With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution


On June 17, 1775, the entire dynamic of the newborn American Revolution was changed. If the Battle of Lexington and Concord was, in the immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the “shot heard round the world,” Bunker Hill was the volley that rocked Britain’s Parliament and the ministry of King George III to its core. The Battle of Bunker Hill was the first hostile engagement of the Revolution between two organized armies, and the first time that a genuine American army had ever taken the field. It gave the British...

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With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution

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On June 17, 1775, the entire dynamic of the newborn American Revolution was changed. If the Battle of Lexington and Concord was, in the immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the “shot heard round the world,” Bunker Hill was the volley that rocked Britain’s Parliament and the ministry of King George III to its core. The Battle of Bunker Hill was the first hostile engagement of the Revolution between two organized armies, and the first time that a genuine American army had ever taken the field. It gave the British their first inkling that the Colonial rabble-in-arms they had envisioned might actually prove to be a formidable fighting force.

     In this book, award-winning author James L. Nelson tells the exciting and dramatic story of the fight that changed the face of the American Revolution. He looks at the events leading up to that fateful day, the personalities on both the British and American sides who made momentous decisions, and the bloody outcome of those crucial choices, which would affect the British strategy on the battlefield throughout the coming six more years of active warfare.

     A masterful new history of the first set-piece battle of the Revolutionary War, With Fire and Sword offers critical new insights into one of the most important actions of our country’s founding.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This rousing history rescues Bunker Hill from its folkloric shroud and pre-sents it as one of the revolution's more significant and dramatic battles. Historian and novelist Nelson (Benedict Arnold's Navy) calls the 1775 engagement—a struggle for high ground from which American artillery could hit the British stronghold in Boston—the revolution's "first real battle." Amateurish Minutemen weathered a standup fight against the superbly drilled redcoats. (That they could obey the famous order to hold their fire until they could see the whites of their enemies' eyes was a triumph in itself.) The outcome was a bloodbath in which "the front ranks were mowed down as if the hand of God had swept them away"—until the ammunition ran out and the Americans fled. Nelson's gripping portrait of the battle caps a lively chronicle of the early days of the rebellion in Massachusetts and of the revolutionaries' scramble to establish a government and organize an army as they edged uneasily toward independence. Nelson's well-researched, entertaining account of the revolution's opening chapter aptly conveys the difficulty and riskiness of the patriots' gamble. 2 maps. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
"A dramatic and assiduously researched history.... James L. Nelson's With Fire and Sword is packed with incisive information on how the new American government and army were formed. And its sharply rendered battle scenes, sometimes taken straight from participants' diaries, project a vicious, gritty reality more reminiscent of World War II and Vietnam reportage than of a war which has so often been romanticized. Readers will surely find Nelson's objective history exciting and bracing."—Philadelphia Inquirer


"Top-notch research and an entertaining narrative capture all of the drama and flavor of this important event. Nelson writes with the clarity and authority of an historian who at the top of his game."—Tucson Citizen


"Excellent, vivid blow-by-blow account from fine storyteller."—American History Magazine


"Nelson does a remarkable job of bringing history to life, using the voices of those involved.... Nelson brilliantly succeeds at drawing readers into the first major battle of the Revolutionary War."—Bangor Daily News


"[Nelson] makes history entertaining, exciting and fascinating."—Kennebec Journal


"This rousing history rescues Bunker Hill from its folkloric shroud and presents it as one of the revolution's more significant and dramatic battles. ... Nelson's well-researched, entertaining account of the revolution's opening chapter aptly conveys the difficulty and riskiness of the patriots' gamble."—Publishers Weekly


"A clever, often sardonic history of an iconic battle. ... Nelson makes an entertaining case that the American Revolution may have been won on Bunker Hill."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


"Nelson has written a vivid description of the savage fighting, paying ample tribute to the courage and tenacity displayed by both sides. ... This is a well-done examination of a critical battle, ideal for general readers."—Booklist


