Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Battle of Bunker Hill

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On this day June 17, 1775, the patriot militia battled the British atop Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill. These two hills are part of the Charlestown Peninsula just to the north of Boston. While the militia eventually lost the ground, retreating to Cambridge, they inflicted heavy casualties on the British Regulars. The British killed and wounded totaled just over 1,000, while the Patriot’s lost only 400 men to death or wounds.

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Breeds Hill and Bunker Hill were the high hills rising up on the Charlestown Peninsula

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The Charlestown Peninsula gave the patriot soldiers and cannon the high ground just north Boston

In the weeks leading up to the battle, the patriot militia surrounding Boston feared that the Regulars would mount another march out of the city just as they had done at Lexington and Concord. To keep the British from leaving the city by the narrow stretch of water to the north of Boston, the militia decided to secretly move part of their army to the hills on the Charlestown Peninsula. On the night of June 16th, the patriot army began their secret maneuver. William Prescott led the men along with Israel Putnam. The original plan had been to set up a small fort atop Bunker Hill. However, in the dark night Prescott led his men further out onto the peninsula and mistook Breed’s Hill for Bunker Hill. He didn’t realize his mistake until light began to dawn. By then it was too late as the men had already thrown up earthen walls and redoubts atop Breeds Hill. As the morning dawned, Prescott would have looked out and realized that his decision to fortify Breed’s Hill would be sure to draw the British out of Boston. Since the patriot’s cannon, few as they were, could now hurl balls down on Boston from Breed’s Hill, the British had to remove the militia from the hill.

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Joshua stands beside Prescott’s statue at the Bunker Hill Memorial

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Prescott’s view of Boston to the south of Breed’s Hill has changed a little.  

Led mainly by General William Howe, the British believed that the patriots would turn and run when faced with the might of the British army. Without a clear leader (George Washington had not yet joined the army at Cambridge), confusion and disorder was a problem as many patriot soldiers had no idea what they were to do. Some stayed on Bunker Hill, while others made their way to Breed’s Hill. While there was no one clear leader, the men were ready to fight. Many were still angered over the loss of loved ones at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The men’s resolve to fight was strengthened when the British began their assault by setting fire to the village of Charlestown.

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The Battle of Bunker Hill, by Howard Pyle 1897

The British army made three assaults on Breed’s Hill. With each assault, Prescott and Putnam instructed their men to not fire “until you see the whites of their eyes.” With muskets only having an effective range of 50 to 100 yards, the militia had to wait for the Regulars to get close before firing. The patriots were deadly marksmen, purposefully picking off British officers and sending devastating musket volleys into the British ranks. At one point in the battle, General Howe, having just led a group of men up the hill, found himself standing nearly alone within yards of the patriot fort. All of the men surrounding him had been cut down by musket fire. Howe miraculously escaped harm as he retreated back down the hill. On the third assault, the patriot’s began to run out of gun powder. The British, with bayonets fixed, stormed over the earthen walls. Patriots were forced to either flee or fight with their bare hands. Many used their musket stocks as clubs attempting to beat away the British. The carnage as the British stormed the walls atop Breed’s Hill is difficult to imagine.

Today, a memorial sits atop Bunker Hill to commemorate the battle. Visitors can climb the 294 steps of the spiral staircase to reach the top of the monument and catch some amazing views. To learn much more about this battle where the fledgling patriot army found the courage to stand up to the might of the British Regulars, check out Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick.

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View of the Bunker Hill Monument from the Charlestown ferry boat.

Colonial Post Riders

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Sitting on the back of a horse, meandering through a wooded trail, has a way of soothing the soul. The bits of nature that go unnoticed in our fast paced world come to life when riding a horse. I often find myself wondering if some of the giant oaks I pass by are old enough to remember life without cars, planes, and trains. What was it like when horses were the only way to get to town, to go the neighbors, or to plow a field?

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Debbie and I enjoying a trail ride near our home

New England colonists lived in a vast wilderness with towns connected only by narrow Indian trails. Walking was the primary means of travel as there were very few horses in the colonies up until the mid-1600s. Horse breeding became a more important focus as colonial economics developed. Trade to the West Indies brought the need for more and better horses to haul goods to and from docks. In 1687, William Penn decreed that any horse more than eighteen months old and less than thirteen hands high had to be gelded. This was to promote a larger, stouter horse population. As horses became more common the need for better roads began to emerge.

