“Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” is one of the most famous quotations to come out of the Revolutionary War. According to hallowed American tradition, the provincial commander at the Battle of Bunker Hill bellowed those words to his soldiers, warning them to preserve their gunpowder until their muskets could do the most damage to the British regulars.
Phrased in that way, the order to hold fire gained poetic qualities that make it memorable: assonance (those long I sounds) and hyperbole (no provincials literally waited until they could see the enemy’s eyeballs). Since ultimately the British chased the provincials off the field, remembering how American fighters had bravely watched the redcoats march closer and closer erased some of the sting of losing.
For over a century, American popular culture attributed the “whites of their eyes” line to Col. Israel Putnam of Connecticut. In more recent decades, however, a new pattern emerged. Many authorities now say that the quotation could be no more than a myth, and that if any officer at Bunker Hill gave that order, it came from Col. William Prescott of Massachusetts. This article examines how that quotation became popular, how scholars developed doubts about it, and finally what the printed record tells us about its actual origin in the eighteenth century.
The book that promulgated the “whites of their eyes” story most widely in early America was Mason Weems’s Life of George Washington. The 1808 edition of that bestseller stated:
As with his legends of young Washington and the cherry tree and middle-aged Washington praying in the snow, Weems included no source for this anecdote. But his biography was immensely popular in the early republic and helped to form the public understanding of Bunker Hill.
The next major source for the quotation was Samuel Swett’s “Historical and Topographical Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle,” an appendix to an 1818 edition of David Humphreys’s An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major General Israel Putnam. Swett wrote:
General Putnam rode through the line, and ordered that no one should fire till they [the British soldiers] arrived within eight rods, nor any one till commanded. “Powder was scarce and must not be wasted. They should not fire at the enemy till they saw the white of their eyes, and then fire low, take aim at their waistbands. They were all marksmen, and could kill a squirrel at a hundred yards; reserve their fire, and the enemy were all destroyed. Aim at the handsome coats, pick off the commanders.” The same orders were reiterated by Prescott at the redoubt, by Pomeroy, Stark, and all the veteran commanders.
Swett provided no source for this statement, but he probably relied on a deposition that Revolutionary War veteran Philip Johnson provided in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on August 6, 1818. Swett had that document printed in the Boston Daily Advertiser at the end of 1825. The relevant portion of Johnson’s recollection was:
While he was at the rail fence, and just before the battle commenced, he saw Gen. Putnam on horseback very near him, and distinctly heard him say, “Men, you know you are all marksmen; you can take a squirrel from the tallest tree; don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.”
When Swett issued his Notes to the Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle in 1825, he included a portion of Johnson’s newspaper statement and quotations from two more men who recalled the “whites of their eyes” order:
Elijah Jourdan of “Bucksfield” (now Buckfield, Maine): “While we were waiting for the British to come up the Hill, orders were given to us not to fire till we could see the whites of their eyes; and this order, I was then told, came from Gen. Putnam; but I did not hear it from him.”
John Stevens of Andover, Massachusetts: “Was in the fort. Saw Putnam in the fort before small arms fired; told them, not to fire till they saw the white of their eyes. Threatened to kill some who fired too soon.”
We thus have two men who said they were at the battle and heard Putnam give the “whites of their eyes” order, plus a third who recalled hearing the order credited to him on that day. Those men were not in the same regiments. They described fighting on different parts of the battlefield. After the war they settled in separate towns, hundreds of miles apart. It seems highly unlikely that they coordinated their stories for Putnam’s sake.
Still, those recollections were not enough to convince all historians that Putnam said, “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.” One problem was suspicion about veterans’ colorful tales. In 1842 the Rev. George E. Ellis of Charlestown examined notebooks of testimony taken down from elderly men who came to the fiftieth anniversary of the Bunker Hill battle. He later described those volumes this way:
Their contents were most extraordinary, many of the testimonies extravagant, boastful, inconsistent, and utterly untrue,—mixtures of old men’s broken memories and fond imaginings with the love of the marvellous. Some of those who gave in affidavits about the battle could not have been in it, nor even in its neighborhood. They had got so used to telling the story for the wonderment of village listeners, as grandfathers’ tales, and as petted representatives of “the spirit of ’76,” that they did not distinguish between what they had seen and done and what they had read, heard, or dreamed.
