Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Aug 29, 1809 - Oct 7, 1894


Grandmother's Story

by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Grandmother's Story Of Bunker Hill Battle.

As she saw it from the belfry.

This poem was first published in 1875, in connection with the centenary of the battle of Bunker Hill. The belfry could hardly have been that of Christ Church, since tradition says that General Gage was stationed there watching the battle, and we may make it to be what was known as the new Brick Church, built in 1721, on Hanover, corner of Richmond Street, Boston, rebuilt of stone in 1845, and pulled down at the widening of Hanover Street in 1871. There are many narratives of the battle of Bunker Hill. Frothingham's History of the Siege of Boston is one of the most comprehensive accounts, and has furnished material for many popular narratives. The centennial celebration of the battle called out magazine and newspaper articles, which give the story with little variation. There are not many disputed points in connection with the event, the principal one being the discussion as to who was the chief officer.

'T Is like stirring living embers when, at eighty, one remembers
All the achings and the quakings of the times that tried men's souls;1
When I talk of Whig and Tory, when I tell the Rebel story,2
To you the words are ashes, but to me they're burning coals.

I had heard the muskets' rattle of the April running battle;3
Lord Percy's hunted soldiers, I can see their red coats still;
But a deadly chill comes o'er me, as the day looms up before me,
When a thousand men lay bleeding on the slopes of Bunker's Hill.

'T was a peaceful summer's morning, when the first thing gave us warning
Was the booning of the cannon from the river and the shore:
Child, says grandma, what's the matter, what is all this noise and clatter?
Have those scalping Indian devils come to murder us once more?

Poor old soul! my sides were shaking in the midst of all my quaking,
To hear her talk of Indians when the guns began to roar:
She had seen the burning village, and the slaughter and the pillage,
When the Mohawks killed her father with their bullets through his door.4

Then I said, Now, dear old granny, don't you fret and worry any,
For I'll soon come back and tell you whether this is work or play;
There can't be mischief in it, so I won't be gone a minute
For a minute then I started. I was gone the livelong day.

No time for bodice-lacing or for looking-glass grimacing;
Down my hair went as I hurried, tumbling half-way to my heels;
God forbid your ever knowing, when there's blood around her flowing,
How the lonely, helpless daughter of a quiet house hold feels!

In the street I heard a thumping; and I knew it was the stumping
Of the Corporal, our old neighbor, on that wooden leg he wore,
With a knot of women round him,-- it was lucky I had found him,
So I followed with the others, and the Corporal marched before.

They were making for the steeple,-- the old soldier and his people;
The pigeons circled round us as we climbed the creaking stair,
Just across the narrow river -- Oh, so close it made me shiver! --
Stood a fortress on the hill-top that but yesterday was bare.

Not slow our eyes to find it; well we knew who stood behind it,
Though the earthwork hid them from us, and the stubborn walls were dumb:
Here were sister, wife, and mother, looking wild upon each other,
And their lips were white with terror as they said, THE HOUR HAS COME!

The morning slowly wasted, not a morsel had we tasted,
And our heads were almost splitting with the cannons' deafening thrill,
When a figure tall and stately round the rampart strode sedately;
It was PRESCOTT, one since told me; he commanded on the hill.5

Every woman's heart grew bigger when we saw his manly figure,
With the banyan buckled round it, standing up so straight and tall;6
Like a gentleman of leisure who is strolling out for pleasure,
Through the storm of shells and cannon-shot he walked around the wall.

At eleven the streets were swarming, for the red-coats' ranks were forming;
At noon in marching order they were moving to the piers;
How the bayonets gleamed and glistened, as we looked far down, and listened
To the trampling and the drum-beat of the belted grenadiers!

At length the men have started, with a cheer (it seemed faint-hearted),
In their scarlet regimentals, with their knapsacks on their backs,
And the reddening, rippling water, as after a sea fight's slaughter,
Round the barges gliding onward blushed like blood along their tracks.

So they crossed to the other border, and again they formed in order;
And the boats came back for soldiers, came for soldiers, soldiers still:
The time seemed everlasting to us women faint and fasting, --
At last they're moving, marching, marching proudly up the hill.

We can see the bright steel glancing all along the lines advancing --
Now the front rank fires a volley -- they have thrown away their shot;
For behind their earthwork lying, all the balls above them flying,
Our people need not hurry; so they wait and answer not.

