1750-1799 · America

The Sword of Bunker Hill

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February 23, 1807 • Rumney, New Hampshire

“Papa!”

Oliver looked up from the harness he was oiling and smiled as his six-year-old daughter ran up to him, arms outstretched. Her long, brunette braids hung down her back, her muslin nightdress swishing around her knees. He set aside the harness and stretched out his arms to her. “Come give Papa a good-night kiss, Polly.”

She ran into his embrace, her dimples accented by the dancing hearth firelight. Noisily, he kissed her cheek, which made her giggle. “Your mustache tickles.”

Oliver glanced up as twelve-year-old Joseph came from the kitchen, a steamy mug in his hands. Joseph wrapped an arm around Oliver’s shoulders. ” ‘Night, Papa.”

“Good night, son.”

As Joseph walked toward his bedroom, Polly looked up at her father. “Tell me a bedtime story?”

Oliver opened his mouth to answer as Joseph spun around, sloshing hot chocolate on the floorboards, barely missing his mother’s favorite rocking chair. “Yeah!” He exclaimed, his eyes large. “Something from the French and Indian War!”

“No!” Polly pouted. “I don’t want a story about scary Indians. Tell us about Rahab and the spies!”

Joseph rolled his eyes. “The spies came to Jericho to look around and Rahab hid them and helped them escape. The end.”

“No! I want Papa to tell it.”

“Children,” Oliver rumbled. “I’ll tell you a story, but you have to agree on which one.”

Polly and Joseph glanced at each other then at the floor. Joseph ran his big toe through the drops he spilled on the floor, rubbing them into the wood. Oh, Polly would be furious. Oliver tried not to grin as he imagined his wife’s face if she had been in here instead of putting baby Phebe to bed.

Finally, Joseph looked up. “How about Grandpa at Bunker Hill?”

Polly raised her head, first glancing at Joseph then at the sword hanging over the mantle. “Okay.”

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June 16, 1775 • Cambridge, Massechusetts

“The British move on Dorchester, huh?” First Lieutenant Joseph Spaulding murmured to his commanding officer, Captain Asa Lawrence. Probably don’t need to drop my voice so low. Joseph glanced around the busy tavern, his eyes resting on one lone man sitting in the far corner, watching the room with quick, furtive glances. Joseph scowled, thinking about the British army in Boston and their spies. Then again, one can never be too sure during a civil conflict.

Asa nodded. “Yep. General Ward wants us to make sure that those lobster-back British never get there. The best way to do that is by drawing out their fire on Bunker Hill.”

Joseph nodded and looked down at the British map lying between them on the simple

charlestown 1775
From Bunker Hill Monument

wooden table, the parchment’s crinkling corners held down with their mugs of ale. The Charlestown Peninsula comprised of three knolls and about three hundred buildings wrapped around the hills in a spoon shape, the “handle” stretching toward the Charlestown Neck in the northwest corner. The longest hill sprawled along the northwest of the peninsula. On the map, it was labeled “Bunker’s Hill” in small letters and was separated from the shortest hill, called Morton’s Hill, by a small pond. South of those two, but north of Charlestown proper, was the third knoll. On the top of this one was scrawled the name “Green’s Hill.”

“Ever been there before?” Asa’s question pulled Joseph’s attention from the map.

“Can’t say that I have,” Joseph admitted, lifting his mug to his lips. “You?”

Asa nodded. “I’ve done some business with a couple of the men who own pastures on this hill.” He pointed to Green’s Hill. “Locals actually call it Breed’s Pasture, because Ebenezer Breed owns most of the southern part of the hill. Most of these hills are filled with gardens, orchards, and grazing land.”

Joseph grimaced and not because of the earthy notes in the ale. Families with children live off this land. What will they do after the battle? His thoughts tripped back to his hometown of Pepperell and his two children, Oliver and Betty. Then a beautiful face filled his mind’s eye, bringing with it a crushing sorrow. Phebe. It had been six months since she had died of nervous fever. Still feels like yesterday.  He gritted his teeth and looked back at the map. One of the many costs of war is suffering. Regardless, soldiers can’t let themselves get distracted by pity. ‘Specially not self-pity. 

“In any case,” Asa continued, lowering his voice even further, “You’ll be seeing it up close and personal tonight. Our company marches with Colonel Prescott tonight to build a redoubt. I assume that will be somewhere over here,” he pointed to the northernmost hill.

That’s where I’d put it. Joseph nodded, thinking about a redoubt, or a mud and stone fort, he had helped build in Quebec during the French and Indian War.  

“We’ll hold the peninsula until another regiment comes to relieve us.” Asa drained the last of his ale and carefully folded the map. “You’re going to have to brief the company. Col. Prescott wants to meet with us captains and Col. Gridley.”

Joseph blinked. “The army’s chief engineer is coming with us?”

“Of course. This battle may very well decide the fate of this little civil war. If Providence smiles on us, we will hold the field and General Gage will be forced to surrender. He’ll have go back to England and tell that blasted Parliament to treat us like men and citizens instead of rebellious children.”

