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We the People: Were colonists at Bunker Hill ordered to hold fire until seeing the whites of the enemy’s eyes?

UPDATED: Fri., June 11, 2021

The Battle of Bunker Hill, an 1897 painting by American illustrator Howard Pyle, shows a column of English troops marching toward entrenched colonial forces in June 1775.  (Howard Pyle)
The Battle of Bunker Hill, an 1897 painting by American illustrator Howard Pyle, shows a column of English troops marching toward entrenched colonial forces in June 1775. (Howard Pyle)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review is examining one question from the exam taken by immigrants trying to become United States citizens.

This week’s question: The American Revolution had many important events. Name one.

Anyone who’s watched the “Shot Heard ’Round the World” short from “Schoolhouse Rock!” should be able to answer this question by naming any of the early battles of the American Revolution, including those that took place prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

The one that may be seared into your memory is the Battle of Bunker Hill, where “the rebel Col. Prescott proved he was wise” by holding fire until the colonists “could see the whites of the eyes” of the redcoats.

Only, it’s not certain Prescott said that. And the battle didn’t take place on Bunker Hill.

This month marks the 246th anniversary of the end of the British blockade on Boston, culminating with the battle immortalized both in song and memorial in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. Massachusetts forces had been tipped that British soldiers intended to capture the hills surrounding Boston Harbor, and on June 16, 1775, received orders to capture Bunker Hill and others on nearby Dorchester Neck to prevent the English from gaining control of the area.

The forces, however, took nearby Breed’s Hill instead. In his 1826 history of the battle, which contains long adoring passages to Col. William Prescott and the Massachusetts militia, the writer Samuel Swett ascribed the error to “a most serious confusion,” and also the belief that Breed’s Hill was a better spot to fortify against the English. The writer Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the 2013 award-winning history “Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution,” told Smithsonian Magazine he believed the hill was fortified closer to British forces in an attempt to force them to fight, rather than the more defensive position afforded by nearby Bunker Hill.

When the English rose the morning of June 17 and noticed the colonists upon them, they opened cannon fire and began to push toward the line of 1,000 men on Breed’s Hill. Peter Brown, a private in the Massachusetts army, wrote of the experience to his mother a week later in a letter that has been preserved by historians.

“We began to be almost beat out, being fatigued by our Labour, having no sleep the night before, very little to eat, no drink but rum, but what we hazzarded our lives to get, we grew faint, Thirsty, hungry and weary,” Brown wrote.

Tellingly, Brown makes no note of the order to stay their rifles until eye whites were visible. Instead, the decision to hold fire had more to do with the technical limitations of their firearms.

Brown said the British forces “found a Choaky mouthful of us, ’tho 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 shipping firing and throwing Bombs, keeping us down, till they almost surrounded us.”

Swett does make note of the famous line supposedly uttered by Prescott, but was writing a full 50 years after the battle had ended. Swett indicates Prescott told his troops not to fire until the British were within “eight rods” of their position, about 44 yards. But also that they should aim low when they saw the whites of the eyes of the British. The phrase had also been used by commanding officers in previous conflicts as early as the 17th century.

J.L. Bell, a historical writer published in the Journal of the American Revolution and author of the blog Boston 1775, notes that an early biography of Prescott didn’t include the quote. Its first appearance may be in the 1808 book by Mason “Parson” Weems about the life of George Washington. That same book contained the story of Washington chopping down the cherry tree, largely believed today to be pure fiction.

Whether Prescott uttered the famous phrase or not, the Battle of Bunker Hill is an acceptable answer to the citizenship question. Though the colonists eventually were forced to retreat from the hill, they lost far fewer men than the English that day. Modern estimates place the casualties at 450 for the colonists and more than 1,000 for the British.

Washington soon arrived to take control of the Continental Army, and King George III rejected the Olive Branch petition, the Continental Congress’ final offering of peace. In August, the king issued a proclamation finding the colonists in rebellion, and the revolution was on.

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