Online: Object of the Month
Prospect Hill. Bunker's Hill. Psychological Warfare During the Siege of Boston
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
This appears to be the only surviving copy of a handbill (a small printed sheet, often an advertisement, distributed by hand) that is an early example of psychological warfare used by the Americans during the Revolutionary War. It is a satiric comparison of living conditions for soldiers on both sides of the lines during the Siege of Boston, 1775-1776, printed to encourage British soldiers to desert. A separate appeal to British soldiers about to embark for America not to support the war effort is printed on the verso (the back of the sheet).
The Siege of Boston
On the evening of 19 April 1775, after a daylong battle, the Massachusetts Minutemen and militia who had driven back the British expedition to Lexington and Concord surrounded the British garrison of Boston. Overnight, the eleven-month Siege of Boston began. While the British won a bloody tactical victory at Bunker Hill on 17 June, they had won at such terrible cost that they could not risk another battle. With few cannon and little knowledge of siege warfare, George Washington's citizen army could not batter down the British defenses, so they turned to psychological warfare.
Address to the Soldiers
On 19 July, Ezekiel Russell, a Salem, Massachusetts printer, announced that An Address to the British Soldiery had arrived from London that same day. The Address was purportedly the work of an "Old Soldier" and directed to British reinforcements for General Gage's army at Boston. "Gentlemen, you are about to embark for America," it begins, "to compel your fellow subjects there to submit to popery and slavery" and goes on to hark back to the Glorious Revolution in England and dark conspiracies against the rights of freeborn Englishmen that the American colonists and their English sympathizers were apt to see everywhere.
Between 19 July and early August 1775, the Address, under a slightly different title, Address to the Soldiers, either was reprinted in Massachusetts with Prospect Hill. Bunker's Hill printed on the verso, or, as some bibliographers speculate, the patriots printed Prospect Hill. Bunker's Hill on the verso of copies of the Address that English sympathizers of the American cause had shipped to New England.
Charles Evans, the dean of American historical bibliographers, credited the printing of the broadside to John Howe, a Boston newspaper printer, but as a Loyalist who accompanied the British army when it evacuated Boston in March 1776, Howe seems an unlikely candidate to have published or reprinted seditious literature that would encourage desertion. There are some other clues: the text of Prospect Hill. Bunker's Hill was reprinted in Connecticut and Pennsylvania newspapers in August 1775, noting that it "[had] been printed at Cambridge [Massachusetts], and dispersed among the ministerial troops...."
The diary of Henry Bedinger, a Virginia rifleman from Shepherdstown (now West) Virginia who served at the Siege of Boston, described the "delivery system" for getting this propaganda into the hands of the British soldiers:
Lieut. Scott and Two More went Down so near their Centries that they threw some printed papers among them. A bullet Being Rapped up in the Same to make them fly well, the Substance of which was to shew them how well we Lived to what they did, Inviting them to peace, and over to us.
Prospect Hill. Bunker's Hill.
The title of the satiric handbill, Prospect Hill. Bunker's Hill refers to the American redoubt at the northern end of the siege lines in what is now Somerville, Massachusetts. The British had fortified Bunker's (Bunker) Hill after they captured it in June 1775. While the handbill exaggerates the comfort of the Continental Army, it probably was effective propaganda because it largely was true. The living conditions of the British garrison of Boston were terrible. Thousands of British soldiers and marines were packed into the small town of Boston, living on a diet of salt provisions and suffering through a smallpox epidemic and, as the siege continued, the rigors of a New England winter. Over the eight years of the Revolution War, the British would lose more soldiers to desertion than in combat.
For Further Reading
Berger, Carl. Broadsides and Bayonets: The Propaganda War of the American Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961.
Danbridge, Danske. Historic Shepherdstown. Charlottesville: The Michie Company, 1910.
French, Allen. The First Year of the American Revolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.
Old Soldier. Salem, Tuesday, July 19, 1775. This Day, at Noon, Captain John Derby, in a Schooner, arrived here in Six weeks from London...and brings Advices...among which is An Address to the British Soldiery. Salem: Printed by E. Russell, .
Shy, John. Toward Lexington: The Role of the British Army in the Coming of the American Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.