A Great White Fleet…and a new base!

The agreeable monotony of Roosevelt’s schedule for late June 1907 was interrupted on the twenty-seventh by a captain from the General Board of the Navy and a colonel from the Army War College. They accompanied Victor H. Metcalf, the Secretary of the Navy, and Postmaster General George von L. Meyer, who had definitely not come to discuss rural free delivery. Meyer’s presence, indeed, helped explain his real role in the Cabinet, which was to advise the President on questions of extreme diplomatic delicacy.

Five weeks before, after returning to Washington from Pine Knot, Roosevelt had been exasperated to hear that anti-immigrant riots had broken out in San Francisco. “Nothing during my Presidency has given me more concern than these troubles,” he wrote Kentaro Kaneko. He argued that what was happening in California was nothing new. Nor was it essentially racial: it had plenty of precedents in European history over the last three centuries. France’s Huguenots, for example, had been as white as their coreligionists in Great Britain, but when they immigrated there, they had excited “the most violent hostility,” indistinguishable from what had happened at the Golden Gate. Then as now, mobs of workmen caused most of the trouble, expressing labor’s chronic fear of being devalued by competition. Now as not then, hope lay in the increased ability of “gentlemen, all educated people, members of the professions, and the like” to visit one another’s countries and “associate on the most intimate terms.” This was the particular responsibility of elected representatives. “My dear Baron, the business of statesmen is to try constantly to keep international relations better, to do away with the causes of friction, and to secure as nearly ideal justice as actual conditions will permit.”

Meyer himself could not have put the case with more finesse. But the fact remained that coolies were still coming, and having their faces beaten in. The Immigration Act was still not working as it should, the San Francisco Police Board had taken up where the school board had left off, reactionary newspapers were screaming, and Japanese opposition leaders were calling for war.

Elihu Root did not take the last threat seriously. He wrote Roosevelt to say that alarmists had their own agenda, but “this San Francisco affair is getting on all right as an ordinary diplomatic affair.… There is no occasion to get excited.”

Roosevelt was not so sure. Japan had behaved with commendable restraint during the early months of the crisis. Recently, however, he had begun to detect “a very, very slight undertone of veiled truculence” in her communications concerning the Pacific coast. He heard from members of his secret du roi that the Japanese war party really did think the United States was beatable. The Office of Naval Intelligence reported evidence of Japanese war preparations, including purchase orders for nearly eighty thousand tons’ worth of armored vessels from Europe, and a twenty-one-thousand-ton dreadnought from Britain. (So much for any chance of a disarmament agreement at the Second Hague Peace Conference, now in session.)

His responsibility as Commander-in-Chief was to look to the nation’s defenses. Hence the arrival at Sagamore Hill of two top military strategists. He had asked them to bring him contingency plans, “in case of trouble arising between the United States and Japan.”

Colonel W. W. Wotherspoon and Captain Richard Wainwright proved to be little more than messengers, delivering a somewhat obvious finding by the Joint Board of the Army and Navy. The board stated that because Japan’s battleships were all in the Pacific, and those of the United States in the Atlantic, the latter power should “take a defensive attitude” in any confrontation, until its heavy armor could be brought around Cape Horn.

Roosevelt said, for the record, that he did not believe there was any real chance of a war with Japan. Then he approved the only controversial aspect of the Joint Board’s report: a recommendation by Admiral Dewey that “the battle fleet should be assembled and despatched for the Orient as soon as practicable.”

The idea was not new. For at least two years, the Navy had considered transferring the fleet from one ocean to the other as a tactical exercise, but had never managed to decide the extent of the move, or the logistics of support. Fuel supplies were a particular problem, and the West Coast of the United States was short on bases. Dewey calculated that it would take at least ninety days to mount an emergency battle presence in the Pacific. “Japan could, in the meantime, capture the Philippines, Honolulu, and be master of the sea.”

Roosevelt considered the options, and his own as President and Commander-in-Chief. He had just seventeen months left in office, and wanted to make a grand gesture of will, something that would loom as large historically in his second term as the Panama Canal coup had in his first. What could be grander, more inspirational to the Navy, and to all Americans, than sending sixteen great white ships halfway around the world—maybe even farther? And what better time than now, when positive news was in such short supply? Wall Street’s stock slide in March had caused many brokerage houses to fail and bank reserves to drop. Foreign markets had also begun a steady decline, with stocks plummeting in Alexandria and Tokyo, Frenchmen hoarding more gold than usual, and even the Bank of England low on cash. Jacob Schiff had said that “uncertainty” lay at the bottom of all distrust. All the more reason, then, to make one highly visible arm of the United States government look quite certain of itself, as it moved from sea to shining sea.

The massive deployment appealed to Roosevelt as diplomacy, as preventive strategy, as technical training, and as a sheer pageant of power. There was also the enormity of the challenge. He had private information that neither British nor German naval authorities believed he could do it. Well, he would prove them wrong. “Time to have a show down in the matter.”

He issued a series of orders to Secretary Metcalf. The Subic Bay coal stockpile in the Philippines must be enlarged at once. Defense guns must be moved there from Cavite. Four armored cruisers of the Asiatic Fleet were to be brought back to patrol the West Coast. And finally—Roosevelt’s operative order, climaxing ninety minutes of talk—the Atlantic fleet would set sail from Hampton Roads, Virginia, in October, destination San Francisco.

When someone asked how many battleships would make the trip, Roosevelt said that depended on how many there were in service at the time. If fourteen, he would send fourteen; if sixteen, then sixteen. He wanted them “all to go.”

Metcalf was authorized to announce the dispatch of the “Great White Fleet”—as it soon became known—appropriately on the Fourth of July. But the news was too big to hold, in view of the tense state of American-Japanese relations. By the time the Secretary issued his statement, Ambassador Aoki had already moved defensively to say that Japan did not regard Roosevelt’s gesture as “an unfriendly act.”

His Excellency thus avoided sounding overjoyed at the prospect of an enormous alteration in the balance of naval power in the Pacific. And Roosevelt, by intimating that San Francisco would be the fleet’s farthest port of call, encouraged Californian alarmists to think it was being dispatched for their protection. They would have been less comforted if they had known that he was privately talking to Henry Cabot Lodge about sending it on “a practice cruise around the world.”


Monday, 16 December, broke sunny, sharp, and clear over the James River estuary after a weekend of heavy rain. All sixteen ships of the battle fleet lay waiting for him, blindingly white in the eight o’clock light, as the Mayflower creamed into the Roads and proceeded past each gold-curlicued bow. The air drummed with 336 cannon blasts, not quite dividing into twenty-one-gun strophes.

“By George!” Roosevelt exulted to Secretary Metcalf. “Did you ever see such a fleet and such a day?”

When the presidential yacht came to anchor, gigs and barges brought aboard “Fighting Bob” Evans—a surprisingly small, fierce-faced man, limping with rheumatism—four rear admirals, and sixteen commanding officers. Roosevelt made no speech after shaking all their hands, only drawing Evans aside for a few minutes and muttering to him with earnest, snapping teeth. Bystanders watched the admiral’s cocked hat bobbing like a gull as Roosevelt bit off sentence after sentence. What scraps of dialogue floated on the breeze were mostly banal: “I tell you, our enlisted men … perfectly bully … best of luck, old fellow.”

Less audibly, the President was giving Evans secret orders to stay in the Pacific for several months, then proceed home via the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal. Cameras clicked as the two men bade each other farewell. The commanders returned to their ships, and, as the Mayflower got under way for Cape Henry, one by one the battleships weighed anchor and hauled around in stately pursuit. They overtook Roosevelt at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and ground past him in a perfectly spaced, three-mile-long column. He watched with intent seriousness, periodically doffing his top hat, until the Kentucky, the last unit of the Fourth Division, moved by in a vast white wall, all its sailors saluting.


On 7 February, the Great White Fleet, dispatched toward unknown possibilities by an allegedly deranged (William James preferred the term dynamogenic) Commander-in-Chief, entered the Strait of Magellan. Since leaving Hampton Roads, it had become a diplomatic phenomenon, attracting worldwide press attention and spreading as much goodwill as foam along the Brazilian and Argentine coastlines. Even Punta Arenas, Chile, a windswept wood-and-iron outpost near the extreme tip of the continent, welcomed Admiral Evans and his sailors with elaborate hospitality and specially hiked prices.

For twenty-two hours, the Chilean destroyer Chacabuco led Evans’s flagship Connecticut through the misty Strait—a surreal Doppelgänger of the waterway being carved across Panama—while fifteen other coal-heavy ships wallowed behind at four-hundred-yard intervals. No more than three men-of-war had ever performed this maneuver in convoy, and the going was hazardous even for single units. But the fleet steamed steadily through. It veered off course only once, when a sudden turbulence proclaimed the conflicting levels of two oceans. By the time the last vessel emerged into open sea, the first was already steaming toward Valparaiso, and the Pacific theater had received its largest-ever infusion of battleships.

Roosevelt had still not announced his intention to send the fleet around the world—its official destination remained San Francisco. But Japan was aware that another war scare in the United States could quickly alter the fleet’s course; Admiral Dewey’s “ninety-day lag” no longer applied. This knowledge, combined with mounting diplomatic pressure from Elihu Root, now forced the conclusion of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” on which Tokyo had been politely stalling for nearly a year.

Throughout 1907, the influx of Japanese coolies into the United States had continued to pour unabated, making a mockery of the new immigration law. Root had tired of pointing out that the flow had to be restricted at its source, as per Tokyo’s verbal promise. Instead, he had taken advantage of the publicity attending the dispatch of the Great White Fleet to warn Ambassador Aoki that unless there was “a very speedy change in the course of immigration,” the Sixtieth Congress was certain to pass an exclusion act, greatly to the detriment of Japanese-American relations.

By 29 February, as the fleet headed north from Callao, Peru, the Gentlemen’s Agreement was finally implemented. Coolies were no longer permitted to immigrate to Hawaii, passport restrictions were tightened, and illegal agencies were being prosecuted by Japanese authorities. And at last, the monthly “Yellow Peril” index compiled by the State Department began to decline.

Roosevelt celebrated by confirming that the Great White Fleet, now en route to the Golden Gate, would proceed around the world after a couple of months’ rest and refitting. Its itinerary would include Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Japan (about two weeks before the presidential election), China, Ceylon, the Suez Canal, Egypt, the Mediterranean, and Gibraltar. Its due date for return to Hampton Roads was 22 February 1909, ten days before he was to leave the White House.


Pulverizing as the President’s Special Message had been to the boomlet for Governor Hughes, and however revealing of Roosevelt’s own changing ideology, it merely increased the opposition of congressional conservatives against him. Joseph Cannon in the House and Nelson Aldrich in the Senate vied with each other to deny him the reforms he had begged with such eloquence. However, a small band of progressive Republicans and a larger one of moderate Democrats (who had applauded repeatedly during the reading of the Message) helped him win at least three new laws: a re-enacted Federal Employers’ Liability Act, the Workman’s Compensation Act for federal employees, and the Child Labor Act for the District of Columbia.

He also won, on 10 March, a nonlegislative victory with fruits that tasted distinctly sour. The Senate Committee on Military Affairs concluded its thirteen-month investigation of the Brownsville affair and found, by nine votes to four, that Roosevelt had justifiably dismissed without honor the soldiers of the Twenty-fifth Infantry. Three thousand pages of testimony, and the congruent opinions of virtually all Army authorities from the Commander-in-Chief on down, were enough to convince five Democrats and four Republicans that the men were guilty. The dissenting members were all Republican, but they were themselves divided, in a way that paradoxically compromised the majority vote. Two found the testimony to be contradictory and untrustworthy, reflecting irreconcilable antipathies between soldiers and townspeople. Senators Foraker and Morgan G. Bulkeley insisted that “the weight of the testimony” showed the soldiers to be innocent.

So did the weight of the only hard evidence in the case: thirty-three spent Army-issue cartridges found at the scene of the crime. Ballistics experts had testified that, while the shells had definitely been fired by Springfield rifles belonging to the Twenty-fifth, the actual firing had occurred during target practice at Fort Niobrara in Nebraska, long before the battalion was ordered to Texas. The mystery of the translocation of the shells to Brownsville was simply explained. Army budget officers frowned on waste of rechargeable ordnance, so 1,500 shells had been recovered from the range, sent south, and stored in an open box on the porch of a barracks hut at Fort Brown, available for any soldier—or passing civilian—to help himself.

Such technical information, however, could not explain away the “wooden, stolid look” that Inspector General Garlington had seen on the faces he interviewed. It was a look so evocative of Negro complicity that the War Department had briskly dispensed with the formality of allowing every soldier his day in court.

Roosevelt’s other major legislative request, unsatisfied through the first weeks of spring, was for four new battleships. The House followed the recommendation of its Committee on Naval Affairs and appropriated funds for only two. Unappeased by an extra appropriation to build a naval base at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt put his hopes in the Senate. Debate there began on 24 April, none too favorably. Senators seemed more inclined to question the legality of his battle-fleet cruise order than to double the battleship quota of the House bill. But they also had to take into account his still phenomenal popularity, and the hold the Great White Fleet had taken of the public imagination. Three days later, Roosevelt won a modified victory: two battleships plus a guarantee that two more would be funded before he left office.

Sounding rather like a small boy, he claimed not to have expected four all at once, but had asked for them only because he wanted to be sure of getting two.

Pearl Harbor 1900

During the reign of King Kalākaua the United States was granted exclusive rights to enter Pearl Harbor and to establish “a coaling and repair station.”

Although this treaty continued in force until August 1898, the U.S. did not fortify Pearl Harbor as a naval base. As it had for 60 years, the shallow entrance constituted a formidable barrier against the use of the deep protected waters of the inner harbor.

