For abandoning his post at Bunker Hill, Captain John Callender was court-martialed and cashiered—but he refused to remain a coward.
June 17, 1775, was a mixed bag at best for the Continental Army, which Congress had officially established only three days earlier. By the end of the day the Americans, though they had inflicted hugely disproportionate casualties on their Redcoat opponents, had lost the Battle of Bunker Hill, their first real stand-up fight against the British in the American Revolution. But it was a particularly bad day for Captain John Callender, a 27-year old Boston lawyer serving as a battery commander in the Massachusetts Artillery Regiment. Callender’s less than heroic actions under fire would earn him a court-martial.
The opening battles of the Revolutionary War, at Lexington and Concord on April 19, had been little more than brief firefights followed by running skirmishes as British forces withdrew to Boston (see “First Blood, 1775,” in the July 2010 issue). A combined colonial force of more than 15,000 troops soon cut off all landward approaches to the city, though the British maintained control of the harbor and access to the sea. On June 16 the colonists moved to occupy the Charlestown Peninsula, less than a half-mile north of Boston across the Charles River. Its 62-foot Breed’s Hill overlooked the city, with the 110-foot Bunker Hill looming just behind it.
Moving under cover of darkness, the 1,200-man American occupation force commanded by Colonel William Prescott marched down narrow Charlestown Neck from Cambridge and fanned out on Breed’s Hill to dig trenches and artillery revetments. Their orders had been to fortify the higher Bunker Hill, but once they arrived on the peninsula, senior Patriot commanders on the ground decided Breed’s offered the better position. It was closer to Boston with clearer fields of fire.
Instrumental in the decision to occupy the more forward position was Colonel Richard Gridley, the American chief engineer and commander of the Massachusetts Artillery Regiment. A highly respected veteran of the French and Indian Wars—having participated in the 1745 British siege of Louisbourg Fortress and in Maj. Gen. James Wolfe’s 1759 attack on Quebec—Gridley was widely regarded as the most experienced and knowledgeable military officer on the American side. But in 1775 he was also 65 years old and unwell.
The British commanders could not afford to let the Americans fortify Charlestown Peninsula. At midday on the 17th they ferried troops across the river in longboats from Boston, landing unopposed on the eastern nose of the peninsula at about 2 p.m. Meanwhile, Patriot troops continued to stream across the neck and occupy the high ground. Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam, the overall American commander, quickly established his headquarters on Bunker Hill, but disorganization and chaos reigned behind the American lines. Gridley’s guns and crews were among the last units to arrive before the British started the assault. Commanding the three batteries, each with two 6-pounders, were Callender, Captain Samuel Trevett and Captain Samuel Gridley, son of the regimental commander.
As the American gun crews crossed Charlestown Neck to the peninsula, they came under fire from British warships and were already rattled by the time they reached high ground. Callender’s and Gridley’s batteries defended the main American redoubt atop Breed’s Hill, while Trevett’s battery moved to a hastily constructed position on the east slope to cover the Mystic River approaches.
Once the gunners had unlimbered their pieces and manhandled them into the revetments, Callender and the younger Gridley were stunned to discover that engineers had failed to cut firing embrasures into the breastworks wall. It was an incomprehensible oversight for an artilleryman of Colonel Gridley’s experience. Having few alternatives, the gunners shoved the muzzles of their pieces right up against the hardpacked dirt wall and fired point-blank with solid iron shot to open up firing gaps. They then used shovels to widen the gaps and provide proper fields of fire.
British ships, meanwhile, continued to pound the American positions. One of the rounds mangled an American soldier outside the redoubt, just over the wall from Callender. It was the first time he had seen a man die in combat, and it shook him badly. As the red-coated regulars below the heights formed up for their attack, the flashes of sunlight on their bayonets further unnerved the Patriot defenders. Few of the American infantrymen had bayonets, and Callender and his fellow officers had only light swords to defend themselves if the fighting went to close quarters.
The American commanders called for reinforcements, especially more guns. But the bulk of their artillery remained on the Cambridge side of the neck, under the command of Major Scarborough Gridley, another of the regimental commander’s sons. With the neck under constant fire from British warships, the younger Gridley ignored repeated orders to move the guns forward, choosing instead to sit tight and pop off ineffectual shots against the British ships.
