Weapons from the Battlefield – The Battle of Bunker Hill

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

A few years ago, the MHS was in the news following the discovery and donation of a historically important sword—the Civil War Sword of Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw carried the sword during the assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina, where he led the 54th Regiment, the first all-Black regiment, and where he died alongside many of his men. We’ve discussed Shaw’s sword several times; in a Beehive blog, and on episode 2 of The Object of History podcast, so here I’d like to tell you about some of the other interesting swords the MHS holds.

Ninety years before Shaw’s Fort Wagner assault, the Battle of Bunker Hill (or Breed’s Hill) occurred on Saturday, 17 June 1775. In this battle, colonial militiamen used the cover of night to create a redoubt on Breed’s Hill and to fortify lines across the Charlestown peninsula. British soldiers woke to find the colonials positioned exactly where they intended to establish their own fortifications.  Although the colonials lost the battle that followed, they proved that militiamen could fight just as well as trained soldiers, for the British regiment suffered far more casualties than the colonials. The battle demonstrated that the British army needed to plan better for its next attacks.

wooden plaque, crossed swords
Prescott and Linzee Swords

This plaque reads: “THE SWORD of COLONEL WILLIAM PRESCOTT; worn by him while in command of the Provincial Forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill, 17 June, 1775; and bequeathed to the MASS: HIST: SOCIETY by his grandson, WILLIAM H. PRESCOTT,” and “These swords for many years were hung crossed in the library of the late eminent historian WILLIAM HICKLING PRESCOTT in token of international friendship and family alliance. THEY are now preserved in a similar position by the MASS: HISTORICAL SOCIETY in memory of the associations with which they will be inseparably connected,” and “THE SWORD of CAPTAIN JOHN LINZEE, R.N. who commanded the British Sloop of War Falcon while acting against the Americans during the Battle of Bunker Hill; Presented to the MASS: HIST: SOCIETY 14 April, 1859, by his grandchildren, THOMAS C. A. LINZEE, and MRS. WM. H. PRESCOTT.”

This plaque and two swords represent an interesting piece of Bunker Hill history. The two swords never touched in battle, although they were on opposite sides of the war. The colonial’s Col. William Prescott was directed by Gen. Artemas Ward to fortify Bunker Hill, and he led the battle on 17 June. Britain’s Cap. John Linzee, famed for his role in the Gaspee Affair, anchored off Moulton’s Point on the Falcon to cover the landing of the British Troops in Charlestown. Although Prescott’s sword was worn in battle, Linzee’s was his dress sword. After the war, the swords became heirlooms in both families all living in Massachusetts, Linzee had married Susan Inman in 1772. But this story takes a turn! The grandson of William Prescott, William Hickering Prescott and Susan Amory, a granddaughter of John Linzee, met, fell in love, and married. Both swords were left to the Prescotts and they hung them on their library wall as a symbol of American peace. W.H. Prescott was a historian who entertained many of the scholarly elite of the day. The British author William Makepeace Thackeray observed the swords in Prescott’s library during his visit to Boston in 1852 and later immortalized them in the opening lines of his novel The Virginians. The swords were donated to the MHS in 1859, and the plaque was commissioned by the MHS to hold the swords.

Sword said to have belonged to Gen. Joseph Warren.

Although the Battle of Bunker Hill can be told as a hero-making battle of colonial bravery, there is a sad side to the tale. One casualty was a promising young Son of Liberty, recently elected president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Gen. Joseph Warren, a handsome, charming, and powerful speaker, was killed during the Bunker Hill battle. He was poised to rise quickly in what would become a newly created country; however, he was inexperienced in warfare and had commissioned his military title. He placed himself at the battle’s most dangerous point, and although he did succeed in leading most of the colonials in their retreat, a British soldier recognized him and shot him in the head. His death was written about and mourned by many, including Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Warren, no relation. Public mourning included an elegiac poem broadside with an acrostic specifically about Joseph Warren. However, we can only say that possibly this sword belonged to Warren as his body was left to the mercies of the British troops who abused it with their bayonets, stripped him of anything of worth, and then buried him in a mass grave. Nine months later, the colonials regained control of Bunker Hill and they dug out the fallen militiamen for proper interment. Paul Revere was asked to confirm Warren’s body for he had done some silver dental work for him.

What happened to the sword is debated in history circles, however, the story of this sword held by the MHS is told in Volume 9 of Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, pages 348-350. Written in 1822 by William White, a Justice of the Peace, the tale was sworn as true to the teller’s “best knowledge and belief.” Cornelius Dunham related the following to Justice White:

“After the purchase, he informed me it was the sword taken from “Doctor Warren immediately after he fell at the battle of Bunker Hill.” I had no suspicion of this fact till after I had paid him for it. I asked him if his master would vouch for the truth of what he had alleged… The officer told me that he had taken the same sword from Gen. Warren, when lying dead on the battle ground; and that he gave it to his servant. The officer also informed me that “General Warren fell not far from the Redoubt” — these being the words he used, as I particularly remember; and that after the British entered the redoubt he saw Warren before he fell. The officer remarked that he endeavored to prevent his men from firing, but could not; and that Warren, remaining too long on the ground he had defended, was shot dead in his view. The officer likewise informed me that “Warren was buried in common with the rest of the dead. I had not been in possession of the sword an hour when I was offered a great price for it by a Mr. Robinson, of Philadelphia, who was very desirous to possess it; but I was not willing to part with it for any price… On my return to Plymouth in 1777 I gave general information that I had purchased at Halifax the sword which the late Gen. Warren wore at the battle of Bunker Hill; and hundreds had knowledge of it as such, and frequently saw it…The time of my purchasing the sword was after the British evacuated Boston, and before the fleet sailed from Halifax for New York.

From the information given by the British officer, I then had not, nor have I since had, the least doubt of this being the sword of the late Gen. Joseph Warren; and which is the same sword which I delivered to the Hon. William Davis and William Jackson, Esq. at Plymouth on the 15th August last, at the moment of my departure for this place. — During the period of forty-seven years that this sword has been in my possession, and proclaimed as being the sword of the late Gen. Joseph Warren, it has never been denied as such, and no claims have been made to any other sword as appertaining to him. — When I purchased the sword it was in good order; but during my long absence at sea, it has lost many of its ornaments.”

With this account it is fair to say that the sword held by the MHS is possibly the sword of Gen. Joseph Warren. See below for links for more information on these topics.


News stories of the Robert Gould Shaw sword:

Read more about Joseph Warren:

Read a blog post:

Read about these and more marriages of the grandchildren of the Revolution and a poem about the Prescott/Linzee swords