The United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom signed the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 as supplemented by Convention on December 6, 1884, the Reciprocity Treaty was made by James Carter and ratified it in 1887. On January 20, 1887, the United States Senate allowed the Navy to exclusive right to maintain a coaling and repair station at Pearl Harbor. (The US took possession on November 9 that year). The Spanish–American War of 1898 and the desire for the United States to have a permanent presence in the Pacific both contributed to the decision.

Following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the United States Navy established a base on the island in 1899.


Prostki 1656 [Bitwa pod Prostkami]

The battle of Prostki took place during the Second Northern War and was a decisive victory of Polish-Lithuanian forces numbering 10,000 men (mostly regular cavalry) supported by 2,000 Tatars and led by hetman Wincenty Gosiewski over a Swedish-Brandenburg army of 6,500 regulars (nearly half of them infantry) reinforced by 800 Lithuanian-Polish cavalry of prince Boguslav Radziwill and led by prince Georg Friedrich von Waldeck. The battle was portrayed in the Polish movie “Potop” from 1974.

Wincenty Korwin Gosiewski

After the retreat of combined Swedish-Brandenburg armies from Warsaw in 1656, the Polish commanded decided to spare no expense in attacking the territories of Ducal (Polish) Prussia, which despite being a Polish fief had allied itself with the Swedish King.  One of the objectives during this campaign was to completely destroy Prussian territory to force Frederick Wilhelm’s mindset in co-operating with the Swedish invader.  A victorious battle against a combined Swedish-Brandenburg-Prussian army conducted under the command of Field Hetman of Lithuania, ‘Wincenty Gosiewski’, during the Prussian campaign in the time of the Swedish-Muscovite Deluge on Poland in 1654-1660. The Polish-Lithuanian army was composed of Lithuanian units, Crown units (Poles), pospolite ruszenie (general levy) and tartars. The whole army was counted at about 12-13,000 men, most of it cavalry including about 2,000 tartars. Enemy forces under the Swedish General Waldeck were counted at much lower; 2,500 cavalry, 1,000 Prussian infantry (general levy) and 6 artillery pieces, as well as about 800 cavalry under the command of the traitor, Boguslaw Radziwill. Other Swedish commanders in the area heard of the approach of the Polish-Lithuanian army, (namely General Walenrodt and Colonel Josiass Waldeck), who would supply an additional 2,000+ infantry. Total forces were then were around 5,500 men, the bulk of which was Brandenburg infantry.

Gosikewski arrived at Prostek on the right bank of the river Elk and decided to immediately attack the Brandenburg forces, after which he would completely destroy any more advancing formations. He also sent the tartars for a preliminary confrontation with the forces of Wallenrod.

The Lithuanian units used the old trick of ‘feinting retreat’ (which worked so well at Kircholm, and by the tartars so many hundreds of years ago), against the Prussian infantry, which fell for this maneuver and moved across the river to the right side of the bank. Gosiewski’s army surrounded the Prussian infantry, attacked, and their formations broke. Much of the infantry was forced back into the river, either drowning or being killed however a few units together with some artillery pieces managed to escape back to the other side of the bank. The Lithuanians and Tartars immediately charged after them capturing their base of operations very quickly. After this, together with some Tartars then moved to attack the 800 cavalry under Radzwill, which they managed to attack from behind and flanks. Most of his cavalry was killed, only a few successfully retreated the rest were captured, including Prince Radziwill himself. The battle ended at 2pm with a successful attack on the formations of General Waldeck which were almost completely defeated. The rest of the army moved to attack the retreating infantry formations of Wallenrodt which was exhausted by a long march when retreating being continuously attacked by Tartar units.

Total Swedish-Brandenburg losses in this battle amounted to about 5,000 men (over 75% of the entire army), whilst Polish-Lithuanian army losses amounted to no more than around 200-250 dead. The defeat was so great that the population of Ducal Prussia demanded that Frederick Wilhelm sign a treaty with the Poles immediately, however it never came to that.  Whilst this was a great victory, proving that the Polish-Lithuanian army was again a competent force, though victories continued to be on/off affairs, it would be an uphill battle to ride the enemy from the country which had entrenched itself so completely.


The Templars and the Defence of the Holy Land

From the moment that the First Crusade arrived in the Middle East, the Crusaders started building castles. As in Europe, they served as residences and administrative centres, as well as having a military function. But after the Second Crusade the Franks in Outremer found themselves on the defensive and the military nature of castles became more important. Often large and elaborate, and continuously improved by the latest innovations in military science, the Franks built over fifty castles in Outremer. Geography, manpower and the feudal system all explain this considerable investment in stone.

The Crusader states were long and narrow, lacking defence in depth. The Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem stretched 450 miles from north to south, yet rarely were they more than 50 to 75 miles broad, the County of Tripoli perilously constricting to the width of the coastal plain, only a few miles broad, between Tortosa (present-day Tartus) and Jeble. The inland cities of Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus all remained in Muslim hands, while Mesopotamia and Egypt were recruiting grounds for any Muslim counterthrust, as the campaigns of Saladin and the Mamelukes would show. For the Crusaders the natural defensive line was the mountains, and they built castles to secure the passes.

Stones more than soldiers were pressed to this purpose as Outremer was chronically short of men. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 most of the Crusaders returned to Europe; the Kingdom of Jerusalem was thereafter defended by 300 mounted knights. Despite successive crusades, at no time during the entire history of the Crusader states were they able to put more than 2600 horse in the field. Moreover, though there was still a large local Christian population, these were Orthodox while the Crusaders were a Latin minority.

Outnumbered and insecure, the Franks of necessity housed themselves in fortified towns or in castles. Nevertheless, if the Crusader states were to survive they had to be a going concern, and the Franks set about organising their possessions along familiar European feudal lines. Castles were as much centres of production and administration as they were military outposts–battlemented country houses, containing corn mills and olive presses, and surrounded by gardens, vineyards, orchards and fields. Their lands in some cases encompassed hundreds of villages and a peasantry numbering tens of thousands. Wood to Egypt, herbs, spices and sugar to Europe, were important exports; indeed throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Europe’s entire supply of sugar came from the Latin East.

But in times of war, agriculture was always the first victim. Were it not for Western subvention and the taxes imposed on trade between the Muslim East and Europe as it passed through the Crusader states, they would have collapsed sooner than they did. The Latin rulers were always strapped for cash, the bulk of their revenues going towards the upkeep of mercenaries, knights and castles. It was a vicious circle; insufficient land and manpower making castles a necessity; the cost of knights and castles greater than the productivity of the land could justify.

In this situation the military orders came into their own. They had the resources, the independence, the dedication–the elements of their growing power.

Structure of the Templars

THE TOP FIVE OFFICIALS of the Knights Templar were the Grand Master, the Seneschal, the Marshal, the Commander of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Draper. Ultimately, the Order owed its allegiance to the Pope–and to no other authority, spiritual or temporal.

 THE GRAND MASTER Ruler of the order, the Grand Master was elected by twelve senior Templar members, the number representing the twelve apostles, plus a chaplain who took the place of Jesus Christ. The master had considerable but not autocratic powers.

GRAND CHAPTER Comprised of senior officials. All major decisions by the Grand Master–such as whether to go to war, agree a truce, alienate lands, or acquire a castle–required that he consult with the chapter.

 SENESCHAL Deputy and advisor to the Grand Master.

 MARSHAL Responsible for military decisions such as purchase of equipment and horses; he also exercised authority over the regional commanders.

 DRAPER The keeper of the robes, the Draper issued clothes and bedlinen, removed items from knights who were thought to have too much, and distributed gifts made to the order.

 REGIONAL COMMANDERS These were the COMMANDER OF THE KINGDOM OF JERUSALEM, who acted as the order’s treasurer and within the Kingdom had the same powers as the Grand Master; the COMMANDER OF JERUSALEM, who within the city had the same powers as the Grand Master; and the COMMANDERS OF ACRE, TRIPOLI AND ANTIOCH, each with the powers of the Grand Master within their domains.

 PROVINCIAL MASTERS France, England, Aragon, Poitou, Portugal, Apulia and Hungary each had a provincial master who was responsible to the Grand Master.

 THE KNIGHTS, SERGEANTS and other MEN AT ARMS were subject to these various officers and their deputies.

A Power Unto Themselves

After the Second Crusade both the Hospitallers and the Templars came to provide the backbone of resistance to the Muslims, but the military impetus came from the Templars. The Hospitallers were still an entirely pacific order when the armed order of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ came into being. But sometime in the 1120s the Hospitallers extended their role from caring for pilgrims to protecting them by force of arms if need be, becoming known as the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John, or Knights Hospitaller, with Saint John no longer the Almsgiver but replaced by the more imposing figure of Saint John the Baptist. The first recorded instance of Hospitallers in combat dates from 1128, eight years or so after the founding of the Templars; it was the example of the Templars that helped turn the Hospitallers into a military order.

In due course the military orders were put in possession of the great castles, a task for which they were perfectly suited. The frontier castles were remote, isolated and lonely places; they did not appeal to the secular knighthood of Outremer. But the monastic vows of the military orders suited them to the dour life of castles where the innermost fortifications served as monasteries for the brothers. Their members were celibate, which made them easy to control, and they had no outside private interests. Superbly trained and highly disciplined, the Hospitallers and the Templars were led by commanders of considerable military ability; the capabilities of the orders generally stood in marked contrast to those of the lay institutions of Outremer.

The orders owed direct responsibility to the Papacy, placing them above not only local feudal quarrels but the antagonisms of nations and their kings. As corporate bodies, the orders were everlasting, their numbers undiminished by disease or death, and they were able to draw on an inexhaustible supply of young men of noble families in Europe seeking to fulfil the moral and religious obligations of knighthood. Also the Templars and the Hospitallers received donations of property in Europe which soon made them wealthy. Each order levied its own taxes, had its own diplomatic service and possessed its own fleet of ships. In effect the Hospitallers and the Templars were states within the state. Very quickly the under-manned and under-financed Crusader states were selling or giving frontier fortresses to the orders, and by 1166 there were only three castles in the Kingdom of Jerusalem which the military orders did not control.

Costing the Templars

Every Templar was a highly trained and expensive mounted knight. Such a knight in the second half of twelfth-century France required 750 acres to equip and maintain himself as a mounted warrior, and a century later that cost had quintupled to 3750 acres.

For a Templar knight operating overseas in the Holy Land the costs were even greater, as much had to be imported, not least horses. Each Templar knight had three horses, and because they fell victim to warfare and disease, and had a lifespan of only twenty years, they needed to be renewed at a rate greater than local breeding allowed. The cost of horses rose six fold from the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries. Moreover, horses consumed five or six times as much as a man, and required feeding whether or not they were in use. A bad harvest in the East, and urgent food supplies had to be shipped in for men and horses alike.

Each Templar also had a squire to help look after the horses. And in addition there were sergeants, more lightly armed than knights, who each had a horse but acted as their own squires. Sergeants were often locally recruited and wore a brown or black tunic instead of white. In fact for every Templar knight there were about nine others serving in support, whether as squires, sergeants or other forms of help. This is not much different from modern warfare in which every frontline soldier is backed up by four or five who never see combat, not to mention the many thousands of civilians producing weapons and equipment and providing clothing, food and transport.

Growing responsibilities increased Templar costs immensely. As secular lords found themselves unable to maintain and defend their castles and their fiefs, they handed these responsibilities over to the military orders. According to Benedict of Alignan, a Benedictine abbot visiting the Holy Land in the 1240s, the Templars spent 1,100,000 Saracen besants in two and a half years on rebuilding their castle of Saphet (Safad)–this at a time when a knight in Acre could live well on 500 Saracen besants a year–and continued to spend 40,000 Saracen besants in each following year on the day-to-day running of the castle. Saphet had a complement of 50 Templar knights, 30 mounted sergeants, as well as 50 mounted archers, 300 crossbowmen, 820 engineers and other serving men, plus 400 slaves–1650 people, which in wartime increased to 2200, all of whom had to be housed, fed, armed and kept supplied in various ways.

Only their vast holdings in Outremer and more especially in the West permitted the Templars to operate on such a scale and recover after losses and setbacks to continue the defence of the Holy Land.

Ruins of the castle of Baghras – a.k.a. Gastim – built in 1153 by the Templar Knights to control the Syrian [Belen] Gates, the mountain pass between Alexandretta and Antioch. It was forced to capitulate to Saladin in 1189. Retaken and restored in 1191 by the Armenians, the castle was returned to the Templars in 1216. In 1268, before having to surrender to the attack of Sultan Baibars, the Templars dismantled Gastim and set it on fire.

Templar Castles

When the First Crusade marched into the Middle East it came over the Belen Pass, about sixteen miles north of Antioch, that same crossing over the Amanus mountains that Alexander the Great had taken 1400 years before, after crushing the Persian army of Darius III at the battle of Issus. Known also as the Syrian Gates, the Belen Pass was the doorway into Syria and it was also the northern frontier of Outremer. Sometime in the 1130s the task of defending the pass was given to the Templars. Their key fortress was Baghras, built high above the pass itself, and the Templars built several others in the Amanus mountains. These castles formed a screen across the northern frontier where the Templars ruled as virtually autonomous border lords, effectively independent of the Principality of Antioch.

The Templars also took charge of the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s southern frontier with Egypt when they were made responsible for Gaza during the winter of 1149–50. Gaza was uninhabited and ruinous at this time, but the Templars rebuilt a fortress atop a low hill and slowly the Franks revived the city around it. This was the first major castle in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that the Templars are recorded as receiving, and its purpose was to complete the blockade of Ascalon ten miles to the north, a small patch of territory on the Mediterranean coast still held by the Fatimids. Ascalon had long been the base for Muslim attacks on pilgrims coming up the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem or descending to the river Jordan, and in 1153 the city finally fell to Baldwin III, the king of Jerusalem. The Templars played a prominent part in this triumph, for they were first into the breach when a section of the walls came down, yet William of Tyre was predictable in turning this against them when he claimed in his chronicle that their eagerness was due to their greed for spoils. In fact the Templars lost forty or so knights in the attack, and their Grand Master lost his life.

