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The Attack of the Turtle


In the early morning hours of September 7, 1776, General Washington ordered a secret attack on Lord Admiral Howe’s British ship, the HMS Eagle, anchored near New York Harbor. The attack was to be made by a secret weapon called the Turtle. To a creative 21st century mind, visions of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (my favorite Leonardo) hopping aboard Howe’s ship with his swords whirling come to mind. This, however, was not the Turtle of Washington’s day. Washington’s Turtle was the first submersible weapon ever used in war.

The Turtle was designed by a young Yale graduate by the name of David Bushnell. Bushnell was only 21-years-old when he began experimenting with detonating gun powder under water. Bushnell took this idea and envisioned a submersible vessel with the ability to deliver a timed explosive charge next to a ship’s hull, causing massive damage, and sinking the ship. While we take this torpedo technology for granted today, Bushnell’s idea was revolutionary and nearly one-hundred years ahead of his time.


The Turtle’s design was an engineering marvel. At 7 feet long, 6 feet high, and 3 feet wide, the Turtle was just large enough for a man to fit inside. It was made from two large halves of an oak tree. The huge oak slabs were hollowed out, and then joined together with tongue and groove construction. With a generous application of oakum sealant (hemp, jute, and tar), the Turtle was nearly watertight. Bushnell also designed a propeller, which he called an oar, that was manually turned by the operator using a spinning wheel type foot pedal. A tiller was mounted for steering and a ballast tank was added to allow the Turtle to travel underwater. To surface, the operator would need to manually pump out the water in the ballast tank. Glass mounted at the top of the vessel allowed the operator to maneuver.


While the Turtle’s design was a marvel, it had a significant limitation. It relied solely on human power to move. This problem was compounded by the fact that there would be a limited supply of oxygen contained inside the Turtle once under water. Pedaling the Turtle out into the tides and currents of New York Harbor would be a difficult and dangerous task. This danger is exactly what the Turtle’s operator, Ezra Lee, volunteered for as he began his journey on September 7, 1776.


Ezra Lee – the Turtle’s Pilot

Ezra was to pilot the Turtle under the HMS Eagle’s hull and then attach an underwater timed explosive to the ship. Ezra would need to use an auger drill fastened to the top of the Turtle to drill a hole to attach the explosive to the Eagle. Ezra took nearly two hours to reach the Eagle, and once there was exhausted and likely suffering from oxygen deprivation. He could not get the auger to drill into the Eagle’s hull. British ships had a metal plate connected to the rudder hinge, which may have prevented Ezra’s drill from working. Ezra’s failure may have also been due to his fatigue and inability to think clearly form a lack of oxygen. With dawn fast approaching and fear that he would be discovered, Ezra abandoned his mission. He let his explosive charge loose, which floated into the East River where it exploded without causing any damage to British ships. Ezra made it safely back to Patriot whaling ships.

The Turtle never was able to deliver an explosive charge under a British ship. A second attempt was made without success and the Turtle project was abandoned. It would be nearly another century before Bushnell’s design was revisited and used as weapon. Although it’s mission failed, the design was pure genius. Lucky for Lord Admiral Howe, Washington used the submersible Turtle, and not the Teenage Mutant kind.

For more information about the Turtle check out Arthur Lefkowitz’s book The American Turtle Submarine: The Best-Kept Secret of the American Revolution.

Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Shrapnel


I learned something today, which is always a good thing. I find it inherently thrilling to find the historical meaning behind an everyday phrase. Today I discovered the origin of the term “shrapnel”. The dictionary definition of shrapnel is “fragments of a bomb, shell, or other object thrown out by an explosion.” It’s a word everyone knows, but few ever ponder how bomb fragments came to be called shrapnel. The answer to the origin of this puzzling term comes from the name of its inventor Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Shrapnel.

