Charlestown historian and re-enactor Paul Lane was in Worcester for a family matter in 2012 when he went into the local antiquarian society to kill a few hours while waiting.
When he came out, he had unearthed a treasure that likely hadn’t been seen in 100 years – a first-hand account of the day the Bunker Hill Monument was dedicated on June 17, 1843. It was written by Elisha Eldridge in 1907 and spoke of his recollections when he was there as a boy in the front rows of a crowd estimated at about one million – including President John Tyler and other dignitaries.
“It’s likely never been seen before,” he said. “I was in Worcester and happened to go to the Antiquarian Society. I looked up Charlestown in their catalog and this came up. The account is so detailed and great – a very rich account of the day the Monument was dedicated.”
Lane is planning to share his find with the community and the Charlestown Historical Society. It is a rare glimpse from a common person – a boy at the time – about a moment many in the Town wonder about, but few know much about other than the newspaper accounts from the time.
He indicated the event was ushered in with the ringing of bells, the firing of guns and salvos from an artillery company. The weather was incredible, according to Eldridge, with not a cloud in the sky and the whole of Charlestown was “abroad and astir” early in the morning.
“I was present when Daniel Webster’s words, each of which seemed to weigh like one of its granite blocks – ‘The Monument is completed’ – were uttered in the manner only he was master of,” read the account. “I was then 14 years old and had been looking forward to this event with eager interest. I had read in childhood about the then-not-very-distant Battle of Bunker Hill and the great contest for liberty and a Republican form of self-government in place of colonial subordination to another land. Here was the spot where Warren, Putnam and Prescott led the yeomanry of New England in this great struggle, where Warren gave his life for this country.”
By 10 a.m., the procession of people began in Boston with many soldiers and infantry leading the way. Eldridge recalls the Boston Light Infantry, known as the Tigers, carrying a banner reading, ‘Death or an honorable life.’ There were also the Boston Fusileers and the Boston Highland Guards, dressed in plaid uniforms – a style admired by the youth of the day.
The first carriage behind them was President John Tyler.
The man who was known to welcome and take care of all presidents that came to Boston was a black man named ‘Deacon’ Foster – who lived in the West End and was known there as “Deacon Snowball” due to his white hair. He accompanied the president throughout the ceremony and made sure he was attended to and secure. He apparently had done that for every president that came to Boston.
In the front of that carriage was the star of the day, Daniel Webster.
The procession took more than two hours to conclude on the Monument grounds and a grandstand had been set up there. After the Monument Association president conducted the ceremonies and after the music numbers were played, Webster was called on to speak.
“He was about 60 years of age and in the prime of his life,” recalled Eldridge. “I recall him perfectly. I think he was the most majestic looking man I ever saw. He was a commanding presence, and although large of stature, he was exceedingly graceful.”
He spoke about the Mayflower, the history of revolutions, Colonial history, and then to the American Revolution. There were 40 members in the audience that day who had fought at Bunker Hill, and most were then in their 90s. There were estimated to have been 2,000 that fought in the Battle and few remained during the time of the dedication.
“He spoke tenderly of these soldiers who were engaged in the battle; there had been about 2,000, and comparatively few now remained of the survivors of the battle,” he wrote. “Directly to these two score of heroes, old and decrepit, Mr. Webster addressed his most beautiful periods. He spoke of them as ‘coming down from a former generation.’ They were tottering and feeble, for all were not far from 90 years of age. Mr. Webster spoke of them and to them in reverently tender tones. They all wore tall beaver hats, such as boys then called ‘stovepipe’ hats. They came from Boston, Concord, Lexington, Acton, Cambridge, Malden; in fact all the towns within 30 miles.
It was a thrilling a deeply impressive sight to see these men who were engaged in the trenches and helped throw up the redoubt on that short June night before the battle,” he continued. “Who had heard the actual voices Warren, Putnam and Prescott, and witnessed the needless, cruel death of Dr. Warren, as he (though a civilian with a gun in hand), met the British soldiery in the pit of slaughter.
Besides the 40 that had fought in Bunker Hill, there were also nearly 100 other soldiers present who had fought in other Revolutionary War battles.
As the speech was winding down and the celebration coming to a close, at one point the crowd became too large and pressed those near the stage to the point of suffocation, Eldridge wrote.
“Mr. Webster asked them to ‘Please stand back,’” read the account. “Said one of the number who was being near crushed to death, ‘Mr. Webster, we can’t. It’s impossible.’ Mr. Webster rose in his dignity and said in stentorian tones, ‘Impossible? Is there anything impossible on Bunker Hill?’”
Certainly, there wasn’t.
Nor shall there ever be.
The Charlestown Historical Society plans to present the special rendering at its annual meeting – online this year – today, June 11, via Facebook and Zoom at 6 p.m. The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. online at the Facebook page, (www.facebook.com/CharlestownHistoricalSociety), or on the upcoming Zoom link. It will coincide with Dr. Warren’s 279thbirthday