviewed previously, at the request of their officers, several militia
companies of horse and foot. Every one was anxious to see the new
commander, and rarely has the public _beau ideal_ of a commander been
so fully answered. He was now in the vigor of his days, forty-three years
of age, stately in person, noble in his demeanor, calm and dignified in his
deportment; as he sat his horse, with manly grace, his military presence
delighted every eye, and wherever he went the air rang with acclamations.




While Congress had been deliberating on the adoption of the army, and the
nomination of a commander-in-chief, events had been thickening and drawing
to a crisis in the excited region about Boston. The provincial troops which
blockaded the town prevented supplies by land, the neighboring country
refused to furnish them by water; fresh provisions and vegetables were no
longer to be procured, and Boston began to experience the privations of a
besieged city.

On the 25th of May, arrived ships of war and transports from England,
bringing large reinforcements, under Generals Howe, Burgoyne, and Henry
Clinton, commanders of high reputation.

As the ships entered the harbor, and the “rebel camp” was pointed out, ten
thousand yeomanry beleaguering a town garrisoned by five thousand regulars,
Burgoyne could not restrain a burst of surprise and scorn. “What!” cried
he, “ten thousand peasants keep five thousand king’s troops shut up! Well,
let us get in, and we’ll soon find elbow-room.”

Inspirited by these reinforcements, General Gage determined to take the
field. Previously, however, in conformity to instructions from Lord
Dartmouth, the head of the war department, he issued a proclamation (12th
June), putting the province under martial law, threatening to treat as
rebels and traitors all malcontents who should continue under arms,
together with their aiders and abettors; but offering pardon to all who
should lay down their arms, and return to their allegiance. From this
proffered amnesty, however, John Hancock and Samuel Adams were especially
excepted; their offences being pronounced “too flagitious not to meet with
condign punishment.”

This proclamation only served to put the patriots on the alert against such
measures as might be expected to follow, and of which their friends in
Boston stood ready to apprise them. The besieging force, in the mean time,
was daily augmented by recruits and volunteers, and now amounted to about
fifteen thousand men distributed at various points. Its character and
organization were peculiar. As has well been observed, it could not be
called a national army, for, as yet, there was no nation to own it; it was
not under the authority of the Continental Congress, the act of that body
recognizing it not having as yet been passed, and the authority of that
body itself not having been acknowledged. It was, in fact, a fortuitous
assemblage of four distinct bodies of troops, belonging to different
provinces, and each having a leader of its own election. About ten thousand
belonged to Massachusetts, and were under the command of General Artemas
Ward, whose head-quarters were at Cambridge. Another body of troops, under
Colonel John Stark, already mentioned, came from New Hampshire. Rhode
Island furnished a third, under the command of General Nathaniel Greene. A
fourth was from Connecticut, under the veteran Putnam.

These bodies of troops, being from different colonies, were independent of
each other, and had their several commanders. Those from New Hampshire were
instructed to obey General Ward as commander-in-chief; with the rest, it
was a voluntary act, rendered in consideration of his being military chief
of Massachusetts, the province which, as allies, they came to defend.
There was, in fact, but little organization in the army. Nothing kept it
together, and gave it unity of action, but a common feeling of exasperated

The troops knew but little of military discipline. Almost all were familiar
with the use of fire-arms in hunting and fowling; many had served in
frontier campaigns against the French, and in “bush-fighting” with the
Indians; but none were acquainted with regular service or the discipline of
European armies. There was a regiment of artillery, partly organized by
Colonel Gridley, a skilful engineer, and furnished with nine field-pieces;
but the greater part of the troops were without military dress or
accoutrements; most of them were hasty levies of yeomanry, some of whom had
seized their rifles and fowling-pieces, and turned out in their working
clothes and homespun country garbs. It was an army of volunteers,
subordinate through inclination and respect to officers of their own
choice, and depending for sustenance on supplies sent from, their several

Such was the army spread over an extent of ten or twelve miles, and keeping
watch upon the town of Boston, containing at that time a population of
seventeen thousand souls, and garrisoned with more than ten thousand
British troops, disciplined and experienced in the wars of Europe.