Seen through that lens, the appearance of the “whites of their eyes” phrase in Weems’s biography becomes a red flag for fraud. What if the veterans Swett quoted had tailored their story to fit with that widely published account? With so many Americans already thinking they knew what Putnam had said at Bunker Hill, the old men might have inserted that quotation into their stories to appear more authentic.
A second factor in making historians doubt the story of a “whites of their eyes” order was that it depicted Putnam as issuing a crucial order to all the provincial forces. Exactly which commander was in charge of the New England troops on the battlefield was a topic of long and bitter argument in the nineteenth century. Was it Putnam, Connecticut’s general and hero? Colonel Prescott, in the redoubt? Gen. Seth Pomeroy, in the ranks as a volunteer? Dr. Joseph Warren, who had also been commissioned a general? Indeed, one big limitation of Samuel Swett’s historical work is that instead of printing veterans’ full accounts of the battle, he published material “for the defence of Gen. Putnam, did he need any,” cutting down the quotations to focus on what the old soldiers said about who was in command.
Historians who felt Prescott was the most important battlefield leader therefore had an impetus to doubt the story of Putnam’s instruction and to play it down. In his monumental History of the Siege of Boston, first published in 1849, Richard Frothingham, Jr., listed a variety of orders rather than emphasize only one:
“Powder was scarce, and must not be wasted,” they said; “Fire low;” “Aim at the waistbands;” “Wait until you see the white of their eyes;” “Aim at the handsome coats;” “Pick off the commanders.”
In a footnote Frothingham added, “These phrases occur frequently in the depositions, the same one being often ascribed to different officers.” He then quoted some of the words that Philip Johnson had ascribed Putnam, though not exactly: “Men, you are all marksman—don’t one of you fire until your see the white of their eyes.”
As the centenary of the battle approached, a new voice entered the discussion over the “whites of their eyes” quotation. The influential British historian Thomas Carlyle published his massive biography of Frederick the Great from 1858 to 1865. American readers noticed that Carlyle quoted orders to Prussian soldiers not to shoot “till you see the whites of their eyes” from decades before Bunker Hill. He mentioned forms of that order on three occasions: at the Battle of Mollwitz in 1741, not credited to a particular commander (or cited to a particular source); at the Battle of Jägerndorf in 1745, by Margraf Karl; and at the Battle of Prague in 1757, by Frederick himself.
That publication changed how American authors described the famous quotation. In his section of the Memorial History of Boston(1881), Edward Everett Hale wrote: “All along the American lines the order had been given which the officers remembered in the memoirs of Frederick’s wars: ‘Wait till you can see the whites of their eyes.’” Hale added an explanatory footnote for contemporary readers that began: “Prince Charles, when he cut through the Austrian army, in retiring from Jägendorf, gave this order to his infantry: ‘Silent, till you see the whites of their eyes.’”
There are weak spots in Hale’s analysis. First, he introduced two errors into what Carlyle had written. Hale turned Margraf Karl not into Margrave Carl but “Prince Charles,” and Jägerndorf into “Jägendorf” with only one R. Subsequent authors who relied on Hale instead of checking back further reproduced those errors, showing us the exact spread of his idea that the “whites of their eyes” line was just borrowed from the German.
Secondly, Hale’s telling rested on the idea that the provincial New England officers of 1775 were familiar with the “memoirs of Frederick’s wars.” There is no evidence for that. British colonists with military interests had undoubtedly heard of Frederick the Great’s victories in the Seven Years’ War, but American newspapers almost never quoted Prussian military sources, and American booksellers did not advertise translations of them. No material printed in colonial America quoted Frederick the Great or his subordinates issuing orders with any variations of the “whites of their eyes.” Nonetheless, Hale’s analysis took hold.
