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Dereliction of Duty at the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 1 of 3)

In the morning hours ahead of the afternoon Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, as the Americans dug in and prepared their defenses against the British, the first artillery company arrived on the field with two cannon. From my forthcoming book, 1775:

The company was commanded by Capt. Samuel Gridley, who, along with his cousin Scarborough, served in the regiment of Col. Richard Gridley, the experienced artillery officer and engineer responsible for the redoubt. As the colonel was father to Scarborough and uncle to Samuel, the two cousins had thus acquired their leadership positions due to their familial connections, despite their lack of qualification, and worse yet, had only received their commissions the day before. While patrimony was a tolerated practice throughout Europe, it was cause for much grumbling among the Americans.

(Note the above paragraph has been revised since the original publication of this article, based on new information, given in the comments below.)

Capt. Gridley would be the first of many woeful examples of dereliction of duty at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The "Hancock" 3-pounder field cannon on a replica carriage
The Hancock 3‑pounder cannon on a replica carriage, at NPS’s Minute Man National Park. However, this cannon probably did not serve at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Ironically, though Capt. Gridley’s uncle was the man responsible for designing the little earthen fort the Yankee’s had built on Breed’s Hill (a foot of Bunker Hill), the Yankees had failed to consider wherein they would emplace their cannon. Now that Capt. Gridley and his two cannon had arrived, he found no place for them.

As the few entrenching and digging tools were already in use elsewhere along the American lines, Col. William Prescott, the man in charge of the redoubt, turned to a Capt. Ebenezer Bancroft there and asked him to do what he could. Also from my forthcoming book:

As Capt. Gridley unlimbered his cannon, Bancroft took men of his own company and began digging by hand into the redoubt’s earthen walls, hoping to create the two embrasures necessary to accommodate the guns. Though the earthen walls were freshly piled and therefore easy to dig through, it seems odd that Prescott did not order any of his tools back from the breastwork. He was perhaps more concerned with his fortification than his small and useless cannon. After digging for a time, Bancroft’s men, as if to flaunt their rawness, moved the cannon into place, loaded them, and blasted away the walls, wasting precious powder they could not spare and sending plumes of dirt onto their fellow soldiers. At length, they managed to place their two guns so their muzzles protruded from the front of the redoubt.

You would think that Capt. Samuel Gridley was eager to prove himself worthy of his new rank, that he had earned his rank and was not merely given it because of his familial connections. But…

…the colonial artillerymen, most having no experience and only recently selected for the duty, were confounded by the proper use of their guns. Still, they loaded and fired them as best they could. While the roar of their own cannon gave heart to the Americans, all the shots proved ineffective. A British officer in Boston observed, “from a battery in the corner of the redoubt, they fired seven or eight shot into the North end of the Town; one shot went through an old house, another through a fence, and the rest stuck in the face of Cobb’s [Copp’s] hill.” Two flew high overhead of Gen. Burgoyne in Copp’s Hill, to his amusement. Capt. Gridley, realizing the uselessness of his men, and only now fearful of wasting precious powder, “swang his Hat round three Times to the Enemy, then ceased Fire.” At least Capt. Gridley managed to rouse the spirits of his fellow Americans.

Col. William Prescott finally sent Gridley and his two cannon outside the redoubt to serve between the redoubt’s outworks (a breastwork) and a new rail fence under construction by the New Hampshire officer Capt. Thomas Knowlton. However, after Gridley removed his cannon to the new position, he became disgruntled with both his own inexperience and that of his men, and noting that many of his gunpowder cartridges were too large for his cannon (though they could have been easily broken down and the powder within them manually loaded in the guns), said, “nothing could be done with them”, and so ignominiously abandoned his men. 

Capt. Gridley would later be court-martialed, but acquitted, the reasons purely political, and the subject of a future post…

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About Derek W. Beck

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11 Responses to Dereliction of Duty at the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 1 of 3)

  1. J. L. Bell says:

    Although Col. Richard Gridley had a son named Samuel, that man wasn’t this Capt. Samuel Gridley. Instead, this captain was the colonel’s nephew. So it was literal nepotism.

    • Derek Beck says:

      Thanks for the interesting insight, JL. Do you by any chance have a blog post on this subject, perhaps with sources? Or would you be willing to share your sources here?

      Also, can you confirm that Maj. Scarborough Gridley was his son?

  2. J. L. Bell says:

    Scar Gridley was definitely the colonel’s son. And the only one in the army, so James Warren’s complaint about the colonel being under his son’s sway has to apply to Scarborough. 

    The nephew Samuel was settled in New Hampshire, and is mentioned in the published records of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, as I recall. The colonel’s son left documents with both the British and Massachusetts governments describing how in 1775 he was in the Magdalen Islands working the family’s fishing rights. A Massachusetts researcher named Dave Ingram clued me in to the distinction some years back. I wrote about it here.

  3. Vicky Chan says:

    Is the replica true to the original? if so why would it be white? isn’t the best way to win by surprise and if the cannon stands out like a sore thumb, wouldn’t it ruin their element of surprise?

    • Derek Beck says:

      That’s a very good question ;) I’ve seen quite a few cannon, especially at re-enactments and at major Revolutionary battlefields like Saratoga in upstate New York. As far as I can remember, none of those at Saratoga were white. The two I saw at the Minute Man National Park re-enactment in 2008 were painted sky grey. But I don’t think sticking out like a sore thumb was much of a concern. Remember: smoothbore muskets were not very accurate to begin with, and had a limited range, so who cared if you stuck out like sore thumb? (And these smoothbore cannon were no more accurate.) The British redcoats didn’t. After all, they wore, well, red coats.* If there were cannon carriages painted white like this one, they would not have stayed white for very long. That’s because blackpower (dirty and smokey compared to modern “smokeless” gunpowder) would have left quite a bit of soot on the carriages after just a few firings. (So a grey paint job would’ve been ideal.) 

      So, to answer your question: I’m not certain, but I doubt many, if any, were painted white. Those that were would look grey soon enough. But they certainly were painted or coated in something to prevent them from rotting. (Which is why Revolutionary gun carriages tend to be replicas today… the originals from 200+ years ago have long since rotted away.)

      * Just to be clear: the artillerymen wore dark blue (almost black) coats, not red coats.

  4. Pingback: Dereliction of Duty at the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 2) « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  5. Pingback: Dereliction of Duty at the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 3) « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  6. Pingback: The Courts-Martial following the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 1 of 3) « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  7. Pingback: The Courts-Martial following the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 3 of 3) « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  8. Pingback: The Courts-Martial following the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 3 of 3) - Derek W. Beck

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