Yankee Doodle and the Lobsterbacks

Reply Tue 17 Jun, 2003 06:51 pm
God, where is my mind these days--senility sucks.

On today's date, two hundred twenty-eight years ago, there was some unpleasantness on the Charlestown penninsula. Before so much of Boston harbor silted in or was filled in, it was a pennisula itself, with a projecting headland to the south and east, Dorchester Heights, and rotated roughly 90 degrees to the north east, another such penninsula formed by the Charles and Mystic rivers, upon which Charlestown sat. In the spring of 1775, General Gage, as commander of British forces in Boston had decided to take the bull by the horns, and arrest Adams and Hancock, and seize the militia's powder and ordnance in Concord, Massachusetts, having gotten reliabel information that those men were there at the time. The Royal Marines and the light infantry from the regiments stationed there were formed under the command of Lt. Col. Smith, and with Major John Pitcairn of the Marines in tactical command had marched out toward Concord. At Lexington, the local militia commander had turned out his men, but advised them not to commence hostilities--many had not bothered to load their muskets. Pitcairn did not hesitate, and turned his Marines out of the road, formed line, and immediately advanced. Some one fired a shot, and the Marines unloaded a volley as the light infantry double-timed up from the road. The militiamen, who had expected no violence, and were just making a gesture, paniced and fled. Col. Smith complimented Pitcairn on his efficiency, and the column moved on toward Concord.

At Concord, Smith kept the main body in the road from the east, while parties of men were sent out to try to find Adams and Hancock, and to break into the town hall to get the powder, muskets and cannon (now long gone). Pitcairn was detailed to protect the column from attack by anyone coming over the river on the north side of town (a wise precaution, had those coming from the north only been the local militia). Pitcairn got carried away, and took a body of light infantry across the north bridge. There were three to four hundred militia already present (the word of the Lexington massacre had spread far more quickly than Smith's column had moved), and more were constantly arriving. Most of the militiamen had never heard a shot fired in anger, but many of the older members had extensive experience in the French and Indian war. When Pitcairn decided to "drive off" the militia with a volley, most of those at the front fell back. But the older men immediately took to the trees and the stone walls, and began a sniping fire which pinned down the redcoats--who still did not recognize the extent of the danger. Several quick thinking officers formed a line from men who had not yet been involved, and they advanced in a regular line. Although fired upon, the line held, and when they followed British practice, advancing to within 50 paces before delivering their volley, the redcoats melted away--their usual professionalism lost in the shock of being attacked by superior numbers of men who did not run away as they were expect to do.

Thereafter followed what has been described as a running brawl with firearms. For more than four hours, Smith's column labored to get back to Boston with their dead and wounded, and no rebel arms or rebel leaders. Eventually, Hugh Lord Percy came out of Boston with the grenadier companies of the regiments there, and held off the militia long enough for the column to load their burdens in carts, and beat a hasty retreat.

The shock on both sides was profound, but the New Englanders recovered first. The city was soon invested. Gage had a surplus of high ranking officers, and, therefore, a surplus of advice. He also had a genuine affection and regard for the Americans. These factors seem to have paralyzed him, and a seige mentality set in. No move was made to secure either Charlestown or Dorchester Heights--although both had low hills which would have nevertheless allowed rebel artillery to dominate the town, and drive the fleet from the harbor.

Men poured into Cambridge, including some first class militia units such as John Starke's New Hampshire regiment. Connecticutt sent a very large body, lead by the old veteran of Rodger's Rangers, Israel Putnam. Putnam had been promoted Brigadier and made commander of the Connecticutt militia. Given the tenor of the times, cooperation was seen as essential, and the New Hampshiremen and the boys from Connecticutt were much deferred to. It was decided that something must be done, because it was considered bad for morale and health to have the militia idle--a correct assessment.

By Charlestown, there were two prominent terrain features: Bunker Hill, to the north, and east of the road to the neck, and to the southwest, Breed's Hill, a lower promintory, but one which nonetheless would effectively dominate the fleet in the harbor. The newcomers had been given the left of the line, on Plowed Hill, just north of the Charlestown neck, so Putnam was given command of a force to occupy the Charlestown penninsula. Massachusetts militia did the hard labor, even if the other colonials had been deferred to in the councils of war. (It is worth noting at this point, that many make the case that Gage had laid plans to occupy Charlestown and Dorchester Heights, and that spied within Boston had brought word, leading to the decision to fortify Bunker Hill.) Joseph Warren and William Prescott (his grandson, bearing the same name, would write a 23 volume history of the Conquista and the Spanish monarchy during the age of exploration, which remains the American authority on the subject) lead their militia men out onto the Charestown pennisula, but quickly realized that Bunker Hill, although a good thirty feet higher in elevation than Breed's Hill, did not command the harbor as the lower hill did. They lead their men to Breed's Hill, and began to dig. The men worked diligently all night to throw up the ramparts of a redoubt, in which to place the artillery which never came.

