The letter was written by an unnamed Boston merchant and Loyalist and addressed to a friend in Scotland. On June 24, 1775 the merchant wrote a detailed account of the engagements at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill that also included news of how the citizens of Boston reacted.
For teachers, a convenient transcript of this letter (ideal for classroom use) is provided at the bottom of the post, as well as links to sources offering the Patriot perspective of the same events so your students can compare. Images of the original newspaper article also appear below. The letter reads as follows:
Boston, June 24.
I Received yours, by Capt. Porterfield, and I am exceeding (sp) glad to hear of your welfare. The last time I wrote, I gave you some account of the deplorable state of this province: no doubt you will expect that I should give you a very particular state of matters here since that time.
To paint the scenes of distraction, violence, mobs, riots, and insurrections that have taken place throughout this country for the last twelve months is altogether beyond my ability; how much less then shall I be able to describe the horrors of war, that have reigned here since the 19th of April. The people have been arming themselves, learning the military exercise, and forming magazines for war during the course of last year, and have always been publishing to the world, that they would fight and die for their liberties (as they express themselves): but few people believed they would fight, notwithstanding of their declarations, and I believe the General himself never thought they would carry it so far.
But on the 18th of April, the General having previous information that they had formed their grand magazine at a place called Concord, about twenty miles from Boston, dispatched 500 troops with the greatest secrecy, at ten o’clock at night, to go and destroy that magazine.
The troops no sooner got over the ferry, which was about one mile over, than alarms were spread throughout the country, by firing of cannon, ringing of bells, and post riders; all this was planned before that time. – The troops proceeded on their march, and when daylight appeared, they saw numbers of armed men traveling towards them from all quarters. In a short time after this, they found about 100 of them on a green by the wayside: the commanding officer ordered them to dismiss; they accordingly began to retire; and after going to a small distance in a straggling manner, and getting behind some fences, some of them turned about and fired, which wounded several men, upon which the troops fired on the others as they ran, and killed eight, and proceeded on their march, which was four miles further. After arriving, they sent three companies two miles beyond the place, to defend a bridge, that the rebels might not come upon them from that quarter, while they were executing their orders at this place, a large body came upon the three companies, and obliged them to return to the main body, with some loss of men. By this time the magazine was destroyed, which proved to be very inconsiderable.
They instantly proceeded on their march for Boston, but as soon as they got out of town, they received a heavy fire from all quarters, but never could see above six people together at a time, for they hid themselves behind rocks, trees, fences, bushes, and in every house, barn, stable, &c.
An Aid de Camp arrived in town from the commander of the party, to let the General know that an alarm was spread through the country: on receiving this advice, four regiments and two field pieces, were immediately ordered to march under the command of Lord Percy, to reinforce the other troops. They accordingly marched at nine o’clock, and arrived at the place of battle at two, which was 16 miles from Boston, and found the others in a most miserable situation, hemmed in on all sides, and their ammunition almost spent, with numbers killed and wounded. This party then refreshed themselves, while the fresh troops began upon them with cannon and small arms. In a short time they began their march home, and fought their way through innumerable multitudes, hid in the manner before said, during the course of 16 miles. When the troops arrived, their ammunition was all gone, and all the men in the most fatigued condition imaginable, having received no kind of sustenance during the day. Two carts with provisions were sent off some time after the reinforcement, guarded by 24 men, some of whom were killed, and the rest taken prisoners, and never got up to the troops.
A list of the killed and wounded has never been published here, but by the best account, about 70 were killed, and about 200 wounded, and 30 missing. How many of the rebels were killed and wounded is impossible to say: they published a list, but this and all other publications respecting their cause, are the most gross falsehoods; their leaders always take care to suppress the truth.
But, dear brother, it is impossible to describe the surprise, amazement, and consternation that prevailed in town that day, word was brought every half hour that the troops would be all cut off; and almost every inhabitant was wishing and praying that it might be so; and it was expected that the whole country would rise and make an attempt to enter the town, which was not very strongly fortified at that time, and but few troops to defend it; and it was likewise supposed the inhabitants within, who all had arms in their possession, would rise and attempt to kill the soldiers and the few friends to good government that were in it.
However, the night passed away, and no attempt was made from without, nor insurrection within. This place is surrounded with water all but one neck of land: the passage this way was stopped next day, and all boats forbid to go; so that no person was suffered to go out, and fortifications were begun and carried on with the greatest expedition day and night till they were made, and now are exceeding (sp) strong for defence (sp). The rebels to the amount of 20,000 assembled in a few days, and stopped all the passages and communications from the country to Boston, by this intending to starve us.
