Snapshots of Oxfordshire’s Military History and the United States of America
The Regiment and the American War of Independence
The English people began settling in North America in the 1580s. By the 1770s there were colonies all along the Atlantic coast. Many of the people who lived in these colonies had been born in America. Although the colonists and the British together fought the French in Canada and combined in a series of wars against the native Americans they did not feel they should not have to obey the English King in London, or pay taxes to the British treasury. The ‘Patriot’ movement grew and when each colony set up its own government in 1774, Britain and the Patriots went to war.
Bunker Hill 1775
Boston was an important port and capital of Massachusetts. The British Governor, General Thomas Gage, was based here along with ten battalions of infantry, a battalion of marines and the Royal Navy.
The infantry at Bunker Hill included men from the 43rd and 52nd Regiments of Foot, fighting together for the first time. More than a hundred years later the two regiments combined to form the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
In June 1775 trouble was brewing and a column was sent out from Boston to seize arms held by the local militia at the settlements of Lexington and Concord. There were a series of skirmishes and the column, which included the 43rd had to withdraw to Boston. The Patriot army gathered to the north of Boston. Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, on the Charleston peninsula jutting out into the Charles River, stood between the Americans and the British in Boston. Whichever side captured the hills first would be able to dominate the harbour.
The British planned to send a force of marines and foot soldiers across the river to capture Bunker Hill. The Americans anticipated the plan and moved first, taking Breed’s Hill on 13 June. They quickly set to work building earthworks round the top of the hill. At dawn on 17 June a British sentry spotted the earthworks and raised the alarm. The British generals ordered an attack.
“On the 17th June 1775 at daybreak, we saw from Boston the Americans hard at work on Charleston Heights. They had thrown up a redoubt during the night, and were making a breast work right across the peninsula...
We embarked at Charleston Ferry, and crossed over immediately to Charleston Point... the redoubt and breast work being manned by the enemy, and reinforcements arriving every minute from the American camp at Cambridge: at one o'clock the action began. The 5th, 38th and 52nd attacked the redoubt supported by the marines.”
The 43rd and 52nd had to cross rising ground, marsh and fences and had no cover from the defenders’ fire until they had almost reached the redoubt.
“In this situation we remained for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour before they gave way. Major Williams who commanded the 52nd received five wounds, and was lying about ten yards from the redoubt in great agony... A general retreat took place as soon as we got possession of the redoubt... and we were left in full possession of all the works and peninsula, but it was a very dear bought victory...
I shall never forget the night of 17th June. The cries of the wounded of the enemy, Charleston on fire, and the recollection of the loss of so many friends, was a very trying scene for so young a soldier...”
Martin Hunter Ensign 52nd Foot.
Historically there were two attacks – the first along the northern shore in an attempt to outflank the redoubt. This was by the Light Infantry and Grenadier Companies brigaded together in column. It failed, coming up against two obstacles - the so-called “Rail Fence” and the “Fleches” on the side of the hill. This was followed by the frontal attack on the redoubt which drove the Americans out and off the hill. The casualties were severe and Boston was eventually given up on the grounds that the British could not sustain the garrison. It was an attempt to apply “European” battlefield tactics in America. The British won the battle but lost the war.
It dragged on, and as we know from the 52nd button found at the base of the World Trade Centre after 9/11, the 52nd also fought on Manhattan Island in 1776.
The Regiment and 9/11
In July 2010, workers excavating the site of the an underground vehicle security center for the future World Trade Center (WTC) hit a 32 foot hull section of a wooden ship. Silt and mud were cleared away by hand from the timbers and just five days were allowed for Archaeologists to remove the vessel and any associated artefacts before construction work on the new structure continued.
Everything found during the excavation appeared to be from the 18th or 19th century. After initial analysis of the artefacts, it was estimated the vessel sank between 1775 and 1830. Hundreds of individual artefacts were found, including 251 pieces of lead birdshot, 56 musket balls, and 1 small cannon ball from a four-pounder cannon. This cannon was French in origin, and we know they were supplying the Americans during the Revolutionary War.
A further 3 gun spalls, 4 pieces of grape shot and a single silver coin were recovered from the site.
However, only one artefact found could be associated specifically with the military; a British 52 nd Regiment of Foot pewter button, of a type that would have belonged to a Private serving with the Regiment.
As well as their involvedment at Bunker Hill alongside the 43rd, the 52 nd was very active during the Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1778.
They participated in Lexington and Concord; the Siege of Boston; Long Island; Pell’s Point; White Plains and the occupation of Newport, Rhodes Island; Fort Washington; Princeton; Brandywine; Fort Montgomery; occupation of Philapdehia; Monmouth Courthouse, and the retreat to Sandy Hook and New York.
They were last stationed in New York until 1778 and it's possible the ship found at the World Trade Centre was used to ferry troops from the dock to the British Warships in Raritan Bay.
Finding the button has meant that the sinking of the vessel is estimated to have happened be no later than 1775.
The button remains in the United States on display. We hope that one day it will return to its regimental home.