The British Get ‘A Choaky Mouthful’ at Bunker Hill

Battle of Bunker HIll by Howard Pyle.

Battle of Bunker HIll by Howard Pyle.

The most detailed eyewitness account of the Battle of Bunker Hill was written by a private named Peter Brown, who enlisted right after fighting at Concord, as he was ‘hearty in the cause.’ Brown, from Westford, Mass., wrote to his mother Sarah Brown in Newport, R.I., on June 25, 1775. His letter appears in History of the Siege of Boston, and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, by Richard Frothingham.

Private Brown described how the soldiers built a fort overnight beginning on June 16, how some of the ‘young country people’ deserted when the British opened fire and how he was lucky to survive the fight.

He told his mother that on June 16 the soldiers cheerfully obeyed orders to parade at 6 p.m. with a day’s provision and blankets, though they didn’t know where they were going. At 9 p.m. they marched down to Charleston Hill and made a fort, 10 rods long, eight rods high with a breastwork. The continental soldiers worked undiscovered until 5 a.m., when they saw their danger: British ships of the line approached.

The British began to fire ‘pretty briskly’ for a few minutes, then stopped, then began again for 20 minutes, killing one of the Americans. The danger, wrote Brown, ‘ made us think there was treachery and that we were brought there to be all slain.’

At 11 a.m. the British began to fire ‘as brisk as ever.’ That caused many of the young country people to desert because they apprehended the danger in a ‘clearer manner than others who were more diligent in digging, & fortifying ourselves against them.’ They began to tire, fatigued by their labor, thirsty and hungry, having had no sleep, little to eat and nothing to drink but rum.

The enemy began to fire ‘very warm’ from their ships and from Boston until 2:00 p.m., when they began to fire from other ships that ‘lay in ferry-way’ and from a ship that lay in the river. Their aim was to stop the American reinforcements, which they did. One cannon cut three men in two on the neck, wrote Brown.

Time and again the American officers sent for cannon from Cambridge and got only four. The artillery captain fired a few times, then ‘swung his hat three times round to the enemy and ceased to fire.’ At about 3:00 p.m. the cannons stopped roaring, and they spied as many as 40 boats or barges coming over full of troops. Brown supposed there were about 3,000 British and only 700 Americans left who hadn’t deserted. Five hundred reinforcements couldn’t get close enough to do them any good, but finally ‘ventured to advance’ when they saw the British would cut them off.

‘A Choaky Mouthful’

The Battle of Bunker Hill then began in earnest, according to Brown:

When our officers saw that the regulars intended to land, they ordered the artillery to go out of the fort and prevent their landing, if possible; from whence the artillery captain took his field-pieces, and went right home to Cambridge fast as he could, –for which he is now confined, and we expect he will be shot for it. The enemy landed and fronted before us, and formed themselves into an oblong square, so as to surround us, which they did in part. After they were well formed they advanced toward us, in order to swallow us up; they found a choaky mouthful of us, though we could do nothing with our small arms as yet for distance, and had but two cannon and no gunner. And they from Boston, and from the ships, firing and throwing bombs, keeping us down till they got almost around us. But God, in mercy to us, fought our battle for us; and though we were but a few, and so was suffered to be defeated by the enemy; yet we were preserved in a most wonderful manner, far beyond our expectation, and to our admiration, — for out of our regiment there was but thirty-seven killed, four or five taken captive, and forty-seven wounded. If we should be called to action again, I hope to have courage and strength to act my part valiantly in defense of our liberty and country, trusting in him who hath yet kept me, and hath covered my head in the day of battle; and though we have left four out of our company, and some taken captives by the cruel enemies of America, I was not suffered to be touched, although I was in the fort when the enemy came in, and jumped over the walls, and ran half a mile, where balls flew like hail-stones, and cannon roared like thunder.

Peter Brown ended his letter by asking his mother to write him in Cambridge. And, he wrote,

To day at Cambridge, to morrow
To morrow the Lord only knows where 

For an eyewitness account of the battle from a 10-year-old Loyalist girl, click here.  This story was updated from the 2014 version. 

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