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True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence, a novel by George Alfred Henty

Chapter 5. Bunker's Hill

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The excitement caused by the news of the fight at Concord was intense and, as it spread through the colonies, the men everywhere rushed to arms. The fray at Lexington was represented as a wanton outrage, and the fact wholly ignored that the colonists concerned in it were drawn up in arms to oppose the passage of the king's troops, who were marching on their legitimate duty of seizing arms and ammunition collected for the purpose of warring against the king. The colonial orators and newspaper writers affirmed then, as they have affirmed since, that, up to the day of Lexington, no one had a thought of firing a shot against the Government. A more barefaced misstatement was never made. Men do not carry off cannon by scores, and accumulate everywhere great stores of warlike ammunition, without a thought of fighting. The colonists commenced the war by assembling in arms to oppose the progress of British troops obeying the orders of the Government. It matters not a whit on which side the first shot was fired. American troops have, many times since that event, fired upon rioters in the streets, under circumstances no stronger than those which brought on the fight at Lexington.

From all parts of New England the militia and volunteers poured in, and in three days after the fight, twenty thousand armed men were encamped between the rivers Mystic and Roxburgh, thus besieging Boston. They at once set to work throwing up formidable earthworks, the English troops remaining within their intrenchments across the neck of land joining Boston with the mainland.

The streets of Boston were crowded with an excited populace when Captain Wilson and his party rode into it at two in the morning. No one thought of going to bed, and all were excited to the last degree at the news of the battle. All sorts of reports prevailed. On the colonial side it was affirmed that the British, in their retreat, had shot down women and children; while the soldiers affirmed that the colonists had scalped many of their number who fell in the fight. The latter statement was officially made by Lord Percy in his report of the engagement.

Captain Wilson rode direct to the house of his wife's friends. They were still up, and were delighted to see Mary Wilson, for such exaggerated reports had been received of the fight that they were alarmed for her safety. They belonged to the moderate party, who saw that there were faults on both sides and regretted bitterly both the obstinacy of the English Parliament in attempting to coerce the colonists and the determination of the latter to oppose, by force of arms, the legitimate rights of the mother country.

Until the morning the events of the preceding day were talked over; a few hours' repose was then taken, after which Captain Wilson went to the headquarters of General Gage and offered his services. Although Boston was the headquarters of the disaffected party, no less than two hundred men came forward as volunteers in the king's service, and Captain Wilson was at once appointed to the command of a company of fifty men. Before leaving the army he had taken part in several expeditions against the Indians, and his knowledge of forest warfare rendered him a valuable acquisition. Boston was but poorly provisioned, and, as upon the day when the news of Lexington reached New York two vessels laden with flour for the use of the troops at Boston were seized by the colonists and many other supplies cut off, the danger of the place being starved out was considerable. General Gage, therefore, offered no opposition to the exit from the city of those who wished to avoid the horror of a siege, and a considerable portion of the population made their way through to the rebel lines. Every day brought news of fresh risings throughout the country; the governors of the various provinces were powerless; small garrisons of English troops were disarmed and made prisoners; and the fortress of Ticonderoga, held only by fifty men, was captured by the Americans without resistance. In one month after the first shot was fired the whole of the American colonies were in rebellion.

The news was received in England with astonishment and sorrow. Great concessions had been made by Parliament, but the news had reached America too late to avoid hostilities. Public opinion was divided; many were in favor of granting at once all that the colonists demanded, and many officers of rank and position resigned their commissions rather than fight against the Americans. The division, indeed, was almost as general and complete as it had been in the time of our own civil war. In London the feeling in favor of the colonists was strong, but in the country generally the determination to repress the rising was in the ascendant. The colonists had, with great shrewdness, dispatched a fast-sailing ship to Europe upon the day following the battle of Lexington, giving their account of the affair, and representing it as a massacre of defenseless colonists by British troops; and the story thus told excited a sympathy which would not, perhaps, have been extended to them had the real facts of the case been known. Representatives from all the colonies met at Philadelphia to organize the national resistance; but as yet, although many of the bolder spirits spoke of altogether throwing off allegiance to England, no resolution was proposed to that effect.

For the first six weeks after his arrival at Boston, Captain Wilson was engaged in drilling his company. Harold was, of course, attached to it, and entered with ardor upon his duties. Captain Wilson did not attempt to form his men into a band of regular soldiers; accuracy of movement and regularity of drill would be of little avail in the warfare in which they were likely to be engaged. Accuracy in shooting, quickness in taking cover, and steadiness in carrying out any general orders were the principal objects to be attained. Most of the men had already taken part in frontier warfare. The majority of them were gentlemen--Englishmen who, like their captain, had come out from home and purchased small estates in the country. The discipline, therefore, was not strict, and, off duty, all were on terms of equality.