Another vital strategic site as well as an important spot for pilgrims was Tortosa (present-day Tartus) on the Syrian coast. Said to be the place where the apostle Paul gave his first mass, a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built there in the third century, long before Christianity was officially tolerated within the Roman Empire, and it contained an icon of the Virgin said to have been painted by Saint Luke. To help the pilgrims who came to pray, the Crusaders built upon this history with the construction of Our Lady of Tortosa in 1123, an elegant cathedral which architecturally marks the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic. But in 1152 Nur al-Din captured and burnt the city, leaving it deserted and destroyed; and as the County of Tripoli lacked the means for its restoration, Tortosa was placed in the care of the Templars, who greatly improved its defences, building a massive keep and halls within a triple circuit of tower-studded walls, and with a postern in the seawall enabling the city to be supplied from sea.

The strategic significance of Tortosa was that it stood at the seaward end of an opening in the range of coastal mountains which runs back into the interior towards the Muslim city of Homs. Towards the eastern end of this Homs Gap, as it is called, and towering high above the route between the interior and the sea, is the great castle of Krak des Chevaliers gained by the Hospitallers in 1144, while in the mountains between Krak and Tortosa is the castle of Chastel Blanc, now known as Safita, already in the hands of the Templars some time before 1152. From the roof of the massive keep at Chastel Blanc can be seen both Krak des Chevaliers to the east and the Templar castle of al-Arimah to the west on the Mediterranean coast just south of Tortosa. In short the Templars, together with the Hospitallers, entirely controlled the one important route between the interior of Syria and the sea. Moreover, they did so with sovereign rights within their territories, having been granted full lordship over the population of their estates, the right to share in the spoils of battle, and the freedom to have independent dealings with neighbouring Muslim powers.

In the 1160s the Templars took over further castles, this time across the Jordan river at Ahamant (present-day Amman) and in Galilee at Saphet (also called Safad) to which was added Chastellet in 1178. Gaza, Ahamant, Saphet and Chastellet were all within the Kingdom of Jerusalem but close to its borders where they served defensive purposes. Chastellet covered Jacob’s Ford, the northernmost crossing point of the river Jordan, previously a weak point where Saladin came down out of Damascus and made easy raids against the Christians. So alarmed was Saladin when the Templars installed themselves at Chastellet that he immediately attacked, failing in his first attempt in June 1179 but two months later storming the castle and taking seven hundred prisoners whom he then slaughtered, although the Templar commander threw himself to his death to avoid capture.

More centrally placed was La Feve at the crossroads of the route between Jerusalem and Acre via Galilee. Acquired by the Templars in about 1170, it served as a major depot for arms, tools and food, and it housed a large garrison. It was later the launching point for the expedition that led to the disastrous defeat at the Springs of Cresson on 1 May 1187, a foreboding of the catastrophe at Hattin.

As well as fighting in the defence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Templars continued to fulfil their original role of protecting pilgrims coming up to the holy sites at Jerusalem from the ports of Acre, Haifa and Jaffa, or going down from Jerusalem to the Jordan river. One of the duties of the Templar commander in Jerusalem was to keep ten knights in reserve to accompany pilgrims to the Jordan and to provide a string of pack animals to carry food and exhausted travellers. The Templars had a castle overlooking the site at the Jordan river where Jesus had been baptised, to protect not only pilgrims but also the local monks after six of them were gratuitously murdered by Zengi.

The acquisition of castles was accompanied by lands which helped to support them, especially around Baghras, Tortosa and Saphet. In these areas the Templars held many villages, mills and much agricultural land. The details are lacking because of the destruction of the Templar archives on Cyprus by the Ottoman Turks in the sixteenth century. But from what can be pieced together it seems that the orders between them, the Hospitallers and the Templars, may have held nearly a fifth of the lands in Outremer by the middle of the century, and by 1188, the year of the Battle of Hattin, something like a third.

HMS Kingfisher (1675)

The Action of the Kingfisher with Seven Algerine Ships, 22 May 1681 under command of Captain Morgan Kempthorne. She was specially designed to counter the attacks of Algerine corsairs, or pirates, in the Mediterranean by masquerading as a merchantman, which she achieved by hiding her armament behind false bulkheads. She also was provided with various means of changing her appearance. Kingfisher was rebuilt at Woolwich in 1699, as a Fourth Rate of 46-54 guns. She was hulked in 1706, and was broken up in 1728.

4th rate ship of the line – HMS Kingfisher was an amazing pirate hunter frigate masqueraded as a merchant ship. In the battle that made her famous where she fought Algerian 3 sail ships and 5 galleys for 12 hours and won with 8 casualties and somewhat 30 wounded. Same year she have sank Moroccan pirate and few years later captured Sophia a 12 gun ship.

Carrick Castle is a late fourteenth/early fifteenth century Tower House built by the Campbell clan and replaced an earlier fortification that had served as a Royal hunting lodge. It was constructed upon a rocky promontory overlooking the entrance into Loch Goil. The castle was attacked by the Royal Navy during the rebellion of Archibald Campbell in 1685.


France’s duc de Beaufort somewhat redeemed his humiliating defeat at Djidjelli by finding a glorious death fighting the Turks in the last stages of the seemingly endless siege of Candia in 1669. His body, and the French force he was leading, was then returned to France. The other foreign Christian contingents, especially the knights from Malta, also departed. Finally the last Venetian commander surrendered Candia to the Ottomans on terms and went home. The war for Crete was finally over. With the Ottoman sultan finally victorious, the Barbary corsairs would no longer have to send ships every year to join his fleet, and would have more vessels available to go in pursuit of Christian merchant ships. Algiers in particular stepped up its corsairing activities, just as the European sea powers, at peace with each other once more, were sending their battle fleets back to the Mediterranean.

An English fleet under Sir Thomas Allin commenced operations against Algiers in late 1669. Allin’s attempts to blockade Algiers necessitated a base much closer to the enemy city than Tangier, so he used anchorages in the Balearic Islands with the tacit approval of the Spanish. Tangier was, however, useful as a base for English warships mounting patrols in or near the strait of Gibraltar, a favourite cruising ground of the Algerine corsairs. An increasing number of corsairs were captured or driven ashore, while even large groups of them might be driven off by single English warships.

Battle of Cádiz, 18–19 December 1669. Engraving of the battle by Wenceslaus Hollar, an eyewitness

An example of the latter event occurred in December 1669. Earlier that year the famous artist and engraver Wenceslaus Hollar had been sent by King Charles II to Tangier to make drawings of the crown’s newest possession. After completing his work, Hollar boarded the warship HMS Mary Rose, commanded by Captain John Kempthorne, for passage back to England. First Kempthorne had to convoy some merchant ships to Cadiz in Spain. Soon after the convoy left Tangier it was attacked by a force of seven Algerine corsairs. They concentrated on trying to capture the Mary Rose, but for many hours Kempthorne’s crew beat them off. Eventually, after heavy damage had been inflicted on the Algerine flagship, the corsairs withdrew, and the Mary Rose and its convoy reached Cadiz safely. Kempthorne was rewarded by Charles II with a knighthood, while Hollar immortalized the event in an engraving.

Despite having fought two bitter naval wars against each other, England and the Netherlands could on occasion co-operate in the fight against the Barbary corsairs. In 1670 Admiral Willem van Ghent brought a Dutch fleet of thirteen ships, drawn from the admiralties of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Zeeland, to the Mediterranean and cooperated with Allin in the war against Algiers. An English squadron under Captain Richard Beach was detached to accompany van Ghent’s ships in patrolling the strait of Gibraltar and its approaches. In mid-August 1670 the allies encountered an Algerine squadron near Cape Spartel, and in the ensuing battle they drove six enemy ships ashore, burning them, killing several noted Algerine captains and freeing 250 Christian slaves.

In September 1670 Allin handed over command of the English Mediterranean fleet to Sir Edward Spragge and returned home. Spragge continued aggressive operations against the Algerines and achieved his greatest victory over them in May 1671. Seven Algerine warships were in the harbour at Bougie, and Spragge sent in fireships which successfully burned them all. This further heavy blow to the navy of Algiers led to a revolution in the city. The old ruler was overthrown and the new one was anxious to make peace with England, which was soon agreed. From this point onwards, the ruler of Algiers was known as the `dey’ (literally `uncle’), a title peculiar to that city.

The English and the Dutch had inflicted notable defeats on the Barbary corsairs, and the French had also carried out lesser naval operations against them in these years. However, just as the Barbary corsairs were beginning to feel real pressure from the European sea powers, that pressure was suddenly relaxed. Louis xiv was determined to destroy the Dutch republic, and he enlisted the aid of Charles II to launch an Anglo-French assault on the Netherlands in 1672. England would fight the Dutch until 1674, while the French continued the war against them until 1678. Once again the Barbary corsairs were left largely unopposed while the European sea powers fought among themselves.

Although the Dutch finally beat back the French invasion of 1672 which almost destroyed their country, and other states, including Spain, later joined their struggle against France, there was little doubt that this war weakened Dutch power. This was especially true in the Mediterranean. The French encouraged a revolt in Sicily against Spain, and the Dutch sent a fleet, under Admiral de Ruyter, to the Mediterranean to assist the Spanish. In a series of sea battles around the shores of Sicily in 1676 the French, under Admiral Abraham Duquesne, eventually got the better of the Dutch-Spanish fleet and the famous de Ruyter was killed in one of the encounters. The French were now masters of the western and central Mediterranean.

France and the Netherlands made peace in 1678. Dutch seaborne commerce had largely been excluded from the Mediterranean since 1672 and Dutch shipowners were desperate to regain the trade they had lost to French and English ships. Attacks by the Barbary corsairs might help those two countries in preventing a Dutch trade revival in the region. When Dutch negotiators came to the Barbary regencies in 1679 aiming to obtain new treaties from them, they came as supplicants. As usual the treaty agreed with Algiers would set the tone for those with Tunis and Tripoli. The terms the Dutch eventually agreed with Algiers were to horrify their English and French rivals. Although the Netherlands still had a significant navy and most of its merchant ships went to the Mediterranean in well protected convoys, the Dutch effectively capitulated to the Algerines.

In the treaty of 1679, ratified in 1680, the Dutch agreed, among other things, to provide what was in effect an annual tribute payment to Algiers. It did not take the form of money, but of a free gift of cannon, firearms, gunpowder and naval stores such as masts, cordage and shipbuilding timber. In effect the Dutch were providing the material to equip Algerine corsairs to attack the ships of other nations and in return the Algerines agreed not to attack Dutch merchant shipping. The Dutch had calculated it was cheaper to send regular tribute to Algiers than to face the cost of sending punitive naval expeditions against the corsair city. The 1679 treaty was to be the basis of Dutch relations with Algiers for the next hundred years and more.  

The English and the French were loud in their condemnation of what they saw as a Dutch surrender, and they resolved to bring the Barbary regencies to terms through further aggressive action by their navies. England led the way, and from 1677 to 1682 waged a fierce naval war with Algiers. However, when an English fleet, under Sir John Narbrough, returned to the Mediterranean in 1675 after King Charles ii had ended his participation in France’s war against the Dutch, its first target was not Algiers but Tripoli in Libya.

For most of 1675 Narbrough tried to maintain a naval blockade of Tripoli. The knights allowed him to use Malta as his forward base, but most of his supplies came from the more distant port of Livorno (called Leghorn by the English) in Tuscany, the principal base for English merchants in the central Mediterranean. Narbrough became more aggressive in the following year. In January 1676 a force of boats from the English fleet, led by Narbrough’s protégé Cloudesley Shovell, entered Tripoli harbour and burned four ships of the Tripoli fleet. Soon afterwards Narbrough’s ships encountered a Tripoli squadron at sea and destroyed all four vessels. After these heavy blows to his fleet, the ruler of Tripoli made peace in March 1676, freeing all his English captives and promising to pay a financial indemnity. The people of Tripoli revolted, overthrew their ruler and forced his replacement to denounce the treaty. Narborough quickly returned, threatening to bombard Tripoli unless the new ruler confirmed the treaty, which he duly did.

This success might have encouraged the other regencies to be more respectful towards England, but the Algerines were angry because so many foreign ships were using false English flags to avoid capture by their corsairs.

By 1679 the new commander of the Mediterranean Fleet Vice-Admiral (brevet) Arthur Herbert (later Lord Torrington) was less interested in a blockade of Algiers, preferring to escort English trade convoys through the corsair danger areas, mostly in or near the strait of Gibraltar, and to mount patrols in the same areas. Not only did his ships begin to take a steady toll of Algerine vessels, captured or destroyed, but they also accounted for some Sallee rovers from Morocco as well. In the past the corsairs had always been able to outrun English warships, but since the 1660s English shipyards had produced a number of fast, well armed vessels, often of shallow draught. They were equally useful operating among the sandbanks of the North Sea off the Dutch coast or going into the shallows near headlands like Cape Gata where Barbary corsairs lurked waiting for their prey.

Although the long breakwater built by the English at Tangier was said to be almost complete by the late 1670s, it had done little to improve the city’s harbour. Like his predecessors, Herbert was reluctant to make much use of Tangier as a naval base and it usually only received occasional visits from patrolling warships. This situation changed dramatically in 1680 when repeated Moroccan attacks on the defences of Tangier compelled Herbert to take the fleet there, landing sailors and cannon to assist the garrison in beating off the Moroccan assault. Nevertheless, once the danger was past, Herbert looked elsewhere for a fleet base and found it in Gibraltar. In April 1680 the Spanish gave Herbert permission to use Gibraltar as his main base and he continued to use it until his return to England in 1683. Among the young officers in Herbert’s fleet was George Rooke. Almost a quarter of a century later, as Admiral Rooke, he would capture Gibraltar for England in 1704.