As the credulous Colonial Revival gave way to the early-twentieth-century debunking of America’s unsupported historical legends, the traditional story of “the whites of their eyes” appeared very shaky. Allen French exemplified how historians became suspicious of traditions and demanded stronger evidence:
All the late tales give stories of the setting of marks and the measuring of distances, and the warning to hold the fire until the men could see the whites of the eyes, or the buttons, or the gaiters appearing over a rise in the ground . . . But none of these things are told in contemporary stories.
The scholarly consensus now held that the famous quotation may never had been uttered at Bunker Hill after all. If any battlefield commander really did give that command, it had to be Colonel Prescott, regardless of what earlier sources had said about Colonel Putnam. And the quotation wasn’t an American original—those officers were just copying an older German expression.
We see that muddled understanding in recent reference books. For example, The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations attributed the words to Prescott and adds, “Also attributed to Israel Putnam, but he was probably relaying the order from Prescott.” The Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations credited “Don’t fire ’til you see the whites of their eyes” to Prescott and “Men, you are all marksmen—don’t one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes” to Putnam “relaying Prescott’s order.” The Yale Book of Quotations pushed back toward Putnam, citing an 1825 reference while acknowledging the other attributions. In Founding Myths, Ray Raphael noted that the American National Biography reference series quotes the words in its entries on both Putnam and Prescott, the former definitely and the latter as “Tradition has” it.
Some authorities emphasize the legendary aspect of the quotation, saying that neither Putnam nor Prescott nor any other commander spoke that famous line. Paul F. Boller’s They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions lists the traditional quote under Prescott’s name, with no mention of Putnam, but then reports earlier uses by Prussian royalty. The Quote Verifier lists Prescott first “By tradition,” mentions how “Others attribute” the words to Putnam, and concludes that they were “Probably a common military command.” In Men of War, Henry I. Kurtz wrote, “Did anyone say ‘Don’t fire ’till you see the whites of their eyes?’ Probably not.”
The past century of histories of the Bunker Hill battle have also treated the tradition uncertainly. In Now We Are Enemies, Thomas Fleming wrote that the quotation was “All I really knew about” the battle when he began his research, and ultimately he found that “The ‘whites of their eyes’ was not original with Putnam.” Richard M. Ketchum in Decisive Day included the phrase among other orders not quoted directly or ascribed to particular officers. John R. Elting called the line an “old legend” and noted that taking it literally “would be too close for comfort.”
In With Fire and Sword, James T. Nelson quoted Johnson on hearing Putnam say those words but added: “Others would claim to have heard that same order, and it is certainly possible that Putnam said it. It would not have been original to him.” Paul Lockhart titled his study of Bunker Hill after the quotation, but inside he wrote:
Prescott quietly ordered his men to cease fire and to maintain silence. Don’t fire, he cautioned, until the Redcoats draw within thirty yards of the walls. He may—may—have uttered the immortal words, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” The phrase has been attributed to Stark and Putnam, too, but it makes little difference who said it or even if it was said at all. It was common sense, and all the veteran commanders in the American lines would have said the very same thing in different ways.
We have thus reached a cultural consensus that one of the Revolutionary War’s most famous sayings may not have been said at all, and was credited to the wrong person based on questionable evidence and “tradition.”
In fact, the digitization of printed sources that were once difficult to find sheds new light on the famous “whites of their eyes” quotation. It shows:
1) The evidence for that order being given at Bunker Hill predates Mason Weems, and in fact comes closer to the period of the war than the evidence for many other spoken words we attribute to figures of the Revolution.
2) That evidence leads directly to Israel Putnam.
3) The “whites of their eyes” phrase indeed has deeper roots, but they lie not in Prussia but in a tradition of the British military.
