Though only two swords crossed over an olive branch on a wooden plaque remain, the marvelous story of the Prescott and Linzee families is a Battle of Bunker Hill tale rarely recited and infrequently known.
The Massachusetts Historical Society counts the two swords and plaque as one of their most wonderful artifacts from the Battle of Bunker Hill, and really it is because of what happened after the battle to the two families rather than how those weapons were used on June 17, 1775.
It is a story of acceptance, forgiveness and reconciliation between two families that were once bitter enemies on the battlefield, but later were united in marriage and peace.
“You have two people on opposites in what was the great battle of the American Revolution, the Battle of Bunker Hill,” said Peter Drummey of MHS. “Prescott was the field commander in the battle on land, and Linzee was in the Royal Navy and was bombarding the colonials from the water. They were both combatants.”
Battle of Bunker Hill
During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Col. William Prescott was a large figure, commanding the forces on the field – showing such bravery that he has the centerpiece statue at the Bunker Hill Monument to this day.
As his troops fought valiantly that day, his future in-law, Capt. John Linzee commanded the British Sloop of War ‘Falcon’ in the waters of the Mystic River and bombarded Prescott and his troops with shelling.
Linzee was a member of the Royal Navy and had been stationed in Boston. While there prior to the Revolution, he married a Boston woman named Sookie Inman and settled into Boston society quite well. As the Revolution broke out, though, he found himself fighting against those he once hob-knobbed with.
Linzee’s efforts on June 17, 1775 were quite effective, and firing on the Hill from the water was a major help to the British forces that had been turned back twice in the fighting by the ragged colonials.
Prescott’s role is quite well defined. He had fought in the French and Indian Wars and in other conflicts for the British in the early 1700s, living in what was Groton and is now Pepperell. Prescott turned down an offer to join the British Army after those conflicts, but was quick to jump to the colonial cause in 1774. On June 16, 1775, he was chosen to lead the colonial forces into Charlestown to build redoubts. He was valiant in commanding the forces on the ground in the Battle, and was one of the last men to leave the battlefield that day. Later, he was commissioned as a colonel in the Continental Army under George Washington. His unit fought in the defense of New York in 1776 and seems to have played a part in the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. It is disputed, but many believe he retired from military service after Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 due to a farming accident. He and his family remained prominent people in colonial Boston after the Revolution and during the formation of the early Republic.
His adversary, Capt. John Linzee did major damage to the Hill from the water on June 17, and went on to have major victories for the Royal Navy during the Revolution.
Curiously, though, after fighting for the other side, he retired from the Royal Navy and moved back to Boston.
Reconciliation in ‘America’
Drummey said it is curious that Linzee came back to Boston and that he was accepted. Even more curious is how his family became intertwined with colonial hero William Prescott – with their grandchildren marrying one another later in life.
“Linzee had an active, energetic career in the Revolution,” said Drummey. “He actually came back to Boston though after the Revolution and retired from the Royal Navy to live in the Boston area. He was surprisingly accepted here and he had a child, and his grandchild who actually married a grandchild of Prescott. It’s astounding these two men who stood on opposite sides in the American Revolution and at the Battle of Bunker Hill had children that later intertwined and lived here.”
It was William Hinckley Prescott – the grandson of William Prescott and a great author and literary figure – who 45 years after the Battle of Bunker Hill, married the granddaughter of Capt. John Linzee.
Both families had their grandfather’s ceremonial swords that were on the during the Battle of Bunker Hill – as they had been passed down – and the William H. Prescott and his wife created a special piece that was to show peace and romance winning over the object of war and violence.
That walnut wooden plaque displayed both men’s battle swords crossed over an olive branch and hung over the fireplace in Prescott’s home on Beacon Street in Boston – a home that is now a museum on Beacon Hill.
Being a great literary figure, William H. Prescott had many famous visitors, including authors like Charles Dickens and William Thackery. On a visit to his home, Thackery was so taken by the swords and the story behind them that he was moved to later write a book based on that story called, ‘The Virginians.’
“Thackery sees the swords on display in Prescott’s home and is really impressed with the story of family and men divided by war and then love bringing them together later,” said Drummey. “He goes away and is changed by it and puts a foreword in the front of his book about his visit to Boston…The name of his book, however, is ‘The Virginians.’ I can’t help but thinking that for the English of a certain station, Virginia was just a more romantic setting than Boston. Here is our most impressive time in the spotlight, and Virginia gets all the credit.”
The Swords of Peace and Love
The MHS accepted the swords from members of both families later on and the plaque was preserved with it. Drummey said relatives from both sides often visit the MHS in Fenway to see the swords and hear the story – as do regular visitors to the Society.
“Prescott descendants often come, as do Linzee descendants,” he said. “We’ve had Linzee descendants come from as far away as Tasmania. It’s a really evocative artifact.”
The best part of the swords, Drummey said, is the message they send about how two bitter rivals at war with one another can have reconciliation and acceptance once time moves on. It’s a lesson that is as good today, as it was then.
“The most compelling part of the story is Linzee and his wife could come back to Boston and raise children here and fit into the society and eventually intertwine with a rival’s family,” he said. “There was room for reconciliation even though during the Revolution representatives of the families had been active participants against one another – one soldier, one sailor.”