Herbert soon began to accumulate many Muslim slaves, mostly taken from captured Algerine vessels. Like his predecessors, he was under orders not to bring them back to England. Some were used as labour in Tangier, working on the defences or constructing the breakwater. The rest were sent to the various slave markets in Christian Mediterranean countries, such as those at Cadiz and Livorno. In 1679 alone Herbert was said to have made a profit of 16,862 pieces of eight from the sale of 243 Muslim captives. Not all Muslim captives passed unresisting into slavery. At least two ships carrying Muslim slaves away from Tangier experienced revolts among the captives. The ships were seized and run ashore on the coast of North Africa.

By the start of 1681 Herbert’s ships were maintaining a steady rate of success against the Algerines. In March 1681 two English warships captured the noted Algerine corsair Golden Horse. (Algerine vessels did not have names like Christian ships, and they were usually identified by the name of their captain. When captured, they were often named after some feature of the carving at the stern of the vessel.) Some 500 Muslim crew, including the captain, a Dutch renegade, were taken prisoner and 90 Christian slaves were freed. In May history repeated itself when the warship HMS Kingfisher was attacked by eight Algerine corsairs near Sardinia. The ship’s captain was Morgan Kempthorne, son of John Kempthorne who had found himself in a similar position in HMS Mary Rose in 1669. Like his father, Morgan beat off his assailants, but in the battle he was fatally wounded. In September another Algerine corsair fell to the English warships. An English renegade was found among the officers of the captured vessel. He was immediately hanged.

Although Herbert was bringing increasing pressure to bear on the navy of Algiers, the city’s ruler became favourable to peace with England for other reasons. Algiers had been at peace with the Dutch and the French, but at war with the English. By late 1681 the Algerines were being drawn into conflict with France. Since the traditional policy was to avoid being at war with more than one of the main European sea powers at a time, war with France meant peace would have to be agreed with the English as soon as possible. In 1682 Algiers made a peace treaty with Herbert, and this treaty was to be the basis of England’s relations with Algiers until 1816.

Argyll’s Rebellion

In February 1685 Charles II died and was succeeded by his Catholic brother James II. Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll, was in exile in Holland and already plotting a Protestant revolt in tandem with Charles’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth. He raised a few thousand pounds among the Scottish exiles and hired three ships – the Anna of 30 guns, the David of 12 and the Sophia of 6. Evading the half-hearted attempts of the Dutch authorities to stop them, they sailed north intending to round Scotland and land in the Argyll territories in the west, which had been confiscated after the Earl was accused of treason in 1681.

Carrying 300 men and 400 sets of back armour, breast-plates and head-p ieces, the ships made a very fast passage and arrived off the Moray Firth on 5 May. They missed the passage between Orkney and Shetland in fog and found themselves in Scapa Flow, where they anchored in Swanbister Bay. Spence, the Earl’s chamberlain, had connections in the islands and went ashore with Dr Blackadder, but they were quickly arrested by the Bishop and magistrates of Kirkwall.

The leaders of the expedition were undecided about what to do. Some wanted to land and rescue their comrades, some suggested reprisals and a party was sent ashore and took six hostages. But the ships sailed on without Spence and Blackadder. They spent the night of 11 May at anchor in Tobermory Bay, then largely undeveloped, and mad e a specious attempt to salvage guns from the famous Spanish galleon wrecked there. They sailed down the Sound of Mull, unchallenged by Duart Castle, and on the 15th they arrived at Islay, on the edge of Argyll’s clan territory. Th e Earl expected that his authority as chief of the Clan Campbell would instantly raise thousands of men, but Islay had already been visited by government troops who imposed an oath of loyalty. About eighty men were recruited to the rebellion, but half of them soon deserted.

The Anna and her consorts sailed on to Campbeltown, solid clan territory as its name suggests. On 22 May they raised the standard of revolt, bearing the slogans ‘For the Protestant Religion’ and ‘Against, Popery, Prelacy and Erastianism’. Again there was indecision about what to do next. Some wanted to develop a base in the Highlands, others to seize what they believed was an opportunity to exploit discontent in Ayrshire and Galloway across the firth of Clyde. Instead, the fiery cross was sent through Argyllshire to raise the Campbells, and Tarbert, further up the Kintyre peninsula, was chosen as the rendezvous. The three ships sailed up the firth and the troops from Campbeltown marched. A force of about 2,500 men was assembled at Tarbert.

Argyll wanted to move further up the coast to his former seat at Inveraray, where 500 government troops were in control and were reportedly terrorising the population. His advisers pointed out the danger of the ships being trapped in the cul-de-sac of Loch Fyne with English warships approaching. Since supplies were short at Tarbert, it was decided to land on Bute. It took three days to transport all the men to Rothesay, using the Dutch ships plus about forty local fishing 4 – boats.) Rothesay Castle was burnt as a reprisal for the government’s burning of Argyll’s castle on Loch Goil. The tiny island of Eailean Greig in the Kyles was set up as a base. It was hoped that the narrow and winding channels would prove unnavigable for English warships.

Meanwhile the government was preparing its own forces. HMS Kingfisher of forty guns under Captain Hamilton was in the Clyde near Dumbarton and was joined by other ships from Leith. On shore, the Earl’ s close relations and supporters were arrested and troops were mobilised.

The rebels landed a small party at Toward Castle opposite Rothesay while another small force sailed to Greenock, where they defeated some ineffective government opposition. They gained about thirty recruits and retired across the firth. On 11 June, the same day as Monmouth belatedly began his revolt in the south-west of England, Argyll left Eailean Greig with most of his army and crossed the mainland of Cowal. He advanced up Glendaruel and reached Ardentinny. But in the meantime the Kingfisher succeeded in navigating up the Kyles of Bute and the rebel base came under arrack, Captain Hamilton describes events.

We got up to them yesterday with an intention to beat his men out of the fortifications they had built there by the castle, but they did not stay for our coming up with them, but run their ships on ground and abandoned the castle. They had laid a train of matches with an intention to blow up the castle but I sent a boat on shore and prevented the blowing Up.

This was deeply demoralising to the rebel army, but they used local boats to cross Loch Long from Ardentinny to Coulport. They marched round the head of the Gareloch and took a circuitous route towards Glasgow, hoping to avoid conflict with government forces. The army was slowly dispersing and by the time it reached the Clyde at Kilpatrick there were only about 150 weary, dispirited men left. Argyll crossed the Clyde and was arrested by government forces at Inchinnan while trying to cross the River Cart. He was taken to Edinburgh and executed on 30 June, while Monmouth faced the same fate two weeks later.


Having served as lieutenant of the Rupert in 1666, and of the Mary in the following year, was, in 1668, promoted to be commander of the Deptford ketch, and very soon afterwards removed into the Nightgale. In 1671-2 he was appointed captain of the Mermaid; and being removed, in the course of the following year, into the Constant Warwick of thirty-six guns, a small fourth rate, behaved very gallantly in a very smart encounter with a Dutch privateer, as given in a letter written at the time. In 1673, the spirit he had manifested on the former occasion procured him to be promoted to the Mary Rose of fifty guns.

In the account given by Prince Rupert, of the engagement between the English fleet under his command, and that of the Dutch, on the 28th of May in this year, he mentions a Colonel Hamilton, as having lost his leg. We have not been able to identify precisely, but we believe him to have been this gentleman, the appellation of Colonel being indiscriminately applied both to officers of the navy and army, at that day, and there being no other person at that time in the service of the same name. He was not appointed to any other ship till the 18th of June, 1675, when he was made captain of the Margaret Galley; the first of these appellations appears to have been a misnomer, as it is imagined there was no vessel of that name in the service.

We find him commanding the Charles, on the Mediterranean station, on the 26th of October 1677; at which time he captured, in company with the James, Captain Canning, who was killed, a very large Algerine ship of war, after a desperate battle. On the 4th of March 1682, he was appointed to the Kingfisher. In the month of June 1685, having with him the Falcon frigate, he attacked and carried almost without resistance, the castle of Ellengreg, on the eastern coast of Scotland. The unfortunate earl of Argyle had taken possession of it a few days before, and fortified it, as well as time and circumstances would permit him, intending it as his grand magazine, and place of final retreat. Captain Hamilton’s success appears to have given the decisive blow to this petty invasion, for on this occasion he not only made himself master of all the earl’s

stores, spare arms and ammunitions, but, pursuing his good fortune, took possession of the three ships which the earl brought with him, and in which only he could place his last hope of escape for himself and his followers.

We meet with nothing farther relative to Captain Hamilton till the month of May 1689, some months after the revolution had taken place; he then commanded a ship of war, whose name we have not been able to learn, on the Irish station, and performed a notable piece, of service in destroying a considerable number of boats intended for the use of the late King James’s army.

Bunker Hill 1775 Part I

“When once these rebels have felt a smart blow,” George told his Admiralty, “they will submit.”

Blows would decide, as the king had predicted. Yet no one could foresee that the American War of Independence would last 3,059 days. Or that the struggle would be marked by more than 1,300 actions, mostly small and bloody, with a few large and bloody, plus 241 naval engagements in a theater initially bounded by the Atlantic seaboard, the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico, before expanding to other lands and other waters.

Roughly a quarter million Americans would serve the cause in some military capacity. At least one in ten of them would die for that cause- 25,674 deaths by one tally, as many as 35,800 by another. Those deaths were divided with rough parity among battle, disease, and British prisons, a larger proportion of the American population to perish in any conflict other than the Civil War. If many considered the war providential-ordained by God’s will and shaped by divine grace-certainly the outcome would also be determined by gutful soldiering, endurance, hard decisions (good and bad), and luck (good and bad). The odds were heavily stacked against the Americans: no colonial rebellion had ever succeeded in casting off imperial shackles. But, as Voltaire had observed, history is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.

This would not be a war between regimes or dynasties, fought for territory or the usual commercial advantages. Instead, what became known as the American Revolution was an improvised struggle between two peoples of a common heritage, now sundered by divergent values and conflicting visions of a world to come. Unlike most European wars of the eighteenth century, this one would not be fought by professional armies on flat, open terrain with reasonable roads, in daylight and good weather. And though it was fought in the age of reason, infused with Enlightenment ideals, this war, this civil war, would spiral into savagery, with sanguinary cruelty, casual killing, and atrocity.

Those 3,059 hard days would yield two tectonic results. The first was in the United Kingdom, where the reduction of the empire by about one-third, including the demolition of the new dominions in North America, proved to be as divisive as any misfortune to befall the nation in the eighteenth century, at a cost of £128 million and thousands of British lives. The broader conflict that began in 1778, with the intervention of European powers on America’s behalf, led to the only British defeat in the seven Anglo-French wars fought between 1689 and 1815. Of course, what was lost by force of arms could be regained, and a second British Empire, in different garb, would flourish in the next century.

The second consequence was epochal and enduring: the creation of the American republic. Surely among mankind’s most remarkable achievements, this majestic construct also inspired a creation myth that sometimes resembled a garish cartoon, a melodramatic tale of doughty yeomen resisting moronic, brutal lobsterbacks. The civil war that unspooled over those eight years would be both grander and more nuanced, a tale of heroes and knaves, of sacrifice and blunder, of redemption and profound suffering. Beyond the battlefield, then and forever, stood a shining city on a hill.


Lieutenant General Thomas Gage declared martial law on June 12 with a long, windy denunciation of “the infatuated multitudes.” He offered to pardon those who “lay down their arms and return to the duties of peaceable subjects,” exclusive of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, “whose offenses are of too flagitious a nature” to forgive. He ended the screed with “God save the King.”

The same day, Gage wrote to Lord Barrington, the secretary at war, that “things are now come to that crisis that we must avail ourselves of every resource, even to raise the Negroes in our cause.. Hanoverians, Hessians, perhaps Russians may be hired.” To Lord Dartmouth he warned that he was critically low on both cash-he could not pay his officers-and forage; ships had been sent to Nova Scotia and Quebec seeking hay and oats. Crushing the rebellion, he estimated, would require more frigates and at least 32,000 soldiers, including 10,000 in New York, 7,000 around Lake Champlain, and 15,000 in New England. Another officer writing from Boston on June 12 advised London-the king himself received a copy-that the rebel blockade “is judicious & strong.” As for British operations, “all warlike preparations are wanting. No survey of the adjacent country, no proper boats for landing troops, not a sufficient number of horses for the artillery nor for the regimental baggage.” The war chest had “about three or four thousand [pounds] only remaining.. The rebellious colonies will supply nothing.”

Gage’s adjutant complained that “every idle report is carried to headquarters and . magnified to such a degree that rebels are seen in the air carrying cannon and mortars on their shoulders.” Some regulars longed for a decisive battle; “taking the bull by the horns” became an oft-heard phrase in the regiments. “I wish the Americans may be brought to a sense of their duty,” an officer wrote in mid-June. “One good drubbing, which I long to give them. might have a good effect.” As Captain Evelyn told his cousin in London, “If there is an honor in hard knocks, we are likely to have some share.”

The imminent arrival of transports with light dragoons, more marines, and several foot regiments would bring the British garrison to over six thousand troops, not enough to subdue Massachusetts, much less the continent, but sufficient, as Gage told London, to “make an attempt upon some of the rebel posts, which becomes every day more necessary.” Two alluring patches of high ground remained unfortified, and Gage knew from an informant that American commanders coveted the same slopes: the elevation beyond Boston Neck known as the Dorchester Heights, and the dominant terrain above Charlestown called Bunker, or Bunker’s Hill. A battle plan was made to seize the former on Sunday, June 18, with a bombardment of Roxbury while the rebels were at church, followed by the construction of two artillery redoubts on the heights. If all went well, regulars could then capture the high ground on Charlestown peninsula and eventually attack the American encampment at Cambridge.