"Most appealing is Nelson's refreshing ability to write about historical events and people in a manner that makes history come alive — entertaining, exciting, and fascinating. ... Best, however, is Nelson's gripping description of the battle itself."—New Maine Times


"Mr. Nelson has taken an episode, which usually does not occupy more than a few paragraphs in most histories of Revolution, an d with convincing research and vivid narrative style turned it into an important, marvelously readble book." —Thomas Fleming on George Washington's Secret Navy


"Benedict Arnold's Navy is an excellent book and one worthy of its author, James L. Nelson, who has written several historical books of exceptional quality.  Typical of his work, Nelson has taken an episode of history, researched it thoroughly, and produced a smoothly told narrative." —Associated Press


"A suspenseful vivid account." - the Wall Street Journal on Benedict Arnold's Navy


"Nelson does a masterful job of storytelling, describing not just the military actions but also the petty jealousies and backbiting that were all too common in the Continental Army at that time." —Military Heritage on Benedict Arnold's Navy


"Nelson shows in Reign of Iron that his knack as a storyteller is as strong in a historical examination as it is in novels.  But he also displays a great grasp of perspective that allows him to deal with the significance of events." —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Kirkus Reviews

A clever, often sardonic history of an iconic battle.

Prolific historian Nelson (George Washington's Great Gamble: And the Sea Battle that Won the American Revolution, 2010, etc.) begins in turbulent 1760s Massachusetts, which, in his often tongue-in-cheek narrative, resembles less the traditional high-school patriotic pageant than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More than a century and a half of Britain's benign neglect had left the colonies largely self-governing. Attempts to reassert control by levying taxes produced widespread outrage and violence. Zealots such as Sam Adams and Joseph Warren denounced Britain in rhetoric similar to today's Tea Party. By the mid-1770s, matters were out of hand with trigger-happy militia springing up, far outnumbering British troops. Massachusetts governor Thomas Gage understood the situation, but superiors in London demanded action. When he sent troops to seize arms in Lexington and Concord, the resulting debacle merely convinced superiors that he lacked the necessary firmness. They sent reinforcements and hectoring advice as angry militia laid siege to Boston. In June 1775, overconfident British forces charged well-defended entrenchments around Bunker Hill, suffering repeated bloody repulses before overrunning them. Gage was dismissed. Ironically, his replacement, Gen. William Howe, commanded during the battle and bears responsibility for Britain's pyrrhic victory. In 1776, Howe's forces routed Americans on Long Island, demoralized remnants took shelter behind entrenchments on Brooklyn Heights. An attack might have annihilated them. Instead, possibly recalling his unhappy experience the previous year, Howe paused, allowing them to withdraw intact.

Nelson makes an entertaining case that the American Revolution may have been won on Bunker Hill.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312576448
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 979,392
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

JAMES L. NELSON is the author of fifteen works of fiction and nonfiction.  His novels include the five books of his Revolution at Sea saga and three in his Brethren of the Coast series.  His novel Glory in the Name won the American Library Association's W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Best Military Fiction.  Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads was his first work of nonfiction, and he has since authored three other histories of naval warfare dring the American Revolution: Benedict Arnold's Navy, George Washington's Secret Navy, which earend the SAmuel Eliot Morison Award from the Naval Order of the United STates, and George Washington's Great Gamble.  He lives in Harpswell, Maine, with his wife and four children.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



Bunker Hill. It must have looked like the promised land, glowing golden in the setting sun, to the 1,800 or so British soldiers who staggered across Charlestown Neck and along the base of that high ground on the evening of April 19, 1775. They were men of the 4th Regiment of Foot, known as the King’s Own, the 5th, or Northumberland Fusiliers, the 10th, 18th, and 23rd, the famed Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and others. There were Royal Marines and artillery. They were exhausted, starved, wounded, and choking with thirst, dogged and harassed to madness by American militia all the way from Concord, sixteen miles away.