Joseph smiled sadly. “People said the Battles of Lexington and Concord would send the British running back to England with their tails between their legs. It didn’t. And I sincerely doubt tomorrow will determine anything for sure.”

Asa shook his head. “Let’s try being optimistic for a change, shall we?” He clapped Joseph on the shoulder. “I need you with high morale to keep the men going tonight.”

Joseph tried to crack a genuine smile, but knew that he didn’t quite succeed. “Yes sir.”

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June 17 • Charlestown, MA • 3 AM

“All’s Well!”

Joseph sighed with relief as he heard the British sentry’s call resonate over Boston Harbor. Although the sloop-of-war, the Lively, was away from shore, he wasn’t sure how they hadn’t been detected yet. Standing on the Charlestown wharf, he could clearly hear the shovels and pickaxes that had been breaking ground up the hill for the last three hours.

Footsteps resounded on the wooden dock behind him. Whirling around, Joseph saw the outline of a tall man wearing a three-cornered hat and put a hand to his sword. “Did I just hear that sentry correctly, Spaulding?”

Joseph relaxed. “Yes sir, Col. Prescott. By the grace of God, we haven’t been discovered.”

“Don’t stop praying yet. We have an hour until dawn and less until the British realize what we’re doing. The redoubt isn’t nearly as high as I would like.” Col. Prescott looked out at the Lively. “And the men are already getting tired.”

“Sir, I’m still feeling strong.” It was half true, at least. As soon as they had arrived at the Charlestown Peninsula, Col. Prescott had split them into two groups. Joseph and fifty-nine others had been sent to patrol Charlestown, just in case some lobster-backs wanted to come investigate. The 940 remaining were sent with Col. Gridley to build the redoubt. Since then, Joseph had been walking back and forth on this dock. He was bone-weary, but confident that a brisk walk up the hill would earn him a second wind. “Replace me here, and I’ll go up to the redoubt.”

Col. Prescott stared at Joseph for a long moment then nodded. “There are some men waiting in the townhouses to replace wharf sentries. Come with me and I’ll show you the quickest way up the hill.”

Joseph shouldered his musket and followed Col. Prescott past the unnaturally silent clapboard houses of Charlestown. There was no wind, and no dog barked. The barns were oppressively quiet, no sounds of shuffling cows or horses as they passed. They even smelled silent, bereft of the scents of fresh manure and hay. “Eerie, is it not?” Col. Prescott commented.

“Yes, sir. Never been in a city that was so quiet. How long ago was the city evacuated?”

“It wasn’t too long after the Lexington Alert. Even Boston is largely empty now.”

Joseph thought back to April 19, 1775, the day of the Lexington Alert. As long as I live, I’ll never forget that day. Three brave sons of liberty, one being Paul Revere, had warned the entire area that British troops were moving against Lexington and Concord. As soon as Joseph was told, he left immediately to join the other minutemen on Lexington Green. That day had been a victory for the minutemen, and the point of decision for him. He had returned to Pepperell long enough to make arrangements for his children if something happened to him, then returned to Cambridge to join the provincial army.

Col Prescott stopped between two houses, a dirt path perpendicular to the one they were using. He pointed to the right. “This road is the shortest route. Walk straight north and you’ll find the redoubt.” With that, he entered the next townhouse. Joseph, biting back a yawn, took the lane Col. Prescott indicated.

“Halt,” a gruff voice demanded five minutes later, a sharp click accenting the command.

Joseph turned to see a rotund, shadowy figure behind a tree about five feet away holding a pistol. Must be getting lighter if I can make out the barrel.

“State your business,” the gruff voice demanded.

“I’m Lt. Joseph Spaulding of Company G under Capt. Asa Lawrence. Col. Prescott wants me to help build the redoubt.”

“Well then,” the gruff voice was suddenly amiable as he uncocked the gun and held out his right hand. “Col. Israel Putnam. I can’t say that we’ve met, Spaulding.”

“No sir, but I fought near you in the Battle of Chelsea Creek.”

Col. Putnam grunted. “Good day, that was. My waistcoat buttons nearly burst when the Diana was sent up in flames.”

Joseph smiled, remembering that beautiful May day. Company G had been the last men on the ship and had been the ones to set the fire. He only wished he had been able to see Gen. Graves’ face when he realized his ship had been taken by stealthy guerrilla fighters.

Col. Putnam glanced toward the digging noise. “But time is of the essence. Walk up with me, son. I’d rather you not have any more close shaves until the British attack.”

“I appreciate that, sir.” Joseph followed Col. Putnam over the rail fence beside them into the open pasture beyond. A minute or so later, they reached the redoubt, the walls of the mud trapezoid fort were nearly six feet high. How odd. For being on the northern hill, it didn’t take very long to get here. 

Turning to look behind, a sudden frigidity hit like a cannon ball in the stomach. The sun hadn’t peaked over Boston Harbor yet, but brilliant oranges and purples lit the sky, giving him enough light to see the British fleet in the harbor. From the northern hill, the ships would have seemed just a few inches tall. As it was, all eight of them– fully equipped with in-range cannons– were only a few hundred yards to the east. “This isn’t the northern hill!” Joseph hissed to Col. Putnam. “This is Breed’s Pasture! The hill closest to town!”

