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Lot 10: [Battle of Bunker Hill.] Martin Gay. Signed letter, 4 pages (9 x 7 3/8 in.; 229 x 187 mm.)Platinum House
December 18, 2012
Calabasas Hills, CA, USALive Auction
10. [Battle of Bunker Hill.] Martin Gay. Highly important and extremely rare autograph letter signed twice, 4 pages (9 x 7 3/8 in.; 229 x 187 mm.), “Boston,” 8 July 1775, being Gay’s retained copy to his brother, Jonathan, providing an incomparable description of the legendary Battle of Bunker Hill; skillful repair to horizontal folds and ink burns affecting the first signature.
A dramatic eyewitness account of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Gay writes in part: The Victory obtained by about two thousand regular troops commanded by Genl How [General William Howe] over a large body of the Country Rebels (tis said about six thousand) on the heights of Charlestown, the 17 ult. was a remarkable action, it proves that nothing the Enimies to Great Britton can do will daunt the courage of the British Troops. The Rebels had Intrenched themselves on the top of a high hill which is but about a quarter of a mile from Charles River, in approaching which, the troops had to brake through stone walls and other difficulty which gave the Enimy every advantage they could wish for, however after a most Violent hot fire, the brave soldiers forced the Intrenchments to the Joy of all the Spectators (myself being one) and others on this side of the river, who are friends to their King and Country. Emediately on the Kings troops appearing on the top of the Redoubt, the Rebels ran off in great confusion, leaveing their Cannons. Intrenching tools and a large number of their dead and some wounded, the loss was great on both sides. The action lasted about an hour and a quarter. We have Reason to lament the loss of so many Valuable brave officers . . . the famus Doctr. Worrin [General Joseph Warren], who has for some year bin a sturer up of Rebellion, was kild in the action . . . soon after the actions began the Town of Charlestown was seat on fire in several places by fire balls from a battery on this side which continued burning till all the buildings in it were consumed, except a few houses at the Extreem part, near where a body of Regular troops are now Incamped . . . tho the Rebels meet with a shamefull defeat, they still continue in their opposition in fortifying hill and other places near this Town . . . .
The Battle of Bunker Hill (17 June 1775) occurred outside British-occupied Boston early in the Revolutionary War. After the British defeats at Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775, the British sent three of their top generals, Sir William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne, to America to help General Thomas Gage, commander of the British Army in America, put down the burgeoning rebellion; the three arrived at the end of May on His Majesty’s ship Cerebus. The newly arrived generals concluded that an attack on Cambridge across Boston Neck and the Charles River must be mounted as soon as possible while diversionary raids were made on the high ground overlooking Boston. Before the plan could be put into effect, rebel spies in Boston learned of it. On the starlit night of 16 June, 1200 American militiamen, armed with picks and shovels, advanced towards the Charlestown promontory with orders to fortify Bunker’s Hill, the highest peak on the peninsula. However, due to a misunderstanding or stupidity, the diggers set to work on the next shallow eminence, Breed’s Hill, where they began digging a long, shoulder-high earthwork above the town. The fortification was completed by dawn.
From their ships offshore and from land batteries, the British began an artillery bombardment, though most of the balls struck harmlessly against the earthen wall; as well, many of the guns could not be sufficiently elevated to reach the works at all. Awaiting a favorable tide after noon, Gage landed his troops on the southeast end of the peninsula and launched a frontal assault--2400 under the command of General Howe--to dislodge the Americans. The main American position--1600 men with six cannon under the command of Col. William Prescott--turned back two advances by Howe’s troops, who were in tight formation, burdened by heavy packs. Reinforced by Clinton for a third assault, Howe had his men drop their packs and rush forward in a bayonet charge. The British pushed their way to the top edge of the redoubt, just as the American resistance ceased when their supply of powder gave out. The powder-blackened faces of the enemy who were swinging their muskets as clubs met the redcoats. The American retreat became a near rout; Howe decided against pressing on toward Cambridge and stopped the pursuit at the base of the peninsula. General Howe had won for General Gage an utterly useless peninsula--at a horrible cost. No British officer who witnessed the slaughter could ever get the memory of it out of his mind. The British had won the field, but the loss was staggering: 1,054 casualties, 226 killed and 828 wounded. No fewer than 63 officers were wounded and 27 were killed of their force of 2,500 men. The American losses were relatively light--140 killed and 301 wounded. The battle had destroyed the British myth that Americans could not stand against the regulars. Clinton was to comment: A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us. The Battle of Bunker Hill boosted the morale of and support for the Revolutionary Army. Two weeks after the battle, General George Washington reached Cambridge and took formal command of the Continental Army on 3 July 1775; he began the siege of Boston, which ended with the British evacuation on 17 March 1776.
At the foot of the last page of his letter, Gay records a draft of another letter albeit brief, from Boston on 27 July 1775, noting it is not in his power to send any of the articles his brother has requested. A stunning record of a seminal chapter in American history.
Provenance: Charles Hamilton, 13 July 1978, lot 30.