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The Bloody American Revolution

The Bloody American Revolution

by William H. Benson

June 15, 2017

     On the morning of June 17, 1775, in Boston, British army officers stared up in amazement across the Charles River to Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, north of Charlestown. “The night before, Charlestown peninsula had been a green, unpeopled knob. Now it swarmed with men.” During the night, New England’s colonial militia had dug into the two hills and were ready to fight.

     The British general, Thomas Gage, chose force, a frontal attack “to storm the rebel entrenchments,” so that all of Boston would witness in action England’s army, Europe’s most powerful.

      That hot afternoon, General William Howe and three thousand British regulars crossed the Charles River and landed on the peninsula. Howe addressed his Redcoats, “You must drive these farmers from the hill or it will be impossible for us to remain in Boston.”

     With Howe in front, the Redcoats advanced up Breed’s Hill, until they were within fifty yards of the rebels. Then, “A hail of buck-shot from ancient hunting guns struck the attackers.” The British fell back to the river, reformed their lines, and advanced up the hill a second time. Again, the rebels fired, and the Redcoats fell back. A third time they reformed their lines, and climbed the hill. By then, the rebels had run out of ammunition and were forced to retreat from Breed’s Hill.

     A century and a half later, Winston Churchill wrote, “The rebels had become heroes. They had stood up to trained troops. The British had captured the hill, but the Americans had won the glory. On both sides of the Atlantic, men perceived that a mortal struggle impended.”

     The casualties appalled everyone: 226 British soldiers and officers killed, 828 wounded; and 115 colonists killed, 305 wounded. On a single afternoon. “John Adams’s friend, Joseph Warren, was shot through the face, his body horribly mutilated by British bayonets.” “Throughout that night carriages and chaises bore the English casualties into Boston.”

     One historian said, “Something intangible died in the British command on that June afternoon. No officer who witnessed the slaughter could ever get the memory out it out of his mind.”

     A year passed. On June 28, 1776, in South Carolina’s harbor at Charleston, ten British warships and thirty transports, all commanded by Sir Henry Clinton, launched an attack on the colonists, who were positioned behind earthworks on the beach. The unhurried colonists aimed their cannon balls at one ship after another, and when ammunition ran low, the colonists rushed in with fresh supplies.

     The British returned fire, but their shots slammed into the earthworks. Soon, the ships’ “hulls showed ragged gaps; masts splintered and crashed overboard; decks were swept by cannon balls and small-arms fire; gun crews and their officers were struck down at their posts.”

     One officer on the H.M.S. Bristol said, “No slaughterhouse could present so bad a sight with blood and entrails lying about, as did our ship.”

     Breed’s Hill in Boston and Charleston harbor in South Carolina sobered the British. They realized that the rag-tag militia, the so-called “farmers” that they had scorned, had the will and means to fight.

     Holger Hoock, the British historian at the University of Pittsburgh, published last month his book, “Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth.” In it, he focused on the carnage, violence, and “blood-soaked fields” that the American Revolutionary War unleashed. Breed’s Hill and Charleston’s harbor were not unusual, according to Hoock, who recounts numerous other “Narratives of atrocity.”

     King George III and his troops believed that Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and the others were not American patriots, but Englishmen who had committed treason. As a result, “Captured rebels were not treated as prisoners of war, whose care was governed by established international norms, but rather as traitors ‘destined to the cord,’” and a hanging.

     Benjamin Franklin said, “We must indeed all hang together, or we shall all hang separately.”

     The Patriots drove out the Loyalists, who lost their farms, houses, and businesses, and were forced to flee to Canada. The rebellion divided communities and families. For example, Benjamin Franklin never forgave his Loyalist son, William Franklin. The two were estranged, their relations embittered.

     By Ben’s will, he left William some land in Nova Scotia and his books and papers, and said, “The part he acted against me in the late war, which is of public notoriety, will account for my leaving him no more of an estate he endeavo[u]red to deprive me of.”

     The American Revolutionary War. The Patriots shed their bled and died, and they seized Loyalists’ property. It was a chaotic, frenzied time. It was an all-out war, with no room for neutrality. The Patriots fought this bloody war for the right to govern and tax themselves, to create a new nation, and to declare their independence.