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   Chapter 12 AT THE BATTLE OF BUNKER HILL

Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 20100

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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General Putnam was greatly elated over the exchange of prisoners, recognizing, with the prescience of a statesman, that General Gage had conceded a point of importance as to the status of his opponents. "He may call us rebels now, if he will," he said to his son, "but why then doesn't he hang his prisoners instead of exchanging them? By this act he has virtually placed us on an equality, and acknowledged our right of resistance." That was one point gained by the general; another was, the consent of the Committee of Safety to his plan of operations against the British in Boston.

General Ward and Dr. Warren were in favor of moderation, and opposed to the scheme advanced by Putnam, of forcing the enemy to either fight or retire. They urged that they had no battering cannon and but little powder, there being but sixty-seven barrels in the whole army, and no mills to make any more when that was gone. And again, they feared for the steadiness of the men, once they found themselves opposed by the best of Britain's soldiers. But Putnam was persistent, not in advocating the bombarding of Boston, or of a large expenditure of powder and ball in trying to force the British from their position; but in fortifying the heights of Dorchester and Charlestown, which completely commanded the city.

He knew the British mode of attack and defense, knew their tactics through long observation in the ranks; and yet for him and his compatriots those same British professed to feel naught but contempt. They had always ignored the Provincials' claims to advancement on equal terms with their own officers; they thought their soldiers in the Indian wars were boorish and uncouth, merely because they paid little attention to dress or discipline; yet here was one of those least regardful of appearances (though an advocate of discipline) who knew them and their tactics through and through. And he also knew the men of his command better than any officers of inferior rank knew them. His one cry was, "fight, fight; bring our men into contact with the enemy, in order that they shall gain confidence and learn that they are really their equals, and more than that. Fight and entrench, entrench and fight; run away when it comes to a pinch, fight while you run; but fight!"

"But will our men stand before an enemy?" queried the timid ones. "Yes, they will," declared Putnam with a laugh. "Our troops are not all afraid of their heads, though very much concerned for their legs, and if you cover these they'll fight forever!" In other words, put them behind entrenchments, and he would pit them against the finest fighters that could be brought against them. The result at Bunker Hill was a vindication of his belief.

As Putnam had all along declared, it was in the nature of an impossibility for sixteen thousand armed men to besiege ten thousand other armed men without something happening partaking of violence. The war was "on," there was no doubt of that, why then hesitate at warlike measures? Still the commander-in-chief hesitated and paltered, while Putnam fumed, but labored hard.

What Putnam had advocated as the highest strategy, the seizing of some height commanding the British position, was forced upon the irresolute commander-in-chief by the British themselves. Shortly after General Gage's four thousand soldiers had been reenforced by six thousand more, under Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne, the Americans learned that the enemy intended to take and fortify the heights of Charlestown or Dorchester themselves. As it was then the sixteenth of June, and their move was to be made on the eighteenth, there was no time to lose if they were to be forestalled; so orders were issued by the Committee of Safety, sanctioned by a council of war, for taking possession of Bunker Hill in Charlestown.

A detail of a thousand men was made from three Massachusetts regiments, to which, in order to placate General Putnam, two hundred Connecticut soldiers were added under his friend, Captain Knowlton. This small body of militia, with a few field pieces as artillery, was to sally forth to rouse the British lion in his lair. The detachment was placed under Colonel William Prescott, of Massachusetts, General Putnam "having the general superintendence of the expedition," and about nine o'clock at night, after having been paraded on Cambridge Common, and listened to prayer by the president of Harvard College, this devoted band set forth on its mysterious mission.

