The Whites of their Eyes

Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam
Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam

Myth:

During the so-called Battle of Bunker Hill, Israel Putnam (some say William Prescott) issued a command: “Do not fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” Displaying great courage and discipline in the face of advancing Redcoats, the untested patriots stood their ground and withheld their fire until they could gaze into the eyes of the enemy.

Busted:

This command was a figure of speech, a common idiom used by eighteenth-century officers to gain control over their soldiers’ fire.[1] It was not meant to be taken literally, as we infer now. Had the Americans done so, they surely would have been routed.

***

Let’s imagine Revolutionary soldiers did obey the order exactly as stated. When would they be allowed to shoot? At what distance can a person see the whites of another person’s eyes?

Try this experiment. Have someone charge at you, then signal when you can see the whites of the aggressor’s eyes. Have a third party note the spot and measure how close it is to you. If you actually do see the whites of eyes at more than ten yards, you have unusually keen vision.

Now repeat the experiment in a battlefield simulation. Have hundreds of people march toward you in full battle gear and kicking up dust, or if that is too difficult to arrange, settle for just a dozen or two marching toward you with long sticks to represent muskets and bayonets, finally breaking their rhythmic gait into a rapid assault. At what point, exactly, can you see the whites of the eyes of the enemy? Five yards? Perhaps less? Certainly not much more. Do you really wish to wait that long until you fire? How could you and your compatriots possibly reload for a second volley?

Once, an American officer did insist that soldiers hold their fire till the enemy was only about ten yards away. On May 29, 1780, at Waxhaws, South Carolina, Colonel Abraham Buford ordered his troops not to shoot until the British legion was almost upon them. The single volley proved insufficient to stop the charge, and the patriots were immediately overrun.[2] One hundred thirteen patriots were killed immediately and another 203 were captured, most of whom had been wounded. British losses, by contrast, were only five killed and twelve wounded. This real-life experiment at close firing failed miserably.

According to depositions of those who participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill, American officers issued many commands: “Fire low.” “Aim at their waistbands.” “Pick off the commanders.” “Aim at the handsome coats.” “Powder must not be wasted.” “Wait until you see the white of their eyes.”[3] By highlighting this last one, we present the Revolutionary War as a very personalized affair. Those were the days, we imagine, when a man could look another man directly in his eyes before shooting him down.

Battle of Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle
Battle of Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle

Sometimes, a Revolutionary soldier could see into the whites of the eyes of the enemy, but far more often, he could not. At Bunker Hill, patriots had to brave bombardment from across the river in Boston and from men-of-war and gun batteries anchored offshore. All the firsthand accounts by patriots feature the terror caused by the enemy’s distant fire. The cannon shot “buzzed around us like hail” and “were incessantly whistling by us,” wrote John Chester.[4] “From Boston and from the ships,” wrote Peter Brown, the British were “firing and throwing bombs, keeping us down till they got almost around us.” The “brisk” fire from distant weapons “caused some of our young country people to desert.”[5] William Prescott complained about the “very heavy cannonading and bombardment” and the “very warm fire from the enemy’s artillery,” which the patriots had to endure while working on their fortifications.[6] “Our men were not used to cannon-balls,” William Tudor confessed to John Adams, “and they came so thick from the ships, floating batteries, &c., that they were discouraged from advancing.”[7]

One of the most vivid accounts of the Battle of Bunker Hill comes from Issachar Bates, who had just enlisted in the army at the age of seventeen:

We had to take our full share of their hot metal—of Cannon Balls—Grape and Cannister shot— … I could see them great nasty porridge pots flying thro’ the air & cramed as full of Devils as they could hold, come whispering along with its blue tail in the day time, and its firey tail by night and if it burst in the air it would thro its hellish stuff all about ones ears, and if it fell to the ground it would hop about just as if the verry Devil was in it, until it bursted and then look out for shins and all above and at the same times cannon balls flying about once a minuit.[8]

Such was the terror of impersonal warfare. Deeply affected by “these wicked inventions of men to shed blood and bring destruction upon their fellow creatures,” Bates became a pacifist and later joined the Shaker sect.[9]

The initial contemporary accounts referred to Bunker Hill as a defeat for the Americans. Patriots, however, placed an interesting spin on this defeat. Soon after the battle, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety issued a report that claimed a moral victory: “Though the officers and soldiers of the ministerial army meanly exult in having gained this ground,” wrote the Committee, “they cannot but attest to the bravery of our troops.” The carnage inflicted upon the British, it claimed, had “blasted” all previous records. “Such a slaughter was, perhaps, never before made upon British troops.”[10]