The story of the first printing of the “whites of their eyes” story begins back with David Humphreys’s publication of An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major-General Israel Putnam in 1788. In describing the Battle of Bunker Hill (which happened before he became Putnam’s aide), Humphreys did not include the “whites of their eyes” line. In fact, he suggested that the man in charge of the New England forces that day was Dr. Joseph Warren in his new capacity as a Massachusetts major general.
That prompted the Rev. Josiah Whitney to ask Putnam, his most famous parishioner in Brooklyn, Connecticut, about the battle. The retired general said that Doctor Warren had come onto the battlefield as a volunteer and did not presume to take command. Putnam died in 1790, and Whitney described their conversation in a footnote to A Sermon Occasioned by the Death of the Honorable Major-General Israel Putnam, of Brooklyn. This publication did not discuss the “whites of their eyes” quotation either, but it shows that Whitney and Putnam talked about Bunker Hill.
Ten years later, the Rev. Elijah Parish of Byfield, Massachusetts, published An Oration, Delivered at Byfield, February 22d, 1800, the Day of National Mourning for the Death of General George Washington. On page 15 he added a footnote describing the Battle of Bunker Hill. Parish, who originally came from Lebanon, Connecticut, said he had discussed that battle with his older colleague Whitney and from him learned:
Putnam was the commanding officer of the party, who went upon the hill the evening before the action: he commanded in the action: he harangued his men as the British first advanced, charged them to reserve their fire, till they were near, ‘till they could see the white of their eyes,’ were his words.—At the second assault he commended their former calmness, assured them “they would now do much better,” and directed them “to aim at the officers.” They obeyed. The fire was tremendous. ‘My God,’ said Putnam, in telling the story, ‘I never saw such a carnage of the human race.’ These things he related to the Reverend Mr. Whitney, his Minister, by whose permission they are now published.
That story was picked up in The Columbian Phenix and Boston Review magazine in June 1800. Parish repeated the tale with more drama in a history textbook he cowrote in 1804 with the Rev. Dr. Jedidiah Morse, A Compendious History of New England.
Thus, we have a clear line of transmission for the quotation: from Putnam to Whitney between 1788 and 1790, and from Whitney to Parish in the next ten years. Weems probably borrowed from Parish’s textbook to create the even more dramatic form of the story in the 1808 expansion of his life of Washington. Ten years later, Philip Johnson’s deposition provided the now-famous phrasing, “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.” We cannot be sure exactly what Putnam said on the battlefield—indeed, he may have used somewhat different words at different times—but we have solid evidence he used a “whites of their eyes” phrase that many men heard.
That order implies little about who was in command at Bunker Hill. The consensus among historians now is that there was no unified command on the provincial side. Prescott certainly led the contingent in the Breed’s Hill redoubt, the main focus of combat. Col. John Stark of New Hampshire basically had an independent command at the rail fence on another part of the peninsula. And Putnam was riding all round the battlefield—shouting encouragement in one place, helping to load a cannon in another, trying to rally reinforcements off Bunker’s Hill to the rear. In that context, it is certainly plausible for Putnam to have bellowed “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes” and then ridden off to another corner of the field to repeat the instruction. Officers relayed the same orders in their own ways, as Revolutionary War veterans remembered.
But that does not mean Putnam originated the “whites of their eyes” phrase. In fact, there are precedents going back decades within the British military—but not in the army. Rather, holding fire for that long was said to be a tradition of the Royal Navy.
The London magazine The Monitor: or, British Freeholder, for July 10, 1756, included a long letter with this anecdote:
you must needs have heard, Sir Andrew, how the French captains are reported to have addressed their crews in the last war when they spied any of our great ships; “Chear, my good boys; you are in no danger, the ships look formidable indeed, but they have p–l–y captains; very worthy peaceable men, who will do you little harm; possibly they may make a flourish and give you a broadside or two at a distance; but they have dropt their old way of not firing till they see the whites of your eyes.”
The following year, The Monitor for December 10, 1757, referred to the same tradition:
there is no doubt . . . that our admirals would become as terrible, as their predecessors, who never fired till they could see the white of their enemy’s eye, and were not daunted at a superior force.