When the sun rose over Boston that morning, the British were in for a nasty shock. There on the hill above Charlestown stood an earthwork fortification with embrasures for cannon. The threat was immediately obvoius to any competent officer, and the British got ponderously into action. This meant the soldiers put on their heavy, scarlet wool coats, and then blacked their belts and boots (it was a matter of pride to prepare the accoutrements without soiling the uniform coat), and put white "pipe" clay on the crossbelts. Shouldering their sixty pounds of gear and their thriteen pound musket, they then marched to the stairs which would allow them to board the batteaux for the crossing to the penninsula. They were ferried over the the opposite shore, standing at attention in their boats, while military bands played on the decks of the ships. In the interim, Putnam had proven himself unequal to the leadership task, although he did his level best to exhort the milling Americans on Bunker Hill to move up. But Seth Pomeroy, Henry Dearborn, Andrew McClary and the redoubtable John Stark simply ordered their men into line, and marched them to a rail fence running east from the redoubt, with Stark using his keen eye to size up the ground, and posting his militia behind a hastily constructed barrier on the Mystic River shore.

General Howe, in command of the landing force, lined his men up, and to the beating of drums and the shrill of fifes, the regulars advanced in parade-ground precision. This lasted a few minutes at most--as they advanced to through the uncut hay, waist height on many of them, they encountered rail fences and low stone walls which had been invisible to them previously. The lines became disordered before they were yet in musket range. People like Dearborn and Pomeroy saw their opportunity, and those esteemed the best shot were instructed to fire on the "prettiest" soldiers. Officers, non-commissioned officers and the adolescent drummers and fifers began to drop everywhere. As the men of the color guards dropped, others rushed to uphold the regimentals, and made targets of themselves in their turn. With more than 2,000 professional troops, facing never more than about 700 colonials, Howe, Burgoyne and Clinton had no notion that they could fail. In the initial attack, the canny militia leaders kept their men down, and waited until the regulars were within 50 paces, which was, after all, standard British doctrine. The first volleys, followed by free fire from men used to aiming rather than "leveling" their firearms as the British did, were devastating. British platoon fire was never effective because of the shock they suffered when nearly the entire first rank fell to the first fire. Emboldened by the initial light casualties, the militia held. Howe's entire staff was shot down to a man, virtually no musicians or color guards were on their feet, regimental colors were dragged through the dust by wounded men bent on saving them, and all order went out of the British line.

At this point, Howe decided to "demonstrate." This is a sound military principle, but not which ought to have been applied as a remedy after such a devastating repulse. He dressed the lines, and moved up, while Major Pitcairn climbed down to the Mystic River beach with the Marines and light infantry companies. In a flying column, they ran down the beach, rounded a corner and saw piles of rock, railings and miscellaneous flotsam ahead. Not having participated in the initial advance of the grenadiers and regular foot, the Marines and light infantry were nothing daunted. When his men became unsteady, John Stark is reputed to have told them: "Damn you, no flinching--i'll run through the next man who dodges. By God, you'll stand, or Lucy Stark will be a widow by nightfall." Although perhaps aprochryphal, it made wonderful propaganda after the battle. Stark had his men hold their fire until the Marines were within 50 paces, at which point the New Hampshiremen rose up and delivered a volley to their front, and others rose from the tall grass ten or twelve feet above the beach and poured in a volley on the flank. Pitcairn was mortally wounded, and carried off by his son--the Marines melted away, and the light infantry refused to advance.

Meanwhile, the second assault (if it deserves the name) went forward slowly to the call of the non-coms (no drummers were left standing), and took a horrible punishment, while their officers awaited the effect of Pitcairn's attack--which never came. Finally the line was called back and dressed again, and Howe was brought the grim news of the failure on the Mystic River beach. At this point someone (both Clinton and Burgoyne tried to take credit) suggested that they had gotten themselves into a real fight, and ought to use some form of manouevre. Charlestown had already caught fire from the earlier, ineffective shelling of the navy, so it was decided that an advance on the redoubt could be undertaken, with the burning town to cover the left of the line. This time, the men were allowed to move forward at the quick time, and were quickly halted and reformed in the open area near the top of Breed's hill. Thanks to their professionalism, the regular foot stood to take the punishment, before rushing in with the bayonet. Warren was killed, and Prescott was badly wounded. Of the roughly 450 American casualties, most of those killed were shot down or bayonetted in fleeing the redoubt. With their position behind the rail fence compromised, the militia there did not await the order, and they skeedaddled. The British had "won" the battle of Bunker Hill. Of the 2100 or 2200 men sent over to the Charlestown penninsula, 268 were killed, and 828 wounded. Gage, infuriated by the carping of his officers and the nonchalance of the ministry, offered his resignation, and the opinion that they need only "win" a couple of more battles for the Americans to achieve their independence.

Nine months later, in March of 1776, George Washington, frustrated by the unwillingness of councils of war to attack Boston, finally issued orders over the protests of the New Englanders, and thousands of men carried dirt and rocks up the icy slopes of Dorchester Heights to build a redoubt above the frozen ground. When General Howe awoke the next morning to see a fully manned line across the heights, Washington did not leave him in suspense, he began to shell the docks. The Navy gave Howe the choice of leaving or staying, and he chose the former. The following day, the army and navy left for Halifax, and the war in Boston was over.
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Merry Andrew
Reply Tue 24 Jun, 2003 06:58 am
Great post, Setanta. Just found it, a week late. Surprised nobody else has responded to it.
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