Crucial to the positive spin placed on the defeat was the willingness of the rebels to hold their ground against thousands of disciplined Redcoats. Despite glistening bayonets pointed at them, the committee declared, the inexperienced American troops had not panicked. They had obeyed their officers’ orders to withhold fire. With ammunition scarce, no shots had been wasted. Not until the British “came within ten or twelve rods,” wrote the Committee of Safety, did the Americans commence their first volley. On the second charge, they waited till the enemy was “five or six rods” away, still about 30 yards. (One rod is 16.5 feet, so “ten or twelve rods” translates to 165 to 198 feet, or 55 to 66 yards, and “five or six rods” to 82.5 to 99 feet, or 27.5 to 33 yards.) [11]

Setting a proscribed distance was critical to the moral of the story, but the precise words of the commanding officer were of little account. In retrospect, Americans did effectively win the battle because patriot soldiers had held their fire and held their ground; British officers, knowing this, would never stage another full-fledged offensive during the siege of Boston. Cold, hard numbers confirmed the patriots’ discipline. A figure-of-speech command by American officers would have proved nothing.

None of the Revolutionary era historians—William Gordon, David Ramsay, John Marshall, or Mercy Otis Warren—mentioned anything about “the whites of their eyes.” In 1788 David Humphreys published a biography of Israel Putnam, the officer who was later said to have issued the order.  Humphreys said not a word about the command at Bunker Hill that would later be tied to Putnam’s name.[12] Mason Weems, of Washington-and-the-cherry-tree fame, did mention “the white of their eyes,” but other popular historians declined to follow suit.[13]

Virtually all the history textbooks in the first half of the Nineteenth Century specified the distances that separated the opposing forces during the first and second volleys, for these constituted proof that the patriots had both followed orders and displayed great courage in the face of the advancing Redcoats—but those distances, although varying somewhat from one account to the next, were several times greater than five yards, the point at which the whites of an enemy’s eyes might first become visible in combat situations.[14] Not until after the Civil War, with its mass slaughter, did textbook accounts of the Revolution begin to incorporate the story into the core national narrative.

Significantly, most modern renditions leave out the actual distances between the armies at the time the Americans opened fire. In the absence of concrete numbers, which the early accounts had scrupulously included, we are left only with the evidence of our senses to interpret the now-famous command. Advancing British soldiers must have been at extremely close range, we assume, if the patriots could see into their eyes. Since the distances mentioned in contemporaneous accounts would contradict this assumption, they are conveniently omitted.

If only we could believe that our nation was born with no man firing his musket before establishing a kind of personal (albeit adversarial) relationship with the enemy. People do not state this directly, but unthinkingly, by including the “whites of their eyes” tale within the popular narrative of our nation’s founding, Americans find it easier to justify and even celebrate the purposive killing that occurred in the Revolutionary War, and by informal proxy, in wars generally.

 


[1] Prince Charles of Prussia supposedly issued it in 1745, as did Frederick the Great in 1757. They were probably not the only ones. During the Revolution itself, other officers at other battles were said to have spoken these words. (Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George, They Never Said It [New York: Oxford University Press, 1989], 106; Tom Burnham, Dictionary of Misinformation [New York: Crowell, 1975], 69–70; Lyman C. Draper, King’s Mountain and Its Heroes [Cincinnati: Peter G. Thomson, 1881], 107.)

[2] David K. Wilson, The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775–1780 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 254; James Piecuch, “Massacre or Myth: Banastre Tarleton at the Waxhaws, May 29, 1780,” Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution 1:2 (October, 2004), URL: http://www.southerncampaign.org/newsletter/v1n2.pdf  Americans often point to the “massacre” at Waxhaws as an example of British cruelty. Whether or not Tarleton’s men killed soldiers trying to surrender, as patriots later claimed, the battle certainly revealed the ugly face of close combat. When soldiers fought each other with swords, musket butts, and bayonets, battles were likely to turn into slaughters. If “the whites of their eyes” were actually sighted, things could turn nasty indeed.

[3] Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1903; reprint edition, Da Capo Press, 1970; first published in 1849), 140.

[4] John Chester to Joseph Fish, July 22, 1775, in Frothingham, Siege of Boston, 391.

[5] Peter Brown to his mother, June 25, 1775, in Frothingham, Siege of Boston, 392.

[6] William Prescott to John Adams, August 25, 1775, in Frothingham, Siege of Boston, 395.

[7] William Tudor to John Adams, June 26, 1775, in Frothingham, Siege of Boston, 396.