The inhabitants in general became very uneasy for fear of the famine, and applied to the General to permit them to go out with all their effects: the answer was, if they would deliver up all the arms and ammunition that were in their possession, they might go with their furniture, but no merchandize (sp) nor provisions would be suffered to go. To this they agreed, and I suppose there is not one in 15 but what is now gone. Notwithstanding we have no supplies from the country, we are far from being in a state of famine; we live all on salt meat, except a few fish that comes in the harbour now and then, and the prices are not so much raised as might be expected. The army have some hay, cattle, and other articles from Quebec and Nova Scotia, which are the only governments that are not joined in the rebellion.
From the 19th of April to the 17th of June, nothing very material has happened. On the 12th of June, the General issued a proclamation, offering his Majesty’s most gracious pardon to all who would lay down arms and return to their duty, except two of the ring-leaders; and likewise establishing the martial law in this province while this unnatural rebellion subsists; but no regard was paid to this.
On the 17th instant at daylight, it was observed by some of the ships of war, that the rebels had thrown up an entrenchment on a hill on the other side of the river, about one mile from this town: the alarm about this new movement of theirs was general; for from this, if they were suffered to go on, they could beat down or burn the town. At nine o’clock, a battery on an eminence in this town directly opposite to their works, began to play upon them, but found they could not dislodge them.
The rebels fired a few shot into this town, and then desisted, for their shot did no execution: 1800 of the rest of the troops were immediately ordered to embark on board of boats, and go and engage them, under the command of General Howe. About 3 o’clock they landed on the other side about half a mile from the rebels, under cover of 5 or 6 ships of war, who kept a continual fire on the ground betwixt the place of landing and the enemy, who chose to lie close in their breast works all this time. As soon as the troops had got themselves in order, they began to advance, canonading (sp) all the way till they came within gun-shot. Charles Town on the foot of the hill, consisting of about 200 houses, was set on fire by the fort on this side at the instant the engagement began, whose flames raged in the most rapid manner, being chiefly of wood: sure I am, nothing ever has or can be more dreadfully terrible, than what was to be seen and heard at this time! The most incessant discharge of guns that ever was heard with mortal ears, continued for three quarters of an hour, and then the troops forced their trenches, and the rebels fled.
The place where the battle was fought, is a peninsula of a mile long and a half broad, and the troops drove them over the Neck and kept the island. All this was seen from this town.
A very small part of the enemies entrenchments was seen on this side, it being only thought to be the work of a night, but their chief breast works were on the other side of the hill; it was found to be the strongest post that was ever occupied by any set of men, and the prisoners that were taken say they were 9000 strong, and had a good artillery; five cannons were taken. The spirit and bravery that the British troops exhibited on this occasion, I suppose is not to be surpassed in any history. But oh! The melancholy sight of killed and wounded that was seen on that day! In four hours after their landing not less than 500 wounded were relanded here, and 140 were left dead on the field, amongst which was a large proportion of brave officers, viz. 36 killed, and 44 wounded; 300 of the rebels were killed, and 36 wounded left on the field, but they carried off great numbers of their wounded in their retreat. To the great satisfaction of all good men, Dr. Warren was slain, who was one of their first and greatest leaders.
Early next morning I went over and saw the field of battle, before any of the dead were buried, which was the first thing of the sort that ever I saw, and I pray God I may never have the opportunity of seeing the like again. The rebels are employed since that day, fortifying all the hills and passes within four miles, to prevent the troops from advancing into the country. We hourly expect the troops to make a movement against them, but they are too few number, not less than 20,000 being equal to the task. I cannot help mentioning one thing, which serves to shew (sp) the hellish disposition of the accursed rebels, by parcels of ammunition that were left on the field; their balls were all found to be poisoned.
Thus, brother, I have endeavoured (sp) to give you a short account of the desperate state of matters here since my last, and shall sum up the whole with one single observation, viz. the delusion that reigns here is as universal and as deeply rooted as ever was found among the race of mankind, and of all other rebellions that ever subsisted in the world, it is the most unprovoked. I am, &c.
Original Newspaper Images of the Boston Loyalist’s Letter
1) Have your students compare the Loyalist view of the death of Doctor Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill, contained in the above letter, to the Patriot view detailed here.
