"Don't Fire Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes!": Remembering Bunker Hill
June 17, 2010
In 1876, the United States celebrated its centennial anniversary with great fanfare. As part of the celebration, souvenirs of all types were available for purchase – including this glass platter that was recently donated to the National Heritage Museum. At the center is a depiction of the Bunker Hill Monument, which is actually located on Breed’s Hill, in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The cornerstone for the monument was laid in a Masonic ceremony on June 17, 1825, the 50th anniversary of the famous battle. Taking part in the festivities was the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), who was making a tour through the United States at the time. The monument was completed in 1843.
The famous battle, fought against the British on June 17, 1775, was one of the earliest of the Revolutionary War. Although it was a British victory, the American forces killed or wounded almost half of the 2,200 British soldiers fighting that day. The platter memorializes the names of four of the American military leaders: Israel Putnam, John Stark, William Prescott and Joseph Warren. How many of these names do you know? Here’s a short guide:
Israel Putnam (1718-1790) was born in Massachusetts, but spent his adult life in Connecticut where he was a farmer. After military service during the French and Indian Wars, Putnam helped organize the Sons of Liberty in eastern Connecticut. In 1775, he was appointed a brigadier general and eventually became second in rank to George Washington. As field commander of the troops at Bunker Hill, Putnam reportedly gave one of the most famous orders in military history, “Don’t one of you fire until you see the white of their eyes” (although some accounts attribute this to William Prescott, also named on the platter).
John Stark (1728-1822) was a native of New Hampshire, where he made his living as a farmer and a miller. Like Putnam, he also served in the French and Indian Wars. After the fighting at Lexington and Concord, Stark traveled to Cambridge and was appointed colonel. At Bunker Hill, he deployed his men between Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill to defend the army’s left flank. He was able to encourage his inexperienced soldiers to cover weak spots in the American defense that day.
Like Putnam and Stark, William Prescott (1726-1795) was also a farmer, tending the land left to him by his father in Groton, Massachusetts. Also like Putnam and Stark, Prescott gained military experience in the French and Indian Wars. The night before the Battle of Bunker Hill, Prescott, a commissioned colonel, was ordered to command the expedition to fortify Bunker Hill. With 1,200 men, he instead entrenched Breed’s Hill. He was able to defend against British General Sir William Howe’s advances twice. Although the British broke through on their third advance, Prescott achieved a symbolic victory, suffering only 441 dead and wounded compared to the over 1,000 casualties on the British side.
Perhaps the best-known name on the platter belongs to Joseph Warren (1741-1775). Warren, a Boston physician, had been elected President Pro Tempore of the Provincial Congress on April 23, 1775. Just three days before the Battle of Bunker Hill, on June 14, Warren was elected a major general of the provincial army. Sadly, he died at the end of the battle when Howe’s forces finally broke through. At the time, Warren was also Grand Master of Massachusetts Provincial Grand Lodge. After recovering Warren’s body from the battlefield, members of both active Massachusetts Grand Lodges honored him with a Masonic funeral service.
Bunker Hill Platter, 1876, collection of the National Heritage Museum, gift of Robert and Edith Zucker, 2008.021.6. Photograph by David Bohl.