Toward the end of May and beginning of June considerable re-enforcements arrived from England, and, as a step preparatory to offensive measures, General Gage, on June 12, issued a proclamation offering, in his Majesty's name, a free pardon to all who should forthwith lay down their arms, John Hancock and General Adams only excepted, and threatening with punishment all who should delay to avail themselves of the offer. This proclamation had no effect whatever.

Near the peninsula of Boston, on the north, and separated from it by the Charles River, which is navigable and about the breadth of the Thames at London Bridge, is another neck of land called the Peninsula of Charlestown. On the north bank, opposite Boston, lies the town of Charlestown, behind which, in the center of the peninsula, rises an eminence called Bunker's Hill. Bunker's Hill is sufficiently high to overlook any part of Boston and near enough to be within cannon-shot. This hill was unoccupied by either party, and about this time the Americans, hearing that General Gage had come to a determination to fortify it, resolved to defeat his resolution by being the first to occupy it.

About nine in the evening of June 16 a detachment from the colonial army, one thousand strong, under the command of Colonel Prescott, moved along the Charlestown road and took up a position on a shoulder of Bunker's Hill, which was known as Breed's Hill, just above the town of Charlestown. They reached this position at midnight. Each man carried a pick and shovel, and all night they worked vigorously in intrenching the position. Not a word was spoken, and the watch on board the men-of-war in the harbor were ignorant of what was going on so near at hand. At daybreak the alarm was given, and the _Lively_ opened a cannonade upon the redoubt. A battery of guns was placed on Copp's Hill, behind Boston, distant twelve hundred yards from the works, and this, also, opened fire. The Americans continued their work, throwing up fresh intrenchments; and, singularly, only one man was killed by the fire from the ships and redoubt. A breastwork was carried down the hill to the flat ground which, intersected by fences, stretched away to the Mystic. By nine o'clock they had completed their intrenchments.

Prescott sent off for re-enforcements, but there was little harmony among the colonial troops. Disputes between the contingents of the various provinces were common; there was no head of sufficient authority to enforce his orders upon the whole; and a long delay took place before the re-enforcements were sent forward.

In the meantime the English had been preparing to attack the position. The Fifth, Thirty-eighth, Forty-third, and Fifty-second regiments, with ten companies of the grenadiers and ten of the light infantry, with a proportion of field artillery, embarked in boats, and, crossing the harbor, landed on the outward side of the peninsula, near the Mystic, with a view of outflanking the American position and surrounding them. The force was under the command of Major General Howe, under whom was Brigadier General Piggott.

Upon seeing the strength of the American position, General Howe halted, and sent back for further re-enforcements. The Americans improved the time thus given them by forming a breastwork in front of an old ditch. Here there was a post-and-rail fence. They ran up another by the side of this and filled the space between the two with the new-mown hay, which, cut only the day before, lay thickly over the meadows.

[Illus: Plan of the Action at Bunkers Hill, on the 17th of June 1775.]

Two battalions were sent across to re-enforce Howe, while large re-enforcements, with six guns, arrived to the assistance of Prescott. The English had now a force consisting, according to different authorities, of between 2000 and 2500 men. The colonial force is also variously estimated, and had the advantage both in position and in the protection of their intrenchments, while the British had to march across open ground. As individual shots the colonists were immensely superior, but the British had the advantages given by drill and discipline.

The English lines advanced in good order, steadily and slowly, the artillery covering them by their fire. Presently the troops opened fire, but the distance was too great and they did but little execution. Encumbered with their knapsacks they ascended the steep hill toward the redoubt with difficulty, covered, as it was, by grass reaching to the knees. The colonists did not fire a shot until the English line had reached a point about one hundred and fifty yards from the intrenchments. Then Prescott gave the order, and from the redoubt and the long line of intrenchments flanking it flashed a line of fire. Each man had taken a steady aim with his rifle resting on the earthwork before him, and so deadly was the fire that nearly the whole front line of the British fell. For ten minutes the rest stood with dogged courage, firing at the hidden foe, but these, sheltered while they loaded and only exposing themselves momentarily while they raised their heads above the parapets to fire, did such deadly execution that the remnant of the British fell back to the foot of the hill.

While this force, which was under the command of General Pigott, had been engaged, another division under Howe himself moved against the rail fence. The combat was a repetition of that which had taken place on the hill. Here the Americans reserved their fire until the enemy were close; then, with their muskets resting on the rails, they poured in a deadly fire, and, after in vain trying to stand their ground, the troops fell back to the shore.