2) Have your students compare the Loyalist view of the Battle of Lexington outlined in the above letter
to the Patriot view detailed here.
This is the first in a series of posts that will use primary sources – articles from original colonial newspapers – to convey early reports of events in Colonial American history. All of the newspaper images I’ll be sharing with teachers are part of the Edwards Collection of Colonial Newspapers online database. View today’s primary source – a portion of the press coverage of the Battle of Bunker Hill from an issue of The Pennsylvania Evening Post dated November 21, 1775. It focuses on the losses suffered by the colonial troops in the battle, including the death of Doctor Joseph Warren, and mentions the destruction caused to the town of Charlestown. For some historical background: Doctor Joseph Warren attended Harvard and practiced medicine and surgery in Boston. He was a Grandmaster of the Freemasons, a member of the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Committee of Correspondence. Warren drafted the Suffolk Resolves, a copy of which his good friend Paul Revere delivered to the First Continental Congress who endorsed it on September 17, 1774. It was Doctor Warren who sent Paul Revere and William Dawes on their messenger rides to Lexington on the evening of April 18, 1775.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress appointed Doctor Joseph Warren a Major General just a few days prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill. When offered the command at Bunker Hill by Major General Israel Putnam and Colonel William Prescott, Warren stated that he would take no command but was there with his musket to serve only as a volunteer. As the British troops gathered for their first assault on the colonists atop Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill), they were taking casualties from sniper fire coming from patriots located in Charlestown. Orders were given to fire carcasses (incendiary shot) from British ships and to send a landing party to fire the town which consisted mainly of wooden buildings. From Boston and miles around, colonists soon witnessed Charlestown in flames. The first assault by the British on the American left flank failed and the second on the redoubt (earthwork fort) itself was also unsuccessful. The British were taking significant casualties – including the loss of many officers. On a third assault, the British captured the redoubt and during this time the brave Doctor Warren was killed.
Today, the Bunker Hill Monument is positioned where the redoubt was once located. Here the patriots made their heroic stand on June 17, 1775. There is a marble statue of Major General Joseph Warren inside the lodge at the base of the monument. Across the street is the excellent Bunker Hill Museum where visitors can learn all about the history of Charlestown, the battle and monument. A short distance away on Pleasant Street stands one of the first buildings constructed after the British burned Charlestown. It is the Warren Tavern – built in 1780 – nearly 230 years ago. Visitors have included George Washington in 1789 and Paul Revere.
Teachers: Online access to the complete article on the Battle of Bunker Hill from an original issue of The Pennsylvania Evening Post dated November 21, 1775 is available to participants in our school programs. Here is a partial list of primary sources we offer (PDF).
I’d like to make teachers aware of an outstanding online resource for information on New England just before, during, and after the Revolutionary War – the Boston 1775 blog. The blog is authored by J.L. Bell, a Massachusetts writer who specializes in the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. J.L. has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. His recent presentation “Gossiping about the Gores”, the story of one family from Colonial Boston, is archived by the WGBH Forum Network.
J.L. Bell is more than a writer who is passionate about history; he’s also a bit of a detective. Since 2006, the content on Boston 1775 has grown to over 1,300 posts, with many being the result of his exhaustive research into primary sources. Educators and all those passionate about history can truly spend hours on this blog learning information that will make them think about historical events in a different way. You’ll find numerous posts on Lexington and Concord, the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill and so much more.
Two posts I found particularly fascinating were on the myths and realities of the Quartering Act. Back in grade school I was taught that the Quartering Act forced Boston families to provide food and shelter for the King’s troops occupying the town. I had pictured colonists being required to open up their homes to soldiers without any payment in return or say in the matter. By reading posts at Boston 1775, I realized this was not the case. The Act only referred to shelter in “unoccupied” buildings and not inhabited ones.
Some Boston families did house British soldiers in their homes before the war but most did so due to economic necessity and were compensated for it in the form of rent. One example of this is the family of Old North Church sexton Robert Newman. Knowledge of the true nature of the Quartering Act came too late for me to catch a small Act related error on page 31 of my children’s book One April in Boston – but I guess that’s what second editions are for! It’s an example of what one can gain from reading Boston 1775, and ensures that today I’m conveying the correct information to the students I work with both on field trips and in the classroom. Thanks J.L. for all the time and effort you’ve invested in creating this important resource for educators and history buffs alike.