NO national drama was ever developed, in a more interesting and splendid first scene. The incidents and the results of the battle itself were most important, and indeed most wonderful. As a mere battle, few surpass it in whatever engages and interests the attention. It was fought, on a conspicuous eminence, in the immediate neighbourhood of a populous city; and consequently in the view of thousands of spectators. The attacking army moved over a sheet of water to the assault. The operations and movements were of course all visible and distinct. Those who looked on from the houses and heights of Boston had a fuller view of every important operation and event, than can ordinarily be had of any battle, or than can possibly be had of such as are fought on a more extended ground, or by detachments of troops acting in different places, and at different times, and in some measure independently of each other. When the British columns were advancing to the attack, the flames of Charlestown (fired, as is generally supposed, by a shell), began to ascend. The spectators, far outnumbering both armies, thronged and crowded on every height and every point which afforded a view of the scene, themselves constituted a very important part of it.
The troops of the two armies seemed like so many combatants in an amphitheatre. The manner in which they should acquit themselves was to be judged of, not as in other cases of military engagements, by reports and future history, but by a vast and anxious assembly already on the spot, and waiting with unspeakable concern and emotion the progress of the day.
In other battles the recollection of wives and children, has been used as an excitement to animate the warrior's breast and nerve his arm. Here was not a mere recollection, but an actual presence of them, and other dear connexions, hanging on the skirts of the battle, anxious and agitated, feeling almost as if wounded themselves by every blow of the enemy, and putting forth, as it were, their own strength, and all the energy of their own throbbing bosoms, into every gallant effort of their warring friends.
But there was a more comprehensive and vastly more important view of that day's contest, than has been mentioned,—a view, indeed, which ordinary eyes, bent intently on what was immediately before them, did not embrace, but which was perceived in its full extent and expansion by minds of a higher order. Those men who were at the head of the Colonial councils, who had been engaged for years in the previous stages of the quarrel with England, and who had been accustomed to look forward to the future, were well apprised of the magnitude of the events likely to hang on the business of that day. They saw in it not only a battle, but the beginning of a civil war, of unmeasured extent and uncertain issue. All America and all England were likely to be deeply concerned in the consequences. The individuals themselves, who knew full well what agency they had had, in bringing affairs to this crisis, had need of all their courage;—not that disregard of personal safety, in which the vulgar suppose true courage to consist, but that high and fixed moral sentiment, that steady and decided purpose, which enables men to pursue a distant end, with a full view of the difficulties and dangers before them, and with a conviction, that, before they arrive at the proposed end, should they ever reach it, they must pass through evil report as well as good report, and be liable to obloquy, as well as to defeat.
Spirits, that fear nothing else, fear disgrace; and this danger is necessarily encountered by those who engage in civil war. Unsuccessful resistance is not only ruin to its authors, but is esteemed, and necessarily so, by the laws of all countries, treasonable., This is the case, at least till resistance becomes so general and formidable as to assume the form of regular war. But who can tell, when resistance commences, whether it will attain even to that degree of success? Some of those persons who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, described themselves as signing it, " as with halters about their necks." If there were grounds for this remark in 1776, when the cause had become so much more general, how much greater was the hazard, when the battle of Bunker Hill was fought? Otis, to whose merits it is high time that some competent pen should do full and ample justice, had ceased to be active in public concerns; but others, who had partaken of the public councils with him,—and among them, he, who acted a conspicuous part in the business of those times, and who yet lives, to assert, with vigour unimpaired by years, the claims of the patriots of this Commonwealth to a full participation and an efficient agency, not only in the very earliest scenes of the Revolution, but in the events which preceded it, and in which it may be said, more than in any other particular occurrences, to have had its origin,—were earnestly watching the immediate issue of the contest, but were seeing also, at the same time, its more remote consequences, and the vastness and importance of the scene which was then opening.
These considerations constituted, to enlarged and liberal minds, the moral sublimity of the occasion ; while to the outward senses the movement of armies, the roar of artillery,the brilliancy of the reflection of a summer's sun, from the burnished armour of the British columns, and the flames of a burning town, made up a scene of extraordinary grandeur.
Whoever considers the nature and circumstances of this battle will not be at all surprised, if there should appear to have been some degree of complaint and fault-finding among those engaged. It was a battle almost won,—but yet lost. The place was not finally defended. The pinnacle of success had been almost reached, not quite. The prize had been seized, as it were, but not holden. Out of the disappointed feelings, natural to such an occasion, some crimination and recrimination might be expected to rise. Even the gallant Prescott, a man of noble, generous and magnanimous nature, would not willing surrender his redoubt; nor is it strange that he might think it possible for others to have given him better support. He found himself, in his little fortress, and on his leaving it, to pass through a gate-way enfiladed by the British musquetry, in a condition somewhat like that in which Jugurtha is described by Sallust: " Dum sustenare suos, et prope jam adeptam victoriam retinere cupit, circumventus ab equitibus, dextra, sinistra, omnibus occisis, solus inter tela hostium vitabundus erumpit."
Properly and strictly speaking, there was no Commander-in-Chief in the battle. The troops from the different States were strangers to each other. The battle itself was unexpected, and may be said to have been accidental. No weight should be given to the opinions, engendered in such a state of feelings against any man's conduct; especially when we take into the account the entire want of discipline in the army, and of concert among its leaders, and when we remember that all depended on that spirit of enthusiasm which glowed in the breast of every soldier, and which led him, under the circumstances of the case, to look upon himself as his own commander. A very ordinary degree of candour would induce the belief, that if there had been grounds of complaint against any officer, at that time, not of a shadowy and unsubstantial nature, they would have been attended to and investigated. That was certainly a jealous period. Every officer was watched, because it was the beginning of a civil war, and dangers were to be apprehended, not only from cowardice but from defection. If those who knew General Putnam's behaviour at that time, found no fault with it, the presumption is, that no fault could be found with it. And those, whose lips were silent then, when well-founded complaints would have been a duty, must long afterwards and after the death of the party, be heard not without much abatement and allowance.
( Originally Published 1907 )