Cherish Our History so it is not Lost Forever

Speech by James L. Nelson

Monument Orator, June 17, 2011

Historian and author James L. Nelson delivers the 2011 oration at the base of the Bunker Hill Monument.

I would like to thank The American Legion’s James W. Conway Bunker Hill Post 26, the Boston National Historical Park and the Bunker Hill Monument Association for the terrific honor they do me in asking that I present the oration on this, the 236th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.  As you no doubt know, the first oration was given on the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, delivered by a young Daniel Webster, and you can see, the quality of speakers has gone downhill pretty drastically since then.

Just kidding, I know I follow in the footsteps of many excellent speakers over the years.

And while I am certainly no Daniel Webster, I will try to do justice to the occasion. And even if my oration falls short, I will never be found wanting in my admiration and reverence for the men who fought, and those who died on this hallowed ground.

We stand today on the site of the first major defeat of the nascent American army in the war that would become known as the American Revolution, or the war for Independence.  And we stand, paradoxically, in a place that is also the site of one of that  Army’s greatest victories. That the battle here was a loss for the American forces was immediately evident, as the men who had stood their ground so long against General Howe’s redcoats retreated for Charlestown Neck, exhausted, choked with thirst, out of ammunition and beyond the control of their officers.

That the battle fought here was also a victory for the American soldiers would not become evident until much later. The victory of Bunker Hill would reveal itself in General William Howe’s refusal to send his troops against entrenched Americans on Long Island, after the slaughter he witnessed on these slopes, shocking carnage of his own making that would forever change his views on the advisability of charging entrenched Americans. The victory of Bunker Hill would reveal itself as the men of Massachusetts and Connecticut and New Hampshire came to think of themselves not as soldiers of their states but as soldiers of the United States who first stood shoulder to shoulder here, on this hill, to fight their common enemy, joined in common cause. It would reveal itself in the likes of the young Henry Dearborn who endured not just the massed fire of the British but, much worse, the scornful look of Colonel John Stark when he, Dearborn, foolishly suggested they might consider quickening their pace through the hail of British gunfire. Dearborn, like many others, had his trial by fire on this hill, and it tempered him into a hard and effective soldier. So complete has history revealed the victory on Bunker Hill to be that today most Americans, at least those who have heard of Bunker Hill, would be surprised to learn that the Patriots who fought here did indeed lose.

Just two months before the fighting that took place on this ground, American troops and British regulars met for the first time on the field of battle, along the road that ran from Concord to Boston. How very different was the battle of Lexington and Concord from that on Bunker Hill. There was no agreed upon strategy in that first fight, indeed there was not even agreement that there would be a fight until that instant on Lexington Green when someone – we don’t know who – fired a gun, and the tension that had been building for years exploded in violence.

It was not planned. It was not coordinated. Rather, like an earthquake, Lexington and Concord was the tectonic shift that released stresses that had become too much for the very earth to bear.

But for all that, the Battle of Lexington and Concord came as no surprise to anyone who was paying attention. It certainly was no surprise to the Americans who had been drilling for years in preparation for such an event. It was no surprise to Sam Adams and John Hancock and Joseph Warren who had been nudging the country toward armed rebellion, and who already had plans in place for mobilizing troops at any alarm. And it was no surprise to General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of British troops, who, six months before the fighting wrote to his boss in London  “I mean to avoid any bloody crisis as long as possible, until forced into it…” And he knew he would be forced into it, it was only a matter of time. Gage had fought with Americans during the French and Indian War and knew what they were capable of. He certainly agreed with the words of Lord Percy who wrote after that the Americans  “have men amongst them who know very well what they are about, having been employed as rangers against the Indians and Canadians…”

And for the British, the loss on Battle Road was easy to dismiss. It wasn’t, after all, a “real” battle. “They did not fight us like a regular army,” one soldier wrote, “only like savages.” Had the red coats actually wanted to fight, and not just return to Boston, they assured themselves, then things would have been different. As it happened, two months later, the Patriots would give them a chance to put that thesis to the test.

For all its spontaneity, the men and women on both sides of the political divide in Massachusetts saw Lexington and Concord coming from a long way off. The Battle of Bunker Hill was something else entirely, indeed one would be hard pressed to find in history an example of two military actions so closely linked in time, fought by the same armies, at least on paper, and in the same theater of war that were so completely different in their fundamental nature. The men and women who turned out for Lexington and Concord were all from Massachusetts, and local. The fighting was over by the time anyone else even got here. But those men were militia, and many had families, and farms, and had no intention of signing up for a war of long duration. Artemas Ward, who literally overnight found himself in command of an American army, wrote to the Provincial Congress “If I do not have enlisting orders immediately I shall be left all alone.”

