The Battle of Bunker Hill Throws Salem Into a Panic

Shortly before the Battle of Bunker Hill, Edward Augustus Holyoke sent his wife to Nantucket for safety. He was a respected doctor in Salem, Mass., but he was suspected of loyalty to the king. He and his wife, Mary Vail Holyoke, had actually dined with Gen. Thomas Gage when he arrived as military governor of the Province. In May 1775, Holyoke and several other prominent Salem men published a statement retracting their Loyalist–leaning comments and professing their dedication to the patriot cause.

Edward Augustus Holyoke

Edward Augustus Holyoke

Nonetheless, it seemed wise to send his wife to the island inhabited by peace-loving Quakers who, he presumed, were neutral in the conflict.

On Nantucket Island, Mary Vail Holyoke learned from her husband the news of the Battle of Bunker Hill. According to her diary, Mary Vial Holyoke spent those anxious days visiting friends, dining with friends, having tea with friends. On June 17, she wrote:

At Sheep’s shearing. Tea at Mrs. Fitch.

Her husband wrote her the next day to tell her the battle on Bunker Hill threw Salem into a panic. He wrote, ‘almost everyone is moving away.’ His change of heart begins to be evident in the letter. ‘Our men’ were the colonists, not the British army.

Well, my dear, I am heartily glad you are not here just at this time; you would, I know, be most terribly alarmed. We had an appearance yesterday of a most prodigious smoke, which I found was exactly in the direction of Charlestown and as we knew our men were entrenching on Bunker Hill there, we supposed the Town was on fire, and so in fact it proved, for in the evening (that is last evening) we were told the Regulars had landed at Charlestown under cover of the smoke from ye buildings they had set fire to, and forced the Entrenchments on the Hill and had beat our men off with loss, & this morning our intelligence was that 400 of our men were killed & the Regulars had pursued our men as far as Winter Hill; (tho’ we just now learned that the Regulars still keep possession of Bunkers Hill, & that our men are entrenched upon Winter Hill) & that there is a probability of further action soon, and that our loss amounts only to about 150 killed…

The Battle of Bunker Hill alarmed the townspeople of Salem and Marblehead, 15 miles north of Charlestown. Wrote Holyoke:

The commotion here was so considerable, though none of our men went to ye Battle (as the northwest part of the Province and not the sea coast were called upon the occasion) that we had but one meeting house open in ye morning. —

Mary Vial Holyoke

Mary Vial Holyoke

and this afternoon while some were at meeting and others talking over ye action of yesterday, we were alarmed with an appearance of smoke at Marblehead, which broke up ye meeting. & the people with their engines & buckets went over to extinguish the fire, and I among the rest, tho’ I should have been glad to have been excused on account of the prodigious heat of the weather, but as I thought that under Providence I owed the preservation of my House to the assistance from Marblehead, when we were in the utmost hazard, I could not dispense with going; but we were stopped when about half way there, with an account that ye smoke arose from a field of grass on fire, and that no building was hurt, so I returned home, and am now set down to rest and cool myself, and to give you this account.

With thanks to the Internet Archive.



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