“Hmm?” Col. Putnam glanced around at Joseph. “Oh, yes.”

“I thought we were supposed to be on Bunker Hill!”

Col. Putnam rolled his eyes. “This is Bunker Hill, Lieutenant. This hill, that tall one to the north, and that little bump on the eastern tip of the peninsula is all Bunker Hill. We decided this would be the best place from which to repulse the British because this hill is the steepest and it will be easier to withstand the bayonet charges from here.”

Joseph felt himself pale. “We don’t have enough powder for a full attack.” Or food to keep the men energized, for that matter. His hand fell to the flask under his waistcoat. It had what little rum he hadn’t drunk during the night. He hadn’t thought to bring any water… and he doubted anyone else had, either.

Col. Putnam’s nostrils flared as he turned on Joseph. He growled, “Are you questioning your commanding officers’ judgement?”

Joseph opened his mouth then closed it. “I’ll get to work now, sir.” What could have behooved Col. Prescott to allow it? Then again, Col. Putnam has been pushing for another direct confrontation of the British since the Diana burned. He shook his head. Unless Providence smiles on us, this will end up being a mass grave for us.

The redoubt had a deep ditch before it, so Joseph followed the wall around until he found an opening, the sally port, on the eastern side, passing sweaty men digging quietly and quickly. The inside of the boxy fortification was larger than he expected, a few hundred square feet inside. The walls were shorter in here to allow men to rest against it and still be able to aim over the wall. To the west, overlooking the harbor, the walls formed a jagged “V”.

Quickly, he laid his musket against a finished, out-of-the-way wall and threw his waistcoat over it. Grabbing an unused shovel and bucket, he quickly assessed the situation. All the men were obviously exhausted and no doubt hungry, but the work was slowest along the northern wall. The skeleton of the redoubt, large bundles of wood and rock, still stood largely uncovered.

One more time, Joseph glanced down at Boston Harbor. Col. Prescott was right. We’ll be discovered before the sun rises and the redoubt is nowhere close to ready. Setting his jaw, Joseph fell in line, jabbing his shovel into the sandy loam. He worked furiously, sweat pouring down his face. The more he worked out his irritation at his commanding officers, the less he was aware of his growing hunger and thirst. Still, his thoughts clicked on like the second hand on his pocket watch. Little shot and powder. None of us slept last night. We don’t have the energy to repulse the lobster-backs.

He straightened his aching back, glancing west towards the mainland. Three miles into the darkness before dawn slept thousands of soldiers. Last night, their march had only lasted  a couple of hours. Now, their salvation lay in sending word quickly to Cambridge, then getting enough men and supplies back before it was too late. Oliver and Betty sprang to his mind. Suddenly, his throat was too thick to swallow. Heavenly Father, if I never see them again, take care of my children!

A high-pitched squeal filled the grey, pre-dawn air, getting louder with every heartbeat. Recognizing the sound instantly, Joseph turned to the men. “Take cover!” He dropped his shovel and threw himself against the dirt wall, covering his head with his hands. The ground shook as the canon ball slammed into a tree a few dozen feet away. Dirt rained down on Joseph, slipping down his shirt and sticking to his sweaty back. He stood and glanced over the wall. The tree had shattered into hundreds of splinters.

Mass chaos broke out. The youngest of the men, some only slightly older than Oliver, lay on the ground panting for breath, looking for death and damage with wide eyes. Others were running for their muskets, ready for any signs of charging lobster-backs. Some had even dropped their shovels and were running for the sally port. One man yelled, “Run! Run! They’ll kill us all! We’re too close!”

“Soldiers!” Asa rose to his feet, shaking his shovel above his head. “Don’t panic! The cannons can’t aim worth a pigeon’s tail feather! We’d be in more danger if they weren’t aiming for us!” Although Joseph’s heart still raced, he knew Asa was right. Any of them who had fought in British ranks would be able to attest to it. As the soldiers calmed, Asa pointed his shovel back at the wall. “Back to your shovels, men!” Without waiting to see if he would be obeyed, he threw himself into the work before him.

Joseph laid his shovel on top of the wall and turned to the young man beside him. “We need to build up the wall. Fill your bucket and hand it to me. I’ll pack it down.”

“Yes, sir!”

Joseph clambered on top of the redoubt and waited for the soldier to hand him a bucket. Almost every other man in and around the fortification returned to their work. A couple of men stood by the sally port, whispering and casting furtive glances around them.

Asa climbed onto the wall. As soon as he was close enough, Joseph nodded toward the whispering men. “If I were a betting man, I would say they’re about to desert.”

Asa grimaced. “They’re volunteers, Joseph. If they want to head back to Cambridge or even their farms, we can’t stop them.”

