On this day in 1726, William Prescott is born in Groton, Massachusetts. He is best known for his role in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
You may remember that Americans besieged the British in Boston following the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. A few months into the siege, Americans became worried that British General Thomas Gage might try to possess the Charlestown peninsula.
They decided to beat Gage to the punch.
On June 16, Prescott was thus told to proceed “to Bunker Hill, and build such fortifications as he and Colonel Gridley [an engineer] . . . should judge best adapted to its defence, and as could be put in a condition to protect his men the next morning.” About 1,200 men were put under Prescott’s command.
Confusingly, Prescott and his men did not fortify Bunker Hill that night. They fortified nearby Breed’s Hill instead. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick explains: “To place a fort overlooking Charlestown on Breed’s Hill—right in the figurative face of the British—was an entirely different undertaking than had been ordered by the Committee of Safety. Instead of a defensive position, this was an unmistakable act of defiance.”
To this day, no one is quite sure why Prescott’s forces began building on the wrong hill.
Either way, sunrise revealed the difficult situation they’d created for themselves. The fortifications weren’t finished, and they soon saw that they were within firing range of the British warships floating nearby. Not to be intimidated, Prescott jumped up on the redoubt. He strode back and forth, encouraging his men to keep working.
It was a brave thing to do! He was making himself an easy target for British fire.
At about this time, Gage was inspecting the American effort through a spyglass. He saw Prescott standing atop the redoubt, and he asked a Loyalist, Abijah Willard, who the man was. Willard recognized Prescott, who happened to be his brother-in-law. “Will he fight?” Gage asked. “Yes, sir.” Willard affirmed. “He is an old soldier and will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins.”
The battle that followed surely proved Willard right.
You’ve doubtless heard the phrase, “Don’t one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” It’s been said that an American officer, possibly Prescott, uttered that command when the British marched on Bunker Hill. The reality was a little less poetic. The real command, if issued, was probably an instruction not to fire until “you see their white half-gaiters.” British soldiers would have been wearing gaiters on their calves.
Either way, the British marched on the hill twice, only to be rebuffed. It wasn’t until the third advance that Americans were forced into a retreat. By then, as Prescott later wrote, “Our Amunition being nearly exausted could keep up only a scattering Fire.” His son later described the final retreat:
“The British had entered the redoubt, and were advancing, when Colonel Prescott ordered a retreat. He was among the last, and before leaving it was surrounded by the enemy who had entered, and had several passes with the bayonet made at his body, which he parried with his sword . . . . His banyan and waistcoat were pierced in several places, but he escaped unhurt.”
The Battle of Bunker Hill was technically a British victory, but only technically. And Prescott was one of the heroes of the day.
Francis J. Parker, Colonel William Prescott : the commander in the battle of Bunker's Hill (1875)
Letter from William Prescott to John Adams (Aug. 25, 1775)
Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution (2013)
Richard Frothingham, The battle-field of Bunker Hill: with a relation of the action by William Prescott, and illustrative documents (1876)
Tony Horwitz, The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill: Nathaniel Philbrick takes on one of the Revolutionary War’s most famous and least understood battles (Smithsonian Mag.; May 2013)