No sooner was the plan conceived than it leaked to the Committee of Safety; British officers seemed incapable of keeping their mouths shut in a town full of American spies and eavesdroppers. Intelligence even came from New Hampshire, where a traveler out of Boston told authorities there about rumors of an imminent British sally. Meeting in Hastings House, a gambrel-roofed mansion near the Cambridge Common, the committee on June 15 voted unanimously that “the hill called Bunker’s Hill in Charlestown be securely kept and defended.” Dorchester Heights would have to wait until more guns and powder could be stockpiled.

The American camps bustled. Arms and ammunition were inspected, with each marching soldier to carry thirty rounds. A note to the Committee of Supply advised that “the army is destitute of shirts & trousers, and if any [are] in store, pray they may be sent.” Liquor sales stopped, again. Teamsters carted the books and scientific instruments from Harvard’s library to Andover for safekeeping. Organ pipes were yanked from the Anglican church and melted down for musket bullets. An ordnance storehouse issued all forty-eight shovels in stock as well as ammunition to selected regiments-typically forty or fifty pounds of powder, a thousand balls, and a few hundred flints. Commissaries in Cambridge and Roxbury reported that provisions arriving through June 16 included 1,869 loaves of bread and 357 gallons of milk from Cambridge vendors, 60 pairs of shoes from Milton, 1,570 pounds of beef and 40 barrels of beer from Watertown, a ton of candles, 1,500 pounds of soap, several hundred barrels of beans, peas, flour, and salt fish by the quintal, rum by the hogshead, and a few hundred tents, many without poles. All Massachusetts men within twenty miles of the coast were urged to carry their firelocks “to meeting on the Sabbath and other days when they meet for public worship.” A sergeant from Wethersfield wrote his wife, “We’ve been in a great deal of hubbub.”

Orders spilled from the headquarters of Major General Ward, who occupied a southeast room on the Hastings House ground floor. Portly and sallow, sporting a powdered wig, boots, and a long coat with silver buttons, Artemas Ward, now forty-seven, had been chosen in February to command the Massachusetts militia on the strength of his long tenure in colonial politics. As a Harvard student, he once helped lead a campaign against “swearing and cursing” at the college; as a justice of the peace in Shrewsbury, he’d levied fines against the profane and could be found in the street reprimanding those who dishonored the Sabbath with unnecessary travel. Massachusetts, he believed, was home to the Chosen People. Ward had never fully recovered his health after the rigors of the French war, from which he’d emerged as a militia lieutenant colonel despite seeing little action. “Attacks of the stone”-kidney stones-still tormented him. Pious, honest, and devoted to the patriot cause, he was also taciturn, torpid, and stubborn. The gambit to hold Bunker Hill in Charlestown that he and the Committee of Safety had concocted was an impulse, not a plan. The rebel force lacked not only sufficient ammunition and field artillery but also combat reserves, a coherent chain of command, and even water. Ward had recently requested from the provincial congress almost sixty guns, fifteen hundred muskets, twenty tons of powder, and a similar quantity of lead; few of those munitions had been forthcoming.

Shortly after six p. m. on Friday, June 16, three Massachusetts regiments drifted through the arching elms and onto the Cambridge Common. They wore the usual homespun linen shirts and breeches tinted with walnut or sumac dye. Most carried a blanket or bedroll, often with a tumpline strap across the forehead to support the weight on their backs. A clergyman’s benediction droned over their bowed heads, and with a final amen they replaced their low-crowned hats and turned east down the Charlestown road.

Twilight faded and was gone, and the last birdsong faded with it. The first stars threw down their silver spears. Little rain had fallen in the past month, and dust boiled beneath each step. Candlelight gleamed from the rear of two bull’s-eye lanterns carried by sergeants at the head of the column. Officers commanded silence, and only the rattle of carts stacked with entrenching tools broke the quiet. Through parched orchards and across Willis Creek they marched, and past the hulking shadows of Prospect and Winter Hills. As they turned right toward Charlestown, a couple hundred Connecticut troops joined the column, bringing their strength to a thousand men.

General Ward had remained in his Hastings House headquarters, and the column was led by a sinewy, azure-eyed colonel wearing a blue coat with a single row of buttons and a tricorne hat. He carried a linen banyan. William Prescott of Pepperell, forty-nine and bookish, had fought twice in Canada during wars against the French, earning a reputation for cool self-possession under fire. In this war he reportedly had vowed never to be taken alive. “He was a bold man,” one soldier later wrote of him, “and gave his orders like a bold man.”

Bold orders this evening would prove to be ill-considered. As the procession crossed Charlestown Neck-barely ten yards wide at high tide- Prescott briefly conferred with the irrepressible Israel Putnam and Colonel Richard Gridley, an artilleryman and engineer who had also fought twice in Canada with distinction. From just below the isthmus, the three officers contemplated the dark contours of Charlestown peninsula, an irregular triangle a mile long and less than half that in width, bracketed by the Mystic and Charles Rivers. Even at night the dominant terrain was obvious: Bunker Hill rose gradually from the Neck for three hundred yards to a rounded crown 110 feet high, commanding not only the single land route off the peninsula, but the approach roads from Cambridge and Medford, as well as the adjacent waters. From the crest a low ridge swept southeast another six hundred yards to the patchwork of pastures, seventy-five feet high and sutured with rail fences, that would be called Breed’s Hill. Some fields had been scythed, the grass laid in windrows and cocks; in others it still stood waist-high. Brick kilns and clay pits pocked the steep eastern slope of the Breed’s pastures. Gardens and small orchards lay scattered to the west, backing the four hundred houses, shops, and buildings in Charlestown. Most of the three thousand residents had fled inland. The rising moon, three days past full, laved the town in amber light. Beyond the ferry landing and a spiny-masted warship in the Charles lay slumbering Boston.

For reasons never explained and certainly never understood, when the conference ended Prescott ordered the column to continue southeast. Colonel Gridley quickly staked out a redoubt-an imperfect square with sides about 130 feet long-not on nearly impregnable Bunker Hill, as the Committee of Safety had specified, but on the southwest slope of Breed’s pastureland. Accustomed to pick-and-shovel work, the men grabbed tools from the carts and began hacking at the hillside. Striking clocks in Boston, echoed at higher pitch by a ship’s bell, told them it was midnight.


The rhythmic chink of metal on hard ground carried to the Lively, another of those leaky vessels in the British squadron, now anchored astride the Charlestown ferryway. As coral light seeped across the eastern horizon at four a. m. on Saturday, June 17, the graveyard watch officer strained to decipher the odd sounds above the groan of the ship’s yards and the Charles whispering along her hull. He summoned the captain, whose spyglass soon showed hundreds of tiny dark figures tearing at the distant slope with spade and mattock.

The ship beat to quarters. Sailors tumbled from their hammocks, feet clapping across the deck as they ran to their battle stations. A windlass groaned as the crew winched Lively on her cable to align the starboard cannons. A shouted command carried across the gun deck, and tongues of flame burst from the ship in a broadside of 9-pounders. Breeching ropes kept the guns from flying across the deck in recoil; block and tackle ran them forward for the next salvo. Gunners swabbed the smoking barrels, rammed home powder and shot, and another flock of iron balls flew toward Breed’s Hill. Other ships eventually joined in-Glasgow, Symmetry, Falcon, Spitfire, more than seventy guns all told-along with 24-pounders from the Copp’s Hill battery in Boston’s North End.

Dawn, that great revealer of predicaments, had fully disclosed Colonel Prescott’s. Screaming cannonballs-“tea kettles,” in rebel slang-streaked overhead or punched into the hillside, smashing two hogsheads containing the American water supply. “The danger we were in made us think there was treachery, & that we were brought here to be all slain,” young Peter Brown would write his mother in Rhode Island. Distance and elevation reduced the bombardment’s effect, although Prescott recounted how one militiaman whose head abruptly vanished in a crimson mist “was so near me that my clothes were besmeared with his blood and brains, which I wiped off in some degree with a handful of fresh earth.” When other men dropped their tools to gawk at the corpse, Prescott snapped, “Bury him,” then strolled off with conspicuous nonchalance, hatless now, waggling his sword and urging the men to dig faster.

The redoubt taking shape was formidable enough, with thick dirt walls six feet high, fire steps for musketmen inside to stand on, and a sally port exit to the north. But no embrasures had been left for cannons; worse yet, Prescott recognized that the British could outflank him on either side. Gage’s men would no doubt attack in force across the Charles, seeking to stun the defenders with firepower before closing to complete the slaughter with bayonets. To protect his left flank, Prescott ordered the men to begin building a low breastwork northeast from the sally port to marshy ground at the foot of Breed’s Hill.

He also sent an officer to plead for reinforcements, provisions, and water. Artillerymen refused to lend the courier a horse, forcing him to walk four miles to Cambridge, which he found “quiet as the Sabbath.” At Hastings House he discovered Dr. Warren, newly appointed as a major general despite his lack of military experience, splayed on an upstairs bed with a crippling headache. General Ward, tormented with another attack of the stone, fretted over the vulnerability of Roxbury, the Dorchester Heights, and his Cambridge supply dumps; British gunfire had been reported at Boston Neck. Not least, Ward worried that only twenty-seven half-barrels of powder remained in his magazines, perhaps enough for forty thousand cartridges. With consent from the Committee of Safety, he reluctantly agreed to send reinforcements to Prescott from the New Hampshire militia camped along the Mystic.


The deep boom of Lively’s broadsides had wakened General Gage, as it woke all of Boston. Province House, aglitter in candlelight, soon bustled with red uniforms. Messengers skipped up the broad stone steps from Marlborough Street with news of rebel entrenchments, then skipped back down with orders to find and fetch various commanders. Young officers eager to join the coming attack loitered in the hallway, hoping to be noticed. Sleepy aides fumbled about for decent maps, of which the British still had precious few. Concussion ghosts from the harbor bombardment rattled the windows, and the rap of drums beating assembly carried from the camps.

Several senior officers joined Gage in the council chamber, including Percy, who arrived from his house in nearby Winter Street. But it was three newcomers who drew the eye this morning: Major Generals William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton had reached Boston in late May aboard the Cerberus, after a stormy voyage that killed two favorite horses but gave the three men ample time to find common ground for the campaign ahead despite their inevitable rivalry. “The sentiments of Howe, Clinton, and myself have been unanimous from the beginning,” Burgoyne declared. The king had personally approved their selection, fearing that without vigorous new leadership in America “we shall only vegetate.” They were deemed “the fittest men for the service in the army,” as one official in London observed, forming what Burgoyne called “a triumvirate of reputation.”

Others were not so sure. Horace Walpole, ever astringent, told his diary that Howe “was reckoned sensible, though so silent that nobody knew whether he was or not,” while Burgoyne was “a vain, very ambitious man, with a half understanding that was worse than none.” Clinton, he declared, “had not that fault, for he had no sense at all.” Their arrival at Long Wharf aboard a frigate named for the mythical three-headed hound guarding the gates of Hades inspired the war’s most enduring doggerel: “Behold the Cerberus, the Atlantic plough, / Her precious cargo, Burgoyne, Clinton, Howe, / Bow, wow, wow!” Thereafter known as the three bow-wows, they had wasted little time in undercutting Gage’s authority, as in Burgoyne’s barbed observation to General Harvey earlier that week that it was “no reflection to say he is unequal to his present station, for few characters in the world would be fit for it.. It requires a genius of the very first class.”

As the windows trembled and the Old South clock across the street struck the hours, the high command, genius or otherwise, heatedly debated what to do. General Clinton, a dimple-chinned, prickly, and gifted tactician, proposed the boldest course. Early that morning, he had made his own reconnaissance in the dark along the Boston waterfront, listening to the racket from the rebel entrenchment. If Howe and the main British force crossed directly from the North End to Charlestown, Clinton would lead five hundred men ashore in a surprise flanking attack within musket shot of the isthmus, severing the American line of retreat and trapping the enemy on the peninsula.

This scheme found little favor around Gage’s council table. Dividing the force would risk defeat in detail of the separate detachments, particularly if thousands of rebel reinforcements stormed the battlefield from Cambridge. Naval support would be tenuous: even shallow-draft vessels had difficulty in the Mystic, which had not been thoroughly sounded, and a milldam west of Charlestown Neck complicated navigation there. No one had forgotten Diana’s fate in shoal water. Every small boat would be needed to ferry at least fifteen hundred regulars from Boston to Morton’s Point on the peninsula. The amphibious assault would have to be made at “full sea”-high tide, close to three p. m.-so that artillery could be manhandled onto dry land rather than through the muddy shallows.

Gage chose a more conventional, direct assault to be led by Howe, the senior major general. As in the march to Concord, most flanker companies- light infantry and grenadiers-had been peeled from their regiments and collected in special battalions. Ten companies of each would muster at Long Wharf, bolstered by several other regiments. The remaining light infantry and grenadiers, backed by additional regiments, would embark at North Battery, with sundry marines and regulars in reserve.

Gage ended the conference with a stark order: “Any man who shall quit his ranks on any pretense, or shall dare to plunder or pillage, will be executed without mercy.” With a clatter of boots across the floor, officers hurried down the hall and out the door to prepare their commands for battle.