The young man lifted a full bucket. Joseph grabbed it and dumped it on the wall. When he and Asa had packed it in as hard as they could, Joseph looked for the whispering men and spotted them quickly retreating toward the Cambridge Road. He shook his head. “I have little patience for deserters. The difference between a coward and a brave man in war is that the coward only wants glory if he can live to enjoy it.”

“Have a little grace, Joseph.” Asa straightened and stared at the harbor. “ ‘Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?’ We very well might attain immortal glory on this hill, Joseph, but it may be the most asinine decision of our lives.” He wiped his forehead and returned to his shovel. “Can you blame them for choosing certain life over probable death?”

Another sickening screech saved Joseph from having to answer. In the sky, the out-of-place black ball stood out stark against the sunrise. He turned and leaped into the redoubt, reaching the ground a heartbeat before the cannon ball struck.

Asa lost his balance and fell down the wall. Breathing hard, Asa got to his feet. “You had the right idea, Joseph. I should have jumped, too.” He examined a fresh cut on his arm and glanced around the redoubt. “Col. Prescott!” He called. Joseph followed Asa’s gaze to the commanding officer. He was deep in conversation with another captain, but turned when he heard his name.  “I must speak with you when you have a moment!”

Col. Prescott nodded, so Asa and Joseph climbed back up the wall. The first thing Joseph noticed was the small cannon ball crater in the ground about thirty feet in front of the sally port. Then he poured the next bucket of dirt onto the wall.

“Capt. Lawrence!” Col. Prescott stood in the redoubt directly below them.

Asa jumped from the wall and saluted. “Sir, I respectfully request that we send to Cambridge for food, water, and a few companies of well-equipped soldiers to take over for us. Our men are too tired to continue, nor do we have enough ammunition. If we stay here alone, we’ll die.”

“Captain, I understand your concern, but I’m going to tell you what I told Capt. Trevett when he suggested the same thing just now. These men have worked long and hard on this fortification and to allow other men to defend it would demoralize them. It would be the same as building a house for your family and then telling your second cousin to take possession instead. These men built this redoubt, and I will not relinquish the honor of defending it to someone else.”

“But sir! Even if we had the strength, we can’t defend this hill without gun powder!”

“I know that. Right now, we need every able-bodied man. But when we can spare someone, I will send a soldier with a message to Gen. Ward.”

Eeeeeeeeeee… CRASH!

Joseph hadn’t been able to get off the wall quickly enough this time. He tumbled down the redoubt, landing at Asa’s and Col. Prescott’s feet. He rose to his feet gasping. “That one was much closer than the others.”

Col. Prescott nodded. “That one hit the redoubt.”

“Man down!” Someone on the west side of the fortification called. Col. Prescott pushed his way through the crowd of men, disappearing over the western wall.

Just as the sun peeked over the harbor, Joseph ran through the sally port and around to the western wall. The body had sprawled in the ditch, the man’s head separated from it, a bloody four-inch  cannon ball buried in the dirt between. “That’s Asa Pollard. He’s in my company,” A nearby man said.

Joseph swallowed. He had lost count of the number of dead soldiers he had seen. Death, especially when it was this clean, no longer bothered him. But the fact that it didn’t had kept him up more nights than he cared to admit. Even so, seeing a dead body was never an easy thing. He bowed his head. Heavenly father, be with this man’s family. I’m sure he will be sorely missed.

“Col. Prescott, what should we do? Bury him?” A young soldier asked.

Joseph grimaced. The soldier looked so young, he probably didn’t need a daily shave yet. Probably this is the first body he’s seen. Joseph didn’t have the heart to tell him that Pollard was going to be the first of many today.

Col Prescott put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “If we’re going to save the rest of us from the same fate, we have to keep working on the redoubt.”

“Col. Prescott,” another soldier said, pushing his way forward. “I’m a minister from Brook’s Hill.” He gestured to the crowd. “Sir, your men are disturbed. A quick funeral will, in all likelihood, help more than hinder their spirits.”

Col. Prescott assessed the crowd then turned to the minister. “Make it quick. We could put several more hours’ worth of work on the redoubt and still not be ready for the lobster-backs.” He looked in the back of the crowd. “Capt. Lawrence?”

“Sir?”

“I want your company to build another wall leading from the northern wall of the redoubt and stretching down the hill to the swamp. With just a few men behind it, we can keep the British from surrounding us.”

With that, he took a flying leap up the wall and climbed the rest of the way up the wall. He shouted at the soldiers, “Keep working, brave boys! Avenge Asa Pollard!” Then he turned toward the harbor. Taking off his three-cornered hat, he waved it in the air and jumped up and down. “Hit me, you lily-livered lobster-backs! Hit me if you can!”

Another cannon ball blasted from the Lively and shot up the hill. Eeeeeeee… CRASH! The ball struck a massive boulder about five yards away. The ground shook, but the boulder remained unbroken. “Yeah! That’s right!” Col. Prescott screamed at the ships. “You can’t split a rock and you certainly can’t make us British Americans back down!”

Some soldiers carried Asa Pollard’s body away, but most watched Col. Prescott, a patriot gleam igniting their eyes.

