Home » BORN IN BATTLE: American Revolution » Text links » II. THEY WOULD NOT FLINCH


                     From Battle Road to Bunker Hill

Battle of Bunker Hill Howard Pyle

Damn the Rebels, they would not flinch.
–a British officer on Breed’s Hill


Great Britain’s American colonies had traveled a long road from their protest against the Stamp Act of 1765 to the shooting war begun on Lexington Green a decade later. It was a road of many twists and turns, to be sure, but by reasoned argument, by the conviction of self-interest, by propaganda and provocation, some critical mass of Americans had been persuaded that Great Britain was working a deliberate design against their constitutional liberty. To oversimplify a complex case, liberty was property, and hence taxation without real representation in Parliament was a species of theft. Moreover, Britain’s thievery, many were coming to believe, violated a higher law than the British Constitution: the natural rights of man, an idea–new to the eighteenth century–that defined and made urgent the current political and economic debate. The terms of that debate were made even sharper by a social and cultural transformation difficult to quantify but nonetheless tangible: the growing consciousness of a distinct American national identity.

Even so, in the decade before the outbreak of the Revolution, the opportunities for compromise and reconciliation had been many, and thoughtful men and women on both sides of the Atlantic could see that there was room in the British Empire for American liberty, with peace and prosperity the likely and happy consequence for both parties. Yet voices of moderation, British and American alike, had gone largely unheeded. In Great Britain powerful and profoundly conservative forces, aided and abetted by venal, short-sighted politicians, carried the day in Parliament, and thus the coercive measures that body enacted served to provoke the very revolution they were intended to repress. As the crisis came to a head in America, the advocates of Whig liberty in the popular assemblies effectively deposed the royal governors and resolved to defend their cause by force of arms. Their cause was not, in the immediate aftermath of Lexington and Concord and for some time to come, American independence but English liberty, constitutional liberty that Parliament had violated. Some American leaders were already referring to the British regulars they had fired on as the “ministerial troops,” nicely if falsely distinguishing the king from the measures of his government. No one, at least publicly, was talking about overthrowing the king in the name of English liberty, though privately some might have argued that nothing was more English than revolution. In the days when English colonists were struggling for a foothold in the North American wilderness, Charles I had, after all, lost his throne along with his head in 1649, and in 1688 James II, refusing to learn his history lesson, was fortunate simply to lose his throne in the revolution Englishmen called ‘glorious.’

Whether the redcoats now besieged in Boston were properly the king’s or his ministers’ troops was a question for statesmen and philosophers to jaw about later. For the American militiamen, the question of what to do about them in the aftermath of Lexington and Concord was immediate and vexing. Just as immediate and perhaps even more vexing for the Americans was what to do with their own troops, those who had fought on Battle Road and the thousands more arriving daily from throughout New England. In this steadily gathering assembly was plenty of energy, to be sure, but precious little order, direction, and common purpose. Dr. Warren, now posted in Cambridge, wrote to the Provincial Congress that the Massachusetts men were “busy as piss-mires on a molehill,” throwing up earthworks. And that effort was probably as good as any just now, for the Provincial Congress was in the process of declaring its militia an “Army of Observation.” Having shot redcoats all the way from Concord to Boston, the militia was now directed to simply watch them while congress organized and decided on a firmer course of action. Rhode Island to the south had sent men already and was now enlisting a “new service,” but its leadership was at least as uncertain as that of Massachusetts. Incongruously, these new enlistments would march “in His Majesty’s Service… for the preservation of the Liberties of America.” The cap plate on the bear hats of the British grenadiers who marched on Battle Road bore the initials GR: George Rex. In the highly charged chaos after Lexington, one could only wonder how shooting the king’s grenadiers might serve his royal purpose.