Then the Corporal, our old cripple (he would swear sometimes and tipple), --
He had heard the bullets whistle (in the old French war) before, --7
Calls out in words of jeering, just as if they all were hearing, --
And his wooden leg thumps fiercely on the dusty belfry floor: --

Oh! fire away, ye villains, and earn King George's shillin's,
But ye'll waste a ton of powder afore a 'rebel' falls;
You may bang the dirt and welcome, they're as safe as Dan'l Malcolm8
Ten foot beneath the gravestone that you've splintered with your balls

In the hush of expectation, in the awe and trepidation
Of the dread approaching moment, we are well-nigh breathless all;
Though the rotten bars are failing on the rickety belfry railing,
We are crowding up against them like the waves against a wall.

Just a glimpse (the air is clearer), they are nearer, -- nearer, -- nearer,
When a flash -- a curling smoke-wreath -- then a crash--- the steeple shakes
The deadly truce is ended; the tempest's shroud is rended;
Like a morning mist it gathered, like a thunder-cloud it breaks!

O the sight our eyes discover as the blue-black smoke blows over!
The red-coats stretched in windrows as a mower rakes his hay;
Here a scarlet heap is lying, there a headlong crowd is flying
Like a billow that has broken and is shivered into spray.

Then we cried, The troops are routed! they are beat -- it can't be doubted!
God be thanked, the fight is over!
-- Ah! the grim old soldier's smile!
Tell us, tell us why you look so? (we could hardly speak, we shook so), --
Are they beaten? Are they beaten? ARE they beaten? -- Wait a while.

O the trembling and the terror! for too soon we saw our error:
They are baffled, not defeated; we have driven them back in vain;
And the columns that were scattered, round the colors that were tattered,
Toward the sullen silent fortress turn their belted breasts again.

All at once, as we are gazing, lo! the roofs of Charlestown blazing!
They have fired the harmless village; in an hour it will be down!
The Lord in Heaven confound them, rain his fire and brimstone round them, --
The robbing, murdering red-coats, that would burn a peaceful town!

They are marching, stern and solemn; we can see each massive column
As they near the naked earth-mound with the slanting walls so steep.
Have our soldiers got faint-hearted, and in noiseless haste departed?
Are they panic-struck and helpless? Are they palsied or asleep?

Now! the walls they're almost under! scarce a rod the foes asunder!
Not a firelock flashed against them! up the earthwork they will swarm!
But the words have scarce been spoken, when the ominous calm is broken,
And a bellowing crash has emptied all the vengeance of the storm!

So again, with murderous slaughter, pelted backwards to the water,
Fly Pigot's running heroes and the frightened braves of Howe;9
And we shout, At last they're done for, it's their barges they have run for:
They are beaten, beaten, beaten; and the battle's over now!

And we looked, poor timid creatures, on the rough old soldier's features,
Our lips afraid to question, but he knew what we would ask:
Not sure, he said; keep quiet, -- once more, I guess, they'll try it --
Here's damnation to the cut-throats!
-- then he handed me his flask,

Saying, Gal, you're looking shaky; have a drop of old Jamaiky;
I'm afeard there'll be more trouble afore the job is done;
So I took one scorching swallow; dreadful faint I felt and hollow,
Standing there from early morning when the firing was begun.

All through those hours of trial I had watched a calm clock dial,
As the hands kept creeping, creeping,-- they were creeping round to four,
When the old man said, They're forming with their bayonets fixed for storming:
It's the death-grip that's a coming, -- they will try the works once more.

With brazen trumpets blaring, the flames behind them glaring,
The deadly wall before them, in close array they come;
Still onward, upward toiling, like a dragon's fold uncoiling, --
Like the rattlesnake's shrill warning the reverberating drum!

Over heaps all torn and gory -- shall I tell the fearful story,
How they surged above the breastwork, as a sea breaks over a deck;
How, driven, yet scarce defeated, our worn-out men retreated,
With their powder-horns all emptied, like the swimmers from a wreck?

It has all been told and painted; as for me, they say I fainted,
And the wooden-legged old Corporal stumped with me down the stair:
When I woke from dreams aftrighted the evening lamps were lighted, --
On the floor a youth was lying; his bleeding breast was bare.