Joseph squared his shoulders. Two are just as good as one. He scrambled up the wall and walked along the southern wall. “Come on, men! Don’t let the lobster-backs scare you! Show your mettle! Keep digging!”

“Company G!” Asa Lawrence called to the men around him. “You heard Col. Prescott! To the northern wall! Let’s build a breastwork to be proud of!” He caught Joseph’s eye and held up his pointing finger. “Not you. Encourage the men. When you’re satisfied or get hoarse, join us.”

Joseph looked back in the redoubt and raised his voice again. “Massachusetts men! Remember your children and your wives! Remember the lives you and your fathers and grandfathers have built in this land! Fight for the rights of free British subjects! Show parliament that we are not to be trifled with!”

Joseph looked down at the harbor. The sun had only risen half-way, but already the darkness was vanishing, the only shadow hovering on the western horizon.

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1:30 PM

“Col. Prescott! The British are coming!”

Joseph straightened from the ditch in front of the breastwork. His stomach growled painfully, but he ignored it. Following the direction of the soldier’s pointing finger, he had a perfect view of longboats full of soldiers wearing scarlet waistcoats, rowing in perfect unison across the harbor from Boston.

“Well, at least they’ll stop shooting the cannons when the lobster-backs land,” said the soldier beside Joseph. “Those ships won’t risk hitting their own men.”

“No,” Asa replied. “But their bayonets will be more problematic than the cannon.” He took a deep breath and shouted, “Men! The breastwork is good enough! Back to the redoubt!”

Joseph thrust his shovel into the ground and trudged up the hill. Far on his right, Col. Putnam stood on Bunker Hill with couple hundred men. Around noon, he had retreated that far, saying that they would build a smaller redoubt there and stop as many as they could from deserting. So far, they hadn’t done either. Ironically, they had also drawn enough British fire that the soldiers at the redoubt could work in remittent peace.

Thunk! Eeeeee…

Joseph’s head throbbed at the squeal. It had been bad enough when the British had been shooting at them, but since a cannon arrived from Cambridge, Col. Prescott had been returning fire. Without pausing his step, Joseph watched the ball’s almost lazy arc from the redoubt against the sky. Then it buried itself uselessly in the side of Copp’s Hill across the harbor. He shook his head. Trying to return fire, at least.

Joseph looked right again. About two hundred yards away, Capt. Knowlton of Connecticut and his men had found a rail fence that marked a property line and ran all the way to the Mystic River. Knowlton’s men had then torn down another fence and rebuilt it parallel to the first and only a couple feet from it. Between these two fences, they stuffed every boulder they could find and used grass to fill in any holes. Looks bullet-proof to me, Joseph thought with a smirk. The British should think so, too.

“REINFORCEMENTS!”

Joseph looked toward the Charlestown neck. Hundreds of men marched behind one man on a horse. Joseph joined the rest of the soldiers in a war cry.

“Who is it?” Asa asked.

Joseph shook his head. “Can’t tell, sir! I’m just glad we have more men! We’ll need every man we can get!”

A soldier near him looked up, his jaw slack. “More men? Won’t they be taking over for us here so we can get back to Cambridge?”

Asa shook his head. “No. We don’t have two hundred men in here as it is, and even with Capt. Knowlton extending our line, we have too many gaps.” The soldier seemed to wilt as Asa looked back at the longboats as they disappeared behind Morton’s Hill, drawing cannon fire from Capt. Trevett, who had one of the cannons down the hill between the edge of the breastwork and beginning of Capt. Knowlton’s rail fence.

“It’s Col. John Starke!” Another man yelled.

Asa jostled Joseph’s shoulder. “We just might have a chance, Joseph! Starke’s a real commander. He’ll see us through!” Already, he was organizing the men on Bunker Hill, ordering them around with wide gesturing motions.

Joseph grinned. He’ll see that Putnam builds that redoubt!

“Men!” Col. Prescott called. “Even though Col. Starke is here, I still need you to focus on the attack that will come from Moton’s Hill! Captains, organize your men into columns!”

Joseph grabbed his musket, then looked around for his captain, but Asa found him first. “We have the front line, Joseph. You command the line closest to the redoubt, and I’ll take the second.”

As Joseph organized the men, Col. Starke, his face red, rounded the hill and shook his musket. “Prescott!”

“Col. Starke, you couldn’t have come at a better time.” Col. Prescott walked toward him, holding out his right hand. “The British will be attacking–”

“What sort of imbecilic operation are you running here?!”

Col. Prescott blinked, dropping his hand. “Excuse me?”

“You showed an absolute want of judgement when you allowed this– this– pen to be built here! Are you trying to murder your men?”

“This is the best place to defend against bayonets!”

“And you literally have two gaping holes in your defenses!” He pointed toward the breastwork and Capt. Knowlton’s rail fence. “Do you not see that? There’s several hundred yards worth of open space between the two walls! Even if you have men covering the gap, there’s no way the muskets could actually hit them!”

Col. Prescott squinted, his eyes hard. “That ground is swampy! Besides, we only have so many men and shovels! Do you expect miracles?”