Captain Wilson was standing with Harold on Copp's Hill watching the engagement.

"What beautiful order they go in!" Harold said, looking admiringly at the long lines of red-coated soldiers.

"It is very pretty," Captain Wilson said sadly, "and may do in regular warfare; but I tell you, Harold, that sort of thing won't do here. There is scarce a man carrying a gun behind those intrenchments who cannot with certainty hit a bull's-eye at one hundred and fifty yards. It is simply murder, taking the men up in regular order against such a foe sheltered by earthworks."

At this moment the long line of fire darted out from the American intrenchments.

"Look there!" Captain Wilson cried in a pained voice. "The front line is nearly swept away! Do you see them lying almost in an unbroken line on the hillside? I tell you, Harold, it is hopeless to look for success if we fight in this way. The bravest men in the world could not stand such a fire as that."

"What will be done now?" Harold asked as the men stood huddled upon the shore.

"They will try again," Captain Wilson said. "Look at the officers running about among them and getting them into order."

In a quarter of an hour the British again advanced both toward the redoubt and the grass fence. As before the Americans withheld their fire, and this time until the troops were far closer than before, and the result was even more disastrous. Some of the grenadier and light infantry companies who led lost three-fourths, others nine-tenths of their men. Again the British troops recoiled from that terrible fire. General Howe and his officers exerted themselves to the utmost to restore order when the troops again reached the shore, and the men gallantly replied to their exhortations. Almost impossible as the task appeared, they prepared to undertake it for the third time. This time a small force only was directed to move against the grass fence, while the main body, under Howe, were to attack the redoubt on the hill.

Knapsacks were taken off and thrown down, and each man nerved himself to conquer or die. The ships in the harbor prepared the way by opening a heavy cannonade. General Clinton, who was watching the battle from Copp's Hill, ran down to the shore, rowed across the harbor, and put himself at the head of two battalions. Then, with loud cheers, the troops again sprang up the ascent. The American ammunition was running short, many of the men not having more than three or four rounds left, and this time they held their fire until the British troops were within twenty yards. These had not fired a shot, the order being that there was to be no pause, but that the redoubt was to be carried with the bayonet. For a moment they wavered when the deadly volley was poured in upon them. Then, with a cheer, they rushed at the intrenchments. All those who first mounted were shot down by the defenders, but the troops would not be denied, and, pouring over the earthworks leaped down upon the enemy.

For a few minutes there was a hand-to-hand fight, the Americans using the butt-ends of their muskets, the English their bayonets. The soldiers were exhausted with the climb up the hill and their exertions under a blazing sun, and the great majority of the defenders of the redoubt were, therefore, enabled to retreat unharmed, as, fresh and active, they were able to outrun their tired opponents, and as the balls served out to the English field-pieces were too large, the artillery were unable to come into action.

The colonists at the rail fence maintained their position against the small force sent against them till the main body at the redoubt had made their escape. The British were unable to continue the pursuit beyond the isthmus.

In the whole history of the British army there is no record of a more gallant feat than the capture of Bunker's Hill, and few troops in the world would, after two bloody repulses, have moved up the third time to assail such a position, defended by men so trained to the use of the rifle. Ten hundred and fifty-four men, or nearly half their number, were killed and wounded, among whom were 83 officers. In few battles ever fought was the proportion of casualties to the number engaged so great. The Americans fought bravely, but the extraordinary praise bestowed upon them for their valor appears misplaced. Their position was one of great strength, and the absence of drill was of no consequence whatever in such an engagement. They were perfectly sheltered from the enemy's fire while engaged in calmly shooting him down, and their loss, up to the moment when the British rushed among them, was altogether insignificant. Their casualties took place after the position was stormed and on their retreat along the peninsula, and amounted in all to 145 killed and captured and 304 wounded. It may be said that both sides fought well; but, from the circumstances under which they fought, the highest credit is due to the victors.

The battle, however, though won by the English, was a moral triumph for the Americans, and the British Parliament should at once have given up the contest. It was, from the first, absolutely certain that the Americans, with their immense superiority in numbers, could, if they were only willing to fight, hold their vast country against the British troops, fighting with a base thousands of miles away. The battle of Bunker's Hill showed that they were so willing--that they could fight sternly and bravely: and this point once established, it was little short of madness for the English government to continue the contest. They had not even the excuse of desiring to wipe out the dishonor of a defeat. Their soldiers had won a brilliant victory and had fought with a determination and valor never exceeded, and England could have afforded to say, "We will fight no more. If you, the inhabitants of a vast continent, are determined to go alone, are ready to give your lives rather than remain in connection with us, go and prosper. We acknowledge we cannot subdue a nation in arms."