Observing the British from the forward redoubt on Breed’s Hill, Prescott knew he could wait no longer for reinforcements to dribble forward. He ordered an aide to borrow a horse from the artillery and ride to the rear with an urgent request for support. But both Callender and Samuel Gridley refused to give the aide a horse, claiming that were the artillery forced to withdraw, the lack of the horse would unbalance the team and force abandonment of that gun. After arguing futilely with the two battery commanders, the disgusted messenger started for the rear on foot.
The first British assault sought to envelop the left flank of the American position, but troops under Colonel John Stark beat back that attack with deadly fire support from Trevett’s battery. The second British assault was a frontal attack straight up Breed’s Hill against the American redoubt. Even as the Redcoats were forming up, panic gripped the two Patriot battery commanders. Gridley grumbled that one of his guns had been disabled, while Callender claimed the round shot in his ammunition chests was too large to fit the bores of his guns.
As the British advanced, the American artillery opened fire, but the defending infantrymen held their fire, waiting for the range to close. Just before the Patriot muskets opened up, one of the artillery officers waved his hat around his head three times and ordered the guns to cease firing. The panicky gunners then hauled their pieces out of the revetments with drag ropes, hooked them to the jittery teams and headed for the rear. Gripped with terror, the cannoneers ran behind the horses and guns.
Watching the shameful spectacle from Bunker Hill, Putnam personally intercepted the fleeing artillery, ordering them, “Get back to the redoubt where you belong!” Callender insisted he was out of ammunition, but Putnam wasn’t buying it. Opening up the side boxes on the carriage trails of the 6-pounders, he found them full of balls. “Old Put,”as his troops called him, flew into a rage, lashing fleeing artillerymen with his tongue and beating some of them with the flat of his sword. Reluctantly they turned back toward the fight, but the minute they were out of the general’s sight, they abandoned their guns and ran headlong toward Charlestown Neck and the relative safety of Cambridge. A frustrated Putnam finally took the powder from the artillery ammunition chests and distributed it to the infantrymen, who were running short.
The Americans managed to bloodily repulse this second assault, but the third British attack finally carried Breed’s Hill. Neither Callender nor the younger Gridley saw any of it. They were long gone. Once the redoubt fell, the Americans —now without artillery support—withdrew under pressure, first to Bunker Hill and ultimately from the peninsula. The elder Gridley, though ill, pulled together a scratch crew and manned one abandoned gun until wounded. His men carried him back to Cambridge. The old warhorse had managed to survive the battle with his honor intact, but neither his regiment nor his two sons could say the same.
An after-action investigation of the battle focused on the collapse and defection of the artillery. Out of respect for Colonel Gridley’s long and distinguished service in the earlier colonial wars of North America, Continental commanders gently eased him out of his position as chief of artillery, replacing him with an energetic young Bostonian bookseller named Henry Knox. They allowed Gridley to retain his title as chief engineer for another year. Both of Gridley’s sons were remanded for court-martial. Scarborough Gridley was dismissed from service on Sept. 24, 1775, for breach of orders. The court, citing his youth and inexperience, left the way open for him to regain his commission. Samuel Gridley was tried the following month for “backwardness in the execution of his duty,” but the court dismissed the charges and released the young captain.
It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that court officials handled the Gridley brothers leniently to spare their father further public humiliation. But John Callender was not as fortunate. Lacking the Gridleys’ connections, he bore the full blame for the American artillery failure at Bunker Hill. The court-martial board, comprising a colonel and 12 captains, convened on June 27, just 10 days after the battle. It repeatedly contrasted Callender’s dismal conduct with the sterling performance of Captain Samuel Trevett, who had fought his battery to the last round of ammunition in its chests. Trevett lost one gun to the pursuing British but managed to get his other gun off the field.
The board convicted Callender of cowardice in the face of the enemy and sentenced him to be dismissed from the service, the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge for an officer. General George Washington, who had since arrived to assume command of the Continental Army, personally reviewed Callender’s conviction. In the first general order Washington issued from his Cambridge headquarters, on July 7, 1775, he wrote:
It is with inexpressible concern that the general, upon his first arrival in the Army, should find an officer sentenced by a general court-martial to be cashiered for cowardice—a crime of all others the most infamous in a soldier, the most injurious to an army and the last to be forgiven, inasmuch as it may, and often does, happen that the cowardice of a single officer may prove the destruction of the whole army.