Then, there’s another one on the beach! All Gen. Gage would have to do is land his fleet north of the fence and send his men up the hill for a bayonet charge! They would hardly need to fire a shot!”

“If you’re so upset about it, Col. Starke, have your men cover the holes! I must organize my men here.” With that, Col. Prescott stomped away, his face as pale as Col. Starke’s was red.

Col. Starke shook his head. “If we lose the day, Prescott, mark me! History will remember that you were the one in charge here. Nor will it think of you kindly!” He stormed back down the hill. “Captain Dearborn!” He shouted to his second-in-command. “Take half the men. See if Capt. Knowlton can spare any rails then build V-shaped obstacles and put them in the swampy ground between the breastwork and the rail fence. You should only need three or four, but the gap must be plugged!”

Capt. Dearborn saluted. “Yes sir!”

“The rest of you, follow me to the beach! We’re going to build ourselves a stonewall!”

As the men followed their respective commanders down the hill, Joseph let out a long breath. “Men,” he called. “Retrieve your muskets.”

“Wait!” A soldier facing Bunker Hill said. “Someone else is coming from Bunker Hill.” Joseph looked back, but didn’t make any special efforts to see who it was. “Col. Prescott!” The soldier called again. “It’s Joseph Warren!”

“Dr. Warren?” Joseph jumped, a fresh energy eclipsing his exhaustion. The rest of the men in the redoubt burst to life as well.

“He’s coming here? Why? He’s the most important man in Massechusets!”

“Maybe he’s coming to take over command!”

Joseph couldn’t take his eyes off the chairman of the committee of public safety walking up Breed’s Pasture. Dr. Warren was wearing an exquisite light cloth waistcoat with silver buttons. His hair was curled at the sides and pinned. Joseph snickered then whispered to Asa, “Is this the Dr. Warren who is loved and respected throughout the province for the way he gently cares for everyone regardless of station or is this a pompous fop on his way to Governor Howe’s for a dinner party?”

Asa shot Joseph a warning look. “Don’t be like that. He fought at Lexington and Concord then tended the wounded afterward. He knows what he’s getting himself into. Besides, he’s just been elected major-general for Massachusetts’ army.”

Joseph blinked. “What?”

Asa scoffed. “Have you been living under a rock? All of Cambridge has known for days!”

As Dr. Warren reached the redoubt, Col. Prescott wearily approached him, hand extended. Dr. Warren shook it heartily. “So, Dr. Warren, have you come to take command?”

Dr. Warren smiled warmly. “Oh no, sir. I don’t have the authority yet. I may be elected, Prescott, but I have no official commission yet. I’m here as a volunteer and Putnam said that the fire would be hottest here.”

Col. Prescott sighed. “He wasn’t wrong.” He gestured down at the harbor, where six companies were already landing and getting into formation. “Between Col. Starke, Capt. Knowlton, and I, we’ve designed the hill so that the British will be driven toward the redoubt, since this is the best defense. Unfortunately, between the deserters, fallen, wounded, and then Knowlton and Prescott taking their men elsewhere, we only have about 150 men here.”

Dr. Warren nodded. “You’re playing with the hand you’ve been given and making the best of it.”

Col. Prescott relaxed. “Thank you sir.”

“Now,” Dr. Warren said, bloodlust clearly shining from his eyes, “Show me where this musket and I can give the best assistance to let these incorrigible rascals see that the Yankees will fight!”

Col. Prescott grinned and pointed to the front of the redoubt. Dr. Warren fell in line with the third column of soldiers and dropped to one knee, pulling a gun powder cartridge from the purse slung around his shoulder. He tore it open with his teeth and poured it into the barrel of his gun.

Drumbeats resounded from the beach below them. Joseph grimaced. Call to arms. He dropped to his knee and loaded his gun.

“Men!” Prescott yelled, leaping on top of the wall. “The redcoats will never reach the redoubt if you will observe my directions: withhold your fire until I give the order. Take good aim and shoot at the hips– never the heads!” He pointed at the approaching army. “Target the fine, scarlet coats. They’re the officers. The duller red coats are regular soldiers. Take out the officers and the regulars will retreat! Are you with me?”

Joseph, along with the rest of the men, shouted in consent.

“Remember why we fight, men!” Dr. Warren stated calmly when the war-cry died down. “Remember your homes, families, and way of life! Fight for your children and their children!”

The thunderous roar that followed filled the Peninsula. Joseph lay against the redoubt wall, resting his ready musket against his shoulder and pointing it down the hill.

Asa, standing behind him, ready to take a shot after Joseph fired, sniffed suddenly. “Do you smell that?”

Joseph turned to face him. “What?”

Asa sniffed again, then looked around. “Something’s burning.”

Joseph caught it then: the heady, acrid sent of a wood fire. “The trees are fine. They’re not trying to smoke us out–”

“Charlestown!” A soldier pointed south. “The town burns!” Everyone ran to the southern rampart. Joseph’s stomach seemed to drop about ten inches when he saw the utter devastation. Every building was on fire.