In the disposition of these forces, General Ward had stationed himself at
Cambridge, with the main body of about nine thousand men and four companies
of artillery. Lieutenant-general Thomas, second in command, was posted,
with five thousand Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island troops, and
three or four companies of artillery, at Roxbury and Dorchester, forming
the right wing of the army; while the left, composed in a great measure of
New Hampshire troops, stretched through Medford to the hills of Chelsea.

It was a great annoyance to the British officers and soldiers, to be thus
hemmed in by what they termed a rustic rout with calico frocks and
fowling-pieces. The same scornful and taunting spirit prevailed among them,
that the cavaliers of yore indulged toward the Covenanters. Considering
episcopacy as the only loyal and royal faith, they insulted and desecrated
the “sectarian” places of worship. One was turned into a riding school for
the cavalry, and the fire in the stove was kindled with books from the
library of its pastor. The Provincials retaliated by turning the Episcopal
church at Cambridge into a barrack, and melting down its organ-pipes into

Both parties panted for action; the British through impatience of their
humiliating position, and an eagerness to chastise what they considered the
presumption of their besiegers; the Provincials through enthusiasm in their
cause, a thirst for enterprise and exploit, and, it must be added, an
unconsciousness of their own military deficiencies.

We have already mentioned the peninsula of Charlestown (called from a
village of the same name), which lies opposite to the north side of Boston.
The heights, which swell up in rear of the village, overlook the town and
shipping. The project was conceived in the besieging camp to seize and
occupy those heights. A council of war was held upon the subject. The
arguments in favor of the attempt were, that the army was anxious to be
employed; that the country was dissatisfied with its inactivity, and that
the enemy might thus be drawn out to ground where they might be fought to
advantage. General Putnam was one of the most strenuous in favor of the

Some of the more wary and judicious, among whom were General Ward and Dr.
Warren, doubted the expediency of intrenching themselves on those heights,
and the possibility of maintaining so exposed a post, scantily furnished,
as they were, with ordnance and ammunition. Besides, it might bring on a
general engagement, which it was not safe to risk.

Putnam made light of the danger. He was confident of the bravery of the
militia if intrenched, having seen it tried in the old French war. “The
Americans,” said he, “are never afraid of their heads; they only think of
their legs; shelter them, and they’ll fight for ever.” He was seconded by
General Pomeroy, a leader of like stamp, and another veteran of the French
war. He had been a hunter in his time; a dead shot with a rifle, and was
ready to lead troops against the enemy, “with five cartridges to a man.”

The daring councils of such men are always captivating to the
inexperienced; but in the present instance, they were sanctioned by one
whose opinion in such matters, and in this vicinity, possessed peculiar
weight. This was Colonel William Prescott, of Pepperell, who commanded a
regiment of minute men. He, too, had seen service in the French war, and
acquired reputation as a lieutenant of infantry at the capture of Cape
Breton. This was sufficient to constitute him an oracle in the present
instance. He was now about fifty years of age, tall and commanding in his
appearance, and retaining the port of a soldier. What was more, he had a
military garb; being equipped with a three-cornered hat, a top wig, and a
single-breasted blue coat, with facings and lapped up at the skirts. All
this served to give him consequence among the rustic militia officers with
whom he was in council.

His opinion, probably, settled the question; and it was determined to seize
on and fortify Bunker’s Hill and Dorchester Heights. In deference, however,
to the suggestions of the more cautious, it was agreed to postpone the
measure until they were sufficiently supplied with the munitions of war to
be able to maintain the heights when seized.

Secret intelligence hurried forward the project. General Gage, it was said,
intended to take possession of Dorchester Heights on the night of the 18th
of June. These heights lay on the opposite side of Boston, and the
committee were ignorant of their localities. Those on Charlestown Neck,
being near at hand, had some time before been reconnoitered by Colonel
Richard Gridley, and other of the engineers. It was determined to seize and
fortify these heights on the night of Friday, the 16th of June, in
anticipation of the movement of General Gage. Troops were draughted for the
purpose from the Massachusetts regiments of Colonels Prescott, Frye and
Bridges. There was also a fatigue party of about two hundred men from
Putnam’s Connecticut troops, led by his favorite officer, Captain Knowlton;
together with a company of forty-nine artillery men, with two field-pieces,
commanded by Captain Samuel Gridley.

