Life of George Washington

All this passed under the eye of thousands of spectators of both sexes and
all ages, watching from afar every turn of a battle in which the lives of
those most dear to them were at hazard. The British soldiery in Boston
gazed with astonishment and almost incredulity at the resolute and
protracted stand of raw militia whom they had been taught to despise, and
at the havoc made among their own veteran troops. Every convoy of wounded
brought over to the town increased their consternation, and General
Clinton, who had watched the action from Copp’s Hill, embarking in a boat,
hurried over as a volunteer, taking with him reinforcements.

A third attack was now determined on, though some of Howe’s officers
remonstrated, declaring it would be downright butchery. A different plan
was adopted. Instead of advancing in front of the redoubt, it was to be
taken in flank on the left, where the open space between the breastwork and
the fortified fence presented a weak point. It having been accidentally
discovered that the ammunition of the Americans was nearly expended,
preparations were made to carry the works at the point of the bayonet; and
the soldiery threw off their knapsacks, and some even their coats, to be
more light for action.

General Howe, with the main body, now made a feint of attacking the
fortified fence; but, while a part of his force was thus engaged, the rest
brought some of the field-pieces to enfilade the breastwork on the left of
the redoubt. A raking fire soon drove the Americans out of this exposed
place into the enclosure. Much damage, too, was done in the latter by balls
which entered the sallyport.

The troops were now led on to assail the works; those who flinched were, as
before, goaded on by the swords of the officers. The Americans again
reserved their fire until their assailants were close at hand, and then
made a murderous volley, by which several officers were laid low, and
General Howe himself was wounded in the foot. The British soldiery this
time likewise reserved their fire and rushed on with fixed bayonet. Clinton
and Pigot had reached the southern and eastern sides of the redoubt, and it
was now assailed on three sides at once. Prescott ordered those who had no
bayonets to retire to the back part of the redoubt and fire on the enemy as
they showed themselves on the parapet. The first who mounted exclaimed in
triumph, “The day is ours!” He was instantly shot down, and so were several
others who mounted about the same time. The Americans, however, had fired
their last round, their ammunition was exhausted; and now succeeded a
desperate and deadly struggle, hand to hand, with bayonets, stones, and the
stocks of their muskets. At length, as the British continued to pour in,
Prescott gave the order to retreat. His men had to cut their way through
two divisions of the enemy who were getting in rear of the redoubt, and
they received a destructive volley from those who had formed on the
captured works. By that volley fell the patriot Warren, who had
distinguished himself throughout the action. He was among the last to leave
the redoubt, and had scarce done so when he was shot through the head with
a musket-ball, and fell dead on the spot.

While the Americans were thus slowly dislodged from the redoubt, Stark,
Read and Knowlton maintained their ground at the fortified fence; which,
indeed, had been nobly defended throughout the action. Pomeroy
distinguished himself here by his sharpshooting until his musket was
shattered by a ball. The resistance at this hastily constructed work was
kept up after the troops in the redoubt had given way, and until Colonel
Prescott had left the hill; thus defeating General Howe’s design of cutting
off the retreat of the main body; which would have produced a scene of
direful confusion and slaughter. Having effected their purpose, the brave
associates at the fence abandoned their weak outpost, retiring slowly, and
disputing the ground inch by inch, with a regularity remarkable in troops
many of whom had never before been in action.

The main retreat was across Bunker’s Hill, where Putnam had endeavored to
throw up a breastwork. The veteran, sword in hand, rode to the rear of the
retreating troops, regardless of the balls whistling about him. His only
thought was to rally them at the unfinished works. “Halt! make a stand
here!” cried he, “we can check them yet. In God’s name, form and give them
one shot more.”

Pomeroy, wielding his shattered musket as a truncheon, seconded him in his
efforts to stay the torrent. It was impossible, however, to bring the
troops to a stand. They continued on down the hill to the Neck and across
it to Cambridge, exposed to a raking fire from the ships and batteries, and
only protected by a single piece of ordnance. The British were too
exhausted to pursue them; they contented themselves with taking possession
of Bunker’s Hill, were reinforced from Boston, and threw up additional
works during the night.

