“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!” commanded Colonel William Prescott, repeating the order of General Israel Putnam, June 17, 1775.
Colonel William Prescott’s men were in the center redoubt located on Breed’s Hill, adjacent Bunker Hill, guarding the north entrance to Boston Harbor. Samuel Swett wrote in his History of Bunker Hill, that as the 2,300 British soldiers advanced: “The American marksmen are with difficulty restrained from firing. Putnam rode through the line, and ordered that no one should fire till they arrived within eight rods. … Powder was scarce and must not be wasted. They should ‘not fire at the enemy till they saw the whites of their eyes. …’ The same orders were reiterated by Prescott at the redoubt.”
When a stray musket ball from a British gun killed an American soldier, men began to run away. To stop the confusion, Colonel William Prescott climbed on top of the the wall of the fortification, stood upright and walked back and forth, rallying his men.
When British General Gage saw Prescott through his telescope, he asked a local loyalist if Prescott had enough courage to fight. The loyalist replied: “Prescott is an old soldier, he will fight as long as a drop of blood is in his veins.”
Historian George Bancroft wrote that at the redoubt in the center of battle: “No one appeared to have any command but Colonel Prescott. … His bravery could never be enough acknowledged and applauded.”
Providentially for Americans, the British brought the wrong size cannon balls – 12 lb cannon balls – which did not fit their six-pound and nine-pound cannons! As a result, British artillery was not able to soften the resistance.
General Howe disembarked 2,300 British soldiers, ordered them to fix bayonets and charge up the hill. Twice the Americans repelled them, but the third time they ran out of gunpowder. Over 1,000 British were killed in this first major action of the Revolutionary War. Nearly 500 American Continental soldiers were killed, including the notable Dr. Joseph Warren.
Amos Farnsworth, a corporal in the Massachusetts Militia, made this entry in his diary immediately after the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775: “We within the entrenchment … having fired away all ammunition and having no reinforcements … were overpowered by numbers and obliged to leave. … I did not leave the entrenchment until the enemy got in. I then retreated ten or fifteen rods. Then I received a wound in my right arm, the ball going through a little below my elbow, breaking the little shellbone. Another ball struck my back, taking a piece of skin about as big as a penny. But I got to Cambridge that night. … Oh the goodness of God in preserving my life, although they fell on my right and on my left! O may this act of deliverance of thine, O God, lead me never to distrust thee; but may I ever trust in thee and put confidence in no arm of flesh!”
The British then burned the nearby town of Charlestown. This same day, 300 miles away in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress drafted George Washington’s commission as commander-in-chief, for which he refused a salary.
Washington wrote to his wife, Martha: “Dearest … It has been determined in Congress, that the whole army raised for the defense of the American Cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take … command. … I shall rely therefore, confidently, on that Providence which has heretofore preserved, and been bountiful to me.”
Washington ended: “I … got Colonel Pendleton to Draft a Will … the Provision made for you, in case of my death, will, I hope, be agreeable.”
Less than a month after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress proclaimed a day of public humiliation, fasting and prayer, as John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, July 12, 1775: “We have appointed a Continental fast. Millions will be upon their knees at once before their great Creator, imploring His forgiveness and blessing; His smiles on American Council and arms.”
Georgia’s Provincial Congress also passed a motion, July 5, 1775: “That this Congress apply to his Excellency the Governor … requesting him to appoint a Day of Fasting and Prayer throughout this Province, on account of the disputes subsisting between America and the Parent State.”
Georgia’s Royal Governor James Wright replied July 7, 1775: “Gentlemen: I have taken the … request made by … a Provincial Congress, and must premise, that I cannot consider that meeting as constitutional; but as the request is expressed in such loyal and dutiful terms, and the ends proposed being such as every good man must most ardently wish for, I will certainly appoint a Day of Fasting and Prayer to be observed throughout this Province.”
Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull wrote to General Washington, July 13, 1775: “The Honorable Congress have proclaimed a Fast to be observed by the inhabitants of all the English Colonies on this continent, to stand before the Lord in one day, with public humiliation, fasting, and prayer, to deplore our many sins, to offer up our joint supplications to God, for forgiveness, and for his merciful interposition for us in this day of unnatural darkness and distress. They have, with one united voice, appointed you to the high station you possess. The Supreme Director of all events hath caused a wonderful union of hearts and counsels to subsist among us. Now therefore, be strong and very courageous.May the God of the armies of Israel shower down the blessings of his Divine Providence on you, give you wisdom and fortitude, cover your head in the day of battle and danger, add success, convince our enemies of their mistaken measures, and that all their attempts to deprive these Colonies of their inestimable constitutional rights and liberties are injurious and vain.”
On July 19, 1775, the Journals of the Continental Congress recorded: “Agreed, That the Congress meet here tomorrow morning, at half after 9 o’clock, in order to attend divine service at Mr. Duche’s Church; and that in the afternoon they meet here to go from this place and attend divine service at Doctor Allison’s church.”
On July 20, 1775, General Washington issued the order: “The General orders this day to be religiously observed by the Forces under his Command, exactly in manner directed by the Continental Congress. It is therefore strictly enjoined on all Officers and Soldiers to attend Divine Service; And it is expected that all those who go to worship do take their Arms, Ammunition and Accoutrements, and are prepared for immediate action, if called upon.”
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