Those quotations state that even earlier generations of Royal Navy officers established a “whites of their eyes” tradition. Delving deeper into sources of the early eighteenth or even seventeenth centuries might therefore uncover more examples.
The Royal Navy tradition also continued after the American War. On June 14, 1794, the Gentleman’s Magazine published a detailed account of the recent naval battle that became known (in Britain, anyway) as the Glorious First of June. The author, credited as “a Naval Correspondent of high Rank,” described the action like this:
Never was so much havock, and so complete a victory, gained in so short a time. Earl Howe plainly convinced the Sans culottes that he could yet shew them the Old English way of fighting, “not to fire before he could see the whites of their eyes.” The crews of the ships that sunk all perished; a fine gang for Old Davy indeed!
A collection titled The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1797 included an open letter to Lord Chatham, First Lord of the Admiralty, signed “A Yellow Admiral” and said to be taken from the Gazetteer. This letter was supposedly the cause of Chatham’s resignation from the Admiralty, which occurred in December 1794. At one point the letter says:
Was not I with Commodore Elliot, when we took all Thurot’s squadron, after a brisk action of seven glasses? D-mme! we laid them close along-side, and did not fire a gun till we could see the white of their eyes.
The “whites of their eyes” command therefore appears to have developed as a command for the Royal Navy’s cannon crews, not infantrymen. Captains told their men to wait until their warships closed in before unleashing a broadside against the enemy. Israel Putnam may have heard the saying from ships’ officers when he participated in the British attack on Havana in 1762. As for the German phrase, that was probably a simultaneous, independent development within the Prussian army.
Just as Americans celebrate Bunker Hill despite it not being an American victory, we claim “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes” despite it not being an original American saying. But just as the losses sustained at Bunker Hill eventually convinced British commanders to leave Boston, so Americans have waited out older “whites of their eyes” traditions and claimed the quotation for our own.
In this article I call the Battle of Bunker Hill by that traditional name while referring to different parts of the battlefield under their period names of Breed’s Hill and Bunker’s Hill. I thank Yoni Appelbaum, Alexander Rose, Liz Covart, Todd Andrlik, George Wildrick, and others for helping me over the years think through the questions raised by this quotation.
Mason Weems, Life of George Washington (R. Cochran, Philadelphia: 1808), 74-5. Weems did not include that anecdote in the “third edition improved” printed for him by John Bioren in Philadelphia sometime after 1800.
The Boston Daily Advertiser published a letter from Swett enclosing testimony from Joseph Whitmore on December 20, 1825. I could not locate the following days’ issues online, but the New York Daily Advertiserof December 26 reprinted the Philip Johnson letter, saying it came from the Boston newspaper. It is thus apparent that Swett sent both letters to the Boston Daily Advertiser at the same time, and the newspaper published the Johnson document sometime between December 21 and 25.
Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (Boston: Little, Brown, 1849), 140. See also Frothingham, History of Charlestown, Massachusetts (Boston: Little, Brown, 1845), 341.
The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations, Hugh Rawson and Margaret Miner, editors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 48. Formerly published as The American Heritage Dictionary of American Quotations.
Ray Raphael, Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past (New York: New Press, 2004), 200. In his long-reprinted Dictionary of Catch Phrases, the London-based Eric Partridge attributed the line to “the US General Israel Pitman [sic] or, according to other authorities, General Joseph Warren or Colonel William Prescott”; Paul Beale, editor (London: Routledge, 2013), 108.
There are also later accounts based on tradition of the “whites of their eyes” being used by British military officers during the eighteenth century. Examples include Gen. Sir Andrew Agnew at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 (Thomas Maccrie, The Memoirs of Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw [London: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850], 9); Capt. Robert Faulknor, R.N., commanding the Bellonain 1761 (Letter from “W.P.,” Gentleman’s Magazine,76 , 36); and Adm. Lord Hawke at an unspecified date (Horace Walpole and Thomas Park, A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, Scotland, and Ireland [London: John Scott, 1806], 4:397).