Bunker Hill by Edgar Wilson Nye

Story type: Essay

Last week for the first time I visited the granite obelisk known all over the civilized world as Bunker Hill monument. Sixty years ago, if my memory serves me correctly. General La Fayette, since deceased, laid the corner-stone, and Daniel Webster made a few desultory remarks which I cannot now recall. Eighteen years later it was formally dedicated, and Daniel spoke a good piece, composed mostly of things that he had thought up himself. There has never been a feature of the early history and unceasing struggle for American freedom which has so roused my admiration as this custom, quite prevalent among congressmen in those days, of writing their own speeches.

Many of Webster’s most powerful speeches were written by himself or at his suggestion. He was a plain, unassuming man, and did not feel above writing his speeches. I have always had the greatest respect and admiration for Mr. Webster as a citizen, as a scholar and as an extemporaneous speaker, and had he not allowed his portrait to appear last year in the Century, wearing an air of intense gloom and a plug hat entirely out of style, my respect and admiration would have continued indefinitely.

Bunker Hill monument is a great success as a monument, and the view from its summit is said to be well worth the price of admission. I did not ascend the obelisk, because the inner staircase was closed to visitors on the day of my visit and the lightning rod on the outside looked to me as though it had been recently oiled.

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On the following day, however, I engaged a man to ascend the monument and tell me his sensations. He assured me that they were first-rate. At the feet of the spectator Boston and its environments are spread out in the glad sunshine. Every day Boston spreads out her environments just that way.

Bunker Hill monument is 221 feet in height, and has been entirely paid for. The spectator may look at the monument with perfect impunity, without being solicited to buy some of its mortgage bonds. This adds much to the genuine thrill of pleasure while gazing at it.

There is a Bunker Hill in Macoupin County, Illinois, also in Ingham County, Michigan, and in Russell County, Kansas, but General Warren was not killed at either of these points.

One hundred and ten years ago, on the 17th day of the present month, one of America’s most noted battles with the British was fought near where Bunker Hill monument now stands. In that battle the British lost 1,050 in killed and wounded, while the American loss numbered but 450. While the people of this country are showing such an interest in our war history, I am surprised that something has not been said about Bunker Hill. The Federal forces from Roxbury to Cambridge were under command of General Artemus Ward, the great American humorist. When the American humorist really puts on his war paint and sounds the tocsin, he can organize a great deal of mourning.

General Ward was assisted by Putnam, Starke, Prescott, Gridley and Pomeroy. Colonel William Prescott was sent over from Cambridge to Charlestown for the purpose of fortifying Bunker Hill. At a council of war it was decided to fortify Breeds Hill, not so high but nearer to Boston than Bunker Hill. So a redoubt was thrown up during the night on the ground where the monument now stands.

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The British landed a large force under Generals Howe and Pigot, and at 2 P.M. the Americans were reinforced by Generals Warren and Pomeroy. General Warren was of a literary turn of mind and during the battle took his hat off and recited a little poem beginning:

“Stand, the ground’s your own, my braves!
Will ye give it up to slaves?”

A man who could deliver an impromptu and extemporaneous address like that in public, and while there was such a bitter feeling of hostility on the part of the audience, must have been a good scholar. In our great fratricidal strife twenty years ago, the inferiority of our generals in this respect was painfully noticeable. We did not have a commander who could address his troops in rhyme to save his neck. Several of them were pretty good in blank verse, but it was so blank that it was not just the thing to fork over to posterity and speak in school afterward.

Colonel Prescott’s statue now stands where he is supposed to have stood when he told his men to reserve their fire till they saw the whites of the enemy’s eyes. Those who have examined the cast-iron flint-lock weapon used in those days will admit that this order was wise. Those guns were in union to health, of course, when used to excess, but not necessarily or immediately fatal.

At the time of the third attack by the British, the Americans were out of ammunition, but they met the enemy with clubbed muskets, and it was found that one end of the rebel flint-lock was about as fatal as the other, if not more so.

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Boston still meets the invader with its club. The mayor says to the citizens of Boston: “Wait till you can see the whites of the visitor’s eyes, and then go for him with your clubs.” Then the visitor surrenders.

I hope that many years may pass before it will again be necessary for us to soak this fair land in British blood. The boundaries of our land are now more extended, and so it would take more blood to soak it.

Boston has just reason to be proud of Bunker Hill, and it was certainly a great stroke of enterprise to have the battle located there. Bunker Hill is dear to every American heart, and there are none of us who would not have cheerfully gone into the battle then if we had known about it in time.

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