“Those filthy, destroying sons of Beelzebub!”

Joseph wasn’t sure which man said it, but he agreed. The town had been empty for weeks and ransacked more than once.

“It’s just a manipulation tactic men! They’re trying to break your spirit! Let their fire fuel it instead!” Col. Prescott’s cry brought order back to the redoubt. Grumbling, they returned to the front of the fortification, many swearing under their breaths. Joseph returned to his shooting position, eyeing the soldiers marching up the hill in formations fifteen soldiers wide and twenty deep. Sweat trickled down Joseph’s back, his finger itching to pull the trigger.

BANG!

Joseph’s musket painfully slammed into his right shoulder bone. Joseph grimaced and rubbed the area. I didn’t position it right…

“Who did that?” Prescott shouted, his face contorted with rage.

Joseph stood up, his hand still over his shoulder. “I did, sir.”

“What could have possibly behooved you? Did I give the order?”

“No sir. I’m sorry. My finger is sweaty. It slipped more than anything.”

Prescott growled. “Step back. Let Capt. Lawrence take your place. Don’t fire again until I give you leave or I will have you disciplined when we return to camp. Am I understood?”

“Yes sir.”

Joseph and Asa switched places. Joseph reloaded his gun, then leaned against the redoubt wall behind him, pressing on his aching shoulder. “Here, soldier,” a gentle voice said beside him, “Let me see that.” Joseph turned to see Dr. Warren kneeling beside him. Joseph nodded and Dr. Warren gently fingered it, grabbing his arm and moving it in a circle. “It’s just a bruise. Expect some swelling, which may make shooting rather painful today, but you’ll be fine otherwise. After the battle, come find me, and I’ll treat it properly.”

“Yes sir. Thank you.”

Dr. Warren returned to his musket. Already, he could hear the echoing roll of hundreds of trained soldiers’ armored boots approaching the redoubt.

Col. Prescott lifted his hand, then dropped it. “NOW!”

The muskets fired. Instantly, the first row dropped back and Joseph’s row moved forward. He carefully positioned the butt against the soft tissue between his shoulder bone and collar bone. Choosing an officer with a particularly long feather drooping from his helmet, He squeezed the trigger, pain ricocheting through his shoulder again. The man fell with a wordless scream.

Joseph moved to the back of the redoubt, the third row moving forward. He glanced down the line. No one had died yet. A broken chord of shots exploded from the redoubt.

A man in the middle of the line slumped, his chest covered in blood. His neighbor dropped his musket and drug the dead man to the back of the redoubt, then went back for the muskets. Col. Prescott knelt over the dead man and pulled the shot cartridges from the man’s pouch, distributing them among the soldiers moving to the back of the redoubt. “Too precious to waste,” he said.

A minute later, Joseph was back at the redoubt wall. There were gaping holes in the British ranks. Those columns that still held their formation were obviously thin. Joseph grinned as he aimed. BANG! Joseph barely noticed the pain this time. The British were falling like apples in a thunderstorm.

A trumpet call resounded far below. “It’s the retreat!” Joseph translated. “We got them!”

“Don’t celebrate too soon, Spaulding,” Col. Prescott replied, sliding his spyglass closed. “Gen. William Howe is leading them, and he doesn’t back down. While they regroup, we can assess our damages and send the wounded to the rear.”

Joseph set down his musket and looked around. Asa lay crumpled on the ground, pale and clutching his thigh. “Asa!” Joseph helped him lean against the redoubt wall, then tore a piece of his waistcoat to wrap the wound.

Asa convulsed. “Got me as I was moving toward the wall. Just my luck.”

“We’ll get you to the back line.”

Dr. Warren knelt beside them, the curls on the left side of his head hanging haphazardly. Already, his fine suit was ruined. “David Townsend is tending to the wounded on Charlestown Neck. He was an apprentice of mine and I taught him all I knew. All we have to do is get you to him.”

Asa nodded, wrapping his arms around Dr. Warren’s and Joseph’s shoulders. Slowly, the moved out of the redoubt and down the hill toward the road that led to Cambridge.

+++++

4:30 PM

“Here they come!” Col. Prescott called.

Joseph didn’t even look up. This was the third British attack, and the powder and shot was so low, he was certain they wouldn’t be able to repulse the charge. Nonetheless, Joseph dragged himself to his feet, leaning against his musket for support. Even if I had ammunition, I don’t know if I have the strength. He straightened and looked across the waterfall of scarlet-coated bodies that led down to the harbor. Nor were they silent. Those who were wounded groaned where they lay.

As Joseph watched, the remaining officers ordered the regulars to spread out into a straight line. “Bayonet charge,” Joseph muttered to no one in particular. That was good. It meant that they wouldn’t stop to fire until they reached the redoubt.

“Remember men, don’t waste a single kernel of powder. Each shot must meet its mark.”

Joseph nodded and looked toward the breastwork and rail fence. Knowlton and Starke’s men, along with extra reinforcements from Capt. John Chester of Connecticut, held the line even though they were attacked directly by Howe’s best men in the second charge.

