The truth about Bunker Hill
June 17 will be the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. On that day in 1775 the first major engagement between British troops and Colonial forces took place, and it went a long way to help those who wanted independence from Britain to prevail over those who sought some sort of compromise agreement.
A book that came out last year deals with the fight and other activities outside Boston in that season. It is entitled “The Whites of Their Eyes,” by Paul Lockhart, a professor of history at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
The book’s subtitle is “Bunker Hill, the first American Army, and the emergence of George Washington.” It breaks quite a bit of new ground, not so much in recounting facts hitherto unknown as in putting the facts we know in a context often overlooked in patriotic accounts of that time.
For one thing, the author corrects the impression often propounded of professional British soldiers, hardened in numerous European battles, opposing the scantily trained Colonial forces. That was not the case, Lockhart says. The rank and file British soldiers were to a large extent raw recruits, better trained than the Americans in how to march in formation, but just as unfamiliar with actual combat as the gathering of Minutemen.
Speaking of the retreat from Lexington and Concord, Lockhart says: “For the difficult truth was that the men Pitcairn, Smith and Percy led into battle were raw, only slightly less raw than the half-trained farmers who bested them that day. The Redcoats were not ready for combat.”
So when the June battle came about and the British soldiers came under fire from the entrenchments on Breed’s Hill (next to Bunker Hill) overlooking Boston, they acted as many raw recruits have acted before and since — they broke and retreated down the slope to avoid the gunfire. It took some time for the better-trained officers who led them to maneuver them into a shape that eventually captured the entrenchments.
Another misconception often repeated in accounts of that period is that the military governor of Boston, Thomas Gage, was a rather bumbling person unfamiliar with the realities of Colonial living. Lockhart says that was far from reality, that Gage had become well acquainted with American soldiers during the French and Indian War, and had even married an American woman. Lockhart says Gage’s reports back to London were incisive and realistic and that it was the London superiors who bumbled and misunderstood.
It’s hard to realize these days that in 1775 Boston was located on a peninsula that was almost an island. The only land connection with the mainland was a narrow neck that stretched to the southwest. Otherwise the town was surrounded by water.
The author makes clear that Washington was not the only person under consideration for top command of the American forces. He says John Hancock was also interested in the job, but acceded when Washington got support from the majority of those gathered in Philadelphia.
Washington took command in Cambridge outside Boston a few weeks after Bunker Hill, and there is ample record of the fact that he was not impressed with New England soldiers in general. They tended to be slovenly and undisciplined, he felt, though there were individuals who impressed him.
The Rhode Island contingent under Nathanael Greene was better appearing than many, and Greene went on to become one of Washington’s better generals. Henry Knox, who had been a bookseller in Boston, impressed Washington when he strove to bring some cannon from Fort Ticonderoga.
It was the mounting of those cannon overlooking Boston that brought about British evacuation of the city, and Knox went on to become one of Washington’s chief artillery experts, and eventually to be the first secretary of war.
Lockhart says Joseph Warren, a Boston doctor and patriot, did much to encourage the idea of independence from Britain. Warren was killed at Bunker Hill, where bodies were thrown into hasty graves. In after years, seeking to honor him, people dug up the graves and in one of the skulls Paul Revere recognized a silver metal device he had made for Warren’s dental work. The author says it was probably the earliest case of dental identification in the country.
Altogether, in giving many details of what actually happened in those years, with insights into the personalities involved, this is a very valuable addition to our history.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.