From the height of Copp's Hill it could be seen that the British had suffered terribly. Captain Wilson was full of enthusiasm when he saw the success of the last gallant charge of the English soldiers, but he said to Harold:

"It is a disastrous victory. A few such battles as these and the English army in America would cease to exist."

But although they were aware that the losses were heavy they were not prepared for the truth. The long grass had hidden from view many of those who fell, and when it was known that nearly half of those engaged were killed or wounded the feeling among the English was akin to consternation.

The generalship of the British was wholly unworthy of the valor of the troops. There would have been no difficulty in placing some of the vessels of light draught so far up the Mystic as to outflank the intrenchments held by the colonists. Indeed, the British troops might have been landed further up the Mystic, in which case the Americans must have retreated instantly to avoid capture. Lastly, the troops, although fighting within a mile of their quarters, were encumbered with three days' provisions and their knapsacks, constituting, with their muskets and ammunition, a load of 125 pounds. This was, indeed, heavily handicapping men who had, under a blazing sun, to climb a steep hill, with grass reaching to their knees, and intersected by walls and fences.

American writers describe the defenders of the position as inferior in numbers to the assailants, but it is due to the English to say that their estimate of the number of the defenders of the intrenchments differs very widely from this. General Gage estimated them as being fully three times as numerous as the British troops. It is probable that the truth lies between the two accounts.

Captain Wilson returned with Harold, greatly dispirited, to his house.

"The lookout is dreadfully bad," he said to his wife, after describing the events of the day. "So far as I can see there are but two alternatives--either peace or a long and destructive war with failure at its end. It is even more hopeless trying to conquer a vast country like this, defended by irregulars, than if we had a trained and disciplined army to deal with. In that case two or three signal victories might bring the war to a conclusion; but fighting with irregulars, a victory means nothing beyond so many of the enemy killed. There are scarcely any cannon to take, no stores or magazines to capture. When the enemy is beaten he disperses, moves off, and in a couple of days gathers again in a fresh position. The work has no end. There are no fortresses to take, no strategical positions to occupy, no great roads to cut. The enemy can march anywhere, attack and disperse as he chooses, scatter, and re-form when you have passed by. It is like fighting the wind."

"Well, John, since it seems so hopeless, cannot you give it up? Is it too late?"

"Altogether too late, Mary, and if I were free tomorrow I would volunteer my services again next day. It is not any the less my duty to fight in my country's cause because I believe the cause to be a losing one. You must see that yourself, dear. If England had been sure to win without my aid, I might have stood aloof. It is because everyone's help is needed that such services as I can render are due to her. A country would be in a bad way whose sons were only ready to fight when their success was a certainty."

The Congress determined now to detach Canada from the English side and prepared a force for the invasion of that colony, where the British had but few regular troops.

Captain Wilson was one morning summoned to headquarters. On his return he called together four or five of the men best acquainted with the country. These had been in their early days hunters or border scouts, and knew every foot of the forest and lakes.

"I have just seen the general," Captain Wilson said. "A royalist brought in news last night that the rebels are raising a force intended to act against Montreal. They reckon upon being joined by a considerable portion of the Canadians, among whom there is, unfortunately, a good deal of discontent. We have but two regiments in the whole colony. One of these is at Quebec. The rebels, therefore, will get the advantage of surprise, and may raise the colony before we are in a condition to resist. General Howe asked me to take my company through the woods straight to Montreal. We should be landed a few miles up the coast at night. I suppose some of you know the country well enough to be able to guide us."

Several of the men expressed their ability to act as guides.

"I've fought the Injuns through them woods over and over again," said one of them, a sinewy, weather-beaten man of some sixty years old, who was known as Peter Lambton. He had for many years been a scout attached to the army and was one of the most experienced hunters on the frontier. He was a tall, angular man, except that he stooped slightly, the result of a habit of walking with the head bent forward in the attitude of listening. The years which had passed over him had had no effect upon his figure. He walked with a long, noiseless tread, like that of an Indian, and was one of the men attached to his company in whom, wisely, Captain Wilson had made no attempt to instill the very rudiments of drill. It was, the captain thought, well that the younger men should have such a knowledge of drill as would enable them to perform simple maneuvers, but the old hunters would fight in their own way--a way infinitely better adapted for forest warfare than any that he could teach them. Peter and some of his companions were in receipt of small pensions, which had been bestowed upon them for their services with the troops. Men of this kind were not likely to take any lively interest in the squabbles as to questions of taxation, but when they found that it was coming to fighting they again offered their services to the government as a matter of course. Some were attached to the regular troops as scouts, while others were divided among the newly raised companies of loyalists.

