OT: War of 1812

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu May 27 23:08:30 UTC 2010

I am not taking LH seriously--at least, not this time. Still, need to
look up "whites of their eyes". The phrase has been routinely
attributed to at least two, possibly three officers at the Battle of
Bunker Hill. (see below)

However, during the search, there appear to be two antecedents, both
of Prussian origin. Also note the fact that I found no mention of the
phrase in association with Bunker Hill prior to the publication of
Swett's account of Bunker Hill (1819?) and a subsequent "Notes to His
Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle" (1825) (the attribution to Putnam
appears specifically in the latter), /and/ the fact that much of the
account was collected post-fact from recollections of survivors many
years later. I am going by second-hand 1826 review of the book
[http://bit.ly/9ltfJn], so I don't know if the original has the
specific dates on which the interviews had been collected. One
interviewee mentioned the phrase but said he did not hear it from
Putnam directly, but from someone else who claimed to have heard the
orders that came from Putnam. Another interviewee attributed the
phrase directly to Putnam (the "marksmen" quote below).

A book about American history. By George William Stimpson. 1950
pp. 117-9
> Who said: "Don't fire till you see the whites of their eyes"?
> According to tradition, this was the command given by the Colonial officers at Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.
> ...
> "Silent, till you see the whites of their eyes" is reputed to have been the command of Prince Charles of Prussia when his troops attacked the Austrians at Jagendorf on May 23, 1745.

 There is yet another attribution on p. 119. Since I have not seen the
actual book, I can only guess that Stimpson disputed the Bunker Hill

Dictionary of military and naval quotations. By Robert Debs Heinl. 1966
Fire Discipline. p. 116/2
> By push of bayonets--no firing till you see the whites of their eyes.
> Frederick The Great: At Prague, 6 May 1757
> Silent till you see the whites of their eyes.
> Prince Charles of Prussia: At Jagerndorf, 23 May 1745
> Don't fire 'til you see the whites of their eyes.
> William Prescott: Order at Bunker Hill, 17 June 1775
> Men, you are all marksmen--don't one of you fire until you see the white of their eyes.
> Israel Putnam: Order at Bunker Hill, relaying Prescott's order using the same phrase (cf. Prescott ante), 17 June 1775
> Boys, aim at their waistbands.
> John Stark: Order at Bunker Hill. 17 June 1775

Missing from the last Putnam quote is the explanation of "marksmen":
"You can take a squirrel from the tallest tree." The same interviewee
who attributed the full line to Putnam, also claimed that Putnam said,
subsequently, "Aim at the officers." One person who repeatedly
propagated the alleged Putnam quote was Alexander Everett. In the
biography of Joseph Warren (1839), he combined the two quotes into a
single one. [http://bit.ly/bQuImp] At some point along the way, the
"enemy within eight rods" was also incorporated into the same quote.

For the Prescott reference we may have Washington Irving and Cooper to
thank. [http://bit.ly/d0A9vQ] I found nothing connecting the quote to
Prescott prior to the Knickerbocker mention of it by quoting Cooper's
text. Everett suggests that the "substance" of the Putnam quote was
transmitted by others, including Prescott, but he does not say that
Prescott gave a similar order. Everett's attribution to Prescott is
for, "Fire again before word is given at your peril." But Swett
(1827--perhaps a volume combining and summarizing the other two)
actually did mention Prescott, although not literally putting the
quote in his mouth: "The same orders were reiterated by Prescott at
the redoubt, by Pomeroy, Stark, and all the veteran officers." More
specifically, the description that precedes this line is, "Powder was
scarce and must not be wasted. They should not fire at the enemy till
they saw the whites 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."
[http://bit.ly/dALlGG] This is actually interesting because it
combines multiple versions and multiple quotes, all normally
attributed to different individuals (see above). This is usually a
sure sign of a fictionalized account. The problem is that this is one
of the earliest complete accounts, so it would be particularly
interesting to trace the differences in attribution over the years.

I've seen similar dynamics before. In the Soviet hagiography and
martyrology, it was common to not only conflate multiple accounts
under some fictionalized biography, but also to "borrow" previously
published fiction for biographical sketches of fearless leaders. In
one volume (there is a reason I recall this one in particular--if you
want to know why, ask offlist), a Tolstoy short story was convolved
with Lenin's biography, the only difference being that used cherries
to make the point while the other used plums.

Given the combined strength of all the sources, I'd venture a guess
that the Bunker Hill testimonial was apocryphal from the start and
influenced by the reports of the Prussian battles. It would be nice to
consult some German sources to see if those two are also
apocryphal--too much of a coincidence for the two of them to be
reported 12 years apart. Oh, goodie--more for Joel and Garson to do

As for Tchaikovsky, that was an entirely different War of 1812, one
for the bicentennial of which the Russians are strenuously preparing
for as we speak. Speaking of losing wars and burning capitals--Moscow
burned down in 1812 while Napoleon was there. I don't recall Napoleon
winning the war (although, of course, the seat of government was a bit
further north).


PS: There is a contemporary play (1970?) that uses ALL the catch
phrases in a dialogue.

On Thu, May 27, 2010 at 3:37 PM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at yale.edu> wrote:
> I was thinking either "Don't fire till you see the whites of their
> eyes" or "I have not yet begun to fight", but maybe those were both
> from the Revolutionary War.  "In 1814 we took a little trip, along
> with Col. Jackson down the mighty Mississip?"  No, that was actually
> after the war was over, and it's not exactly a saying.  "Damn the
> torpedoes, full speed ahead"?

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list