We have collected the preceding facts from various sources, examining them
carefully, and endeavoring to arrange them with scrupulous fidelity. We may
appear to have been more minute in the account of the battle than the
number of troops engaged would warrant; but it was one of the most
momentous conflicts in our revolutionary history. It was the first regular
battle between the British and the Americans, and most eventful in its
consequences. The former had gained the ground for which they contended;
but, if a victory, it was more disastrous and humiliating to them than an
ordinary defeat. They had ridiculed and despised their enemy, representing
them as dastardly and inefficient; yet here their best troops, led on by
experienced officers, had repeatedly been repulsed by an inferior force of
that enemy,–mere yeomanry,–from works thrown up in a single night, and
had suffered a loss rarely paralleled in battle with the most veteran
soldiery; for, according to their own returns, their killed and wounded,
out of a detachment of two thousand men, amounted to one thousand and fifty
four, and a large proportion of them officers. The loss of the Americans
did not exceed four hundred and fifty.

To the latter this defeat, if defeat it might be called, had the effect of
a triumph. It gave them confidence in themselves and consequence in the
eyes of their enemies. They had proved to themselves and to others that
they could measure weapons with the disciplined soldiers of Europe, and
inflict the most harm in the conflict.

Among the British officer’s slain was Major Pitcairn, who, at Lexington,
had shed the first blood in the Revolutionary war.

In the death of Warren the Americans had to lament the loss of a
distinguished patriot and a most estimable man. It was deplored as a public
calamity. His friend Elbridge Gerry had endeavored to dissuade him from
risking his life in this perilous conflict, “Dulce et decorum est pro
patria mori,” replied Warren, as if he had foreseen his fate–a fate to be
envied by those ambitious of an honorable fame. He was one of the first who
fell in the glorious cause of his country, and his name has become
consecrated in its history.

There has been much discussion of the relative merits of the American
officers engaged in this affair–a difficult question where no one appears
to have had the general command. Prescott conducted the troops in the night
enterprise; he superintended the building of the redoubt, and defended it
throughout the battle; his name, therefore, will ever shine most
conspicuous, and deservedly so, on this bright page of our Revolutionary

Putnam also was a leading spirit throughout the affair; one of the first to
prompt and of the last to maintain it. He appears to have been active and
efficient at every point; sometimes fortifying; sometimes hurrying up
reinforcements; inspiriting the men by his presence while they were able to
maintain their ground, and fighting gallantly at the outpost to cover their
retreat. The brave old man, riding about in the heat of the action, on this
sultry day, “with a hanger belted across his brawny shoulders, over a
waistcoat without sleeves,” has been sneered at by a contemporary, as “much
fitter to head a band of sickle men or ditchers than musketeers.” But this
very description illustrates his character, and identifies him with the
times and the service. A yeoman warrior fresh from the plough, in the garb
of rural labor; a patriot brave and generous, but rough and ready, who
thought not of himself in time of danger, but was ready to serve in any
way, and to sacrifice official rank and self-glorification to the good of
the cause. He was eminently a soldier for the occasion. His name has long
been a favorite one with young and old; one of the talismanic names of the
Revolution, the very mention of which is like the sound of a trumpet. Such
names are the precious jewels of our history, to be garnered up among the
treasures of the nation, and kept immaculate from the tarnishing breath of
the cynic and the doubter.

NOTE.–In treating of the battle of Bunker’s Hill, and of other occurrences
about Boston at this period of the Revolution, we have had repeated
occasion to consult the History of the Siege of Boston, by Richard
Frothingham, Jr.; a work abounding with facts as to persons and events, and
full of interest for the American reader.



In a preceding chapter we left Washington preparing to depart from
Philadelphia for the army before Boston. He set out on horseback on the
21st of June, having for military companions of his journey Major-generals
Lee and Schuyler, and being accompanied for a distance by several private
friends. As an escort he had a “gentleman troop” of Philadelphia, commanded
by Captain Markoe; the whole formed a brilliant cavalcade.