Henry Shrapnel was born in 1761 in Wiltshire, England. Wiltshire County is in the southwest part of England, and home of Stonehenge. Henry was the youngest of several brothers, all of whom died relatively young. At the age of eighteen, Henry began his military career with the Royal Artillery as a Second-Lieutenant. He served abroad in Newfoundland, Gibraltar, and the West Indies, but did not see any action in the American Revolution. Over the course of his career as a gunner, Shrapnel began to experiment with the hollow spherical cannon projectiles that were designed to explode sending out small shot, usually musket balls. Up through the late 18th century, these explosives were crudely designed and imprecise. Grape Shot was the most common type of exploding projectiles used at the time. It was nothing more than musket balls tied up in a canvas bag and fastened to a wooden plug for firing out of a cannon. As the canvas bag ripped open after being shot from the cannon, it would spew its projectiles in a deadly swath, but with a relatively short range. Grape Shot got its name because it looks like a bag full of grapes.


Various sizes of Grape Shot

Case or Canister Shot was a bit more complex with a thin metal cylinder filled with musket or iron balls. When fired, the thin cylinder would be peeled back by the force of the explosion, sending shards of the casing and balls with a killing range of about two hundred yards.

Canister Shot

Canister Shot

Henry Shrapnel realized that Grape and Canister Shot was lethal but imprecise. He wanted a shell that would explode at some point after being fired. He therefore came up with the idea for a timed fuse that would light a small charge of gun powder inside the hollow case with enough force to open the case and send the smaller musket balls out in the same trajectory as the exploded casing. His idea increased the scattered projectile range from 300 yards to 1000 yards. A significant and deadly improvement.


Shrapnel’s design was embraced by the British Army and used extensively in the Napoleonic Wars between England and France in the early 19th century. The only issue with Shrapnel’s design was the occasional premature lighting of the charge inside the spherical case which would ignite from the friction created as the casing traveled down the cannon barrel on discharge. Over the years, Henry Shrapnel’s design was improved upon but the basic design remained the same all the way through World War I.


Henry’s weapon was so revered by the British Army, and in particular General Arthur Wellesley – Duke of Wellington, that after Henry’s death in 1842, the British Board of War issued an order that the “spherical case shot” be called “shrapnel shells”. So the next time you’re watching that bloody war-time movie and someone says, “I caught a piece of shrapnel” you can know it’s all thanks to Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Shrapnel and his amazing and deadly invention.


Back to School, Colonial Style


It was back to school this week for the Stevenson boys. In colonial times, boys would generally not return to school until after harvest, mainly during the winter months. While most kids today would savor a few more months of summer break, few understand the hard work that colonial kids would have to do in preparation for winter. Summer break wasn’t much of a “break” for 18th century kids. While boys stayed home to help with farm labor, most girls would return to school sooner than boys. Girls were generally not expected to help with the hard labor of harvest.

In the more densely populated areas of New England, primary schools, usually one room buildings, were open for children to attend. School was not mandatory. However, most early colonists valued education, particularly Puritans, who wanted to their children to learn to read. The three most common school books were, the Bible, the New England Primer, and a Hornbook. One of the primary purposes for school, was to teach kids how to read the Bible. Most Colonial families had one Bible.

New-England_Primer_Enlarged_printed_and_sold_by_Benjamin_Franklin (1)

While the Bible was central to schooling, The New England Primer became the most read 18th century textbook. The New England Primer also had Biblical lessons including the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed. Most school lessons centered on recitation of text, with wrote memorization a key teaching tool. The third type of colonial text book wasn’t really a book. Hornbooks were sheets of wood with a parchment attached. A hornbook got its name because it was covered with a thin transparent piece of cow’s horn used to protect the parchment. The parchment was mounted on a wooden paddle and usually listed the alphabet and a Biblical verse. The paddle had a handle with a small hole so that children could tie it to their belts so that they were less likely to get lost.