At their head rode Brigadier General Hugh, Lord Percy, the thirty-two-year-old son of the Duke of Northumberland, colonel of the Northumberland Fusiliers, heir to one of the greatest fortunes in England, and a skilled and experienced soldier. The fabric of his fine waistcoat was torn where a bullet had carried a button away, but beyond that he was unhurt. The same was not true for many of the men under his command.

Percy had arrived in Boston on July 5, 1774, as part of the buildup of troops sent to enforce Parliament’s disciplinary measures against the city. A number of things surprised him, including the price of necessities in that embargoed city. For the “handsomest” horse in the country, by Percy’s reckoning, he told his father, “I was forced to give 450£.” He also “got some tolerable chaise-horses from N.Y., for there were none good eno’ in this country.” Additionally he was able to rent the home of the former governor, but used it only for dining, “for we are all obliged to remain at other times & sleep in camp.” Percy entertained his fellow officers as well as “occasionally the Gentlemen of the country.” It was a busy schedule. “I have always a table of 12 covers every day. This, tho’ very expensive, is however very necessary.”

Percy was a Whig and a man of liberal tendencies, generally sympathetic with the struggles of the American colonies, but he arrived with some preconceived notions about the people of Massachusetts that meeting them did not change. Just a few weeks after arriving in America, Percy wrote to his father, “The people in this part of the country are in general made up of rashness & timidity. Quick & violent in their determinations, they are fearful in the execution of them … To hear them talk, you would imagine that they would attack us & demolish us every night; & yet, whenever we appear, they are frightened out of their wits.”

The ten months Percy spent in Boston only reinforced this view, and during that time he was able to see firsthand the deterioration of the political situation. By the end of October, still five months before the fighting at Lexington and Concord, he was writing to his friend and distant cousin the Rev. Thomas Percy, “Our affairs here are in the most Critical Situation imaginable; Nothing less than the total loss or Conquest of the Colonies must be the End of it. Either indeed is disagreeable, but one or the other now is absolutely necessary.”

On the night of April 18, General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the army and governor of Massachusetts, ordered his troops to march on a secret mission. They were to seize military stores, particularly gunpowder, small arms, and artillery, secreted in the town of Concord. Though it was not committed to writing, they were also to arrest the chief leaders of the insurrection, John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

Gage had arrived at Boston about a month before Percy, and like Percy quickly grasped the situation. Indeed, Gage, with the benefit of age and many years of experience in America, understood the situation better than Percy, and far better than the ministry in England. Gage knew, among other things, that the force he had in Boston was utterly inadequate for the mission London expected him to accomplish. In late 1774 Gage had requested of the American secretary in London, William Legge, the Second Earl of Dartmouth, an army of 20,000 men.

It was just a few weeks before the action at Lexington and Concord that Gage received an answer from Dartmouth. The violence committed in Massachusetts, Dartmouth informed Gage, “appeared to me as the acts of a rude rabble, without plan, without concert and without conduct.” Dartmouth in London assured Gage in Boston that “a smaller force now, if put to the test, would be able to encounter them with a greater probability of success” than would a 20,000-man army once the rebels had organized.

The secret mission Gage planned for the 18th was in response to Dartmouth’s letter. It was “the opinion of the King’s servants,” Dartmouth wrote, “in which His Majesty concurs, that the first and essential step to be taken towards reestablishing government would be to arrest and imprison the principal actors and abettors” of the insurrection. No local court would ever find them guilty, of course, but under the new laws governing the colony “the courts of justice are at present not permitted to be opened,” and thus their imprisonment without trial was likely to be a long one.

Gage was also to “on no account suffer the inhabitants of at least the town of Boston to assemble themselves in arms on any pretense whatever either of town-guard or militia duty.” Dartmouth added, pointedly, that “a report prevails that you have not only indulged them in having such a guard but have also allowed their militia to train and discipline in Faneuil Hall.”

Under those suggestions and admonitions Gage gave orders for the troops to assemble on a deserted beach on Boston’s Back Bay, where boats from the Royal Navy would carry them across the Charles River to the opposite shore. In command of the column was Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, an old and experienced officer. Second was the very able Major John Pitcairn of the marines. The troops, about 800 in all, were the elite of Gage’s army.

