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

The previous posts describe how first Capt. Samuel Gridley and then Capt. John Callender both abandoned their two respective artillery guns, just as the Battle of Bunker Hill was about to be waged. Sadly, there is one other tale of dereliction of duty that the Massachusetts Artillery Regiment was guilty of. 

Maj. Scarborough Gridley was supposed to lead additional artillery companies across Charlestown Neck, but he balked at the heavy fire from the Armed Transport Symmetry and the floating batteries just off the milldam there. Just the day before (June 16, 1775), Scarborough was nominated (but not confirmed) as third-in-command and first major in his father Col. Gridley’s artillery regiment. At this, future Mass. Provincial Congress President James Warren railed in a letter to John Adams, exclaiming how Col. Gridley “is grown old, is much governed by A Son of his, who vainly supposed he had a right to the second place in the Regiment”.1 (Scarborough wanted the lieutenant colonel slot, the number two spot in the regiment, but apparently his father Col. Gridley still held some standard for at least this second highest artillery officer position.)

Scarborough was completely unfamiliar with leadership, and was perhaps equally unfamiliar with the art of the artillery. Scar’s orders were to take his train of small field artillery across the narrow strip of land called Charlestown Neck and join the forthcoming battle on the peninsula. But once at Charlestown Neck, the only land route to the battle, he grew fearful of the crossfire from the Armed Transport Symmetry and the floating batteries nearby. True, this crossfire was something to fear, and there were no doubt more than a few hapless Yankees lay dead or wounded on the Neck. But most of the regiments had crossed with few if any casualties. Daunted, Scar halted before the Neck and pondered what to do.

What happened next comes from my forthcoming book, 1775:

Just then, Col. James Frye rode up on horseback. Frye had not been with his regiment since last evening because he was ill with the gout. Now the veteran rode to battle, wanting to be with his men. Frye inquired of Maj. Gridley, “why this unseasonable halt?” Gridley confessed that he worried about crossing the Neck. Frye, recollecting aloud his victory thirty years prior at the first taking of the Fortress Louisbourg from the French, tried to rally Gridley, saying, “we shall certainly beat the enemy!” Frye then rode off, not waiting to ensure Gridley crossed. Yet Gridley still refused to drive forward, and instead took post with his several cannon companies on the safe side of the Neck at Cobble Hill, maintaining later that he was covering a possible retreat. From there he would uselessly employ his tiny guns by taking potshots at Symmetry.

Likewise, Col. John Mansfield, who had been ordered to reinforce the troops at Charlestown, upon coming to the Neck, decided he would instead keep his regiment near the artillery, to “support” Gridley’s position of safety. One version of the story tells that the artillery major asked or “ordered” Mansfield to give his support, and that Mansfield, though a colonel and thus higher ranking, considered the young, inexperienced, untrained, lower-ranking Maj. Gridley, who had just received his commission the day before, “high military authority”, and so obeyed his request.

Maj. Scarborough Gridley's useless artillery service at the Battle of Bunker Hill
Maj. Scarborough Gridley’s useless artillery service at the Battle of Bunker Hill.2 (click to enlarge)

So, Maj. Gridley, along with however many guns he had, did useless service on the safe side of Charlestown Neck.

There was only one redeeming officer in the Massachusetts Artillery Regiment that day:

One artillery officer, Capt. Samuel Trevett, refused to follow the lead of his cowardly commander, Maj. Gridley. Instead, Trevett bravely disobeyed his commanding officer and took his company of 37 men ahead regardless, dragging forward his two cannon by hand. They quickly crossed the Neck, but as they descended Bunker Hill and began to drag their two pieces toward the rail fence, a British artillery shot hit its mark, shattering apart one gun’s carriage and killing one of Trevett’s men. Undaunted, Trevett dragged his other piece over to the rail fence and there it served. Brave as he and his men were, his cannon would prove as useless as the others had that day.

Coming in January 2012: The many courts-marital that followed… (That series begins here!)

  1. James Warren to John Adams, Aug 9, 1775, in Warren-Adams Letters 1:99–101 and Papers of John Adams.
  2. The background of this map is that of Thomas Hyde Page (based on surveys of John Montresor), Boston, its Environs and Harbour, with the Rebels Works Raised against that Town in 1775 (Faden, William, 1778). Boston Public Library. (Note it wrongly labels Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill.)
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About Derek W. Beck

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

  1. Pingback: The Courts-Martial following the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 2 of 3) - Derek W. Beck

  2. Alexandra says:

    In 1775, my ancestor Ebenezer Cornell was a private in Capt. William Hudson Ballard\‘s company, Col. James Frye\‘s Regiment. According to the records, he enlisted at Rochester, MA and his company return was dated Cambridge, Oct. 6, 1775. According to Wikipedia, Frye\‘s regiment served in the Siege of Boston. Do you think Ebenezer may have thus fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill? Thank you in advance for your valued opinion.

    • It appears Col Frye’s regiment was fully engaged at the Battle of Bunker Hill. So if your ancestor Capt Ballard was indeed of Frye’s regiment (I didn’t closely research at the company level, as that would be very difficult!), then it is highly likely he was a participant of the battle. Some of Frye’s men detached from the regiment and helped build the redoubt on Breed’s Hill the night before the battle, and most were still there into the battle the next day (though some deserted). Much of Frye’s regiment served along a earthen breastwork extending northeast from that redoubt, to the eastern edge of Breed’s Hill, so perhaps that’s where your ancestor served too. (Others may have remained in the redoubt, especially some of those that had built it the night before.) I hope that helps, and thanks for visiting my site!

    • Linda says:

      Thanks for the questions. My ancestor is also Ebenezer Cornell!

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