Colonial Hornbook

In the rural areas of southern colonies, including Virginia, there simply were no schools. Most plantation children were educated through tutors that would come to the childrens’ homes. Even for plantation owners finding good tutors was difficult. For example, George Washington’s schooling was sporadic, at best. Very little is known about Washington’s early education. He may have been taught by a tenant on one of his father’s farms. It’s also thought that he attended the Rev. Marye’s school in Fredericksburg. At some point, Washington learned some math and surveying skills, which he used to his advantage later in life. As with many early American icons, Washington had a burning ambition to learn things on his own initiative. Despite his efforts, Washington always felt his education was inadequate. While his brother Lawrence was sent to England for schooling, Washington was given no such opportunity. After the death of his father, when Washington was only eleven-years-old, Washington had to help manage the family farms. There was little time for any schooling. Thus, unlike other founders, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton, George Washington never went to college. Washington’s schooling ended when he reached age fifteen. Washington lamented the fact that he did not know Latin, Greek or French, all languages of well educated colonists.

The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of public education. Washington and Benjamin Franklin, among others, were key figures in establishing a framework for the existence of public schools. Eventually schools became more common throughout the States. By the early 20th century school would become mandatory for all children, which is a good thing, despite my own kids’ moans and groans about returning to school. If I told them they could stay home to thresh wheat, shuck corn, churn butter, butcher hogs, and mend fences, I’m guessing they would pick school!

Lafayette’s Life: Decide What To Be And Go Be It


The Marquis de Lafayette is a living example of the lyrics to one of my favorite songs by my favorite band, the Avett Brothers. The Avetts sing the simple yet powerful line “decide what to be and go be it” in Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise. Lafayette did exactly that when he decided to leave his family, fortune, and home to come fight for liberty in the American Revolution. What prompted Lafayette to leave everything to come to America? Why would a French nobleman want to fight for liberty against the very royal aristocracy that sustained his own way of life?

According to Lafayette, his life transforming decision came while attending a dinner to honor the Duke of Gloucester in Metz, France on August 8, 1775. The Duke of Gloucester was the brother to King George III, king of England. Despite being the King of England’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester spoke out openly against the king’s handling of the war in America. This surprised and intrigued Lafayette who knew very little about the fighting in the colonies. To Lafayette the idea of a people fighting for liberty and independence was captivating. In Lafayette’s own words, “[w]hen I first heard of [the colonists’] quarrel, my heart was enlisted, and I thought only of joining my colors to those of the revolutionaries.” Then and there Lafayette decided, against what many would consider rational thought, to leave everything in France to fight in the Revolution. Lafayette was seventeen-years-old when he committed to joining America’s fight for freedom.

Despite having made his decision to join the fight for liberty, Lafayette could not simply pack up and leave, at least not yet. Lafayette sought counsel from his former commanding officer the comte Charles-Francois de Broglie, who had hosted the dinner at Metz. Broglie had his own ambition to join the American fight, and even sought to supplant Washington as commander in chief. Broglie discouraged Lafayette from leaving France. Lafayette would not be dissuaded. With the help of fellow French officer, Baron de Kalb, Lafayette was able to meet with Silas Deane, the secret American envoy to France, who was there to garner French support for the Revolution. De Kalb was a self-made baron who invented his tile to become a French officer and happily introduced Lafayette to Deane. Silas Deane was eager to enlist French officers and readily handed out the rank of major general to Lafayette.


Lafayette’s introduction to Silas Deane

Lafayette now had his officer’s commission to present before the American Congress, but the obstacles continued to mount against Lafayette’s dream of heading to America. The primary obstruction was Lafayette’s father-in-law the Duc d’Ayen. Lafayette had married the Duc d’Ayen’s daughter, Adrienne, less than two years earlier on April 11, 1774. Adrienne was fourteen-years-old when married. Lafayette and Adrienne had a infant daughter and another child on the way. Needless to say, Adrienne’s father was not supportive of Lafayette’s departure to America. The Duc d’Ayen went so far as to obtain a written decree from French King Louis XVI to prohibit French officers from leaving France for America. Lafayette hesitated on carrying out his dream when he learned of the King’s edict.

Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles

Lafayette’s wife, Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles

However, Lafayette was independently wealthy. Wealth can open a multitude of doors even when the ruling king shuts them all. Lafayette’s inherited estates yielded an annual income of 150,000 livres, or $1,500,000 in today’s dollars. With this vast wealth at his disposal, Lafayette, with new determination, sought to secretly buy a merchant sailing ship and have it refitted with cannon and provisions for a voyage to America. The ship, La Bonne M`ere, cost Lafayette 112,000 livres, almost three quarters of his annual income. Lafayette renamed the vessel La Victoire. Lafayette also changed his coat of arms at this time from Vis sat contra fatum (Determination is enough to overcome destiny) to the simpler, Cur non? (Why not?). Lafayette had La Victoire secretly sailed from Bordeaux, France to a small Spanish port. Dodging King Louis XVI’s orders to prevent French officers from leaving, Lafayette boarded La Victoire on April 20, 1777 and set to sea bound for America. Lafayette was so sure of the rightness of his decision that he wrote to one friend. “Don’t worry, once I am victorious everyone will applaud my enterprise.”


Lafayette’s ship, La Victoire

We now know that Lafayette’s decision was right. As with so many young talented officers, Washington immediately saw something special in Lafayette when he arrived in Philadelphia to claim his rank of major general. The rest they say is history. But to Lafayette at the time he left France the future was far from certain. Uncertainty did not matter to Lafayette. He had decided what to be, and he was going to be it.

For more information about the life of the Marquis de Lafayette take a look at:

For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutionsby James R. Gaines

The True La Fayetteby George Morgan

Lafayette, by Harlow Giles Unger


Home Makeover: Loyalist Estate Turned Patriot Headquarters


In July 1775, George Washington chose a house on Watertown Road near the Charles River as his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a stately manor owned by loyalist John Vassall. John and Elizabeth Vassall, and their six children ages 12 – infancy, left their Cambridge estate in September 1774 to seek the protection of British soldiers stationed in Boston. John Vassall’s Cambridge estate of nearly 90 acres was the largest and most elegant in the area. Vassall’s wealth was inherited and came primarily from farms in Jamaica where slaves tended vast plantations. The Vassalls also owned slaves that worked in the home and gardens at their Cambridge estate. At first glance, Washington and Vassall don’t seem all that different. Both were plantation and slave owners. Both had inherited substantial sums of money, Washington’s wealth coming from his marriage to Martha. Perhaps these similarities are what drew Washington to pick this recently abandoned estate as his military headquarters.


Cambridge Map

Map of Cambridge showing Col. Vassall’s home along Watertown road

Despite their social similarities, the time had come in the colonies to pick sides. Washington chose the patriot cause. Vassall chose the King. John Vassall did not declare his loyalty to the Crown until 1774, when it became apparent that he could not remain neutral. He was a prominent member of the Anglican church, relied heavily on British trade to support his family’s wealth, and was well-connected in London. As most loyalists, Vassall was trying to preserve his way of life by siding with the British. As a prominent member of society, Vassall’s declaration to side with the Crown, put his family in danger. The danger primarily rose from the potential for patriot mobs to storm loyalist homes suspected of providing British General Gage with intelligence. Thus, as loyalists John and his family left their Cambridge estate in the hands of their slaves, and traveled into Boston where British soldiers controlled the city. It’s clear that John Vassall believed he would simply return to his Cambridge home after the British put down the tumultuous behavior of the patriots. How wrong he was. John Vassal never set foot in his Cambridge home again. In March 1775, he left with the British fleet as it fled Boston. He and his family went to England where he remained the rest of his life.


John Vassall’s Uncle William (seated) and Nephew Leonard Vassall

It’s hard to imagine George Washington being anything other than the leader of the American Revolution. However, had things gone just a little bit differently in Washington’s life he, like John Vassall, would have likely sided with the British. In his early military career many years prior to the Revolution, Washington’s great ambition was to become a commissioned British officer. Time and again Washington was rejected by the British Royal Government. This rejection fueled Washington’s resentment of the establishment that shunned those unconnected in British Royal circles. We will never know what might have been, but most commissioned British officers stood by their King in the Revolution. Fortunately, Washington sided with the rebels and transformed the loyalist Vassall home into his headquarters.