By the mid-eighteenth century, every British regiment had attached to it two distinct companies called “flank companies.” One of these flank companies was the grenadiers, the biggest and strongest troops in the army, made more formidable looking by their distinctive tall beaver hats. Originally their function had been to hurl the crude hand grenades of the period. By the time of the Revolution they no longer sported grenades but rather served as the shock troops of the army, the unstoppable infantry wave.

The other flank company was the light infantry, and their inclusion as a regular part of the army was largely through the influence of William Howe. While rank-and-file troops were drilled in marching and firing in formation, the light infantry was trained in more irregular tactics such as open-order combat, woodland fighting, swimming, climbing, and marksmanship. Having come to appreciate the utility of light infantry during the French and Indian War, Howe persuaded the king to create such a company in every regiment. The light infantry was composed of the most active and intelligent troops. They were the forerunners of today’s special forces, and their organization, training, and field tactics were largely Howe’s doing.

For the mission to Concord, Gage chose to send only the flank companies. To keep the intended operation a secret, he issued general orders on April 15 that “the Grenadiers and Light Infantry in order to learn Grenadrs. Exercise and new evolutions are to be off all duties ’till further orders.” This subterfuge did not fool many. Lieutenant John Barker commented in his diary, “This I suppose is by way of a blind. I dare say they have something for them to do.”

Not only did the officers guess something was up, but Gage’s secret leaked out to the general public with shocking speed. The first inkling that something was amiss came from the British sailors who had received orders to man the boats and bring them around to Back Bay, and who, in the way of sailors everywhere, could not keep their mouths shut. This and other hints made their way to the Sons of Liberty and the leaders of the insurrection in Boston. Sam Adams and John Hancock had left town a few weeks before to attend a meeting of the Provincial Congress and had concluded that it would be healthier for them to remain out of town. The only man central to the revolutionary movement left in Boston was Dr. Joseph Warren.

Word of British movement reached Warren, but neither he nor anyone else knew what the target was. Warren had another source of information, however, an informant very close to General Gage. That person’s identity was so secret no one but Warren ever knew who it was, though it was and still is strongly suspected that the informant was Gage’s American wife, Margaret Kemble Gage.

Whoever it was, Warren tapped that source and received confirmation of the British plans to march on Concord and to arrest Hancock and Adams. He sent Richard Dawes, Paul Revere, and possibly another express rider to alarm the countryside, though their primary mission was to alert Hancock and Adams to the danger.

John Crozier, who was in command of the flotilla of boats carrying the troops across the river from Boston, recalled that, despite the secrecy, the people of the town guessed that something was afoot. “In consequence of this conception,” he wrote, “a light was shown at the top of a church stiple directing those in the country to be on guard.” That, of course, was Revere’s famous “two if by sea” lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church.

The result of all this activity was that the arrival of the “regulars,” as the British troops were called, at Lexington Green was anything but a surprise. Most of the military stores had been moved to safety, and Hancock and Adams, along with other revolutionary leaders also in the path of the British column, such as Elbridge Gerry, Jeremiah Lee, and Azor Orne, managed to escape.

More ominously for the British troops, American militia had turned out in significant and ever increasing numbers. Lieutenant Colonel Smith sent word to Gage that the countryside was alarmed and reinforcements would be needed. Both British and American officers had admonished their men not to fire the first shot, but as British troops advanced on the American militia on the green, someone disobeyed that order. A gun went off, and when it did, the British regulars, acting without orders, fired a volley into the militia, and the militia fired back. Eight Americans were killed in the brief exchange, ten wounded; the remaining militia dispersed. One British private was injured slightly. The first blood of the war was spilled, the first fight between British and American troops begun.

