*Thanks to Nancy Fuller for sharing this excerpt from the History of the Town of Essex by Robert Crowell, with Sketches of the Soldiers in the War of the Rebellion by David Choate.
Soon after the battle of Lexington, the Continental Congress again assembled at Philadelphia. By a unanimous vote of this body, Georgia Washington, then a member of Congress, was appointed, June 15th, Commander-in-Chief of the army then raised, or to be raised, for the defense of American liberty. Before his arrival at the camp in Cambridge, General Ward had the command of the army.
The troops had been together now nearly two months, and were impatient for some action against the British. Col. Prescott was sent on the 16th of June, with a detachment of about a thousand men, to occupy a station on Bunker’s Hill. On viewing the eminence he saw at once that it was an unsuitable spot, and looking along to the right, he found that a spur of that hill now called Breed’s Hill was the most proper situation in every respect for a battleground. There he threw up a temporary fortification; and having on the morning of the 17th, been reinforced by several hundred men making the whole force about seventeen hundred, he was attacked and driven from the hill by three or four thousand of the British.
Of the men from this parish who were in that battle, the names of six are known: James Andrews (father of the late Israel Andrews ), Benjamin Burnham (father of the late Abner Burnham), Nehemiah Choate, Aaron Perkins, Jesse Story Jr., a minor, (brother of the late Ephraim Story), who was killed, and Francis Burnham ( a brother of the late Capt. Nathaniel Burnham), who was wounded. Two Chebacco boys, Aaron Low and Samuel Proctor, belonged to a Gloucester company which reached Cambridge on the afternoon of the 16th, and were at work all that night making cartridges.
Francis Burnham’s father lived in the old mansion near the ancient grist-mill at the Falls. We heard from him the particulars of the battle:
“We began our march,” he said, “from the camp about nine o’clock in the evening, and on reaching Bunker’s Hill we lay upon our arms, till our Colonel, with his engineers, had fixed upon the spot for a fort. We were then set at work to gather up what materials we could, suitable for a fortification, and first built a redoubt, as it was called, about one hundred and forty feet or fifty feet square, with two open passages. On the left of the redoubt running north-easterly, we made a solid wall of sods, four feet high, for a breastwork. From this breastwork we built a line of rail-fence, and parallel to it a post-fence with four feet of space between them. This space we filled up with new mown grass; treading it down so that it made quite as good a screen for us, as the redoubt or the breastwork of sods.
“Early the next morning a British ship of war began a cannonade upon us, but without any damage. Very soon the battery on Copp’s Hill was opened against us, and the first shot killed one of our men; but what is very remarkable , though the roar of cannon from this battery was incessant, yet no further damage was done by it. The next motion of the enemy that we discovered, was the landing at Morton’s Point of ten companies of grenadiers and ten of light infantry with some artillery. They spent some little time in reconnoitering our position, and then sent some of their officers back to Boston.
“In an hour or two they came back with more troops. Though at first much superior to us in force, yet it seems they were afraid to advance. This gave us more confidence in our fortifications. About three in the afternoon they began up the hill, halting occasionally to let us see what their artillery could do, but the angle of elevation was such that it did us but little harm. We had no ammunition to waste, for we had a scanty supply at best. We were ordered to put four buckshots to a bullet, and not to fire till they were within point-blank shot distance.
“They continued to approach us with a steady column and firm step, till we could see the whites of their eyes and then we poured in upon them a most destructive fire. The effect was tremendous. Their whole line was broken in confusion. We had ample time after we had loaded again, to see the blood flowing down the hill from the great number killed and wounded. At length they formed and advanced towards us again, but not with the same resolute step. We kept cool and waited as before, till every shot should tell, and then mowed them down like grass. Their line was broken into greater confusion than before, and it was some time before the officers could get them to rally.
“By this time the whole of Charlestown, about four hundred houses, was all in a blaze. This we supposed the British did from revenge, and to terrify us. We expected to have to retreat soon, for most of our ammunition was gone, and but few of us had bayonets. They did not, however, dare to come up as before. A portion of them took a circuitous route to the south side of our hill, and soon scaled our works.
“We were now attacked on both sides, and the contest became very hot. Story and I were side by side, when a ball struck his head, his brains flew into my face and he fell back into the ditch, which ran along behind the fence. Another shot gave me a slight wound upon the shoulder, which made me stop for a few moments to get breath.
“A boy was standing not far from me, by the side of his father. When his father was just ready to apply the lighted torch to a cannon, a shot struck him and he instantly fell. The boy at once seized the torch from his father’s hand and touched off the cannon, which did great execution upon the enemy. But after fighting awhile under the greatest disadvantage, we had to retreat, and more of our men fell while retreating, than when standing at the breastworks.
“Providentially for us, a fine, large company of Connecticut troops that had not been in the hottest of action, moved up in good order near Mystic River and covered our retreat. One thing I forgot to mention, which was greatly in our favor. The wind blowing strong from the west, drove all the smoke directly into the face of our enemy, but as it rose a little above them we could see under the cloud, and point our guns breast- high.”
* In the House of Representatives——“Resolved that there be paid out of the public Treasury of this State to Jesse Story of Chebacco in Ipswich ( father of Jesse Story Jr., under 21 years of age) the sum of £5. 15s. in full for the loss he sustained in arms, ammunition and wearing apparel by the death of his said son who was killed at the battle of Bunker’s Hill, as will appear in the account and certificate.” —-Records of General Court.