A little before sunset the troops, about twelve hundred in all, assembled
on the common, in front of General Ward’s quarters. They came provided with
packs, blankets and provisions for four-and-twenty hours, but ignorant of
the object of the expedition. Being all paraded, prayers were offered up by
the reverend President Langdon, of Harvard College; after which they all
set forward on their silent march.

Colonel Prescott, from his experience in military matters, and his being an
officer in the Massachusetts line, had been chosen by General Ward to
conduct the enterprise. His written orders were to fortify Bunker’s Hill,
and defend the works until he should be relieved. Colonel Richard Gridley,
the chief engineer, who had likewise served in the French war, was to
accompany him and plan the fortifications. It was understood that
reinforcements and refreshments would be sent to the fatigue party in the

The detachment left Cambridge about 9 o’clock, Colonel Prescott taking the
lead, preceded by two sergeants with dark lanterns. At Charlestown Neck
they were joined by Major Brooks, of Bridges’ regiment, and General Putnam;
and here were the waggons laden with intrenching tools, which first gave
the men an indication of the nature of the enterprise.

Charlestown Neck is a narrow isthmus, connecting the peninsula with the
main land; having the Mystic River, about half a mile wide, on the north,
and a large embayment of Charles River on the south or right side.

It was now necessary to proceed with the utmost caution, for they were
coming on ground over which the British kept jealous watch. They had
erected a battery at Boston on Copp’s Hill, immediately opposite to
Charlestown. Five of their vessels of war were stationed so as to bear upon
the peninsula from different directions, and the guns of one of them swept
the isthmus, or narrow neck just mentioned.

Across this isthmus, Colonel Prescott conducted the detachment
undiscovered, and up the ascent of Bunker’s Hill. This commences at the
Neck, and slopes up for about three hundred yards to its summit, which is
about one hundred and twelve feet high. It then declines toward the south,
and is connected by a ridge with Breed’s Hill, about sixty or seventy feet
high. The crests of the two hills are about seven hundred yards apart.

On attaining the heights, a question rose which of the two they should
proceed to fortify. Bunker’s Hill was specified in the written orders given
to Colonel Prescott by General Ward, but Breed’s Hill was much nearer to
Boston, and had a better command of the town and shipping. Bunker’s Hill,
also, being on the upper and narrower part of the peninsula, was itself
commanded by the same ship which raked the Neck. Putnam was clear for
commencing at Breed’s Hill, and making the principal work there, while a
minor work might be thrown up at Bunker’s Hill, as a protection in the
rear, and a rallying point, in case of being driven out of the main work.
Others concurred with this opinion, yet there was a hesitation in deviating
from the letter of their orders. At length Colonel Gridley became
impatient; the night was waning; delay might prostrate the whole
enterprise. Breed’s Hill was then determined on. Gridley marked out the
lines for the fortifications; the men stacked their guns; threw off their
packs; seized their trenching tools, and set to work with great spirit; but
so much time had been wasted in discussion, that it was midnight before
they struck the first spade into the ground.

Prescott, who felt the responsibility of his charge, almost despaired of
carrying on these operations undiscovered. A party was sent out by him
silently to patrol the shore at the foot of the heights, and watch for any
movement of the enemy. Not willing to trust entirely to the vigilance of
others, he twice went down during the night to the water’s edge;
reconnoitering every thing scrupulously, and noting every sight and sound.
It was a warm, still, summer’s night; the stars shone brightly, but every
thing was quiet. Boston was buried in sleep. The sentry’s cry of “All’s
well” could be heard distinctly from its shores, together with the drowsy
calling of the watch on board of the ships of war, and then all would
relapse into silence. Satisfied that the enemy were perfectly unconscious
of what was going on upon the hill, he returned to the works, and a little
before daybreak called in the patrolling party.

So spiritedly, though silently, had the labor been carried on, that by
morning a strong redoubt was thrown up as a main work, flanked on the left
by a breastwork, partly cannon-proof, extending down the crest of Breed’s
Hill to a piece of marshy ground called the Slough. To support the right of
the redoubt, some troops were thrown into the village of Charlestown, at
the southern foot of the hill. The great object of Prescott’s solicitude
was now attained, a sufficient bulwark to screen his men before they should
be discovered; for he doubted the possibility of keeping raw recruits to
their post, if openly exposed to the fire of artillery, and the attack of
disciplined troops.

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