Striding ahead of his men, all of whom had perfect confidence in their beloved officer, Colonel Prescott led the way, accompanied by two sergeants carrying lanterns. Not until they had reached the foot of Bunker Hill, where they found entrenching tools awaiting them which had been sent ahead in wagons, did the rank and file know the object of their march in the night; yet they faltered not, nor displayed a disposition to retreat. Their leaders knew, of course; but even they were in doubt, when once arrived at Charlestown, which of its eminences to select. Their orders explicitly indicated Bunker Hill as the one to fortify, but, "though this was the most commanding and most defensible position, it was too far from the enemy to annoy their army and shipping." Situated nearer the British general position was another elevation, Breed's Hill; but this was only sixty-two feet in height, as compared with Bunker Hill's one hundred and ten. This was finally selected, but only after a long consultation, which lasted until near midnight, when the veteran military engineer, Colonel Gridley (who had been awaiting the decision in great anxiety, owing to the loss of valuable time), at once proceeded to lay out the works.

On the summit of Breed's Hill the skilled engineer quickly ran the lines of that world-famous redoubt in which our immortal freemen inflicted a technical defeat upon Britain's bravest soldiers. It was planned and constructed with a redan facing Charlestown which protected the south side of the hill, and was only about eight rods square, continued by a breastwork on its eastern side, from which it was separated by a sallyport protected in front by a "blind," with a passage-way opening rearward as a provision for retreat. The men were given picks and shovels, and at once bent to their task with feverish energy. Scant four hours they had before them, when daylight would reveal them and their position to the enemy, for June's longest days and shortest nights were near, with daylight at four in the morning. They all labored for their lives, both officers and men, and toiled without cessation to the end. The night was dark, but the stars shone bright, and by their light Colonel Prescott and another officer, Major Brooks, stole down to the shore to observe the enemy, where they were reassured by the "All's well" from the British sentries on board the ships off shore.

All was not well-for them-most assuredly; but it was not until the morning mists rolled away from the rounded summits of the hills in front that they found it out. Then they might well gaze in wrath and wonder, beholding that work as if of enchantment going on before them, on that hill-top within short cannon-shot of their shipping. But they did not spend much time in rubbing their eyes and in vain speculation, being well assured at a glance that the "rascally American militia" had stolen a march upon them in the night and brought all their plans to naught.

A brisk cannonade was opened from the war-ships upon the weary, toiling men in the entrenchment; but they still worked on, incited to their utmost by the gallant Prescott, who himself is said to have lent a hand with pick and shovel. General Putnam's predictions as to their coolness under fire were more than verified, and had he been there then he would have been surprised at their indifference to the cannonading now going on so furiously. One man only was killed in this preliminary firing, and he had strayed outside the breastwork.

"Man killed, what shall we do with him?" asked a subaltern of Prescott.

"Bury him," was the laconic answer; and buried he was, in the ditch, while the work on the redoubt went on.

General Putnam was not on the hill when the cannon-fire began, having gone back to camp to change his tired horse for a fresher one; for his gait, says the historian, was always fast and furious. At the first report, however, he pricked up his ears and sent to Commander Ward for another horse; but before his orderly returned, he had procured still another and was already on his way to Charlestown. He had tried to procure for his men not only reenforcements but refreshments, for they had taken with them only one day's rations. In this he was disappointed, General Ward refusing to send over any more men, at that time, believing the British would take advantage of his weakened force to make a direct attack upon the main army at Cambridge. But when, having arrived at the hill, Putnam conversed with Prescott and noted the necessitous condition of the men, he again mounted and in hot haste rode back to Cambridge, with an urgent plea to the commander for assistance. This time it was not refused, and again gallant Putnam rode across Charlestown Neck, at the risk of his life, to take part in the coming conflict.

Meanwhile, there was a great commotion in the British camps, and from their place of vantage on Breed's Hill the patriots could see the gathering soldiers marching for the shore. General Gage had quickly called a council, which instantly decided that the patriots must be dislodged at whatever cost. As the prescient Putnam had foretold, the occupation of a hill so near their lines made their position untenable. They must move out or fight, and not even Putnam believed they would retreat from their snug quarters in Boston town. He knew well what was coming, and was not at all surprised to see, gathering beneath the blazing morning sun of the torrid day that had succeeded to a sultry night, the tho

usands of redcoats, armed and equipped for battle.