And if in the end aggressive action against the British was what the New England colonies had in mind, this half-armed, ill-equipped, and motley mob now fronting Boston was not much of an instrument to wage war with. Joseph Warren, waiting for his own major-general’s commission to be confirmed, admitted tactfully but candidly that the army was “in such a shifting, fluctuating state as not to be capable of perfect regulation. It is difficult to say what Numbers our Army consists of. If a return could be had one day, it would by no means answer for the next.” Warren might just as well have cited the words of “Yankee Doodle”: the men and boys were gathered as “thick as hasty pudding.” Indeed, Loyalists, appalled by the events of April 19, could take some heart from the mess their Whig neighbors appeared to be making of their rebellion. Loyalist poet, Jonathan Odell, characterized the situation as follows: “Here Anarchy before the gaping crowd/ Proclaims the people’s majesty aloud,/ Legions of senators infest the land,/ And mushroom generals thick as mushrooms stand.” Even Patriot Benjamin Thompson had to admit that the New England troops were an army “only if that mass of confusion may be called an Army.” The confusion ran from the ranks up and from the high command down. Strictly speaking, despite what the four New England colonies had framed on paper for their militia organizations, there was no high command just yet.

While militiamen came and went in front of Boston, delegates from all the colonies but Georgia were making their way to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress to commence on 10 May. This body would determine what the Middle and Southern colonies would or would not do to support their New England brethren, but for now it was exclusively a New England war. In the midst of this uncertainty, however, the Yankees were given an unintended gift by General Gage, and that gift was time. Though he had no clearer idea of actual American strength than Dr. Warren, Gage was sure that his force was considerably outnumbered. For the time being, he would withdraw his lonely outpost from Bunker Hill, fortify Boston Neck, and await reinforcement. And while Gage waited, mushroom generals were indeed springing up in the American camp, yet, regardless of Tory sneers, many of them turned out to be men of ability. Artemus Ward of Massachusetts, though older than his years at forty-seven and something of a prudent plodder, had seen service in the French and Indian War and was an able administrator. He was seconded by a doctor turned soldier, John Thomas, likewise a veteran of the last French war, who had earned a reputation as an aggressive fighter. In the long American arc running from Chelsea to Dorchester, Ward took immediate command of the Massachusetts men north of the Charles River and delegated the southern sector to Thomas.

Though contemporary newspaper accounts spoke confidently that spring of a “Grand American Army,” in fact the arrival of the New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island contingents made four distinct commands. New Hampshire sent its Provincial Brigade, some 1,200 men, mostly veterans, led by tall, sinewy Colonel John Stark, an Indian fighter who frankly admired the native people he fought against. (Taken prisoner by the Indians during the last French war, he had been adopted by the chief of the St. Francis tribe.) Connecticut sent a full six thousand men under capable Brigadier General Joseph Spencer, but the driving force in the Connecticut command was Israel Putnam. Broad, beefy, and belligerent, “Old Put” was, among other things, a hard man to kill. With Rogers Rangers he had fought French and Indians on the frontier, where he had been tomahawked and very nearly burned at the stake. He had survived Abercromby’s bloody failure at Ticonderoga and returned with Amherst to have a share in his victory. Shipwrecked in the Caribbean, he later led a regiment of Rangers through musketry and cannon fire in the conquest of Havana, all this before settling down on a prosperous farm in Pomfret. And yet, he was quick to answer the alarm of 19 April. By contrast, the brigadier of Rhode Island’s 1,500 men was a most unlikely soldier, Nathanael Greene. A tall, youthful, well-to-do Quaker, he had been read out of the meeting for his enlistment as a private in the Kentish Guards in 1774. He limped slightly on a gimpy knee and wheezed with asthma, and all he knew about soldiering came from books, not experience, but there was a quiet and determined confidence about him that men responded to. Still, when he reached the American lines around Boston, it was clear that it would take more than determined confidence to make something effective out of the American host. “The want of government, and of a certainty of supplies,” he wrote, “have thrown everything into disorder.”

