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Battle of Bunker Hill: “The whites of their eyes”


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John Trumbell’s Painting, The Battle of Bunker Hill

Currently, in my class, we are studying what it was like in Pomfret, CT in 1774, and the topic of my first blog was the background and making of a major Revolutionary War hero, Israel Putnam. As a follow-up to the first blog, my second topic is about Israel Putnam’s role in the Battle of Bunker Hill, one of his most notable battles.

After Israel Putnam’s early life as a military hero, he returned to Pomfret (Brooklyn) in 1773. Putnam lived for two years as a farmer, until one day a rider appeared with news that the previous morning Massachusetts Minutemen and British Redcoats had exchanged deadly musket fire in the towns of Lexington and Concord. This was the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first military engagement of the American Revolutionary War.

During this period, he was an ordinary farmer with more than a local reputation for his previous exploits. As soon as Putnam heard the news, he left his plow in the ground and traveled nearly 160 km in eight hours, reaching Cambridge the next day and offering his services to the Patriot cause.

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Connecticut State Capitol

After he had arrived, Israel Putnam was named Major General, making him second in command (behind William Prescott) of the Army of Observation. Israel Putnam was told directly by General Ward to set up the defenses on the Charlestown Peninsula, specifically on Breed’s Hill. One of the most famous quotes in US history was created during this battle. Philip Johnson relates of Putnam: “I distinctly heard him say, ‘Men, you are all marksmen – don’t one of you fire until you see the white of their eyes.’’” General Putnam “seemed to have the ordering of things.” He charged the men not to fire until the enemy came close to the works, and then to take good aim, and make every shot kill a man, and he told one officer to see that this order was obeyed. Other quotes told by General Putnam was, “Powder is scarce and must not be wasted.” “Fire low.” “Take aim at the waistbands.” “You are all marksmen and could kill a squirrel at a hundred yards.” “Reserve your fire and the enemy will all be destroyed.” “Aim at the handsome coats.” and “Pick off the commanders.”

The significance of Israel Putnam in CT can be seen if you stand in front of the Connecticut State Capitol Building, located in Hartford. In front of the entrance, there are friezes on top of the archways that record main events that happened in the US history. If you look at the archway (picture below), you can see the sculpture of Putnam Leaving His Plow For Lexington.

The Frieze

One of the most famous paintings that describe the nation’s history was ‘The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill’, by John Trumbull (1756 – 1843). Many famous people are shown in the painting, including Israel Putnam on the far left, and Thomas Grosvenor on far right holding a sword. The interesting part about Thomas Grosvenor is that he is actually related to The Rectory School. In 1792, he built the main admission house, which we are using right now.

As a follow-up for this blog, I am planning to write further about the connection between General Israel Putnam and Colonel Thomas Grosvenor.