After informing the anxious soldiers on the hill of the promised succor to arrive, Putnam rode along the lines and, casting his eye over the situation, perceived that it would be a grave strategic omission to neglect to entrench the hill in the rear, which was the original object of their advance. As the main redoubt was then practically completed, and the men were resting from their toil, he ordered the entrenching tools to be taken to Bunker Hill, and another work begun which might serve as a "rallying place" in case they were compelled to retreat-as undoubtedly they would be. This entrenchment was begun but never finished, owing to the lack of time. Had it been completed, and had the men been able to avail of its defenses, there might have been a different tale to tell of the final finish at Bunker Hill. But noon had now arrived, the British frigates and floating batteries were by this time not only raining shot like hail upon and around the redoubt, but sending a scathing fire across the Neck, under cover of which barge-loads of soldiers were landing on the peninsula preparatory to an advance.

Noon came, but not the reenforcements which had been promised by General Ward, so General Putnam "seized the opportunity of hastening to Cambridge, whence he returned without delay. He had to pass a galling enfilading fire of round, bar, and chain shot, which thundered across the Neck from a frigate in the Charles River, and two floating batteries hauled close to the shore," wrote one who had conversed with eye-witnesses of this scene. The neck, or narrow passage-way between the Charles and Mystic Rivers, was only about one hundred and thirty yards across and exposed to that terrible cannonade; yet over it flew the reckless rider, coat off, in shirt-sleeves, an old white hat on his head; back and forth he rode, fearless and unscathed. The great painter Trumbull, who produced the celebrated picture of the Battle of Bunker Hill, which has excited the admiration of thousands, represented General Putnam conspicuously placed in that scene, but arrayed in an immaculate uniform, with ruffles and frills, and such like accessories which "Old Put" would have spurned.

Still, the man was there, if not the uniform. His appointment as major-general was dated two days after that memorable 17th of June; but he was then, as brigadier-general, the ranking officer present, until brave Warren appeared upon the scene. The latter was discovered by Putnam just as he was wheeling about after meeting and posting the gallant Colonel Stark and his New Hampshire reenforcements behind the rail fence and grass breastwork, where they gave such a good account of themselves that day. Turning about, he saw the slender figure of the newly-made major-general before him, a sword at his side, but a musket on his shoulder.

"What, Warren, you here?" he is said to have exclaimed. "I am sorry to see you ... but I'm ready to submit myself to your orders."

"No, no, I came only as a volunteer," replied Warren. "Tell me where I can be most useful."

Pointing to the redoubt, Putnam said, "You will be protected there."

"I am not seeking a place of safety," rejoined Warren with warmth; "tell me where the onset will be most furious."

"There," answered Putnam. "That will be the enemy's object. Prescott is there and will do his duty; if that can be defended, the day will be ours."

The shouts of the soldiers announced to Putnam the arrival of Warren in their midst, and not long after another cheer proclaimed the arrival of an old friend and comrade of his, Colonel Seth Pomeroy, a veteran of the Indian wars, who, twenty years before, had succeeded to the command of Colonel Ephraim Williams's regiment at the battle of Lake George. He had been aroused by the tidings from the seat of war, and though, like Putnam, he lived nearly or quite a hundred miles away, he had hastened to be in the thick of the fight. He had borrowed a horse from General Ward, but, with characteristic Yankee caution, had left it the other side of the Neck, in charge of a sentry, and had walked over, amid the hail of shot from the frigates and batteries.

Pomeroy and Putnam would have made a good pair to represent Valor and Intrepidity, were statues desired for those noble qualities. When Putnam saw him he cried out: "You here, Pomeroy? By God! a cannon-shot would waken you out of your grave!" He was in his seventieth year, having been born in 1706, and twelve years Putnam's senior.

So they gathered, the young and the old, the learned doctor and the practical mechanic, for the defense of Freedom-a magnet that drew both Pomeroy and Warren to that since-famous redoubt on the summit of Breed's Hill. They offered their services to Colonel Prescott, and he gladly accepted them, demurring as to Warren, and tendering him the command, which was his by right of rank. But the patriot simply said, as before, that he had come to fight as a volunteer, and at once mingled with the men within the redoubt.