But even as those citizen soldiers returned to their farms, thousands more poured in to take their place. And these were not just men from Massachusetts but men from Connecticut, from New Hampshire and Rhode Island and from my home state of Maine (actually, as you know, in 1775 Massachusetts was a part of Maine).


This new army, assembling around Boston, was too much for the ad hoc government of Massachusetts to maintain, and the Provincial Congress turned to the Continental Congress for relief. On June 14, the Congress voted to raise “six companies of expert riflemen” from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia and they created enlistment forms for the soldiers in the “American Continental Army.” The men who marched to Bunker Hill on the night of June 16 were no longer state militia but rather the first organized army of what would be the United States, and they did not even know it.

The Battle of Bunker Hill was the first time that a regular American army fought a pre-planned battle of ground of its own choosing. And yet still the battle was more of a surprise than the fighting at Lexington and Concord. Nothing could have been more surprising to the British than waking on the morning of June 17 to find a new built redoubt where the day before there had been only the green fields of Breed’s Pasture. And if the British officers who had fought with Americans in the French and Indian war were not surprised by their skill at woodland style fighting, they were certainly shocked to find with what tenacity the poorly trained, organized and equipped Colonials would stand up to the relentless advance of the redcoats. For all the time William Howe had between daybreak and the moment when his men landed on Moulton’s Point he could not be bothered to reconnoiter the American defenses. Such was the contempt in which he held the fighting prowess of the colonials. It was only when he came ashore in Charlestown, and saw the north side of the American defenses for the first time, that he understood he was looking not at a simple breastwork but a full on redoubt with a rail fence running from the top of the hill to the water’s edge and he immediately decided to call for reinforcements.

On arriving in besieged Boston, General John Burgoyne had famously declared “What, ten thousand peasants to keep five thousand of the king’s troops shut up! Well, let us get in and we’ll soon find elbow room.” How surprised was he to stand on Copp’s Hill and see that the peasants would not be so easily driven, to witness what he called the “complication of horror and importance, beyond anything it has been my lot to be witness to.”

Which brings us, ultimately, to today, and the reason we gather here, to remember those men who stood their ground with a courage with which their enemies would not have credited them. When I first began my career as a writer, and had to support myself through other means, I followed the advice given to beginning writers and took a job I did not like, specifically stocking paper at an office supply store. My co-workers were mostly in their early twenties, mostly college students. As it was coming up on the Fourth of July I was curious to test their knowledge of American history so I asked them what we celebrate on the fourth. Most said “Independence.” I said “Yes, but why on the fourth of July? What specifically happened on that day?” None of them knew. The best answer I get was from one girl who said “I don’t know but I think it had something to do with guys in wigs and tights.”

That was nearly twenty years ago and I suspect things have not gotten much better.

History is an odd thing. It’s not a fixed constant, like mathematics. It is not two plus two equals four, which was always true and remains indisputably so. History does not exist in a fixed place. This battlefield, this memorial, the freedom Trail, they are not history but rather the artifacts of history. Like the statues of saints in a church, these are not the things we revere the are simply tools to help us connect with the real truths of history. History exists only in the hearts and minds of those who study it, who cherish it. With each generation our understanding of history changes, and sometimes it becomes deeper and closer to the truth and sometimes it does not, but in either way the history is changed. And if we do not continue to cherish it, to hold it in our hearts, than the history is lost forever.

Can there be a better example of this that the story of Dr. Joseph Warren? Warren was one of the driving forces behind the revolutionary movement, so prominent that one British officer called him “the greatest incendiary in all of American,” words Warren would have taken as high praise. Not only was he central to the politics of revolution, but he was also the first man to grab a musket and ride to the sound of the guns when the shooting began, one of the few willing to risk his life in a very concrete way for his politics. When he was killed, just yards from where we stand, one of the last men to abandon the redoubt before the advancing redcoats, he was one of the most famous men in America, and the first martyr for this country’s liberty.

And yet, Warren was soon eclipsed by the like of George Washington and Henry Knox and Nathaniel Green until, by the fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, no one even remembered where he was buried.

But happily, there remain people dedicated to seeing that this history will not be lost. People like you, here today, who will brave the weather and risk the boredom of an interminable speech so that you might further appreciate the sacrifices of those who went before. And if we lose out history, what do we have? Just as the men who fought on this ground came to understand that they were not Massachusetts men, or Connecticut men or men from New Hampshire but rather Americans, so our history binds us as one people, as Americans, despite the many and varied ways we came to be such. When we stand on this hallowed ground it gives us a deeper sense, a truer connection to the men who stood behind that makeshift dirt wall, or crouched behind a rail fence stuffed with straw and waited, waited, until they could see the whites of the eyes of soldiers better equipped, better trained and better disciplined then themselves, and did not flinch as the rows of merciless bayonets approached. It makes us understand who we are, and what we owe to them, and those are the things that we, as Americans, must never forget.

Thank You.

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