Peter Lambton had for the last four years been settled at Concord. During the war with the French he had served as a scout with the regiment to which Captain Wilson belonged, and had saved that officer's life when with a portion of his company, he was surrounded and cut off by hostile Indians. A strong feeling of friendship had sprung up between them, and when, four years before, there had been a lull in the English fighting on the frontier, Peter had retired on his pension and the savings which he had made during his many years' work as a hunter, and had located himself in a cottage on Captain Wilson's estate. It was the many tales told him by the hunter of his experiences in Indian warfare that had fired Harold with a desire for the life of a frontier hunter, and had given him such a knowledge of forest life as had enabled him to throw off the Indians from his trail. On Harold's return the old hunter had listened with extreme interest to the story of his adventures and had taken great pride in the manner in which he had utilized his teachings. Peter made his appearance in the city three days after the arrival of Captain Wilson there.

"I look upon this here affair as a favorable occurrence for Harold," he said to Captain Wilson. "The boy has lots of spirits, but if it had not been for this he might have grown up a regular town greenhorn, fit for nothing but to walk about in a long coat and to talk pleasant to women; but this 'll jest be the making of him. With your permission, cap, I'll take him under my charge and teach him to use his eyes and his ears, and I reckon he'll turn out as good an Injun fighter as you'll see on the frontier."

"But it is not Indians that we are going to fight Peter," Captain Wilson said. "I heartily wish it was."

"It 'll be the same thing," Peter said; "not here, in course; there 'll be battles between the regulars and the colonists, regular battles like that at Quebec, where both parties was fools enough to march about in the open and get shot down by hundreds. I don't call that fighting; that's jest killing, and there aint no more sense in it than in two herd of buffalo charging each other on the prairie. But there 'll be plenty of real fighting--expeditions in the woods and Injun skirmishes, for you'll be sure that the Injuns'll join in, some on one side and some on the other; it aint in their nature to sit still in their villages while powder's being burned. A few months of this work will make a man of him, and he might have a worse teacher than Peter Lambton. You jest hand him over to my care, cap, and I'll teach him all I know of the ways of the woods, and I tell yer there aint no better kind of edication for a young fellow. He larns to use the senses God has given him, to keep his head when another man would lose his presence of mind, to have the eye of a hawk and the ear of a hound, to get so that he scarcely knows what it is to be tired or hungry, to be able to live while other men would starve, to read the signs of the woods like a printed book, and to be in every way a man and not a tailor's figure."

"There is a great deal in what you say, old friend," Captain Wilson answered, "and such a training cannot but do a man good. I wish with all my heart that it had been entirely with red foes that the fighting was to be done. However, that cannot be helped, and as he is to fight he could not be in better hands than yours. So long as we remain here I shall teach him what drill I can with the rest of the company, but when we leave this town and the work really begins, I shall put him in your charge to learn the duties of a scout."

The young negro Jake had also enlisted, for throughout the war the negroes fought on both sides, according to the politics of their masters. There were only two other negroes in the company, and Captain Wilson had some hesitation in enlisting them, but they made good soldiers. In the case of Jake, Captain Wilson knew that he was influenced in his wish to join solely by his affection for Harold, and the lad's father felt that in the moment of danger the negro would be ready to lay down his life for him.

There was great satisfaction in the band when they received news that they were at last about to take the field. The long inaction had been most wearisome to them, and they knew that any fighting that would take place round Boston would be done by the regular troops. Food, too, was very scarce in town, and they were heartily weary of the regular drill and discipline. They were, then, in high spirits as they embarked on board the _Thetis_ sloop-of-war and sailed from Boston harbor.

It was a pitiful parting between Mrs. Wilson and her husband and son. It had been arranged that she should sail for England in a ship that was leaving in the following week and should there stay with her husband's family, from whom she had a warm invitation to make their home her own until the war was over.

The _Thetis_ ran out to sea. As soon as night fell her bow was turned to land again, and about midnight the anchor was let fall near the shore some twenty miles north of Boston. The landing was quickly effected, and with three days' provisions in their knapsacks the little party started on their march.

One of the scouts who had come from that neighborhood led them by paths which avoided all villages and farms. At daybreak they bivouacked in a wood and at nightfall resumed the march. By the next morning they had left the settlements behind, and entered a belt of swamp and forest extending west to the St. Lawrence. _

Read next: Chapter 6. Scouting

Read previous: Chapter 4. The Fight At Lexington

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