Who fired the shot, whether British or American, is not clear. It was important to both sides, politically and morally, that it not be them, that they could lay the blame for bloodshed on their enemy. Many depositions were taken after the incident, but no consensus has ever emerged. Most British witnesses believed the Americans fired first, and, predictably, most Americans felt it was the British. It just as likely might have been a misfire, a nervous finger on the trigger, or the weak catch slipping on the flintlock of an ancient musket. Possibly more than one gun went off at the same time. It was one of the most momentous shots in history, and it will probably never be known who fired it.

Smith’s column moved on to Concord, where they destroyed what war matériel they could find, which was not much. The Americans had hidden the most valuable stores, and the regulars found only some gun carriages, musket balls, a few iron cannons, and sundry tools. In fact, the Concord raid did more harm than good. The time spent searching the town gave the militia more chance to collect, and the smoke from two buildings that were burned—whether by accident or purposefully is not known—alerted more militia to the danger.

While Smith’s men were searching the town for supplies, more and more American troops gathered nearby until they numbered around 400. With the smoke from the burning buildings rising in the early morning sky, it was obvious that the time for action had come. The militia marched off to Concord’s North Bridge, “with as much order as the best disciplined Troops,” a British officer noted, where three companies of Smith’s infantry were posted.

The British were “drawn up in order to fire Street fireing,” that is, in three ranks, one behind the other, while the Americans on the other side of the river deployed in a single line. The British fired, but the Americans stood their ground and, to the surprise and dismay of the British, returned fire with an intensity that drove the regulars back. Under the fusillade of American shot the unthinkable happened—the British formation broke, and the redcoats were put to flight, running back down the road toward the protection of the rest of their troops.

By noon Smith had restored order, and his column moved out, beginning the long march back to Boston. Smith sent companies out on the army’s flanks to sweep the militia from the stone walls and stands of trees that bordered the road. For a mile or so they met with no resistance, but then, as the flankers rejoined the column, the firing began. The fighting grew heavier as more and more Yankee militia joined those already lying in wait for the redcoats. To the increasingly worried regulars it seemed as if “men had dropped from the clouds.”

Soon Smith’s column was badly outnumbered, with militia firing on either side and a large body of armed men following behind. Lieutenant Colonel Smith himself was shot in the leg and badly wounded. Lieutenant John Barker of the King’s Own Regiment of Foot recalled, “The Country was an amazing strong one, full of Hills, Woods, stone Walls, &c., which the Rebels did not fail to take advantage of, for they were all lined with People who kept an incessant fire upon us, as we did too upon them but not with the same advantage, for they were so concealed there was hardly any seeing them.”

As Smith’s column began to take casualties, discipline began to break down. By the time Lexington was in sight the men were starting to run, driven by building panic and a desire to get away from the murderous fire of the militia. The officers tried to form the men into column, but they were beyond listening. “At last,” wrote Ensign Henry De Berniere, “we got to Lexington and the officers got to the front and presented their bayonets, and told the men if they advanced they should die. Upon this they began to form under Heavy fire.”

It was around 2:00 P.M., and Smith’s column had been on the move since the evening before, having marched through the night and morning. The men were exhausted, hungry, and thirsty. Many were wounded. They were surrounded by an enemy that they could not get at, and their ammunition was running low. Lieutenant Barker was staggering along with his troops; he later wrote, “Very few Men had any ammunition left, and so fatigued that we cou’d not keep flanking parties out, so that we must soon have laid down our Arms, or been picked off by the Rebels at their pleasure.” Then the men in the van saw a sight that must have seemed like a gift from heaven itself, and they began to shout and cheer. “In this critical situation,” Lieutenant Barker wrote, “we perceived the 1st Brigade coming to our assistance.”


Even before Smith’s request for reinforcements arrived, Gage was growing concerned for the safety of the flank companies. He was certainly aware that his secret was out. Percy had overheard civilians on Boston Common talking about the march to Concord, and he informed Gage of this. According to one British officer, “the town was a good deal agitated and alarmed” by the troops mustering on the beach. Gage may even have heard the clang of alarm bells rolling over the Charles River from the countryside beyond.