Admiral Graves, meanwhile, had left his flagship to board the seventy-gun Somerset, now anchored in deep water across Boston Harbor. From her gently rocking quarterdeck he could see rebels swarming across the Charlestown hillside around the new earthworks; many were already “entrenched to their chins,” as a British officer noted. Men-of-war belched smoke and noise, and tiny black cannonballs traced perfect parabolas against the summer sky, plumping the fields and splintering tree branches without excessive inconvenience to the Jonathans building their forts. To Graves’s frustration, the waters lapping Charlestown were too shallow for Somerset and other dreadnoughts to warp close; his larger ships would be limited to sending seamen, ammunition, and boats to their smaller sisters.


As the morning ticked by, Glasgow and Symmetry hammered Charlestown Neck from an anchorage west of the peninsula, supported by a pair of scows, each mounting a 12-pounder. But the ebbing tide kept them from nosing near the milldam, and Graves regretted his failure to build more floating batteries and gun rafts. Lively, Falcon, and little Spitfire glided into the Charlestown channel, popping away while preparing to cover Howe’s landing. The roar of the cannonade carried to Cambridge, Roxbury, and other villages; one terrified minister’s wife draped blankets over her windows in hopes of deflecting stray bullets.

Shortly before noon, as meridian heat began to build in Boston, long columns of regulars tramped to fife and drum through the town’s cobbled streets from the Common to the docks. Each man carried, as ordered, sixty rounds, a day’s cooked provisions, and a blanket. The 52nd Foot had been issued gleaming new muskets and bayonets that very morning; they would soon grow filthy with use. By chance, a portion of the 49th Foot had just arrived after a long passage from southern Ireland. Wide-eyed privates, wobbly on their pins after weeks at sea, disembarked on Long Wharf and marched toward the Common with flags flying and drums beating even as the grenadier and light infantry companies from other regiments clambered into the bobbing boats at Long Wharf for the first lift to Charlestown.

At one-thirty p. m., a blue pennant appeared on Preston’s signal halyard. Twenty-eight yawls, longboats, cutters, and ketches carrying twelve hundred soldiers pulled away from Long Wharf in a double column, oars winking in syncopation, with a half dozen brass field guns nestled into the lead boats. The cannonade from the ships had ebbed, but now it grew heavier than ever, balls flying, smoke billowing, and the din reverberating like a terrible thunder. Thousands crowded Boston’s rooftops and hillsides, perching on tree boughs and clinging to steeples. Among the spectators were regulars left behind and the wives of troops now gliding across the Charles. Loyalists and patriots stood together, aware that sons and fathers and lovers were down there somewhere in harm’s way, on the glinting water or the distant hillside.

Here again was an ancient, squalid secret: that war was an enchantment, a sorcery, a seductive spectacle like no other, beguiling the eye and gorging the senses. They looked because they could not look away. Atop Bunker Hill, a Connecticut chaplain named David Avery watched the sculling boats approach Morton’s Point, then raised both arms to heaven before asking God’s indulgence on “a scene most awful and tremendous.”


Astride a lathered white horse, his own halo of tangled white hair instantly recognizable, General Israel Putnam trotted back and forth across the American line in a sleeveless waistcoat, smacking shirkers with the flat of his sword. To an officer pleading with a reluctant militiaman, Putnam snapped, “Run him through if he won’t fight.” One captain would later reflect that Old Put resembled not a field commander so much as the foreman of “a band of sicklemen or ditchers.. He might be brave, and had certainly an honest manliness about him; but it was thought, and perhaps with reason, that he was not what the time required.”

Nine Massachusetts regiments had been ordered to Charlestown from Cambridge, but at best only five had reached the peninsula; the others were delayed, misdirected, or misinformed. No one seemed to have a map. Roads were confusing, the terrain foreign. Troop discipline was “extremely irregular,” one officer wrote, “each regiment advancing according to the opinions, feelings, or caprice of its commander.” Putnam had ordered entrenching tools carried back from the redoubt to belatedly build a fortification on Bunker Hill; eager volunteers grabbed a shovel or an ax, then retreated toward the Neck and beyond, never to return. By one count, fewer than 170 men remained with Prescott to hold his redoubt, officers included. “To be plain,” an observer would write Samuel Adams, “it appears to me there never was more confusion and less command.”

Happily for the American cause, some men knew their business. Colonel Prescott continued to improve his imperfect fort and the adjacent breastwork, positioning men and shouting encouragement. Roughly two hundred yards behind the breastwork, a tall, enterprising captain from eastern Connecticut, Thomas Knowlton, recognized the defensive potential of a rail livestock fence that extended northeast for several hundred yards, from the middle of the peninsula almost to the Mystic. The fence had been laid on a slight zigzag course and assembled with a method known as stake-and-rider; a portion of it straddled a two-foot stone wall. Two hundred men helped Captain Knowlton reinforce the southwestern length of the barrier with additional rails and posts scavenged from other fields. They then stuffed the gaps with haycocks and sheaves of cut grass to give the illusion of a solid parapet. Several small field guns hauled by horses from Cambridge were emplaced nearby.

As the British boats beat from Boston, the most critical rebel reinforcements reached Charlestown Neck to the thrum of fife and drum: hundreds of long-striding New Hampshire militiamen, described as a “moving column of uncouth figures clad in homespun.” Millers, mariners, and husbandmen, they included the largest regiment in New England, commanded by Colonel John Stark, the lean, beetle-browed son of a Scottish emigrant. Stark’s picaresque life had included capture by Indians while hunting in 1752 and his release six weeks later for a hefty ransom. As a Ranger officer in the last French war, he had plodded more than forty miles in snowshoes to fetch help for comrades wounded in an ambush. After surviving the bloody Anglo-American repulse by the French at Fort Carillon in 1758, he and two hundred men subsequently built an eighty-mile road from Crown Point to the Connecticut valley. Upon hearing the news of Lexington, Stark, now forty-six, left his sawmill and his wife, pregnant with their ninth child, and was elected colonel by a unanimous show of hands in a tavern; so many men rallied to him that thirteen companies filled his regiment. At eleven this morning, General Ward’s initial order to reinforce Charlestown reached Stark’s camp in Medford, four miles up the Mystic. As he would tell the New Hampshire Provincial Congress a few days later, “The battle soon came on.”

Stark sent an advance detachment of two hundred men to the peninsula, then tarried long enough at a house converted into an armory for the rest of his force to draw ammunition: fifteen balls, a flint, and a gill cup of powder-five ounces-for each musketman. Crossing the narrow isthmus shortly after two p. m., harassed with round, bar, and chain shot from Royal Navy guns, the Hampshiremen ascended Bunker Hill at a deliberate pace, then descended to the northeast lip of the peninsula. “One fresh man in action,” Stark told a captain, “is worth ten fatigued ones.” A quick glance disclosed the American peril: despite Knowlton’s deft work along the rail fence, and the hasty construction of three small triangular earthworks known as fleches closer to the redoubt, Prescott’s position could still be outflanked by redcoats advancing up the Mystic shoreline. To block the narrow, muddy beach, Stark’s men scooted down the eight-foot riverbank and quickly stacked fieldstones to build a short, stout wall. Most Hampshiremen took positions behind the fence to extend Knowlton’s line, further stuffing it with hay, grass, and stray rails. But sixty musketmen arranged themselves on the beach in a triple row behind the new barricade. There they awaited their enemy.

Bunker Hill 1775 Part II

By the time of the American Revolution, Britain’s .75 calibre Land Pattern Musket head earned the unofficial nickname of “Brown Bess.” Even the 18th century Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue described the popular expression “to hug Brown Bess,” as slang for enlisting in the army.

Thick-featured and taciturn, General Howe in the best of times was said to be afflicted by a “sullen family gloom.” He, too, needed but a glance to see his own dilemma. Landing at Morton’s Point with the second lift of six hundred infantry and artillery troops from North Battery, Howe climbed a nearby hillock as gunners shouldered their fieldpieces onto dry ground and the empty boats rowed back to Boston. “It was instantly perceived the enemy were very strongly posted,” he subsequently told London.

On his far left, rebel gunmen infested rooftops and barns in Charlestown, while up the pasture slopes, five hundred yards from where Howe stood watching with his command group, a large bastion had sprouted from the hillside. The rest of the rebel defenses came into view: the triangular fleches, several guns throwing an occasional ball inaccurately toward the British lines, and the long fence-or was it a wall?-bristling with men stripped to their shirtsleeves. The fields and pastures ended in a short plunge down to the Mystic shoreline. With more rebels clustered atop Bunker Hill and spilling across Charlestown Neck despite the naval gunfire, Howe calculated that he faced “between five and six thousand” Americans-half again their actual number. He sent a courier flying to Province House with a request that Gage send reinforcements immediately; the attack would await their arrival. Redcoats poised to march near Morton’s Point broke ranks, grounded their muskets, and sat in the grass to smoke their pipes or gobble a quick dinner of bread and salt meat.

Howe made his plan. The Mystic beach seemed a promising corridor from which to outflank and turn the rebel line. On foot, the general would personally lead the British right wing, including grenadiers assaulting the rail fence while a column of light infantry companies slashed up that river shoreline. The left wing, led by the diminutive, moonfaced Brigadier Robert Pigot, would attack the redoubt to fix the enemy in place and maybe even overrun the parapet once Howe’s troops had broken through. Celebrated for his sangfroid against the French at Quebec, the Breton coast, and Havana, Howe was quoted as telling his officers, “I shall not desire one of you to go a step farther than where I go myself at your head.” Speed, agility, discipline, and violence would be decisive. Losing Boston, he reminded them, meant moving the entire army onto Graves’s ships, “which will be very disagreeable to us all.”

Including the reserves soon to arrive, Howe commanded more than twenty-six hundred men. British field guns began popping away at three p. m., “great nasty porridge pots flying through the air & crammed as full of devils as they could hold,” as a young militiaman wrote, each ball “whispering along with its blue tail.” The bombardment so unnerved the rebel artillery battery up the slope that one American gun captain reportedly “fired a few times, then swung his hat three times round to the enemy and ceased to fire.” Regulars tamped out their pipes and shouldered their muskets, bayonets fixed. Junior officers bawled out orders. Ten companies abreast would form a broad assault front on Pigot’s wing to the left, followed by ten more, a formation mirrored by Howe’s right wing except for the light infantry column along the Mystic, necessarily squeezed into a shoulder-to-shoulder front between river and riverbank.

On order, the great mass of redcoats heaved forward with a clatter of equipment and more bawling commands, the slate-blue Charles behind them and tawny dust clouds churning up with each stride. “Push on!” the troops yelled. “Push on!” Drummers rapped a march cadence, periodically punctuated by the boom of field guns towed forward with drag ropes. Howe marched with the deliberation of a man who had done this before, his eyes on the hillside ahead, trailed by aides, staff officers, and an orderly said to have carried a silver tray with a decanter of wine. Watching from the redoubt as this red tide advanced, Captain Ebenezer Bancroft of Dunstable, Massachusetts, would give voice to every patriot on the battlefield: “It was an awful moment.”

The moment grew more awful. For two months, Admiral Graves had longed to rain destruction on rebel heads, and while Howe drafted his plan on Morton’s Point, the admiral arrived by barge to note the hazard that enemy snipers in Charlestown posed to Pigot’s left flank. Did General Howe wish “to have the place burned?” Graves asked. As a precaution, brick furnaces aboard several warships had prepared all morning to heat cannonballs. General Howe indeed wished it so. A midshipman hurried to relay the order, and fiery balls soon fell on Charlestown like tiny meteors. Worse destruction came from Copp’s Hill in the North End, where early Boston settlers had once sought refuge from the “great annoyances of Woolves, Rattle-snakes, and Musketos.” British troops had muscled mortars and several mammoth 24-pounders to the edge of the ancient burying ground at Snow and Hill Streets, sixty feet above the Charles. While Generals Clinton and Burgoyne watched, gunners loaded combustible shells known as carcasses, each packed with gunpowder, Swedish pitch, saltpeter, and tallow. The Charlestown meetinghouse, with its slender, towering steeple, provided a conspicuous aiming stake.

The first shell fell short, bursting near the ferry slip. Gunners corrected their elevation, and within minutes “the whole was instantly in flames,” Burgoyne would write. Fire loped through Charlestown’s streets like a thing alive, igniting buildings at the foot of Chestnut Street and around Mauldin’s shipyard. Other structures along the docks followed in quick succession: distilleries, a tannery, warehouses, shipwrights, a cooperage. Fire climbed the pitched roofs-a “grand and melancholy sight,” one loyalist observed-then licked through houses away from the waterfront and up to the marketplace, incinerating the courthouse and the Three Cranes Tavern. North of the market, on Town Hill, more houses and another distillery caught fire. The light breeze shifted from southwest to east, as it often did on fine summer days, and flames drove lengthwise through Charlestown. Fire ignited more wharves and a ship chandlery. Ebony smoke rose in a column as wide as the town, then “hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies,” an American officer reported. Rebel musketmen scurried from the burning buildings to hide behind stone walls on Breed’s Hill and in a nearby barn.

“The church steeples, being made of timber, were great pyramids of fire above the rest,” wrote Burgoyne, who had a way with words. “The roar of cannon, mortars, musketry, the crash of churches, ships upon the stocks, the whole streets falling together in ruin, to fill the ear.” All in all, the conflagration was “one of the greatest scenes of war that can be conceived.”

Gawkers and gapers now climbed not only Boston rooftops and hillsides, but “the masts of such ships as were unemployed in the harbor, all crowded with spectators, friends and foes, alike in anxious suspense. It was great, it was high-spirited.”

They, too, looked because they could not look away.


