History I Never Knew: Mary Had a Little Lamb – and He Built the Bunker Hill Monument

Sarah Josepha Hale

Sarah Josepha Hale

Well, not really. But there’s definitely a connection between that soft and gentle creature and the obelisk commemorating the first major, fiercest, and bloodiest battle of the Revolutionary War.

Construction of the Bunker Hill Monument started in 1825. They built one of America’s first railroads to carry the eight-ton blocks of granite from the quarries south of Boston. But funds ran out and it took a remarkable woman named Sarah Josepha Hale to rescue the project.

Hale was editor – she preferred to be called “editress” – of The Ladies’ Magazine. She’d also published, in 1830, Poems for Our Children, a collection that included Mary’s Lamb. She raised $30,000 for the completion of the Monument. She first asked her readers to donate a dollar each and also organized a week-long craft fair at Quincy Market. The fair sold handmade jewelry, quilts, baskets, jams, jellies, cakes, pies, and autographed letters from George Washington, James Madison, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Without Mrs. Hale, the 221-foot monument might never have been built.

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster had addressed a crowd of 100,000 at the laying of the cornerstone. He was still around in 1843, and he spoke again when the finished monument was dedicated that year. It is one of the signature edifices of Boston, a memorial both to the fighting spirit of the colonists and to the staunch patriotism of Sarah Josepha Hale.

Conquest of Breed’s Hill: A Pyrrhic Victory for the Redcoats

As the latest Smithsonian magazine tells it, there’s a lot of mythology about both colonial Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill. The city was no cradle of liberty or bastion of religion. Though founded by Puritans, Boston had a neighborhood near Beacon Hill that was so thick with prostitutes that maps showed it as “Mount Whoredom.” One out of five families in Boston owned slaves. The city was viciously divided between Loyalists and advocates of independence. Many of the “Sons of Liberty” were vigilantes and thugs.

It had been two months since the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. The Brits were holed up in the city of Boston, and the colonists were on the outskirts. Fortifying Breed’s Hill, which was closer to the city than Bunker Hill, was probably done as a deliberate provocation. It worked. The British responded, torched Charlestown at the base of the hill, and attacked the entrenched colonials.

The Brits, with their red uniforms and the nattily-dressed officers easily identifiable and thus prime targets, charged twice and were beaten back. The high grass had obscured many rocks, holes and other obstacles that made the uphill advance even more difficult. The third charge was different. They first blasted the hilltop with cannon fire, then marched in spaced columns rather than abreast.

There was no “whites of their eyes” command by Colonel William Prescott or General Israel Putnam. That was made up years later by writer Parson Weems, who also concocted the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. When the British charged, the Americans fired from 50 yards away. One colonel told his men not to shoot until they saw the splash guards, called half-gaiters, which the soldiers wore around their calves. “Don’t fire until you see their half-gaiters” just doesn’t sound the same, does it?

Lord William Howe

Lord William Howe

The Americans ran out of ammunition. Those who couldn’t escape perished in brutal, hand-to-hand combat. The British took the hill top, but had suffered 1,054 casualties to the Americans’ 400. “Success is too dearly bought,” wrote British General William Howe, who lost every member of his staff and the bottle of wine that his aide-de-camp had brought along.

The British got the message: the colonists, though driven off Breed’s Hill that day in June, were going to give them a tough fight. In March 1776, just nine months later, the redcoats evacuated the city of Boston for good.

The First Monument: In Memory of the Dr. Joseph Warren, the Revolution’s First Martyr

Joseph Warren

Joseph Warren

The first monument on the Breed’s Hill site was an 18-foot wooden pillar with a gilt urn erected in 1794 by King Solomon’s Lodge of Masons. They wanted to honor Dr. Joseph Warren, a physician and Mason who was the Revolution’s first martyred hero. There’s a statue of him in Charlestown now, but he is little remembered today.

Warren was a leader of the colonial underground, and he became a major general of the army in the time leading up to Bunker Hill. Clad in a toga, he addressed a crowd of 5,000 before the battle. He didn’t assume a command, but fought as an ordinary soldier. He wore a silk-fringed waistcoat with silver buttons, and he died from a bullet in the face during the final British charge.

Warren’s stripped body was later found and identified through his false teeth, which had been crafted by Paul Revere. He left behind both a fiancée and a pregnant mistress. In 1823, a group of prominent citizens formed the Bunker Hill Monument Association to put up a better memorial. They fell short of their goal, though, and had to be rescued by Sarah Josepha Hale and Mary’s Little Lamb.

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