It became apparent that a road was desperately needed between New York and Boston. In 1673, New York Governor, Francis Lovelace, began work on developing what would later be called the Boston Post Road. Francis was appointed Royal Governor of New York by the Duke of York.

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After England’s King Charles II seized the land from the Dutch he gave it to his brother, the Duke of York, who promptly changed the name from New Amsterdam to New York. Royal Governor Francis was to encourage colonial development, but at the same time ensure the Dutch did not retake the area. Governor Francis proposed that a post road be established that would allow for post riders on horseback to deliver mail once a month between New York and Boston.  The post rider would leave New York the first Monday of every month and, stopping at villages along the route, would return from Boston within the month.

While Francis succeeded in advancing new and better roads for travel between New York and Boston, he did not fair as well in protecting the small settlement of New York from the Dutch. While Governor Francis was visiting John Winthrop the Younger, Governor of Connecticut, to discuss his idea for a postal service, the Dutch sent war ships to New York and recaptured the settlement. The Duke of York was not happy with Francis. Francis Lovelace was ordered back to England and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He died not long after his imprisonment.

Francis Lovelace never got to see the fruits of his work. New York was eventually retaken by the English, and the Boston Post Road became the first primary road with post riders in the colonies. Gabriel Cooper, in my book The Drum of Destiny, walked the Boston Post Road to reach Cambridge where the patriot army was headquartered at the beginning of the American Revolution. While the landscape has changed since Gabriel’s travels, the Boston Post Road still exists.

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Of course the Boston Post Road is not the only landscape to have drastically changed through the years. Our horseback rides through the Indiana countryside include paved roads and electric poles. Still, it is fun to think back to what the early post riders of New England would have experienced. In my view, one of the best ways to look back is from the back of a horse.

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Levi enjoying a ride with me on George

For more information on the Boston Post Road, check out The King’s Best Highway, by Eric Jaffe.

Boston’s Granary Burying Ground

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You have to be a certified history nut to enjoy visiting an old cemetery like Boston’s Granary Burying Ground, but this place oozes with history, sometimes literally. Built on what was once a lowland swamp, the graves are particularly shallow, many only 20 inches below the surface. Graves were not dug any deeper due to the high water table. Over the cemetery’s long history there have been occasions where human remains have popped up above the surface. Our own Freedom Trail tour guide relayed a story where a boy pulled a skull from the ground and chased him around the cemetery. In January 2009 the ground gave way under one poor tourist who fell hip deep into a previously undiscovered crypt.

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It’s no wonder that bones surface from time to time as 4,610 bodies were buried in the small cemetery prior to 1831. As seen in the picture above most tombs in the Granary are below ground. Tombs held multiple bodies, sometimes with different families agreeing to share one tomb.

The Granary dates back to 1660, and was once part of the Boston Common. It got the name “Granary” due to the granary (storehouse for threshed grain) located near the graveyard. What makes the Granary Burying Ground special is the number of Revolutionary War icons that are buried within. John Hancock, famous for leading the colonies to revolt against Great Britain and signing the Declaration of Independence, is buried in the Granary.

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Hancock’s grave marker dedicated in 1896

While Benjamin Franklin is buried in Philadelphia, his father and mother are buried in the Granary. Josiah and Abiah Franklin’s grave was found and marked long after their deaths in 1744 and 1752.

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Benjamin Franklin’s parents’ grave, marked in 1827, can be found under the large obelisk monument near the middle of the Granary

Paul Revere also is buried in the Granary along with much of his family. Paul was twice married and had fourteen children, nine of which lived into adulthood. Revere died in May of 1818.

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Our Freedom Trail tour guide, Jeremiah, standing by Revere’s grave marker

Samuel Adams is also buried in the Granary as well as the five victims of the Boston Massacre. Other notable Revolutionary figures laid to rest in the Granary include James Otis, Jeremiah Gridley, and Robert Treat Paine.

The Granary Burying Grounds is maintained through the City of Boston’s Historic Burying Grounds Initiative (HBGI). Boston has done an amazing job of preserving these historic cemeteries and is home to sixteen historic burial grounds. Much more can be learned about these cemeteries’ history and the people buried there through the HBGI’s website and monthly newsletter.

 

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