So General Ward and the others went patiently to work imposing order as best they could, sorting out commands, organizing them into regiments, and entrenching and fortifying against a possible British attempt to break out of Boston. Fortunately for the Americans, the redcoats continued to rest on their arms. In fact, the two most salient threats to the American cause at this point came from within the American camp. First, with four “foreign” armies gathered, there was no end to wrangling within the officer corps about rank and authority. (Indeed, this struggle about rank would end only with the end of the war, at which point a new struggle broke out about reputation to be fought on the field of memoirs.) Second and even more disconcerting, the militiamen in the ranks did as citizen-soldiers had always done: believing that no real fighting was imminent, the men drifted back home to tend to their shops, farms, and families. It was springtime, most were farmers, and sowing wheat and corn would not wait on the making of revolution. Others, accustomed to the free and easy democracy of the village militia, simply walked off, unwilling to serve under officers not of their own choosing. In exasperation, Ward told Congress that unless a more permanent army was enlisted, “I shall be left all alone.” The response of the Provincial Congress was ambitious enough, an act to enlist a volunteer army of thirty thousand men from throughout the New England colonies, all of whom would serve to the year’s end. In actuality, this “Eight-Months Army” would fall well short of thirty thousand, but by the middle of June, something like ten or twelve thousand were more-or-less organized, though not properly armed, equipped, or supplied. Such details would have to wait until the Continental Congress did something more purposeful to support the war effort. The sticky problem of unified command in New England would be resolved for now by New Englanders, as New Hampshire officially put its army under Ward’s command, and Connecticut and Rhode Island instructed their troops to accept voluntarily Ward’s direction.

Lack of deliberate centralized control in a complex enterprise is of course generally a problem, but one of its consequences is sometimes an opportunity for individual initiative. In May two remarkable Americans, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, stepped forward to seize that initiative. Connecticut-born, Allen was a powerful, hard-drinking, profane lead miner now turned to farming on the New Hampshire Grants. What is today the state of Vermont, the Grants were then much in dispute between New Hampshire and New York, and Allen and his band of Green Mountain Boys had played a violent part in that dispute such that New York had gone so far as to put a price on Allen’s head. Admittedly rough but no primitive, he was something of a thinker and had written, among other works, a deist tract entitled Reason the Only Oracle of Man. Benedict Arnold was a shorter, though sturdily built man sprung from well-to-do Rhode Island merchants. Having prospered in New Haven, Connecticut as by turns apothecary, bookseller, merchant, and horse trader, this zealous Son of Liberty was intelligent, energetic, and intensely ambitious. Though neither Arnold nor Allen was at first aware of the other, their common object was the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga on the southern end of Lake Champlain. Built by the French as Fort Carillon back in 1755, it had turned back one British attack in ’58 only to fall the following year. By the time of the Revolution, succeeding winters and neglect had reduced the massive works to, in the words of a British engineer, “an amazing Useless Mass of Earth.” It was garrisoned now by less than fifty officers and men of the 26th Cameronians, Scottish riflemen under the command of Captain William De La Place. Some of these were disabled veterans of the last war, many were sick, and all seem to have been fairly demoralized by guarding a pile of rubble in the waste of the dark northern forest. But Americans had excellent reason to covet this pile: commanding Lake Champlain, the entrance to Lake George, and passage to the Hudson River to the west, it was the gateway of invasion from Canada into the heart of the northern colonies. Then, too, if disaffected Canadians made common cause with the Americans–a recurring American daydream–Canada’s forces could move south across the lakes against the British overlords. Perhaps most important just now, however, Ticonderoga’s ruins still bristled with cannon, especially heavy guns, that might be put to use in front of Boston.

Accordingly, soon after Lexington Arnold approached the Massachusetts Committee of Safety with a plan to mount an expedition against the fort where he himself had fought back in the French war. After some hemming and hawing, Massachusetts commissioned Arnold to raise 400 troops in western Massachusetts for that purpose. In the meantime, however, Allen had already been authorized by the Connecticut assembly to take his Green Mountain Boys north with the same design. Arnold had in fact just reached Stockbridge in the Berkshire Mountains and had hardly begun recruiting when he learned that Allen and the Green Mountain Boys were already in Castleton in the Hampshire Grants and about to jump off for Ticonderoga. Thus, if Arnold wished to take the fort, he would first have to overtake Allen. In fact, a third expedition against Fort Ti had jumped off ahead of them both. Colonel Samuel Parsons, a New Haven Son of Liberty, seeking authority from no one, raised a handful of men and some money and started north on his own hook. This little band was already with Allen in the neighborhood of Castleton when Arnold rode in with his Committee of Safety commission–and no troops. What diplomats call a free and frank exchange of views unfolded: Arnold insisted on the command; Allen stood by his own hard-headed resolve, his Connecticut commission, and, to the main point, his force of over 200 men. In the end, a disgruntled Arnold, presumptive co-commander, pushed north with the rest. It was a strange enough expeditionary force: a gang of frontiersman from the Hampshire Grants acting on the authority of the extra-legal Connecticut assembly, joined by Parsons’ band of free-booters answering to no one, joined by a Connecticut man with a Massachusetts commission, all marching to seize a British fort in what New Yorkers, at any rate, were sure was still the colony of New York.