Washington concluded by ordering, “Captain John Callender is accordingly cashiered and dismissed from all further service in the Continental Army as an officer.” Some of Callender’s fellow officers considered the punishment too light, believing he should have been condemned to a firing squad.
In the wake of his court-martial Callender desperately looked for a way to redeem himself. There was one path open to him, but it was a hard one. The terms of his sentence did not specifically bar him from enlisting in the ranks. The fledgling Continental Army needed every soldier it could get, and Callender was a technically proficient artilleryman who would require no additional training. Not even attempting to conceal his identity, Callender in March 1776 enlisted as a private in a volunteer artillery company.
Knox, meanwhile, had performed the remarkable feat of transporting 59 pieces of captured British heavy artillery from Fort Ticonderoga in upper New York across the harsh New England winter landscape to Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston. The British suddenly found themselves heavily outgunned with little choice but to evacuate by sea, which they did on March 17. The Continental Army then started marching southwest toward New York City, which the British were certain to attack next.
As the Army slowly made its way toward New York, Callender’s fellow soldiers initially treated him with contempt. He was, after all, a convicted coward and a cashiered officer. But his skill and knowledge of the guns soon won him grudging respect. Nonetheless, Callender remained haunted by the nagging doubt of how he would act when he came under fire again.
Once Knox’s artillery force reached the Connecticut shore, it boarded ferries bound for New York City, where it linked up with local artillery units. Washington, however, misread British intentions, believing General William Howe would initially strike the city itself. Knox emplaced most of the 100-plus American guns in mutually supporting positions at the Battery, on the south tip of Manhattan, and on Brooklyn Heights, directly across the East River. To cover the landward approaches on Long Island, he reserved just six guns, including the two 6-pounders of Callender’s unit. Early on August 22 Howe landed the first of 20,000 troops at The Narrows, on the southwestern tip of Long Island. It was now clear he intended to attack Brooklyn Heights from the landward side. Supporting the mixed British-Hessian force were 40 pieces of artillery. It was now the Americans who were vastly outgunned.
Howe launched his attack on Aug. 27, 1776, spearheaded by Hessian infantry under Lt. Gen. Leopold Philip von Heister. It marked the first time Germans and Americans fought each other in combat. Overwhelmed by the combined British-Hessian artillery battalions, the American guns returned fire as best they could. As Patriot gunners dropped on either side of him, Callender continued serving his piece. A good artillery crew could reload and fire a 6-pounder almost as fast as a musket, and Callender worked furiously. But the Hessian infantry soon approached the American positions with fixed bayonets.
With all of the officers and a number of the gunners down, Callender assumed command of the battery as they switched from solid shot to canister. Several of the surviving gunners started to break, but Callender, though wounded himself, held them in place by the force of his example. As the Hessians closed within yards of his battery, Callender alone remained by his piece, working the rammer to reload another round. Just as several Hessian soldiers moved to run Callender through, a British officer, impressed by the gunner’s courage, stepped in and waved off the German infantrymen with his sword.
After overrunning the thin American outer defenses, the British pressed on toward Brooklyn Heights. But the gallant stand of the defensive screen, particularly the handful of American guns, helped slow the British attack and bought Washington vital time.
Knox wrote to his wife of his men’s courage: “I have met with some losses in my regiment. They fought like heroes and are gone to glory.” The British marched off Callender as a prisoner of war, but his heroic stand did not go unrecognized. When Washington learned the details, he personally ordered Callender’s court-martial erased from the orderly book and his captain’s commission restored. The redeemed officer remained a prisoner of war until January 1777, when he was exchanged for a British lieutenant. Callender was then assigned to Colonel John Crane’s 3rd Continental Artillery Regiment, which later fought at Saratoga and Monmouth. He served through the end of the war and was mustered out of service in June 1784.
After the war Callender briefly resumed his law practice in Boston before moving to Alexandria, Va., where he became a merchant. He died in Alexandria on Oct. 12, 1797, at age 50. In later life his most cherished distinction was his membership in the Society of the Cincinnati, the association of Continental Army officers organized by Henry Knox that remains active today. Life offers few second chances, but John Callender worked hard to earn his redemption—and then made the most of it.
For further reading David Zabecki recommends Now We Are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill, by Thomas J. Fleming, and Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill, by Richard M. Ketchum.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.