Heath’s Memoirs of the American War

Heath’s Memoirs of the American War- Rufus Rockwell Wilson

This is one of the most important source books of American history. General Heath’s memoirs, which were originally published in 1798, are of direct value to the student of the war of the Revolution, constituting a first-hand account of many of the operations connected therewith, and assisting to an appreciation of the men and conditions of the period. The author served as a major general in the American army throughout the long conflict, his military activity dating from the battle of Concord, where he took part in the harrying of the retreating British.

Heath's Memoirs of the American War

Heath’s Memoirs of the American War.

Format: eBook.

Heath’s Memoirs of the American War.

ISBN: 9783849663513.


Excerpt from the text:




Major-General William Heath descended from an ancient family in Roxbury, near Boston, in Massachusetts, and is of the fifth generation of the family who have inherited the same real estate, (taken up in a state of nature) not large, but fertile, and pleasantly situated.

He was born March 2nd, (old style) 1737, was brought up a farmer, of which profession he is yet passionately fond. He is of middling stature, light complexion, very corpulent, and bald-headed, which led the French officers who served in America, very frequently to compare him to the Marquis of Granby. From his childhood he was remarkably fond of military exercises, which passion grew up with him, and as he arrived at years of maturity, led him to procure, and attentively to study, every military treatise in the English language, which was obtainable. This, with a strong memory, rendered him fully acquainted with the theory of war in all its branches and duties, from the private soldier, to the Commander in Chief.

Through the inactive state of the militia company to which he belonged, in the spring of the year 1765, he went over to Boston, and entered a member of the Ancient and Honourable Artillery Company.

This immediately recommended him to the notice of the Colonel of the first regiment of militia in the county of Suffolk, who sent for him, and importuned him to take the command of his own company; to which Mr. Heath was reluctant, apprehensive that his youth, and stepping over those who had a better claim, by former office in the company, to the command of it, might produce an uneasiness. He was, however, commissioned by Gov. Barnard; and his apprehensions of uneasiness proved to be groundless.

In the Ancient and Honourable Artillery Company, he was chosen, and served, first as Lieutenant, and afterwards as Captain.

In the first regiment of the militia of Suffolk, he became the military favourite of Gov. Barnard, who publicly declared, that he would not only make him Colonel of the regiment, but, if it were in his power, a General Officer also.

As the dispute between Great Britain and her American Colonies put on a more serious aspect, our Captain did not hesitate, for a moment, to declare his sentiments in favour of the rights and liberties of his fellow-countrymen. This alarmed Gov. Barnard’s apprehensions, but did not alter his open conduct towards our Captain; though he privately intimated, that if he should promote him, he might injure the cause of his royal master. It was afterwards intimated to our Captain, that if he was not advanced to the command of the regiment, he might rest assured, that his feelings would never (during Gov. Barnard’s administration) be hurt by any other officers being promoted over him; which was verified, Gov. Barnard leaving the province with this regiment unorganized.

Capt. Heath, convinced that the cloud was rapidly gathering, and would assuredly burst over America, in the beginning of the year 1770, commenced his addresses to the public, under the signature of A Military Countryman, and which were occasionally continued until hostilities commenced. In them he urged the importance of military discipline, and skill in the use of arms, as the only means, under Heaven, that could save the country from falling a prey to any daring invader.

Gov. Hutchinson succeeded Gov. Barnard. He organized the first regiment in Suffolk; and, as might be expected, our Captain had a respite from command.

When it was recommended to the people of Massachusetts, to choose officers themselves to command them, our Captain was unanimously chosen to take the command of the first company in the town of Roxbury, (his old and favourite company;) and on the meeting of the Captains and subalterns of the first regiment of militia in Suffolk, he was chosen Colonel.

The people of Massachusetts, having determined to support their rights and liberties at every hazard, (finding that such was the sense of the people of their sister Colonies) after the dissolution of their General Court, elected a Provincial Congress. This Congress appointed a Committee of Safety (of whom our Colonel was one), vested with executive powers; and another committee, called the Committee of Supplies, The latter were to purchase military stores, provisions, &c. and deposit them in such places as the former should direct. Both committees entered on the duties of their respective functions. The Provincial Congress voted a sum of money for the purpose of procuring military stores and provisions; and a quantity of both were collected and stored in the town of Concord.

The militia, and the corps of minute men, as they were called, (the latter composed of the young and active) were furnished with officers of their own choosing. The greatest attention was exhibited by the officers, which was as cheerfully seconded by the citizen soldiers, to acquire a knowledge of military duty.

In the month of February 1775, the Provincial Congress passed the following resolutions:

“In Provincial Congress, Cambridge, February 9th 1775 — Resolved, That the Hon. Jedidiah Prebble Esq. Hon. Artemas Ward, Esq. Col. Seth Pomeroy, Col. John Thomas, and Col. William Heath, be, and they hereby are, appointed General Officers, whose business and duty it shall be, with such and so many of the militia of this province as shall be assembled by order of the Committee of Safety, effectually to oppose and resist such attempt or attempts as shall be made for carrying into execution an act of the British Parliament, entitled, “An Act for the better regulation of the Government of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England” — or who shall attempt the carrying into execution, by force, another act of the British Parliament, entitled, “An Act for the more impartial administration of justice, in cases of persons questioned for any act done by them in the execution of the law, or for the suppression of riots and tumults in the Province of Massachusetts Bay” — so long as the said militia shall be retained by the Committee of Safety, and no longer. And the said General Officers shall, while in the said service, command, lead and conduct, in such opposition, in the order in which they are above named; any order of any former Congress varying herefrom, notwithstanding.”