Col. Prescott continued, “For this attack, those of you with bayonets are to go to the front, but give your ammunition to those who do not. The men who don’t have bayonets are to go to the back of the redoubt and shoot every British soldier who shows his head over the redoubt wall.”

Joseph shuffled towards the back of the redoubt and loaded his musket. The rest of the men moving into position as well. Dr. Warren was the only man there who seemed to have anything akin to energy. “One more charge, men,” he said. “Then we head back to Cambridge for some well-deserved rest and food!”

Food. Joseph allowed the word to roll around his mind for a moment before dropping to one knee and preparing for the British charge. Within a few minutes, the disciplined marching met his ear. He aimed his musket above the heads of his brothers-in-arms and waited. Soon, a British officer sprang over the parapet and aimed at Col. Prescott. Joseph aimed and shot.

BANG! BANG! BANG! 

“I got him!” Joseph exclaimed as the man tumbled down the other side. “And that was none other than Major Pitcairn!”

“No, that was my shot.” Ebenezer Bancroft argued, a competitive gleam lighting his exhausted face.

“No sir!” A free African-American, Salem Poor, grinned at the two of them. “That shot was mine.”

“No matter. Fight on boys,” Joseph said, reloading his gun and aiming it at the helmet that was rising over the wall. “They fall like pigeons!”

Fire erupted in Joseph’s chest, pain so great they he couldn’t even call out. He crumpled over his gun, clutching his wound. Into Thy hands… Another British soldier tumbled backwards from the redoubt wall just before Joseph closed his eyes.

+++++

February 23, 1807 • Rumney, New Hampshire

Oliver watched his son, sitting cross legged on the floor by his feet, holding the sword as if it were the rod of Aaron. Polly lay on Oliver’s shoulder, snoring lightly. She looks so much like Betty, Oliver thought. A memory of his little sister resting on their father’s shoulder before the Revolution bloomed in his mind. Even after all these years, the thought stung like the lash of a whip.

“How old were you, Papa?” Joseph asked, tearing his eyes from the weapon on his lap.

“About your age. Aunt Betty was nine.” Oliver sighed. “Neither of us fully understood what it meant when we were given your Grandpa’s sword, except that we were orphans. Our grandfather took us in, and anyone who knew and loved your Grandpa helped provide for us.” Oliver smiled sadly into the fire. “It wasn’t until many years later that I came to appreciate all that sword represented.”

Joseph pulled down the sheath to admire the steel blade. “Did we win? The battle, I mean.”

“We lost. The British extended their line to Dorchestshire and killed Dr. Warren in the process. But the Redcoats lost over a thousand men that day, more than twice what we did. The battle gave the Massachusetts army the will power to keep fighting. And it was the loss of life at the Battle of Bunker Hill that convinced the colonies that they needed to make a bid for independence, not just fight for the rights of British rights.”

Joseph smiled and then yawned.

“Well, on that note,” Oliver picked up Polly and carried her toward the bedrooms. The little girl stirred, but didn’t wake. “Put away the sword, Joseph,” He said over his shoulder. “It’s time for bed.”

+++++

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Author’s Note

Joseph Spaulding, the boy in the story, had an adopted grandson named Clarence. His daughter, Rose, became the grandmother of James. Then, nearly 214 years after the Battle of Bunker Hill, James had a daughter… Me. 🙂

The death of Lt. Joseph Spaulding seems to be a matter of somewhat speculation. Except for one, all of my sources agreed that he died on Bunker Hill. One account I found said that he was killed by a canon ball at the redoubt. However, most of my sources (including the Bunker Hill Memorial Bench in Pepperell, MA) agreed that he was shot around the time that Col. Prescott retreated. Since I found the most consensus for the latter scenario, I decided to depict it in this post.

The Bible verse quoted by Asa is Luke 14:31 (King James Version).

+++++

For Further Exploration

Articles

Battle of Bunker Hill by History.com

Asa Pollard (1735-1775) by Find a Grave.com

Lieut. Joseph Spaulding by Find a Grave.com

Captain Asa Lawrence by the Sons of the American Revolution

The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill by the Smithsonian

Bunker Hill Monument by nps.org

Battle of “Bunker Hill” by Breed Family.org

Capt. Asa Lawrence by Find a Grave.org

Richard Gridley: A Nearly Forgotten Patriot by Steven M. Baule

Soil Survey of Norfolk and Suffolk Counties, Massachusetts by nesoil.com

Books

Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick

The History of Charlestown by Richard Frothingham

The Spalding Memorial by Samuel Jones Spalding

The Battle of Bunker Hill by Michael Burgan

Decisive Battles of the American Revolution by Lt. Col. Joseph B. Mitchell

History of Chelmsford by P.H. Spaulding and W. Waters

The Battle-field of Bunker Hill by Richard Frothingham and William Prescott

Beside Old Hearth-Stones by Abram English Brown

Videos

Battle of Bunker Hill by History.com

Other resources

Family Search.org

 

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