The movements of the British were slow, and mid-afternoon had arrived before the agonizing suspense was over and they began their advance up the hill. The eager Americans were hardly to be kept behind their earthworks, much less restrained from firing at the advancing foe, as the solid ranks came marching up the acclivity, ominously silent, with deadly intent. But Putnam was with them, riding slowly up and down the lines.

"Don't waste your powder, boys," he shouted. "Wait for orders, then fire low, take aim at their waistbands. Aim at the handsome coats, pick off the commanders!" They did as commanded, only a few anticipating orders, and at the fatal command, "Fire!" the ranks in front of them melted away like snow before the sun.

It was the same at the breastwork as at the redoubt, and at the second or third volley the remaining redcoats broke and fled promiscuously down the hill. It was not in the nature of even the bravest men to march to certain destruction, and General Howe had difficulty in re-forming his defeated troops for a second assault; but on they came, the intrepid Howe in advance and on foot, until within even a shorter distance of redoubt, breastwork, and rail fence, when a sheet of flame burst forth that carried all before it to destruction.

The scene outspread from the hill was perfectly appalling, and, to add to the terrors of thunderous artillery, from frigates, floating batteries and field-pieces, clouds of smoke came pouring out from Charlestown, which had been set on fire, enveloping the contestants, at first, in semi-obscurity. It was the intention of the British, in setting fire to Charlestown, to veil their movements as they marched up the hill; but this was frustrated by the rising wind, which carried the smoke aloft and away.

In the second advance, as in the first, the soldiers were led by General Howe, who seemed, like Putnam, to bear a charmed life, at this time having all his staff officers killed or wounded but one. For the Provincials had strictly obeyed Putnam's orders, to pick off the men in handsome coats. He himself was touched to the heart.

"Oh, my God, what carnage!" he cried, as he saw his former friends and comrades fall before the withering blast. Seeing several of his men aiming their pieces at the only officer remaining unhurt, he darted forward and struck up their muskets, exclaiming: "For God's sake, lads, don't fire at that man! I love him as I do my brother." It was Major Small, a former companion of the Indian wars, who owed his life to Putnam's intervention, and who afterward tried to requite the favor-though vainly-when brave Warren fell, by entreating him to surrender.

The sword with which Old Put struck up the muskets of his men was always visible in the thickest of the fight, waving in air, descending with resounding whacks-the flat of it-upon recreant soldiers' shoulders; held threateningly against the breast of cowardly artillerymen, when, their cartridges proving inadequate, they were about abandoning their guns.

The little field-pieces were too puny to do much harm, but they counted for something, Putnam said, as he tore a cartridge in pieces and, ladling the powder and canister into the gun, aimed and discharged it into the advancing ranks of the foe, with effect. But all was of no avail. The Americans had good cause to believe the enemy had had enough; but Putnam knew the foe and cautioned them against overconfidence. True to his predictions, they reformed for a third charge upon the hill, led, as before, by the gallant Howe, and this time, as the Provincials had nearly exhausted their supply of ammunition, they were forced to extremities.

Yet nearer than before, the British were allowed to approach, and, with their artillery enfilading the redoubt and the breastwork with deadly effect, the brave Provincials waited till they were within twenty yards before they fired their last rounds into the foe. Then they clubbed their muskets, dashed stones into the faces of the foe, fighting hand to hand, as the British poured over the earthworks in a stream. Seeing his forlorn position, Prescott ordered a retreat, and his men sullenly obeyed, fighting to the last, stubbornly contesting every foot.

Down below, on the slope near the Neck, was the infuriated Putnam, doing his utmost to urge forward the belated reenforcements. When he saw the onpouring mass of men in retreat he was wild with rage. "Halt, you infernal cowards!" he yelled. "Halt here and make a stand. We can stop them yet!" But he was overborne by the resistless stream, and with an impious imprecation on his lips he dismounted, near a field-piece, "and seemed resolved to brave the foe alone." One man only, a sergeant, took his stand beside him, but he was soon shot down, and brave Old Put was left without support. "The enemy's bayonets were just upon him when he retired," probably the last unwounded warrior to retreat from Bunker Hill!

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