Not wanting to wait for word of a disaster, Gage gave orders for the 1st Brigade to muster under arms at 4:00 A.M. What followed was a staggering series of blunders that delayed the relief troops by hours and doubtless resulted in many more casualties than the British might otherwise have suffered.

Gage sent written orders to the brigade major of the 1st, an officer named Montcrieffe, who was responsible for seeing the men mustered. Major Montcrieffe was not at his quarters, and rather than hunt him down the messenger left the orders for him. When Montcrieffe finally returned, his servant neglected to mention the sealed note from the commander in chief. The major went to bed unaware that his men had been ordered into battle.

Four o’clock rolled around, and the brigade failed to muster. At 5:00 A.M. a breathless rider pounded into headquarters with a request from Smith for reinforcements. It was only then that Gage learned that the 1st Brigade was still in bed. At 6:00 Gage sent another order “for the 1st Brigade to assemble at ½ past 7 on the grand parade.”

Two divisions of marines were also ordered to accompany the 1st Brigade, their orders sent at the same time as the first set of orders to Major Montcrieffe. In this case the orders were addressed to the commanding officer of the marines, Major John Pitcairn. The messenger did not find Pitcairn at his quarters because he was at that moment marching to Lexington with Smith’s column. As was done with Montcrieffe’s orders, Pitcairn’s were left at his quarters to wait for his return.

The 1st Brigade was “on the parade at the hour appointed, with one days provisions,” but the marines were nowhere to be found. The minutes ticked by as that mix-up was straightened out. Unknown to the assembled troops, about ten miles away their brothers in arms were just arriving in Concord after having marched all night and exchanged fire with the minutemen at Lexington Green. Soon those men, so far from their base of operations and reinforcements, would start taking serious casualties from the growing mob of armed colonials.

By 8:30 the marines, with their red coats and bright white cross belts, were assembled on the parade. It was then that the men learned their mission. “Here we understood that we were to march out of town to support the troops that went out last night,” Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie noted in his diary. No one seems to have been much worried about the hazards of the mission. The British army was one of the best trained, best equipped, and best led armies in the world. During the time those troops had been in Boston, the American militia had never attempted armed resistance, and it made the regulars contemptuous of Yankee courage and willingness to fight. They were not concerned about the danger posed by farmers with muskets. At 8:45 they moved out.

In the van of the column was an advance guard of a captain and fifty men. Behind them came the Royal Artillery in their blue coats, accompanying two six-pounder field guns drawn by teams of horses. After them the 4th and the 47th regiments, the battalion of marines, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and last a rear guard of fifty men. In all there were about 1,000 troops out of what Percy referred to as “a clever little Army.”

The column marched through the narrow streets of Boston and across the neck of land that connected the city to the mainland at Roxbury. As they marched they played a fife and drum tune that had become a favorite of the British army in Boston, “Yankee Doodle.” As Captain W. Glanville Evelyn of the 4th Regiment wrote, the brigade marched along in the morning sun, “little suspecting what was going on.”

It was a lovely morning in a lovely country, one, in fact, that Percy very much admired. He wrote to his father:

It is most delightfully varied. The hills, rising from the valleys by gradual & gentle ascents, interspersed everywhere with trees, give it a most agreeable appearance. Nor do the small lakes of water with which the country abounds, contribute little towards the richness of the scene. In short, it has everywhere the appearance of a Park finely laid out.

The countryside around Boston was sparsely but evenly settled, or, as Captain Evelyn said, “This country is a continued village.” Still, as the 1st Brigade marched down the road toward Lexington it was clear that something was not right. “In all the places we marched through, and in the houses on the road, few or no people were to be seen,” Lieutenant Mackenzie wrote, “and the houses in general shut up.”

The column continued its march to Lexington, but Percy could find no one to give him an idea of what was taking place to the northwest. It was not until he had marched through Menotomy (today called Arlington) that Percy “was informed that the Rebels had attacked His Majesty’s Troops, who were retiring, overpowered by numbers, greatly exhausted & fatigued, & having expended almost all their ammunition.”