General Schuyler was a man eminently calculated to sympathize with
Washington in all his patriotic views and feelings, and became one of his
most faithful coadjutors. Sprung from one of the earliest and most
respectable Dutch families which colonized New York, all his interests and
affections were identified with the country. He had received a good
education; applied himself at an early age to the exact sciences, and
became versed in finance, military engineering, and political economy. He
was one of those native born soldiers who had acquired experience in that
American school of arms, the old French war. When but twenty-two years of
age he commanded a company of New York levies under Sir William Johnson, of
Mohawk renown, which gave him an early opportunity of becoming acquainted
with the Indian tribes, their country and their policy. In 1758 he was in
Abercrombie’s expedition against Ticonderoga, accompanying Lord Viscount
Howe as chief of the commissariat department; a post well qualified to give
him experience in the business part of war. When that gallant young
nobleman fell on the banks of Lake George, Schuyler conveyed his corpse
back to Albany and attended to his honorable obsequies. Since the close of
the French war he had served his country in various civil stations, and
been one of the most zealous and eloquent vindicators of colonial rights.
He was one of the “glorious minority” of the New York General Assembly;
George Clinton, Colonel Woodhull, Colonel Philip Livingston and others;
who, when that body was timid and wavering, battled nobly against British
influence and oppression. His last stand had been recently as a delegate to
Congress, where he had served with Washington on the committee to prepare
rules and regulations for the army, and where the latter had witnessed his
judgment, activity, practical science, and sincere devotion to the cause.

Many things concurred to produce perfect harmony of operation between these
distinguished men. They were nearly of the same age, Schuyler being one
year the youngest. Both were men of agricultural, as well as military
tastes. Both were men of property, living at their ease in little rural
paradises; Washington on the grove-clad heights of Mount Vernon, Schuyler
on the pastoral banks of the upper Hudson, where he had a noble estate at
Saratoga, inherited from an uncle; and the old family mansion, near the
city of Albany, half hid among ancestral trees. Yet both were exiling
themselves from these happy abodes, and putting life and fortune at hazard
in the service of their country.

Schuyler and Lee had early military recollections to draw them together.
Both had served under Abercrombie in the expedition against Ticonderoga.
There was some part of Lee’s conduct in that expedition which both he and
Schuyler might deem it expedient at this moment to forget. Lee was at that
time a young captain, naturally presumptuous, and flushed with the
arrogance of military power. On his march along the banks of the Hudson, he
acted as if in a conquered country, impressing horses and oxen, and seizing
upon supplies, without exhibiting any proper warrant. It was enough for
him, “they were necessary for the service of his troops.” Should any one
question his right, the reply was a volley of execrations.

Among those who experienced this unsoldierly treatment was Mrs. Schuyler,
the aunt of the general; a lady of aristocratical station, revered
throughout her neighborhood. Her cattle were impressed, herself insulted.
She had her revenge. After the unfortunate affair at Ticonderoga, a number
of the wounded were brought down along the Hudson to the Schuyler mansion.
Lee was among the number. The high-minded mistress of the house never
alluded to his past conduct. He was received like his brother officers with
the kindest sympathy. Sheets and tablecloths were torn up to serve as
bandages. Every thing was done to alleviate their sufferings. Lee’s cynic
heart was conquered. “He swore in his vehement manner that he was sure
there would be a place reserved for Mrs. Schuyler in heaven, though no
other woman should be there, and that he should wish for nothing better
than to share her final destiny!” [Footnote: Memoirs of an American Lady
(Mrs. Grant, of Laggan), vol. ii., chap. ix.]

Seventeen years had since elapsed, and Lee and the nephew of Mrs. Schuyler
were again allied in military service, but under a different banner; and
recollections of past times must have given peculiar interest to their
present intercourse. In fact, the journey of Washington with his associate
generals, experienced like him in the wild expeditions of the old French
war, was a revival of early campaigning feelings.

They had scarcely proceeded twenty miles from Philadelphia when they were
met by a courier, spurring with all speed, bearing despatches from the army
to Congress, communicating tidings of the battle of Bunker’s Hill.
Washington eagerly inquired particulars; above all, how acted the militia?
When told that they stood their ground bravely; sustained the enemy’s
fire–reserved their own until at close quarters, and then delivered it
with deadly effect; it seemed as if a weight of doubt and solicitude were
lifted from his heart. “The liberties of the country are safe!” exclaimed

The news of the battle of Bunker’s Hill had startled the whole country; and
this clattering cavalcade, escorting the commander-in-chief to the army,
was the gaze and wonder of every town and village.

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