|Bunker Hill illustration by Lora Innes|
In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn wrote, “A wounded American lieutenant at Bunker Hill, interviewed by Peter Oliver, a Tory, … told how he had joined the rebel forces:
“I was a shoemaker and got my living by my labor. When this rebellion came on, I saw some of my neighbors got into commission who were no better than myself. I was very ambitious, and did not like to see those men above me. I was asked to enlist as a private soldier … I offered to enlist upon having a lieutenant’s commission, which was granted. I imagined myself now in a way of promotion: if I was killed in battle, there would be an end of me, but if my captain was killed, I should rise in rank and should still have a chance to rise higher. These, sir, were the only motives of my entering into the service, for as to the dispute between Great Britain and the Colonies, I know nothing of it…”
“John Shy investigated the subsequent experience of that Bunker Hill lieutenant. He was William Scott, of Peterborough, New Hampshire, and after a year as prisoner of the British he escaped, made his way back to the American army, fought in battles in New York, was captured again by the British and escaped again by swimming the Hudson River one night with his sword tied around his neck and his watch pinned to his hat.
“He returned to New Hampshire, recruited a company of his own, including his two eldest sons, and fought in various battles until his health gave way. He watched his eldest son die of camp fever (epidemic typhus) after six years of service. He had sold his farm in Peterborough for a note that, with inflation, became worthless.
“After the war, he came to public attention when he rescued eight people from drowning after their boat turned over in New York harbor, He then got a job surveying western lands with the army, but caught a fever and died in 1796.”
When Scott’s adventures ended, he was 54.
“Scott was one of many Revolutionary fighters, usually of lower military ranks, from poor and obscure backgrounds,” Zinn noted. “Shy’s study of the Peterborough contingent shows that the prominent and substantial citizens of the town had served only briefly in the war. Other American towns show the same pattern. As Shy puts it: ‘Revolutionary America may have been a middle-class society, happier and more prosperous than any other in its time, but it contained a large and growing number of fairly poor people, an many of them did much of the actual fighting and suffering between 1775 and 1783: A very old story.”
Zinn noted ironically, “Here, in the war for liberty, was conscription, as usual, cognizant of wealth.”
“The military conflict itself, by dominating everything in its time, diminished other issues, made people choose sides in the one contest that was publicly important, forced people onto the side of the Revolution whose interest in Independence was not at all obvious. Ruling elites seem to have learned through the generations — consciously or not — that war makes them more secure against internal trouble.”