Hearing that, Percy pushed the men on, “as fast as good order & not blowing the men would allow.” The 1st Battalion and the marines marched up the Lexington Road toward the town where the fighting had begun. It was around 2:00 P.M., as the grenadiers and light infantry staggered into Lexington from the northwest, that Percy’s column approached the town from the southeast. Mackenzie recalled, “We heard some straggling shots fired from about a mile in our front:—As we advanced we heard the firing plainer and more frequent.”

As the battalion approached Lexington, they could at last see the remains of the flank companies now all but running down the Lexington Road, pursued by a great crowd of militia. The gunfire was nearly continuous, and a cloud of gray smoke hung in the air and trailed behind the advancing troops.

The extent of the disaster was immediately clear to Percy, and he wasted not a moment. He ordered the artillerymen to bring their six-pounders up to a high point at the south end of town called Munroe’s Hill. “I immediately ordered the 2 field-pieces to fire at the Rebels,” Percy reported, “and drew up the Brigade on a Height.”

The six-pounders opened up at long range on the pursuing militia, and they had the desired effect. Barker wrote, “As soon as the Rebels saw this reinforcement, and tasted the field pieces, they retired.” Practically speaking, muskets fired from the flank companies offered much greater danger to the militia than cannons fired from a distance at men in loose formation, but the psychological impact of the field pieces was much greater. For the first time since the fighting began, the Americans disengaged and dropped back.

Percy ordered his men to form in a line of battle on either side of the road, which they did with the speed and efficiency of highly trained troops, though “by reason of the Stone walls and other obstructions it was not formed in so regular a manner as it should have been.” One of the key differences between trained, professional troops such as the British and the embattled farmers who opposed them was the ability to form and maneuver as a unit on the battlefield and to deliver volleys of fire against an enemy in tight formation. Training and discipline also allowed men to stand up to an enemy’s volley without breaking and running in panic. This was the standard eighteenth-century mode of combat and the way the British would have expected to fight another European army. This was also the reason that the untrained Americans had no intention of meeting the British in an open field.

From the high ground on which they were formed, the 1st Brigade got a good look at what they were up against. “We could observe a Considerable number of the Rebels,” Mackenzie wrote, “but they were very much scattered, and not above 50 of them could be seen in a body in any place. Many lay concealed behind the Stone walls and fences.” The grenadiers and light infantry rushed through the gap made by the road in the 1st Brigade’s line and collapsed to the ground in exhaustion, free at last from the deadly tormentors who had chased them nearly all the way from Concord.

Among those who came staggering through the line was twenty-two-year-old Ensign Jeremy Lister, a young officer of the 10th Regiment of Foot. He was not part of a flank company, and so had not been called up to go with the 2nd Brigade when they marched on April 18, but when one of the lieutenants of the 10th’s grenadiers who lodged in the same house as Lister turned out for the secret mission, Lister accompanied him to the parade ground, “anxious to know the reason for this Order.”

On the parade they met Captain Parsons of the light infantry. Parsons was waiting with mounting impatience for the arrival of one of his lieutenants, James Hamilton. When Hamilton at last sent word that he was sick, Lister volunteered to go in his place and rushed back to his lodging to get his gear. He met the company as they were marching through the dark streets toward the Back Bay and the waiting boats. Lieutenant Colonel Smith told Lister to go back to town “and not go into danger for others particularly Hamilton whose Illness was suppos’d by everybody to be feign’d which twas clearly prov’d to be the case afterwards.” (Hamilton’s name disappears from the Army List in 1776. This incident may have led to the loss of his commission.)

Lister argued that “it would be rather a disgrace for the Compy to March on an expedition, more especially it being the first, without its Compliment of Officers.” At this Smith relented, and Lister joined the 2nd Brigade on its march and stood with the troops at Lexington Green and the Concord Bridge. As the column retreated toward Lexington, the ensign recalled, it “became a general Firing upon us from all Quarters, from behind hedges and Walls [and] we return’d the fire every opportunity.”

