Massachusetts

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. A respected doctor in Salem, Mass.,  people suspected him of loyalty to the king. He and his wife, Mary Vail Holyoke, had actually dined with Gen. Thomas Gage upon his arrival as military governor of the Province.

In May 1775, Holyoke and several other prominent Salem men published a statement retracting previous Loyalist–leaning comments. They also professed their dedication to the patriot cause.

Edward Augustus Holyoke

Edward Augustus Holyoke, Salem doctor

Nonetheless, it seemed wise to send his wife to the island inhabited by peace-loving Quakers who, he presumed, claimed neutrality 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, she 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.

Alarm in Salem

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,” he wrote. “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.”

The evening before, he explained, the regulars had landed at Charlestown under cover of the smoke from the buildings they set on fire. They then “forced the Entrenchments on the Hill and had beat our men off with loss.”

That morning they learned that ‘400 of our men’ died, and the regulars pursued them as far as  Winter Hill–2-1/2 miles away, now in Somerville. However, he wrote, he just now learned the regulars kept possession of Bunker Hill and the patriots had entrenched on Winter Hill. And, he wrote, “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

Smoke

Holyoke then recounted how some met and others talked over ‘ye action’ of the day before when smoke appeared in Marblehead, the next town. .

That broke up ‘ye meeting,’ and “the people with their engines & buckets went over to extinguish the fire, and I among the rest.” He would have preferred not to go on account of the prodigious heat. But, he wrote, he owed the preservation of his own house to help from Marblehead during ‘the utmost hazard.’

So he went, but stopped halfway there when someone told them ‘ye smoke’ arose from a field of grass and didn’t harm any buildings.

“[S]o I returned home, and am now set down to rest and cool myself, and to give you this account,” he concluded.

With thanks to the Internet ArchiveThis story was updated in 2020.

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