[8] Issachar Bates, The Revolutionary War (Old Chatham, NY: Shaker Museum Foundation, 1960; originally published in 1833), np.

[9] Many others of the Revolutionary generation, like Bates, detested the brutalities of war. Approximately 80,000 people, one in every thirty free Americans, were members of pacifistic religious sects that opposed the taking of human life.

[10] Frothingham, Siege of Boston, 382–384.

[11] Frothingham, Siege of Boston, 140-143.

[12] David Humphreys, An Essay on the Life of the Honorable Major Israel Putnam (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1788), 103. Putnam, at the time, was almost as renowned as Washington. This was the first biography of an American written by an American.

[13] Mason L. Weems, The Life of George Washington (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1962; reprint of ninth edition, published in 1809), 74–75.

[14] Paul Allen in 1819 followed Marshall’s estimate of 100 yards; Charles Goodrich in 1823 wrote “within twelve rods”; Salma Hale in 1822 shortened it to “within ten rods”; Noah Webster in 1833 used the official Committee of Safety numbers, ten to twelve rods. Richard Hildreth, a conscientious scholar writing in 1849, set the distance at “within a hundred yards.” Even George Bancroft, a popular historian fond of direct quotations and folksy dialogue, said nothing about “the whites of their eyes.” Instead, he offered two contemporaneous estimates: “within eight rods, as [William] Prescott afterwards thought,” and “within ten or twelve rods as the committee of safety of Massachusetts wrote.” (Paul Allen, A History of the American Revolution, Comprising all the Principle Events both in the Field and the Cabinet [Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1819], I: 259; Charles A. Goodrich, History of the United States of America [Hartford: Barber and Robinson, 1823], 158; Salma Hale, History of the United States, from their First Settlement as Colonies, to the Close of the War with Great Britain in 1815 [New York: Collins and Hannay, 1822], 151; Noah Webster, History of the United States [New Haven: Durric & Peck, 1833]; Richard Hildreth, The History of the United States of America [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880, first published 1849], 3: 83; George Bancroft, History of the United States of America, from the Discovery of the Continent [Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1879; first published 1834–1874], 4:615.)

Written By
More from Ray Raphael

The True Start of the American Revolution

Myth: The American Revolution started at Lexington and Concord on April 19,...
Read More

4 Comments

  • I enjoyed your article on ‘Whites of their eyes’ and myth busting in general. I did not understand your final sentence which seemed to have no contributory effect other than an expression of opinion. You’re certainly entitled to your opinion but I’d change your “we” to “I” and “us” to “my” for purposes of accuracy.

    • Thanks. Steven, for pointing out the confusion the last paragraph, as written, can create. My use of “we” and “us” is ironic; the “whites of their eyes” does not help me personally justify war, which I believe is by definition brutal, although sometimes necessary. But irony can be confusing, as it seems to be in this case. Taking advantage of the pliability of the Internet, and hoping to speak more precisely, I will change the final paragraph to:

      “If only we could believe that our nation was born with no man firing his musket before establishing a kind of personal (albeit adversarial) relationship with the enemy. People do not state this directly, but unthinkingly, by including the “whites of their eyes” tale within the popular narrative of our nation’s founding, Americans find it easier to justify and even celebrate the purposive killing that occurred in the Revolutionary War, and by informal proxy, in wars generally.”

      (For those reading this comment after the change was made, the original version read: “We would like to believe that our nation was born with no man firing his musket before establishing a kind of personal (if adversarial) relationship with the enemy. Including the “whites of their eyes” tale within the popular narrative of our nation’s founding helps us justify and even celebrate the purposive killing inherent in war.”)

  • “If only we could believe that our nation was born with no man firing his musket before establishing a kind of personal (albeit adversarial) relationship with the enemy.”

    There was very little “personal relationship” with 18th century warfare. The understood tactic was to group men and create a coordinated and concentrated wall of fire that intensified the effectiveness of the relatively inaccurate musket. Aiming directly at an individual was an afterthought. It was more important to fire rapidly and in synch with the other members of your unit. If you were hit by a musket ball this was seen as an unfortunate act of God rather than the specific targeting by an enemy combatant.

    The introduction of the American rifle and its ability to accurately target specific men (officers) was a controversial and uncommon tactic for its day. Riflemen were seen by British as murderers. Having said this however, there were no known riflemen at Bunker Hill.

  • I was wondering if someone could explain the low british casualty rate at Waxhaws. It just seems so unbelievable (according to wikipedia) that the British suffered only 17 casuaties from a more or less point blank volley from 400 ish Americans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *