Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)                                             
Click Here to return to
Book of Boston
Content Page

Return to the Previous Chapter




VER in that old part of Boston still known as Charlestown, there is a little quaint and wavering street, shabby and irregular; it is a street that arouses an odd sense of interest, and the interest is added to by the signs which you read in the windows of the shabby little shops.

"Everything from a needle to an anchor"; "Why get wet when a raincoat is only $1.25?"; "Lockers to let"; and you see, also, that such simple joys are provided as white shoes, gum, tobacco, and candy, and that there are to be had not only "Yokahoma Eats" but also "Honolulu Lunch." I noticed, also, a sign "Don't risk your money; buy a leg-belt" – a leg-belt; so that's the way, is it, that sailors keep their money!

This wavering, savory little street is Wapping Street, and not only in its name is it delightfully reminiscent of waterside London, but in its aspect; and it is curiously fitting that this street should be reminiscent of something that is English, for it leads to the gate of the Charlestown Navy Yard, and where the Navy Yard is now the English landed for their attack on Bunker Hill.

There are spaciousness and quiet inside of the grounds of the Navy Yard, and flowers and gardens and a pergola; and a bugle sounds through the air, and in a little while a band is playing, and capable-looking officers and men walk spiritedly about, and there are long machine shops and quarters, and here and there is some old cannon or figurehead from some ship of the past, and there is the fine, old-fashioned home of the commandant, with its cream-colored brick; in fact, all the brick hereabouts is cream-colored, and Uncle Sam is very generous with paint.

At the piers, or out on the open water, warships, little or big, lie moored, and near the very heart of it all is the famous frigate Constitution, lovingly known as Old Ironsides.

She is black and white, in her glory of masts and spars and myriad ropes. From her curving prow to the quaint-shaped cabin at the stern, her lines are of the handsomest. She is graceful and strong, she is trim and capable and proud, and her guns, in their long double lines, are close together, giving a realizing sense of the meaning of the old word "broadside." One is apt to forget that such a warship carried hundreds of fighters and scores of cannon.

The ship is freely open to visitors, and one cannot but be a better American for going aboard and actually treading its decks; one cannot but feel a surge of patriotism when going about on this old ship that made such glorious history.

It was well on toward a century ago, in 1830, that some Government official gave orders to have the ship broken up and sold for junk; and the entire nation was shocked when the news was learned, for Old Ironsides had won a place very close to all hearts. And a young man, burning with the indignation that all were feeling, put that fiery feeling into fiery words:

"Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky!"

Thus the lines began, and they went on gloriously to the demand that rather than break up and sell the splendid ship they

"Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!"

After that there was no more talk of breaking up Old Ironsides. With these lines, young Oliver Wendell Holmes had done a proud service for his country, and the ship was repaired and painted, to be kept as a national possession, and the Government ever since then has continued to paint and furbish her, and she is still a national heritage. A few years ago, as she was said to be going to pieces at her pier, some navy officer proposed that she be towed out to sea, not to be given the glorious end that Holmes pictured as being better than tearing up for junk, but to be a floating target for battleships and sunk for gunners' practice! But Congress was at once so overwhelmed with protests that it was decided still to keep the gallant old ship.

The houses of Charlestown rise crowdedly behind the line of the Navy Yard, and above and beyond the confusion of roofs one sees the upper part of a tall stone shaft, bare and dignified in its fine simplicity. And no American can look at that monument and be entirely unmoved, for it marks the place where was fought the most representatively American of all battles, that of Bunker Hill.

And here, from the Navy Yard, where the British troops landed long before there was any Navy Yard, we follow up the hill; only we do not go in a practically direct line, as the British soldiers did, but, after walking back through queer little Wapping Street, go by trolley, zigzaggingly, through rather commonplace streets to the summit. There is nothing in Charlestown that offers interest except the Navy Yard and the monument; the town was set on fire and burned by the British at the time of the battle – no doubt a military necessity – and the rebuilt portion, as well as the great spaces that were bare in Revolutionary days and have since been built over, have never drawn either wealth or an interesting kind of architecture. But one thinks little of such considerations as these in the presence of Bunker Hill Monument.

A strange battle, that of Bunker Hill! On the American side there were no uniforms and there was no flag! There was really not even a leader, for no one general was absolutely in command. The Americans had come together in a sort of neighborly gathering, for the mutual good, and officers and men were all fully in accord with one another. But although it may be said to have been a neighborly New England gathering, there was no lack of military skill and no lack of discipline. And the British themselves admitted afterwards that there was no lack of the best fighting qualities.

And the spectators outnumbered the fighters! That strange fact makes the battle unique among the great battles of the world. For not only did General Gage and other officers watch the fight from the tower of the old North Church, but every high point of land, every roof and window that had an outlook over the water, was crowded with the people of Boston, sympathizers with either Royalty or Republicanism, watching the fight with intense or even frantic interest. They saw the Americans calmly walk about and calmly settle behind the hastily made breastwork, preparing for the assault. They saw the red-coats go steadily up the hill. They watched with straining interest as the breastwork was neared – Would the Americans run? And then came the flash of rifles and the crackling roar of sound and the red-coats wavered and recoiled, and officers furiously tried to encourage and hold their men; but in vain, for down the hill the red-coats ran, leaving the slope dotted thick with the dead and wounded. What a sight for the men and women and children who watched all this with terrified interest! Then again the calm preparation, again a brave attack, again a withering fire and a huddled retreat down the hill.

"Old Ironsides"

Well, we all know that at length the British won, and that, in full sight of the Boston spectators, almost all of whom had friends or kinsmen among the fighters, the Americans fell back with glory. "The defense was well conceived and obstinately maintained," writes the clear-eyed Burgoyne, one of the British major-generals in Boston, who had been given charge of some desultory cannonading. "The retreat was no flight," he writes, English general though he was; "it was even covered with bravery and military skill." (He was afterwards to learn, still more intimately, about American bravery and military skill!) And the first question of General Washington, not yet in New England, when he heard of Bunker Hill, was the eager inquiry as to whether or not the militia had stood firm, and when he was told how superbly they had acted, he exclaimed, "Then the liberties of the country are safe! " And all this leads to the strangest consideration of all in regard to this battle, which is, that although it was an American defeat, it had all the essential elements of an American victory.

Charlestown is on a peninsula, and, from a strictly military point of view, there was nothing to be gained by the Americans in advancing to a position so untenable that the English, by so locating the warships as to cut off communication with the mainland, could have made their retreat impossible. Also, from a strictly military point of view, there was nothing to be gained by the British in making a direct attack upon the American position in front. But both sides were keyed for a test of strength, both sides knew that the test must come sooner or later, and on both sides was the intense feeling that the sooner the better.

All the central part of the battle-field has been kept free from buildings, and they cluster modestly about the big, open, grass-covered space. And from the center of this space rises the monument, flawless in its stern dignity, massive in its strength. Without preliminary base, it rises from the ground; it is of blocks of New England granite and has a monolithic effect, lofty and tall. And the most eloquent man that New England has ever produced, the mighty orator who spoke at the laying of the corner-stone and at the completion of the monument, summed up its feeling and its influence with a massive simplicity equal to that of the monument itself:

"It is a plain shaft. It bears no inscriptions. But it looks, it looks, it speaks, to the full comprehension of every American mind, and the awakening of glowing enthusiasm in every American heart."

It was among the most interesting features of the celebration of the monument's completion, in 1843, that thirteen survivors, of Bunker Hill or Lexington or Concord, were present to listen to Webster's oration, although that was sixty-eight years after those battles! It had seemed almost wonderful that quite a number of Bunker Hill veterans were present at the laying of the corner-stone in 1825, when Webster thrilled the vast assemblage before him with the words addressed to the survivors – the best known of all his utterances – beginning "Venerable men, you have come down to us from a former generation!"

Another who was present in 1825 to listen to Webster was a certain Jean Paul Roch Ives Gilbert Motier, Marquis de Lafayette; and Boston still loves to tell that at a dinner given in the distinguished Frenchman's honor at the time of this visit, he emotionally joined in cheering some words laudatory of himself, through not quite catching that he was the subject of the eulogy; something, by the way, which would never have been noticed in France, and certainly not remembered for more than a minute, had some American general over there, from lack of full understanding of the language, joined in applause of himself.

It is well to remember in regard to Bunker Hill, that the British forces engaged in the attack numbered some two thousand men, and that the defenders were fewer, being in all only some fifteen hundred; and that the Americans lost about three hundred and fifty in killed, wounded and prisoners, whereas the English loss in killed and wounded was well over one thousand. I remember seeing, in some museum, a contemporary pamphlet that was scattered throughout America, grimly itemizing that the English lost, in killed, 1 lieutenant-colonel, 4 majors, 11 captains, 13 lieutenants, 1 ensign, 102 sergeants and 100 corporals. No wonder Bunker Hill has been looked upon as the place where the British army faced the hottest fire of its history, considering the number engaged and the length of time that the actual firing lasted; and it was especially noticeable that the officers suffered, proportionately, even more than the men, because most of the Americans were sharp-shooters and picked them off.

After the battle the British occupied the hill themselves, and kept soldiers there throughout the continuation of the siege; and General Washington never tried to take it away from them, knowing that its possession would have no particular bearing on the capture of the city, and that it would naturally fall into American hands again in good time.

The days of the siege were so tiresome to the British that they amused themselves by presenting plays of their own composition, in Faneuil Hall, and one of these plays was a farce which they called "The Blockade of Boston." The farce gave them huge enjoyment, for it caricatured Americans in general and American soldiers in particular, and presented a special caricature of General Washington himself, armed with a grotesque rusty sword and attended by a grotesque orderly. On a January night in 1776 the very building was rocking with the laughter of the men and their officers at this presentation, when a sergeant rushed into the hall; "The Yankees are attacking our works on Bunker Hill!" he cried. For a few moments there was an amazed silence. The men thought it a joke, and yet the sergeant's tone had a grim earnestness that they did not like. Then there came the sharp command of their general, who was present: "To your posts, men!" A cold chill seemed to fill the hall, and all the farce fell away from the idea of Washington and Americans, for although those English soldiers were not cowards it was anything but a farce to face Americans on Bunker Hill or anywhere else. It turned out that that particular alarm was a mistake and that no attack was in progress, but never after was there much hilarity at farces ridiculing the Americans.

Close beside Bunker Hill Monument there was put up, a few years ago, a little building that was an entire departure from the fine simplicity of the original plans; a little classic stone temple, with six classic stone columns; an incongruous structure to find on Bunker Hill. It does not have even the excuse of being a museum, except for a few not-notable paintings; but it is a place where souvenirs and post-cards are sold. There ought to be nothing there but the monument itself. A structure of any sort breaks the splendid austerity of effect.

Not far from the monument is a statue in honor of the brave Prescott, showing him in his long and unmilitary coat just as he stood when giving the command to fire, that had been withheld till the whites of the English eyes could be seen. The statue is by the American sculptor, Story, and one wonders why, in spite of its excellence, it is wanting in vigorous vitality, and seems even a trifle priggish; and then it is noticed that down on one corner is some incised lettering telling that it was made at "Roma" – not Boston, or even good plain Rome, but "Roma"; and one wonders no longer that vitality and Americanism were missed.

But one need not trouble about such minor things as classic temples or Roman-American sculpture, for the noble Bunker Hill Monument is here, telling forever its noble tale; and even the lines of the redoubts, so bravely held, have been remembered and carefully marked; and the sense of American glory is here.

In the Tower of London there is a cannon which, as the English claim, was captured at Bunker Hill; and a few years ago, when this was vauntingly shown to a visiting American, he looked it all over very calmly and then, just as calmly, said: "Oh, I see; you have the cannon – and we have the hill!"

Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.