Two hundred and forty-six years ago this year, in one of America’s most sacred battles, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Americans showed themselves to be not merely a rebellious rabble of colonists but a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Many Americans fought and died on that bloody day, but like so often in history, the right men arriving at the right time can make all the difference. The soldiers of Marblehead, Massachusetts, had an uncanny knack for being those men, and they were among those who answered the Patriots’ desperate call for reinforcements against the British onslaught on June 17, 1775.
On June 17, Captain Samuel Trevett led a fifty-one-man artillery company from the Marblehead Regiment into Charlestown. Months earlier, Trevett, in the dead of night, raided an American vessel captured by the Royal Navy and seized a chest containing firearms, prompting his brothers in arms to dub him “a finished gentleman of the old school.” The Marbleheader and his company engaged in the fighting at Bunker Hill as part of Colonel Richard Gridley’s artillery regiment. Unfortunately, although Gridley was an experienced artillerist from the French and Indian War, he had filled his regimental staff rosters with incompetent family members, including his son.
Trevett’s superior, Major Scarborough Gridley, had orders to help reinforce the redoubt on Breed Hill’s, which required crossing the narrow strip of land known as Charlestown Neck, which connected the peninsula to the mainland. At the sight of Patriot dead and wounded on the Neck, however, Gridley stopped dead in his tracks, insisting that he was waiting to cover the retreat. Disgusted, Trevett and his men crossed the Neck without incident and eagerly joined the fighting on the other side.
They moved their cannon into position near a rail fence where they could fire on the Redcoats. Fighting alongside the Marblehead men were two hundred Connecticut militia led by Captain Thomas Knowlton, a fearless thirty-six-year-old French and Indian War veteran who later led a force known as Knowlton’s Rangers. Using rails scavenged from the nearby fields, the men built a second fence parallel and very close to the first fence. They then stuffed the narrow strip between the two full of rocks, grass, sticks, and other debris, creating a barricade they hoped would help protect them from British fire.
The rail fence reached nearly to the breastwork of the redoubt. Past that, the swampy ground prevented them from extending the fence any farther. The wetland would slow the British regulars, but to further defend the area, the colonists erected a series of three flèches, arrow-shaped defenses assembled from more pieces of rail fence, bundles of sticks, and earth.
As soon as the soldiers completed the flèches, Trevett and his men moved their field pieces behind the fortifications, where they could fire on the British as they disembarked but retain some protection from British fire. Meanwhile, Colonel John Stark, a forty-six-year-old backwoodsman from the wilds of New Hampshire, fatefully led his 150-man company to positions along the rail fence. Armed with powder and weapons they had looted from the British, the New Hampshire men stood ready to repulse a British flanking move and unhinge General Howe’s entire plan.
Their remarkable full story is now told in the new bestselling book, The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware. The book is a Band of Brothers-style treatment of the regiment from Marblehead, a unique largely unknown group of Americans who changed the course of history.
Howe didn’t intend to make a direct frontal assault. Instead, the general planned to swing his light infantry and grenadiers around north to a beach along the Mystic River, where the series of rail fences, including those manned by Knowlton, Trevett, and Stark, formed a feeble barricade. Here he hoped to find a weak spot in the American defense that would allow his men to penetrate the lines and attack the redoubt from behind. He knew it would not be an easy climb. The Redcoats would be maneuvering over rocks and fences in their wool uniforms in the warm midday sun. Meanwhile, provincial marksmen would be picking them off one by one.
However, he did not expect the colonists to be so disciplined or effective with their slim supply of ammunition. To conserve their precious gun powder, the Patriot officers instructed their men to wait until the last moment to fire. Stark ordered his men not to fire until they could see their enemy’s half-gaiters, the heavy fabric leggings that covered most of a soldier’s ankles. Perhaps a Patriot officer shouted, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” but it’s more likely a myth that crept into battle lore. The officers did instruct the colonial fighters to aim at their enemies’ hips so as not to shoot over the enemies’ heads, a common problem when firing from high ground. They also directed the men to concentrate their fire on officers.
In an inflection point of the battle, Stark’s men, supported by Trevett’s cannon, tore into Howe’s light infantry. Sniping from behind cover, the colonists took turns firing and reloading and firing again at the oncoming lines of scarlet. Arranged in lines three deep, the Patriots took turns leaning against their makeshift barricade and firing their muskets into the advancing Redcoats. As soon as one man had discharged his weapon, he stepped back and quickly reloaded, while two other men took their turns. This resulted in a continuous sheet of fire. The provincials were handing some of the Crown’s finest troops a beating.
As Stark’s and Trevett’s fire on the side of the hill cut down Howe’s elite light infantry like a scythe clearing wheat, the charge disintegrated into chaos. The British dead lay thick on the ground. Many men broke rank and ran back down the hill. British officers threatened to run through fleeing soldiers with their swords. Howe reformed his men and again sent a force charging up the right side of the hill. Stark’s New Hampshire Company once again held its fire until the British were within range.
Howe’s attack, meant as a feint to distract the Americans from the flanking thrust on Knowlton’s men, sputtered. After leading the charge, Howe found himself alone on the battlefield—his entire staff either dead or wounded. The general’s aide-de-camp had fallen in front of his eyes. A musket ball had even shattered the wine bottle his servant carried. Remarkably, considering his scarlet uniform, he was still standing. The British fell back; the American lines erupted in huzzahs.
It was a do-or-die moment. Howe gathered his men for one final assault and changed tactics—forming his men into columns, rather in a long, vulnerable horizontal line. He also abandoned his attempt to flank the Americans by assaulting the fence held by Stark. Seeing a weak point in the American defenses, he trained his artillery on the flèches manned by Trevett and the other provincial troops.
Loading and firing an eighteenth-century cannon was a time-consuming process. The entire sequence could take over a minute, during which the artillerists were vulnerable to enemy fire. By this point in the battle, Trevett and his Marbleheaders had mown down countless numbers of the enemy, but with their rapidly dwindling supply of powder, they realized they could do nothing in the face of the British artillery onslaught. Unlike the other artillery companies, which had retreated, Trevett’s men had stood their ground and continued firing their guns through the fiercest fighting.
As he and his men were leaving the flèches, they saw two abandoned guns. Trevett ordered his company to drag the one that hadn’t been disabled by the British to safety. However, a company of Redcoats interrupted their task and held them at point-blank range. Facing certain death, some of the Marbleheaders raise their hands in surrender. The British fired anyway. However, only one bullet reached its intended mark—a testament to the poor quality of firearms of that era. Trevett and his men successfully dragged the cannon off the hill while the British reloaded to take a second shot. Their bravery meant that the Patriots saved a precious artillery piece; all the others were lost.
In a great miscarriage of justice, General Putnam wrongly named Samuel Trevett as the artillery captain who had displayed cowardice rather than Scarborough Gridley. The colonial forces arrested Trevett but eventually realized their mistake. By that time, however, Trevett was fed up with the provincials’ mistreatment and felt they had besmirched his honor. He went home to Marblehead and formally disbanded his company, and even though the Committee of Safety asked him to return, he refused. Most of his men joined other units. At least eleven joined their fellow Marbleheaders in John Glover’s Regiment, which would become an indispensable part of the newly formed Continental Army led by General George Washington.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books. His latest, The Indispensables, is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble and would make an excellent Father’s Day gift. His other bestsellers include Washington’s Immortals and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @coatatmbathistorian