And I heard through all the flurry, Send for WARREN! hurry! hurry!10
Tell him here's a soldier bleeding, and he'll come and dress his wound!

Ah, we knew not till the morrow told its tale of death and sorrow,
How the starlight found him stiffened on the dark and bloody ground.

Who the youth was, what his name was, where the place from which he came was,
Who had brought him from the battle, and had left him at our door,
He could not speak to tell us; but 't was one of our brave fellows,
As the homespun plainly showed us which the dying soldier wore.

For they all thought he was dying, as they gathered round him crying,
And they said, Oh, how they'll miss him! and, What will his mother do?
Then, his eyelids just unclosing like a child's that has been dozing,
He faintly murmured, Mother! -- and -- I saw his eyes were blue. --

-- Why, grandma, how you're winking! -- Ah, my child, it sets me thinking
Of a story not like this one. Well, he somehow lived along;
So we came to know each other, and I nursed him like a mother,
Till at last he stood before me, tall, and rosy-cheeked, and strong.

And we sometimes walked together in the pleasant summer weather; --
Please to tell us what his name was? -- Just your own, my little dear,
There's his picture Copley painted: we became so well acquainted,11
That, -- in short, that's why I'm grandma, and you children are all here!

Notes to the poem:

1In December, 1776, Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense had so remarkable a popularity as the first homely expression of public opinion on Indepandence, began issuing a series of tracts called The Crisis, eighteen numbers of which appeared. The familiar words quoted by the grandmother must often have been heard and used by her. They begin the first number of The Crisis: These are the times that try men's souls: the summer soldier and the sun shine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

23. The terms Whig and Tory were applied to the two parties in England who represented, respectively, the Whigs political and religious liberty, the Tories royal prerogative and ecclesiastical authority. The names first came into use in 1679 in the struggles at the close of Charles II.?s reign, and continued in use until a generation or so ago, when they gave place to somewhat corresponding terms of Liberal and Conservative. At the breaking out of the war for Independence, the Whigs in England opposed the measures taken by the crown in the management of the American colonies, while the Tories supported the crown. The names were naturally applied in America to the patriotic party, who were termed Whigs, and the loyalist party, termed Tories. The Tories in turn called the patriots rebels.

3The Lexingon and Concord affair of April 19, 1775, when Lord Percy's soldiers retreated in a disorderly manner to Charlestown, annoyed on the way by the Americans who followed and accompanied them.

4The Mohawks, a formidable part of the Six Nations, were held in great dread, as they were the most cruel and warlike of all the tribes. In connection with the French they fell upon the frontier settlements during Queen Anne's war, early in the eighteenth century, and committed terrible deeds, long remembered in New England households.

5Colonel William Prescott, who commanded the detachment which marched from Cambridge, June 16,1775, to fortify Breed's Hill, was the grandfather of William Hickling Prescott, the historian. He was in the field during the entire battle of the 17th in command of the redoubt.

6Banyan -- a flowered morning gown which Prescott is said to have worn during the hot day, a good illustration of the unmilitary appearance of the soldiers engaged. His nonchalant walk upon the parapets is -- also a historic fact, and was for the encouragement of the troops within the redoubt.

7Many of the officers as well as men on the American side had become familiarized with service through the old French war, which came to an end in 1763.

8Dr. Holmes makes the following note to this line: "The following epitaph is still to be read on a tall gravestone, standing as yet undisturbed among the transplanted monuments of the dead in Copp's Hill Burial Ground, one of the three city [ Boston] cemeteries which have been desecrated and ruined within my own remembrance: --

Here lies buried in a
Stone Grave 10 feet deep
Who departed this Life
October 23, 1769,
Aged 44 years,
A true son of Liberty,
A Friend to the Publick,
An Enemy to oppression,
And one of the foremost
In opposing the Revenue Acts
On America.

9The generals on the British side were Howe, Clinton, and Pigot.

10Dr. Joseph Warren, of equal note at the time as a medical man and a patriot. He was a volunteer in the battle, and fell there, the most serious loss on the American side.

11John Singleton Copley was a portrait painter of celebrity, who was born in America in 1737, and painted many famous portraits, which hang in private and public galleries in Boston and vicinity chiefly. He lived in England the latter half of his life, dying there in 1815.


Grandmother's Story And Other Poems
Copyright 1888
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company