As he and the others marched through that hail of musket fire, Lister “recd a shot through my Right Elbow joint,” which shattered the joint and left the ball lodged in his arm. Clutching the agonizing wound, blood running over his hand, Lister hurried on, the firing growing more and more intense as the militia poured in from the surrounding communities. As Percy put it, “The rebels were in great nos., the whole country having collected for 20 m around.”

As they came into the town of Lexington, “We was then met by a Reinforcement of 4 Batalians under Lord percie,” Lister wrote, “to our great joy our amunition being then nearly expended.” Lister was less happy to learn that the cannons had only seven rounds each (he was mistaken; they actually had twenty-four). This he blamed on the commander of artillery, though in fact it was Percy who did not want to be slowed by an ammunition wagon and “did not imagine there would be any occasion for more than there was in the side-boxes” of the gun carriages. After the brigade had marched, Gage on his own accord sent two ammunition wagons after Percy, which were both ambushed and taken by militia en route.

Lieutenant John Barker wrote that he and the rest of the flank companies “rested ourselves a little while, which was extremely necessary for our Men who were almost exhausted with fatigue.” Meanwhile the 1st Brigade continued to form a screen for the tired men, with a swampy area off to their left helping to keep the enemy back. Ensign Lister asked the surgeon’s mate of the 43rd Regiment “to examine my Arme when he extracted the Ball it having gone through the Bone and lodg’d within the Skin.”

After the few shots initially fired from the six-pounders to drive the militia off, the artillery seems to have remained quiet, perhaps to save ammunition, and slowly the Americans closed in again. Mackenzie wrote, “The Rebels endeavored to gain our flanks, and crept into the covered ground on either side, and as close as they could in front, firing now and then in perfect security.” Both sides continued to exchange a brisk fire, and Percy ordered three nearby houses that offered shelter to the enemy put to the torch. Marksmen from the 1st Brigade were sent forward to take cover behind stone walls and try to pick off some of the militia. For all the lead that was flying, though, neither side was able to do much damage. It was not until the column continued on for Boston that the real slaughter began again.

Despite the danger of the march, the last thing that Percy wished to do was to remain stationary. The longer the column waited, the more the militia was augmented from the surrounding towns. Word was spreading fast as express riders raced out in every direction, and “numbers of armed men on foot and on horseback, were continually coming from all parts guided by the fire.”

It was around this time that two men whose presence would have a profound impact on the rest of the fight joined the American militia. One was General William Heath, one of four men empowered to take command of the Massachusetts militia. The other was Dr. Joseph Warren, who was, from the British perspective, possibly the most dangerous man in America.


Copyright © 2011 by James L. Nelson

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Table of Contents

Map: Bunker Hill 10

Map: Boston and Environs 12

Prologue: The Battle of Brooklyn 15

Part I From Resistance to Rebellion

Chapter 1 The Lexington Alarm 53

Chapter 2 Dr. Joseph Warren 78

Chapter 3 "The Butchering Hands of an Inhuman Soldiery" 115

Chapter 4 Weed of Slavery 142

Chapter 5 Gage's Return 173

Chapter 6 The Loyal and Orderly People 200

Chapter 7 A Well-Digested Plan 220

Part II Prelude to War

Chapter 8 From the Penn to the Sword 251

Chapter 9 Officers and Men 280

Chapter 10 The Massachusetts Army 307

Chapter 11 Three Generals 336

Chapter 12 The Siege of Boston 365

Part III The Battle of Bunker Hill

Chapter 13 Charlestown Heights 391

Chapter 14 First Light 418

Chapter 15 Redcoats and Bluejackets 447

Chapter 16 The Battle of Bunker Hill 480

Chapter 17 Attack and Repulse 511

Epilogue "We Are All Wrong at the Head" 549

Acknowledgments 573

Notes 577

Bibliography 621

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