The rebels waited, now killing mad. At four p. m., well over two thousand regulars ascended the slope in two distinct corps. Swallows swooped above the hills, and the stench of a cremated town filled the nose. Many militiamen had loaded “buck and ball”-a lead bullet and two or three buckshot, known as “Yankee peas.” “Fire low,” officers told the men. “Aim at their waistbands.” Again noting the brighter tint of the British officers’ tunics-vibrant from more expensive dyes-they added, “Aim at the handsome coats. Pick off the commanders.” In the redoubt, Prescott angrily waved his sword to rebuke several musketmen who were firing at impossible ranges; they were to wait until the enemy was danger close, within six rods or so-a hundred feet. “Aim at their hips,” Prescott ordered. “Waste no powder.” Five hundred yards to the north, at the far end of the rail fence, Stark told his men to hang fire until they could see the regulars’ half-gaiters below their knees. Someone may also have urged waiting till the whites of the enemy’s eyes were visible, an order that had been issued to Austrians, Prussians, and possibly other warring armies earlier in the century.

Howe’s corps, on the British right, found marching through the thigh-high grass difficult: fence after damnable fence forced the lines to stop and dismantle the rails or climb over them. As planned, light infantrymen angled through a shallow dell that led to the Mystic beach, now screened from the broader battlefield by the riverbank. Eleven companies with more than three hundred men funneled into a tight column, four or five men abreast. Beyond a slight curve in the shoreline stood the newly built fieldstone wall, defended by a few dozen rebel musketmen, some kneeling with their gun barrels resting on the stones. Closing at a dog trot to within fifty yards, redcoats from the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers in the vanguard of the column lowered their bayonets and prepared to charge.

A stupendous, searing volley ripped into the British ranks, blowing the fusiliers from their feet. Gunsmoke rolled down a beach upholstered with dying regulars as their comrades stepped over them only to also be shot down. With a third of the Welch Fusiliers wounded, mortally or otherwise, the King’s Own Light Infantry behind them surged forward; they, too, were slaughtered, followed by the 10th Foot, the 52nd Foot, and other light companies trailing them. “It was like pushing a wax candle against a red-hot plate,” the historian Christopher Ward would write. “The head of the column simply melted away.” A man five feet, eight inches tall and weighing 168 pounds had an exterior surface of 2,550 square inches, of which a thousand were exposed to gunfire when he was facing an enemy frontally at close range. Rebel musket balls seemed to fill every square inch of that Mystic corridor, blasting enormous entry wounds into enemies panting for the fieldstone wall. Among the British officers shot, “few had less than three or four wounds,” a captain later wrote home. Men miraculously unharmed by bullets or buckshot were spattered with wedges of tissue, dislodged teeth, and skull fragments. After a final, futile surge, the regulars turned and ran “in a very great disorder,” a witness reported. They left behind ninety-six comrades, dead as mutton.

Howe heard the commotion below the riverbank to his right, but the rail fence just ahead, stiff with hundreds of American gunmen, drew his full attention. As he and the grenadiers took another stride, the top rail erupted in flame and filthy smoke, quickly followed by a volley from the rebel second rank. “The whole line was one blaze,” a young Sudbury militiaman named Needham Maynard later recalled. “They fell in heaps, actually in heaps.. The bodies lay there very thick.” Howe was unhurt, but men on either side of him crumpled. Disemboweled grenadiers, some screaming, some silent, tumbled one atop another. “I discharged my gun three times at the British, taking deliberate aim as if at a squirrel,” wrote Simon Fobes, a nineteen-year-old private from Bridgewater. “I had become calm as a clock.”

Regulars from two trailing regiments hurried forward to fill gaps in the grenadier line only to be gunned down. A crackle of musketry from the three fleches to Howe’s left swept his corps with cross fire. Wounded redcoats dragged themselves through the grass amid shrieks, curses, and plaintive wails for mother. The British return fire tended to fly high: a stand of apple trees behind the American line had few enemy balls embedded in the trunks, but the “branches above were literally cut to pieces,” Captain Henry Dearborn reported. A few lightly wounded rebels reloaded muskets for their upright comrades, trimmed lead bullets to fit odd-sized barrels, or acted as spotters: “There. See that officer?”

Howe pulled his men back briefly to regroup-“long enough for us to clean our guns,” Maynard, the Sudbury militiaman, noted-then heaved forward again only to be smashed once more. “Their officers were shot down,” Maynard added. “There seemed to be nobody to command ’em.” The British wounded included Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie, the grenadier commander, shot in the thigh by jittery light infantrymen who had joined the rail-fence fight after the carnage on the beach. Before he died, a week later, Abercrombie would tell London that his own army “gave me a plumper”-a volley-“and killed two officers and three privates,” while wounding twenty others in fratricidal mayhem. The undisciplined light companies, he suggested, “must be drilled before they are carried to action again.” A jeering rebel who recognized the crippled man being helped from the field shouted, “Colonel Abercrombie, are the Yankees cowards?”

A dozen men in Howe’s command retinue were now dead or wounded. “For near a minute,” an officer observed, “he was quite alone.” At last Howe turned and trudged down the hill, unscathed, though his white stockings were slick with British blood. “There was a moment,” he subsequently told General Harvey, “that I never felt before.”

Brigadier Pigot had suffered few casualties in feinting toward the redoubt-cannonballs from the 24-pounders on Copp’s Hill kept defenders crouched beneath their parapet. But now the weight of the British assault necessarily shifted to his corps. Marines, three regiments, and various detached companies pressed toward the crest of Breed’s Hill, bedeviled by fences, stone walls, and what Burgoyne called “a thousand impediments.” Approaching the redoubt, the line was “stopped by some brick kilns and enclosures, and exposed for some time to the whole of its fire,” a British ensign wrote. “And it was here that so many men were lost.”

Volley upon volley crashed from the redoubt and the protruding breastwork so that “the enemy fell like grass when mowed,” a rebel fifer said. Ebenezer Bancroft, the militia captain from Dunstable, observed, “Our first fire was shockingly fatal.” When a well-aimed fusillade ripped into the regulars, a militiaman bellowed, “You have made a furrow through them!” A diarist in the 47th Foot wrote that “for about fifty minutes it resembled rather a continual sheet of lightning and an uninterrupted peal of thunder than the explosion of firearms.” Some regulars used dead redcoats to build their own breastworks. An American captain reported that he fired all thirty-five rounds in his ammunition pouch, and then threw stones.

Among the fallen was Major John Pitcairn, the conqueror of Lexington Common, now dying in the grass from at least one ball in the chest. A major in the 52nd Regiment was described by a subordinate as “lying about ten yards from the redoubt in great agony” from five wounds; three dead captains lay near him. “They advanced towards us in order to swallow us up,” Private Peter Brown told his mother in Rhode Island, “but they found a choaky mouthful of us.” An Irish comrade added, “Diamond cut diamond, and that’s the whole story.”


Not quite, for diamond would now cut back. Bloody but unbowed, William Howe drew up a new plan. With more than five hundred reserve troops preparing to cross the Charles from Boston, he would renew the attack on the redoubt by shifting two regiments and the surviving grenadiers from his own corps to Pigot’s on the left. Companies would advance in tight columns rather than broad assault lines; the regulars would lighten their loads by leaving superfluous kit behind; and they were to attack swiftly, with bayonets only, rather than pausing to shoot and reload. Moreover, eight fieldpieces now on the battlefield would be hauled by drag ropes-each brass 6-pounder weighed a quarter ton-to positions east of the redoubt to batter the defenders. Howe was disgusted to learn that his artillery fire had slackened during the earlier assaults because side boxes on the guns were found to contain 12-pound balls, which were too fat for 6-pound muzzles. He ordered gunners to instead use grapeshot, plum-sized iron balls packed in canvas bags that blew open when fired.

Peering over the parapet from his battered redoubt, Colonel Prescott watched the red tide again creep up the Breed’s pastureland. The 150 or so Americans remaining in his small fort-their faces blackened from soot and powder, as if they’d been toiling in a coal yard-had little ammunition left. Militiamen searched pockets for stray cartridges or tapped the final grains from powder horns, tearing strips from their shirttails for wadding. Prescott ordered the last artillery cartridges torn open and the loose powder distributed to his infantry. Except for a single two-gun battery, the four American artillery companies sent into battle had been all but useless this afternoon, beset with cowardice, confusion, and technical ineptitude. Of six guns that reached the peninsula, five now stood silent and the sixth had been hauled away.

The failure of General Ward’s headquarters to resupply the redoubt was almost as disheartening as the dearth of reinforcements. Among the few doughty souls to arrive in mid-battle was a familiar if unlikely figure. Dr. Joseph Warren-elegantly dressed in a light coat, a white satin waistcoat with silver lace, and white breeches-strode through the sally port gripping a borrowed gun, his earlier headache gone, or ignored, or mended by the huzzahs that greeted him. Despite the high rank conferred several days earlier by the provincial congress, Warren declined offers of command, insisting that he take post in the line with other musketeers.

Up the peninsula, hundreds of leaderless militiamen “in great confusion” ambled about on Bunker Hill or beyond the Neck, a sergeant reported. A few without muskets brandished pitchforks, shillelaghs, and at least one grain flail. Captain John Chester, who had just arrived with his Connecticut company, found chaos: thirty men cowering behind an apple tree; others behind rocks or haycocks; twenty more escorting a single wounded comrade toward Cambridge “when not more than three or four could touch him to advantage. Others were retreating seemingly without any excuse.” One colonel, described as “unwieldy from excessive corpulence,” lay sprawled on the ground, proclaiming his exhaustion. British gunners aboard Glasgow and Symmetry continued to scorch the Neck with iron shot, giving pause to even the lionhearted. “The orders were press on, press on,” wrote Lieutenant Samuel Blachley Webb, now skittering toward the redoubt with Chester’s Connecticut company. “Good God how the balls flew. I freely acknowledge I never had such a tremor come over me before.”


The sun had begun to dip in the southwestern sky, dimmed by the black coils of smoke above Charlestown, when Pigot’s legions again drew near, high-stepping their dead. British grapeshot spattered the earthworks, driving defenders from the parapet even as American fire wounded a dozen gunners shouldering the fieldpieces into position. “They looked too handsome to be fired at,” Corporal Francis Merrifield lamented, “but we had to do it.” Prescott told his men to wait until the British vanguard was within thirty yards of the redoubt walls; on command, militiamen hopped up on their fire steps, and a point-blank volley staggered the enemy ranks again. A ball clipped the skull of Captain George Harris, commanding the 5th Foot grenadier company; dragged through the grass by a lieutenant, Harris cried, “For God’s sake, let me die in peace.” Of four grenadiers who carried him to a nearby copse, three were wounded, one mortally.

But the battle had turned. Regulars pressed close on three sides, leaping across a narrow ditch to hug the berm before scaling the steep ramparts. American gunshots grew scattered; some Jonathans saved their last round to shoot British officers atop the parapet. “Our firing began to slacken. At last it went out like an old candle,” Needham Maynard recalled. More redcoats tumbled into the redoubt, now shooting. “Take their guns away,” Prescott yelled, “twitch ’em away.” Enemies grappled, grunting and swearing. A brown miasma of smoke and churning dust hung in the air. Americans swung their muskets as clubs, fighting “more like devils than men,” a regular reported, and when the walnut stocks shattered, they swung the bent barrels or threw rocks.

Prescott was among the last to escape, “stepping long, with his sword up,” parrying bayonet thrusts that snagged his banyan but not his flesh. Peter Brown scrambled over the wall and ran for half a mile; musket balls, he told his mother, “flew like hail stones.” Captain Bancroft fought his way out, first with a musket butt, then with his fists, bullets nicking his hat and coat and shearing off his left forefinger. Corporal Farnsworth of Groton would tell his diary, “I received a wound in my right arm, the ball going through a little below my elbow.. Another ball struck my back, taking a piece of skin about as big as a penny.. I was in great pain.”

They were the lucky ones. “Nothing could be more shocking than the carnage that followed the storming of this work,” wrote Lieutenant John Waller of the 1st Marines. “We tumbled over the dead to get at the living, who were crowding out of the gorge of the redoubt..’Twas streaming with blood & strewed with dead and dying men, the soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the brains of others.” Thirty American bodies, some mutilated beyond recognition, lay scattered across the shambles. The triumphant, vengeful roar of British regulars could be heard in Boston.

Lieutenant Webb and his Connecticut militia arrived to see the melee spill from the sally port. “I had no other feeling but that of revenge,” he wrote. “Four men were shot dead within five feet to me.. I escaped with only the graze of a musket ball on my hat.” Dr. Warren did not escape: sixty yards from the redoubt, a bullet hit him below the left eye and blew through the back of his head. He toppled without a word.

By five-thirty p. m., rebel forces were in full retreat up the peninsula, bounding from fence to fence, barn to barn, leaving a debris trail of cartridge boxes, tumplines, goatskin knapsacks, even coats and hats shed in the heat of the day. The wounded hobbled, or were carried on backs or in stretchers fashioned from blankets and muskets. On their heels came not only Pigot’s regiments but Howe’s regular regiments and grenadiers, who had bulled through the breastworks and the three fleches. Also in pursuit was General Clinton, who on his own initiative had crossed the Charles from Copp’s Hill, rallied regulars milling in the rear of Pigot’s corps, then circled north to give chase. “All was in confusion,” he wrote. “I never saw so great a want of order.”

Yet for the rebels, disorder brought salvation. The New Hampshire and Connecticut regiments, seeing the redoubt fall, pulled back from the rail fence in an orderly withdrawal to give covering fire for Prescott’s fugitives. Some militiamen loitering atop Bunker Hill advanced down the slope to pelt the British pursuers with bullets, a belated but vital contribution to the battle. “The retreat was no flight,” Burgoyne would write. “It was even covered with bravery and military skill.” Howe had seen enough and suffered enough: when Clinton confronted him north of the redoubt to urge pursuit to the Neck and beyond, Howe “called me back,” Clinton wrote later, “I thought a little forcibly.”