Washington’s arrival at the Vassall house would have brought a whirlwind of activity. Many of the Revolution’s key figures would have stepped through the door to the beautiful home on Watertown road: Nathaniel Greene, Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, Benedict Arnold, Israel Putnam, Artemas Ward, Henry Knox, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to name a few. Washington’s “makeover” of the Vassall home turned a quiet English gentleman’s estate into the brain center of the rebellion.


The front stairs in Washington’s headquarters. Many of the Revolution’s finest would have stood here.


The room used by Washington as his office. The decor is from Longfellow’s era in the mid-1800’s

Washington’s headquarters has been preserved and now stands as part of the National Park Service. We visited this spring while on my book tour for The Drum of Destiny. Washington’s headquarters later became the home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the mid-1800’s. Most of the furnishings and decor currently in the home are part of the Longfellow Trust. Longfellow knew the home’s history and loved the fact that so many key revolutionary characters had been inside his home. To stand inside looking into the room where Washington kept his office is like stepping back in time. What Washington accomplished in this home, taking it from loyalist estate to patriot headquarters is truly amazing.

For more about the Vassalls and Washington’s early days as the commanding general you can read the Historic Resource Study by J.L. Bell published by the National Park Service.


Did Colonial Americans Eat Their Veggies?


While the Stevenson boys eat their veggies with varying degrees of enthusiasm, most early American parents didn’t have the struggle of getting kids to eat veggies. Colonial kids weren’t saints, but rather vegetables simply weren’t readily available. We often picture Colonial homes having a large and lush garden filled with all types of vegetables which would be preserved for the long winter months. There were some large kitchen gardens primarily on wealthy plantations, but for the most part, it was much easier to raise a hog for eating than it was to grow a head of lettuce. This is why the Early American diet consisted mainly of meat and grain.


The Stevenson garden is shaping up nicely this year

Today when it gets dry and the garden needs water we simply hook up the garden hose to the sprinkler. In Colonial America, moms and kids would grab the buckets, head to the well or nearby creek and start hauling water. An enormous amount of work could be spent trying to tend a kitchen garden for a relatively small rate of return when it came to harvestable food. Most of this work fell on the women and children of the household because men were off doing other work, with usually even harder labor involved. Plantations where slave labor was used were the few places where large vegetable gardens thrived.

kitchen garden

Kitchen Garden at Colonial Williamsburg

Though kitchen gardens were not as common as many think, there were still some colonists who took gardening very seriously. John Randolph, a Royal Attorney General of Virginia wrote A Treatise on Gardening probably around 1760. He describes many different types of vegetables that would have been grown in Colonial gardens. Most of these are common to present day gardens, but there are some herbs that aren’t widely grown today including chamomile,celandine and hyssop. Most herbs grown in the colonies were used for medicinal purposes.







In colonial times it was a statement of one’s wealth and social status if vegetables such as cauliflower, carrots, or lettuce were set out on the dinner table. So the next time your kids tell you that they don’t want to eat their veggies remind them that it once was a sign of wealth and privilege to eat vegetables. Maybe it will help make vegetables seem a bit more special.

Death by Duel – The Irony of Hamilton’s Death


The duel that left Alexander Hamilton dead happened on this day, July 11, 1804. Aaron Burr killed Hamilton with a shot to the lower abdomen just above the right hip. Hamilton shot high into the air over Burr’s head, likely on purpose, although there is some debate among historians as to whether Hamilton intentionally aimed high. Regardless of Hamilton’s intentions, the best way to survive a duel is to not get into one in the first place. Hamilton died to protect his honor. While our modern sensibilities tend to think of honor as synonymous with integrity and good character, historically speaking, duels involved a very different type of honor.


The honor of the duel was tied to nobility. Only nobles had honor. Honor was given at birth. A person couldn’t earn honor, you could only lose it. The worst way for a noble to lose honor was to be considered a coward. The best way to show one’s self brave was to challenge the offending party to a duel and hope you didn’t die in the process. Make’s perfect sense, right?


