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Dereliction of Duty at the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 2 of 3)

As discussed in the last article, 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, under the command of Capt. Samuel Gridley. This newly minted and inexperienced artillery captain brought his two guns into the freshly built American earthen redoubt atop Breed’s Hill, but finding no place for his pieces, he was at length ordered outside to a position between the redoubt’s outworks (a breastwork) and a new rail fence still under construction, behind a small swamp. There he was joined with another newly formed Massachusetts Artillery company, under the command of Capt. John Callender. Gridley soon after abandoned his guns, but Callender’s story is yet another case of dereliction of duty at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Callender’s men, just as inexperienced with artillery as Gridley’s men were, conducted an equally useless cannonade. Gridley had abandoned his guns and his men, though some of them loyally remained and tried to do what they could with their pieces. What happened next comes from my forthcoming book, 1775:

They soon drew the attention of the Royal Navy, which redirected its hailstorm from the redoubt to the now fully exposed colonial artillery. As the colonial guns were at a low elevation, being at the foot of Breed’s Hill, the warships had no trouble training their guns on this new target, and so began raining cannon shot all around them. One shot hit its mark, disabling in some fashion a cannon of Gridley’s company, scattering its crew and likely killing some of his men. Gridley’s remaining artillerymen, disgusted with their ineffectiveness, dissolved away into the infantry.

The 'Adams' 3-pounder field cannon in Bunker Hill Monument obelisk
The Adams 3‑pounder field cannon mounted inside the top of the Bunker Hill Monument obelisk. However, this cannon probably did not serve at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Capt. Callender soon noticed that he, like Gridley’s company, had mostly many gunpower cartridges of the wrong size. Just a short time earlier, Gen. Israel Putnam of Connecticut had come over to demonstrate to Gridley’s men how an oversized powder cartridge could be broken down and still employed, but Callender’s men had not observed this demonstration. So, with Callender’s men ignorant of what to do with their oversized cartridges, and as they all carried muskets, they began to dissolve away into the infantry. From the book:

[Callender] and his artillery officers, amid the constant barrage on their position, saw the odds were against them. So the inexperienced Callender decided to fall back with his two pieces. Though some would later declare he had done so to repack his oversized powder cartridges, he needed not draw off his pieces to do so. Whatever his motive, he gathered what men he still had, limbered his guns, and hastily ushered his workhorses away with his guns toward Bunker Hill.

Meanwhile, Gen. Putnam had been riding about the field on horseback, splitting his time between the rail fence, the new Bunker Hill entrenchments, and the [Charlestown] Neck, where he expected reinforcements. When he saw Callender apparently retreating, he was furious. Putnam, described as addicted to profanity, would later confess in church for how much he swore this day. Undoubtedly then, he was swearing all they way over to Callender.

When Putnam reached Callender, he ordered the officer to stop and go back. But Callender lied, claiming he had no cartridges. (Callender’s supporters would later claim that he meant he had no proper sized cartridges.) Putnam dismounted, flung open one of the cannon’s sideboxes, and saw plenty of cartridges and shot. Now Putnam’s temper was beyond furious. He first made sure Callender knew how the oversized cartridges could be broken down, just as Putnam had earlier shown Gridley’s men. Putnam then ordered Callender back, but the artillery officer remonstrated. Callender of Massachusetts was under no legal obligation to follow the orders of Putnam of Connecticut. So with a few choice vulgarities, Putnam threatened him with immediate death if he did not return to his post. To this, Callender conceded, turning his men back toward the swamp. Whether or not Callender was truly persuaded to stay with his pieces or not, once Putnam had ridden off, the rest of Callender’s men deserted him. Callender was thus left alone and so he too abandoned his guns. For his desertion, he would later be court-martialed.

Thus, of the four colonial cannon on the field, one was disabled and the remainder now stood silent.

Next: one more case of dereliction of duty…

Side note: I wish to apologize to my readers that this article has come so many weeks after the first. As those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook know, I’ve been hard at work finalizing a polish of the book ahead of my agent sending it to publishers. This is now done, and you can expect my usual rate of a post every two weeks or so. Coming in October: a series delving into the details of Joseph Warren, and featuring a guest blogger and fellow historian author Sam Forman.

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8 Responses to Dereliction of Duty at the Battle of Bunker Hill (Part 2 of 3)

  1. J. L. Bell says:

    The “Adams” cannon was identified as a brass three-pounder, one of only four brass field-pieces that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had collected at the start of the war. 

    All the field-pieces that the British captured in Charlestown were four-pounders, according to Lt. Richard Williams of the British 23rd Regiment, and almost certainly iron. The Americans’ four brass cannon were still in their hands in early 1776, according to Dr. James Thacher. So the “Adams” and its partner, the “Hancock,” never went onto the peninsula. 

    Shortly after those two brass cannon were installed in the Bunker Hill Monument in the 1840s, tourists started to come away with the belief that they were connected to the battle. But they never were.

  2. J. L. Bell says:

    Artillery companies tended to use two cannons as closely matched as possible, so the “Adams” would have been assigned to the same company as its partner, the “Hancock” (now on display in the Concord visitor center of Minute Man National Historical Park). I suspect that company was in Roxbury, as the artillery commander in that part of Suffolk County appears to have made some attempt to keep those cannon in the months leading up to the war, when the Provincial Congress ordered them moved to Concord. But that’s just a guess.

    One relatively recent recreation of the battle, Richard Ketchum’s, suggests that Trevett’s company removed another company’s cannon from the field rather than their own. Ketchum’s thinking seems to be that they would have spiked their own field-pieces at the front lines but grabbed a gun that the other company had left further back as they passed. I don’t know of a specific source to suggest that action, however.

    • Derek Beck says:

      Thanks for the further insights. I have dug as far as I could on Trevett’s company, finding little. At least two of the guns, either those of Capt. Gridley or Callendar, were taken to the rail fence and manned by the men of Capt. Ford’s (infantry) company, where Trevett’s artillery company served as well. One of Trevett’s gun was apparently disabled by a lucky cannon shot from the British, though it seems it was just that his carriage was shattered. There is also weak secondary evidence that one of Gridley’s two pieces was disabled early on June 17. If all of this is true, then Trevett had one good gun at the rail fence, Ford manned two (Gridley’s or Callender’s), one of Gridley’s was disabled (possibly just its carriage), one of Trevett’s was disabled (just its carriage), and one remains unaccounted for, which I suspect was also taken to the rail fence, though have no proof, and it may have been abandoned somewhere on the field. It thus could have been this gun, or Trevett’s disabled piece, that he carried off. I imagined the latter, as he and at least a dozen or more men carried it off, versus dragging it off, working nicely with the evidence that his gun’s carriage was destroyed. I also imagine there was a bit of company pride in carrying off one of the company’s own guns. Unfortunately, with the colonial cannon, the wide gaps in our knowledge force us to use conjecture. 

      I read Ketchum’s book, but do not recall his suggestion that Trevett’s company might of taken off another company’s piece. Thanks for highlighting it!

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

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