Online: Object of the Month
Crossed Swords: Prescott and Linzee Swords from the Battle of Bunker Hill
Digital Projects Production Specialist
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
This plaque displays swords owned by Colonel William Prescott of the Massachusetts revolutionary army and Royal Navy Captain John Linzee, who fought on opposite sides during the Battle of Bunker Hill, the first major military engagement of the American Revolution. The swords descended through their respective families, until both ended up in the possession of historian William Hickling Prescott, who married a Linzee relation.
Stranger than Fiction
The story of the two swords coming together is almost the stuff of fiction. As George Ticknor wrote in his biography of William Hickling Prescott, "The swords that had been worn by the soldier and the sailor on that memorable day came down as heirlooms in their respective families, until at last they met in the library of the man of letters, where, quietly crossed over his books, they often excited the notice alike of strangers and of friends." Prescott's sword is the one he wore at Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775; Linzee's original sword was lost at sea after the battle, and this is a replacement, likely dating from the 1780s. The Linzee sword was given to William Hickling Prescott upon his marriage to Susan Amory, by her uncle John Inman Linzee, Captain Linzee's son. Writer William Makepeace Thackeray observed the swords in Prescott's library during a visit to America in 1852 and later immortalized them in the opening lines of his novel The Virginians. In 1859 William Hickling Prescott bequeathed the Prescott sword to the Massachusetts Historical Society, returning the Linzee sword to his wife; who, with her cousin Thomas C. A. Linzee, donated it to the Society so that the swords would not be separated. The Society commissioned the plaque on which the swords are now displayed, along with their unique story. The Society also holds the scabbards belonging to each sword.
Colonel William Prescott (1726-1795) was born in Groton and settled in the town of Pepperell, Massachusetts. At the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill, he was in command of 1,200 men charged with building up the defenses in an effort to prevent the British from taking the heights to the north of Boston. For his legendary efforts, on 17 June 1881, a statue was erected of Prescott, with sword in hand, in front of the Bunker Hill Memorial obelisk in Charlestown, Massachusetts.
Captain John Linzee (1743-1798) commanded several British ships in the colonies including the Beaver and the Falcon; the latter of which bombarded American positions during the Battle of Bunker Hill. He had married Susanna Inman of Boston in 1772. Linzee resigned from the Royal Navy in 1792--the same year his wife died--and permanently settled in America. He died at his home in Milton, Massachusetts.
A Lecture on the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Birth of the American Army
Dr. Paul Lockhart, professor of history at Wright State University and the author of a new study of the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Siege of Boston, The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George Washington(New York: Harper, 2011) will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society on 16 June 2011. The event, co-sponsored by the Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site is free and open to the public. There will be refreshments at 5:30 PM, followed by conversation with the author at 6:00 PM. For further information or reservations, call 617-646-0560 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further reading
Evans, D. M. H. "Captain John Linzee and the War in America." Typescript, 1976, rev. 1984.
Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Linzee Family Association Historian. "Biography of Captain John Linzee." Linzee Family Association, 2006. .
Lockhart, Paul. The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George Washington. New York: Harper, 2011.
Massachusetts Historical Society. "'The Decisive Day is Come': The Battle of Bunker Hill." 2003.
---. "The Siege of Boston." 2011.
---. Witness to America's Past: Two Centuries of Collecting by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society and the Museum of Fine Arts, 1991.
Stephen, Leslie and Sidney Lee, eds. The Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921-1922.
Ticknor, George. Life of William Hickling Prescott. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864.
Winthrop, Robert C. Address at the Unveiling of the Statue of Colonel William Prescott, on Bunker Hill, June 17, 1881. Cambridge: J. Wilson and Son, 1881.