” In Provincial Congress, Cambridge, February 15th, 1775 — Resolved, That the Hon. John Whitcomb, Esq. be added to the General Officers. A true extract from the minutes,

(Signed) Benj. Lincoln, Sec’ry”

Gen. Prebble declined the service.

In the month of March following, the Provincial Congress appointed a committee to make a minute inquiry into the state of the operations of the British army. On the 20th of the same month, the committee reported, that the British army then consisted of about 2850 men, distributed as follows: On Boston common, about 1700; on Fort Hill, 400; on Boston neck, 340; in barracks at the Castle, 330; quartered in King street, 80; — that they were erecting works on Boston neck, on both sides of the way, well-constructed and well executed; the works were in forwardness, and then mounted with ten brass and two iron cannon; that the old fortification, at the entrance of the town, was repaired, and rendered much stronger by the addition of timber and earth to the parapet; that ten pieces of iron cannon were mounted on the old platforms; that a block-house, brought from Governor’s Island, was erecting on the south side of the neck, between the old fortification and the new works advanced on the neck.

On the 18th of April, our General had been sitting with the Committee of Safety, at Arlington in Cambridge; and on his return home, soon after he left the committee, and about sun-setting, he met eight or nine British officers on horseback, with their swords and pistols, riding up the road towards Lexington. The time of day, and distance from Boston, excited suspicion of some design. They indeed were out reconnoitering, and getting intelligence, but were not molested.

On the 19th, at daybreak, our General was awoke, called from his bed, and informed that a detachment of the British army were out; that they had crossed from Boston to Phipps’s farm, in boats, and had gone towards Concord, as was supposed, with intent to destroy the public stores. They probably had notice that the committees had met the preceding day at Wetherby’s tavern, at Arlington; for, when they came opposite to the house, they halted. Several of the gentlemen slept there during the night. Among them were Col. Orne, Col. Lee, and Mr. Gerry. One of them awoke and informed the others that a body of the British were before the house. They immediately made their escape, without time to dress themselves, at the back door, receiving some injury from obstacles in the way, in their undressed state. They made their way into the fields. The country was immediately alarmed, and the minute men and militia turned out with great spirit. Near Lexington meetinghouse the British found the militia of that town drawn up by the road. Towards these they advanced, ordered them to disperse, huzzaed, and fired upon them; when several were killed and wounded, and the rest dispersed. This was the first shedding of blood in the American war.

This company continuing to stand so near to the road, after they had certain notice of the advancing of the British in force, was but a too much braving of danger; for they were sure to meet with insult, or injury, which they could not repel. Bravery, when called to action, should always take the strong ground on the basis of reason.

The British proceeded on to Concord, where they destroyed a part of the stores, while others were saved by the vigilance, activity, or policy, of the inhabitants. In the latter, a Capt. Wheeler practised with such address, as to save a considerable quantity of flour, although exposed to the critical examination of a British officer.

The British had sent a party to the North Bridge, while they were destroying the stores in the town. A body of militia, who had retreated beyond the bridge, and collected in this quarter, now marched up resolutely to the bridge. The British officer, finding their firmness, ordered his men to fire, which they did, and two men of the militia were killed. The fire was briskly returned; some were killed and wounded of the enemy, and an officer taken prisoner. The British party retreated with precipitation to their main body, and the whole soon commenced their retreat towards Boston; the militia galling them on all sides. This detachment, under the command of Col. Smith, must have been worn down, and the whole of them killed, or taken prisoners, had it not been for the reinforcement sent out to them, under the command of Lord Percy, with two fieldpieces, who joined them in the lower part of the town of Lexington.

Our General, in the morning, proceeded to the Committee of Safety. From the committee, he took a crossroad to Watertown, the British being in possession of the Lexington road. At Watertown, finding some militia who had not marched, but applied for orders, he sent them down to Cambridge, with directions to take up the planks, barricade the south end of the bridge, and there to take post; that, in case the British should, on their return, take that road to Boston, their retreat might be impeded. He then pushed to join the militia, taking a cross road towards Lexington, in which he was joined by Dr. Joseph Warren (afterwards a Major-General) who kept with him.

Our General joined the militia just after Lord Percy had joined the British; and having assisted in forming a regiment, which had been broken by the shot from the British field-pieces, (for the discharge of these, together with the flames and smoke of several buildings, to which the British, nearly at the same time, had set fire, opened a new and more terrific scene;) and the British having again taken up their retreat, were closely pursued. On descending from the high grounds in Arlington, on to the plain, the fire was brisk. At this instant, a musket-ball came so near to the head of Dr. Warren, as to strike the pin out of the hair of his earlock. Soon after, the right flank of the British was exposed to the fire of a body of militia, which had come from Roxbury, Brookline, Dorchester, &c. For a few minutes the fire was brisk on both sides; and the British had here recourse to their fieldpieces again; but they were now more familiar than before. Here the militia were so close on the rear of the British, that Dr. Downer, an active and enterprising man, came to single combat with a British soldier, whom he killed with his bayonet.


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