And if this was not strange enough, what unfolded when it reached Hand’s Cove on the east shore of Champlain and a couple of miles north of the fort was almost comic. By the night of 9 May, they numbered somewhere short of three hundred men, but enough boats to transport them all to the opposite shore could not be found. Dawn was nearing when Allen decided to load the two boats on hand with less than a third of his total force. Across the lake they rowed in the darkness, landing just above the fort, where they halted while Allen and Arnold had one more free and frank discussion about who actually commanded, a dispute resolved rather awkwardly by Allen’s threat to make Arnold the very first prisoner of the campaign. Then, even more awkwardly, Allen and Arnold strode off side by side to attack the fort with some eighty men at their back. The gate to this erstwhile Gibraltar of the New World, meanwhile, was open, defended by a sleepy-headed sentry who raised a musket and called out a challenge. Allen thrust him aside with a blow of his sword, the Americans rushed in, and Allen and Arnold raced each other to the officers’ quarters, where Allen shouted, “Come out of there, you damned old rat,” and Ticonderoga’s hapless second-in-command, Lieutenant Jocelyn Feltham, appeared in the doorway with nothing more warlike than a pair of britches in his hand. When De La Place, roused from sleep by the commotion, appeared, Allen demanded the surrender of the fort. De La Place, sufficiently embarrassed, still had the presence of mind to ask by whose authority this demand was made. “In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” Allen thundered, giving equal dignity it would appear to Nature’s God and the delegates set to meet this very morning in Philadelphia. Or rather, this is the way Allen himself, not without literary flair, recalled the encounter in after time (though neither Feltham nor De La Place nor Arnold remembered it quite the same way). In any case, whether the fort–and its hundred cannon–was now the rightful possession of Connecticut or Massachusetts or the Continental Congress or the Great Jehovah, it was demonstrably no longer King George’s.

Pausing to relish their triumph, Ticonderoga’s conquerors, in Allen’s words, “tossed about the flowing bowl and wished success to Congress and the liberty and freedom of America.” Not content to rest on their laurels, two days later a detachment under Seth Warner, Arnold among them but still not in command, moved north and invested the fortifications at Crown Point, which had been wrecked and abandoned by the British in the wake of Ticonderoga’s fall. Shortly after, Skenesboro, at the head of the lake, fell to another detachment, putting in American hands a schooner belonging to the late squire of that place. This Arnold promptly appropriated, and with a force of his own at last, he sailed north all the way to St. Johns on the Richelieu River and seized the fort and its garrison there, his energy and ambition finally rewarded with a conquest. Soon after, he returned to Crown Point, and with greater conquests in mind, began to gather a make-shift navy for operations on the lakes (which he considered an excellent staging area for a possible invasion of Canada). But cautious politicians now overtook the ambitious warrior. As far as Connecticut was concerned, Ticonderoga and Crown Point were properly its conquests, and, after some wrangling, Massachusetts agreed. At this point, Arnold dismissed his troops and returned to Cambridge, the sweet savor of victory now turned to ashes in his mouth. Perhaps it was just as well. When the Second Continental Congress learned after the fact that British forts had been taken in their name, they were as much disconcerted as uplifted. Many still held out hopes for a reconciliation with Great Britain, hopes unlikely to be nourished by seizing its possessions. And despite the strategic importance of the northern posts, Congress after sharp debate agreed, at least for the moment, to abandon them. The cannon and other supplies, however, would go to the American camp until British possessions could be properly returned to their rightful owners. Officially, Congress still looked for the “restoration of the former harmony between Great Britain and these colonies so ardently wished for by the latter.”