It is ironic that Hamilton died as a participant in a system based on monarchical principles, when he had spent all of his life fighting against this noble/class based society. Hamilton’s death brought to light the senselessness that surrounded the duel and it’s list of rules that must be followed. The Code Duello laid out twenty-five rules for dueling. The Code involved the use of “Seconds”, usually friends of the dueling participants, to try to negotiate a resolution to the dispute. The Code also set out rules on when an apology could be accepted and when a duel must proceed. Many challenges to duel were just for show with no shots ever being fired. The Seconds would work things out. However, one could not back down from a duel without losing honor, case in point Hamilton and Burr. Thus, some duels ended in bloodshed and death. The Hamilton-Burr duel left many realizing that as an “enlightened” people duels were archaic forms of brutality that should be cast off just like the monarchical forms of government that had inspired them. The practice of dueling nevertheless lingered on throughout the Civil War and into the western frontier.


Hamilton was a brilliant man, yet he failed to see the sheer stupidity of throwing his life away in the class-based and unenlightened practice of dueling. It is a true loss that he was not able to continue to shape the Republic that he had worked so hard to establish.


What I Love About The Guy Who Didn’t Write The Declaration of Independence


John Adams was a member of the Congressional committee assigned to write the Declaration of Independence. All the members of the committee, including Thomas Jefferson, thought Adams should write the first draft. Needless to say, the author of a document declaring independence from the British Empire would have instant worldwide fame. Adams could have easily seized this opportunity to solidify a position of power in Congress and around the world. Adams, however, refused to write the first draft. He insisted that Jefferson write it.


John Adams

Adams gave three reasons why Jefferson should write the Declaration. Each reason shows how Adams put his love of country above his own self-interests. If only more of our current governmental leaders could follow in Adams’ footsteps.

Reason 1:  Jefferson was a Virginian. Adams recognized that for all the colonies to support such a declaration the words must come from the pen of a Virginian. Virginia was the largest, wealthiest, and most influential colony. If Adams, a New Englander, was to write the declaration, it might not get the support needed from the southern colonies. Adams told Jefferson “you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business.”

Reason 2: Jefferson was more popular than Adams. John Adams had a way of stirring up conflict. As a result, many fellow congressmen didn’t like him. Adams knew this. Rather than trying to use the Declaration as a tool to gain some popularity among his peers, he instead told Jefferson that he must write it because Jefferson was more popular. Adams gave up an opportunity for self-advancement because again, above all else, he wanted all the colonies to support the Declaration of Independence. Adams told Jefferson, “I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise.”

Reason 3: Jefferson was a better writer that AdamsThomas Jefferson was an amazing writer. Adams was not. Adams knew that the document which was about to be drafted had to be able to convince the colonies, and the entire world, that these colonies were now independent from the British Empire. Not only that, but it had to explain why these colonies must declare their independence. The declaration had to succinctly and eloquently send a message to King George III that the colonies were serious about breaking away from his empire. Adams told Jefferson, “you can write ten times better than I.”


Thomas Jefferson

From Adams’ three reasons it’s clear that he held the advancement of his country above the advancement of his own political career. Jefferson and Adams would later become political enemies. While not enemies at the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Adams had many opposing ideologies. Slavery being one of the most contentious differences. Adams abhorred slavery. Jefferson was a slave owner. These differences didn’t prevent Adams from recognizing that Jefferson was the better man when it came to drafting one of the most important documents ever written, The Declaration of Independence. Adams willingly put his own self-interest aside, and in an act of astonishing humility, told Jefferson to draft what would become the document that set democracy in motion. For this, I love the guy that didn’t write the Declaration of Independence.

You can read Adams’ letter to Timothy Pickering where he recounts the drafting of the Declaration of Independence here.

The Battle of Bunker Hill


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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

Colonial Post Riders


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?


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.


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.


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.

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