Americans by the hundreds surged through the gantlet of naval gunfire still scything the only exit from the peninsula. Some died within yards of safety, including Major Andrew McClary, one of Stark’s Hampshiremen, hit with a frigate cannonball. “He leaped two or three feet from the ground, pitched forward, and fell dead upon his face,” an officer reported. But most straggled unharmed onto the high ground beyond the Neck, exhausted and tormented by thirst. General Putnam followed on his white horse, cradling an armful of salvaged entrenching tools. “I never saw such a carnage of the human race,” he would be quoted as saying.

For now the carnage was over, mostly. Rebel snipers in trees and houses across the Neck continued to plink away at enemy pickets, killing a 38th Foot lieutenant with a random shot. The British answered with broadsides from Glasgow and salvos from a 12-pounder. Charlestown burned and burned, painting the low clouds bright orange in what one diarist called “a sublime scene of military magnificence and ruin.” Marines landed in skiffs to set fire to wooden structures that had escaped the earlier flames. Prescott, ever pugnacious, vowed to retake his lost hill that night if given ammunition, bayonets, and three rested regiments. General Ward sensibly demurred.

“Dearest Friend,” Abigail Adams wrote from Braintree to her husband, John, then meeting in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress. “The day, perhaps the decisive day, is come on which the fate of America depends.” She continued:

Charlestown is laid in ashes.. Tis expected they will come out over the Neck tonight, and a dreadful battle must ensue.. The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we cannot eat, drink, or sleep. Night fell. The British did not come. From Prospect and Winter Hills above the Cambridge road came the excavating sounds of mattock and spade, as militiamen once again stacked their muskets and began to dig the next line of resistance.


British medicos scuffed through the high grass to feel with their feet for the dead and the merely dying, then held their flickering lanterns close to distinguish between the two. Those with a pulse or a glint in the eye were hoisted onto drays and wheeled to barges on the Charles for transport to Boston. “The cries and moans of the dying was shocking,” wrote General Clinton, who also picked his way across the battlefield. “I had conversation with many of these poor wretches in their dying moments.”

Later studies by the British Army would demonstrate that soldiers wearing conspicuous red uniforms were more than twice as likely to be shot in combat as those in muted blues and grays. The tally at Breed’s Hill seemed to anticipate those findings: Gage’s army had regained roughly a square mile of rebel territory at a cost exceeding a thousand casualties, or more than a man lost per acre won. Over 40 percent of the attacking force had been killed or wounded, including 226 dead; losses were especially doleful in the elite flanker companies-the light infantry and grenadiers. Nineteen officers also had been killed. Of all the king’s officers who would die in battle during the long war against the Americans, more than one out of every eight had perished in four hours on a June afternoon above Charlestown.

Casualties in some units were calamitous. All but four grenadiers from the King’s Own were killed or wounded. Of thirty-eight men in the 35th Foot light company, only three escaped rebel bullets; with every officer, sergeant, and corporal hit, the senior private led other surviving privates. After sustaining 123 casualties, British marines were nonplussed to find that their tents in Boston had been plundered during the battle, apparently by regulars not in the field. The Admiralty voiced “astonishment that it could have happened” but declined to pay compensation, because of the precedent such reimbursement would set. Howe, who lost virtually his entire staff to death or injury, admitted to General Harvey that when he studied the casualty lists, “I do it with horror.”


The SM.79 Sparviero (“Sparrow Hawk”) bombers were constructed of a welded tubular steel frame, covered with duralumin forward, duralumin and plywood over the top, and fabric elsewhere. The wings were made of wood. They first saw service with the Aviazione Legionaria units serving in the Spanish Civil War, where over 100 of these bombers assisted Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces mainly in Catalonia. By the time Italy entered WW2, Sm.79 bombers were the backbone of the Italian bomber force. They were used in France, Greece, Yugoslavia, Crete, Malta, Gibraltar, Palestine, and North Africa. They were responsible for sinking 86 Allied ships totaling 708,000 tons. After the Italian surrender, 34 SM.79 bombers served with the pro-Allies government and 36 served with the pro-Axis government in the north.

In 1939, 45 SM.79 bombers were sold to Yugoslavia. Most of them were destroyed during the German invasion in 1941, but a few survived to serve in the pro-Axis government after the invasion. Four of them were evacuated to Britain and were used by the Royal Air Force under the designations AX702, AX703, AX704, and AX705.

Between 1936 and 1945, 1,350 SM.79 bombers were built. After the war, a few of them continued to serve with the new Italian air force Aeronautica Militare as passenger transports; they were retired in 1952. A few of them made their way to the Lebanese air force and served until 1959.

Squadriglie 252,253

Stormo 46

This Gruppo formed on 15 February 1940 with 15 SM 79 bombers. In June they made bombing raids on Corsica, escorted by G 50s of 51 Stormo, and on 21 June nine SM 79s bombed Marseilles naval port.

The unit adopted several camouflage finishes, from banded to mottled in the same squadriglia, as new colour orders filtered through from H. Q. In November they transferred to the Balkans for operations over Greece and Yugoslavia. To save weight the bombers reduced their defensive weapons from four to two, despite several combats with RAF Gladiators. The winter produced heavy snows which reduced the number of operations, but some bombing was still undertaken. Escorting G 50s joined in with ground strafing.

On 1 May 1942 the unit became Aerosilurante and the more experienced crews were sent to Sardinia in June for operations against the HARPOON convoy. On 14 June four aircraft out of twelve were lost, with Medaglia d’Oro being posthumously awarded to Tenente Ingrellini and Sergente Maggiore Compiani. On 3 July the whole Gruppo went to the Aegean to operate against shipping in the eastern Mediterranean. They made armed reconnaissance sorties as far as Haifa, Port Said, and Port Alexander. On 1 September they became Autonomo, often co-operating with Fliegerkorps X on convoy attacks and reconnaissance missions.

By 1 January 1943 they had 8 operational aircraft at Gadurra, on day and night reconnaissance missions along the eastern and central African coastlines. On 15 February two SM 79s were intercepted by P-39s between Tobruk and Mersa Matruh, claiming one fighter shot down. By 20 March six aircraft were still operational out of thirteen.

From January to March crews were transferred between Kalamaki and Gadurra for night training by instructors from 1 and 3 NAS. Despite the setting up at the start of the war of a Blind Flying School (La Scuola di Volo Senza Visibilta) most new pilots had very little experience of instrument or night flying as they were rushed to the front with minimal training.

Pilots briefly trained on the Junkers Ju 88 for dive and torpedo bomber operations, using Luftwaffe aircraft based at Athene. The practical difficulties of acquiring and supporting such a unit precluded further pursuit of this role, despite the initial success with training.

In April 1943 one squadriglia sometimes used Coo and Scarpanto as forward bases. Two aircraft used Timpaklion, Crete, for armed reconnaissance flights between Appollonia and Benghasi. There were very few aircraft operational by mid-May, but morale was high with the recent successful missions which had followed a long wait. On 23 May three SM 79s escorted two unarmed SM 75s from Gadurra to bomb Gura base in Africa at night. 253 Sq was detached to Iraklion on Crete, from 25 June to 16 July. By 9 July the unit had only five out of eleven aircraft serviceable at Gadurra.

In July the Gruppo moved to Italy for re-equipment. They then carried out night attacks against the invasion fleet off Sicily. 253 Sq claimed an enemy night fighter off the Ioinian coast on the night of 18 July. On 7 September eight aircraft were still operational. The two squadriglie commanders took off at 19.30 hours on 8 September to attack ships in the Gulf of Salerno. It was not until they were nearing the target area that the radiomen heard the order for all bomber and fighter units to cancel operations and return to base. They only turned back when a direct order to all torpedo bomber units was received from the H. Q. of Squadra 3, landing at Guidonia and returning to Siena the next day.

Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China (Chinese: Wanli Changcheng; “10,000-Li Long Wall”) consists of a series of defensive structures built across northern China. One of the largest building-construction projects ever carried out, it runs (with all its branches) about 4,500 miles (7,300 km) east to west. Large parts of the fortifi cation date from the 7th to the 4th century B.C.E. In the 3rd century BC the emperor Shihuangdi connected existing defensive walls into a single system fortified by watchtowers. These served both to guard the rampart and to communicate with the capital, Xianyang (near modern Xi’an) by signal-smoke by day and fi re by night. Originally constructed partly of masonry and earth, it was faced with brick in its eastern portion. It was rebuilt in later times, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries. The basic wall is about 23 to 26 feet (7 to 8 metres) high; at intervals towers rise above it to varying heights.

The Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.E.) was so influential that the name “China” is derived from Qin. Shihuangdi was its founder and most notable emperor. On the one hand, he was a cruel tyrant. On the other hand, changes he made during his reign helped to define China even today. The boundaries he set during his reign became the traditional territory of China. In later eras China sometimes held other territories, but the Qin boundaries were always considered to embrace the indivisible area of China proper. He developed networks of highways and unified a number of existing fortifications into the Great Wall of China. He established a basic administrative system that all succeeding dynasties followed for the next 2,000 years. His tomb near Xi’an contains one of China’s most famous treasures-6,000 life-sized terra-cotta statues of warriors

It was Chu that innovated advanced weapons such as crossbows and steel swords, and Han that was skilled at making a wide range of weapons, including crossbows, swords, and halberds. Crossbows first appeared in Chu in the early fifth century B.C.E.  and were in general use in the fourth century B.C.E. Their strength and effective killing range generally increased over the centuries as their mechanisms were perfected.

There is no doubt that innovations in heavy crossbows, linked crossbows, and siege weapons such as catapults, rolling towers, mobile shields, scaling ladders, and battering rams facilitated the offense in the Warring States period. However, in ancient China as elsewhere, “[t]echniques for assault and defense advanced simultaneously.” Whereas military classics advocate the offensive doctrine, the less well-known Mohist school emerged as “the defensive counterpart,” so that various texts together “document a mutual escalation in the art of offense and defense.” As offensive weapons and techniques developed, various states also “undertook the expanded defense of borders, constructing great walls, ramparts, forts, and guard towers throughout the countryside to defend the entire territory against incursion.” After unification, the defense walls built by Qi, Yan, Zhao, and Qin against Xiongnu were connected to form the Great Wall, while those built by various states against one another were demolished.

The prevalence of conquests discussed earlier should not be interpreted as evidence that conquest was easy in the ancient Chinese system. Most major cities had such strong fortifications that they could not be taken except with resort to stratagems or at high cost. For instance, Qin’s siege of Han’s Yiyang produced high casualties. Qin’s conquest of Ba and Shu, which were ringed by mountains, required most of a century. Similarly, Han’s conquest of Zheng involved multiple wars fought intermittently over the course of five decades from 423 to 375 B.C.E. , and Zhao’s conquest of Zhongshan lasted from 307 to 286 B.C.E. . At the same time, Qi failed to conquer Yan in 314 B.C.E. . Yan, in turn, was not able to take two well-fortified Qi cities, Ju and Jimo, after five years of siege.

Construction of defensive walls began during the reign of China’s ‘‘First Emperor,’’ Qin Shi Huang, in 221 B.C.E. These connected sections of preexisting border fortifications of Qin’s defeated and annexed enemies, dating to the Warring States period, from which the Qin empire had emerged as victor. The building technique of this remarkable structure was the ancient method of stamped earth that employed masses of slave laborers as well as military conscripts. Some parts of the wall stood for nearly two millennia and were incorporated into the modern ‘‘Great Wall’’ built by the Ming dynasty following the humiliation of defeat and capture of the Zhengtong Emperor at Tumu (1449). After he regained the throne in 1457, the Ming court decided on a purely defensive strategy and began building 700 miles of new defensive walls starting in 1474, fortifying the northern frontier against Mongol raiders. The Ming system involved hundreds of watchtowers, signal-beacon platforms, and self-sufficient garrisons organized as military colonies. Infantry were positioned along the wall to give warning. But the main idea was for cavalry to move quickly to any point of alarm and stop raiders from breaking through. In that, the Ming strategy emulated Mongol practices from the Yuan dynasty. It was also reminiscent, though not influenced by, the Roman defensive system of ‘‘limes’’ which in Germania alone were 500 kilometers long.

The Great Wall was meant to reduce costs to the Ming of garrisoning a thousand-mile frontier by channeling raiders and invaders into known invasion routes to predetermined choke points protected by cavalry armies. This strategy was mostly ineffective. The Great Wall was simply outflanked in 1550 by Mongol raiders who rode around it to the northeast to descend on Beijing and pillage its suburbs (they could not take the city because they had no siege engines or artillery). The wall was also breached by collaboration with the Mongols of Ming frontier military colonies, which over time became increasingly ‘‘barbarian’’ through trade, marriage, and daily contact with the wilder peoples on the other side. Some Han garrisons lived in so much fear of the Mongols they were militarily useless; others lost touch with the distant court and hardly maintained military preparations at all. Finally, the Great Wall could always be breached by treachery or foolhardy invitation. Either or both occurred when a Ming general allowed the Manchus to enter China via the Shanhaiguan Pass to aid in the last Ming civil war in 1644, which brought the Ming dynasty to an end and put the Qing in power.

China never built a defensive wall along its Pacific sea frontier, as it felt no threat from that quarter. And yet, the main threat to its long-term stability and independence came across the Pacific in the form of European navies and marines. As with the 20th century Maginot Line in France, building the Great Wall in some ways signaled Ming defeatism rather than advertised Ming strength. The overall historical meaning of the Great Wall is ambiguous. To some, it signifies the worst features of China’s exploitative past; to others, it celebrates the longevity of China’s advanced, classical civilization.

Suggested Reading: Sechin Jagshid and V. J. Symons, Peace, War, and Trade Along the Great Wall (1989); Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China (1990).