Quote: [Battle of Bunker Hill] white of their eyes (attrib Israel Putnam 1804)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 28 06:51:28 UTC 2010

Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes

This famous injunction is discussed in the Yale Book of Quotations and
the Quote Verifier. YBQ lists the following version of the quotation
under Israel Putnam's name based on an 1825 history by S. Swett,
"Notes to His Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle". (I think this is the same
document that Victor Steinbok mentioned earlier.)

"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.

The battle took place in June of 1775. YBQ notes that earlier cites
for battle commands using the phrase "whites of their eyes" exist,
i.e., Prince Charles of Prussia in 1745; Frederick the Great in 1757.

The earliest cite that I have found linking the "eyes" quote and the
Bunker Hill Battle is dated 1804. The attribution is to Putnam and the
word "white" is singular, i.e., "white of their eyes":

Cite: 1804, A Compendious History of New England: Designed for Schools
and Private Families by Jedidiah Morse and Elijah Parish, Chapter
XXVI, Page 342, Printed and Sold by Samuel Etheridge, Charlestown.

In this crisis Putnam made an harangue. He reminded them "that they
were all marksmen; and could bring a squirrel from the highest tree."
He charged them "to be cool, and reserve their fire till the enemy
were near; till they could see the white of their eyes." They obeyed.
At the distance of ten rods, they began a furious discharge of small
arms. The British, whose ranks were thinned, retreated with
precipitation, Again Putnam addressed his men. He told them "they had
done well, and would do much better, and directed them to aim at the
officers." The British returned. The fire was terrible. Their officers
exclaimed, "it is downright butchery to lead the men against the
   In telling the story, "My God," said Putnam, "I never saw such
carnage of the human race."


In the next cite, dated 1810, a travel book writer encounters a man
near the Breed's Hill, who says he was involved in the Battle of
Bunker Hill. The story of the self-described veteran suggests that the
phrase was used in an order from "the American General".

Cite: 1810, Travels through Lower Canada, and the United States of
North America, in the Years 1806, 1807, and 1808 by John Lambert,
Volume 3, Page 132, Richard Phillips, London.

I met there, a man who fought on the day of action, under Generals
Putnam and Warren. He told me, that till that day, he had never
visited the spot since the engagement. ... The American general
ordered them to lie down and preserve their fire. While the British
troops advanced up the hill, until they could see the whites of the
soldiers' eyes. This was strictly complied with; and at the moment
that the troops thought themselves almost in possession of the
redoubt, a murderous discharge of artillery and musketry opened upon
them; …


Swet was author of an appendix to a book about Putnam in 1819 that
contains the phrase:

1818, An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major General Israel
Putnam‎ by David Humphreys; With An Appendix Containing an Historical
and Topograhical Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle by S. Swet, State
Society of the Cincinnati in Connecticut, Page 230, Samuel Avery,


The next 1826 cite may be of interest because it gives the date of the
deposition of a primary witness who claims to have observed Putnam say
the phrase: 1818 August 6.

Cite: 1826 January 25, Hallowell Gazette, Bunker Hill Document, Page
4, Hallowell, Maine. (GenealogyBank)

Mr. HALE — The next Bunker Hill document we send you, is the statement
of Mr. Philip Johnson, of Newburyport, taken before the same
magistrate who took Col. Whitmore's, and at the same time, Aug. 6,
1818. We say with confidence, that every one acquainted with Mr.
Johnson, and there very few acquainted his town who are not so, will
agree with us, that a more respectable witness cannot be found in the
community. Being a native of Newburyport, we say this from a very long
acquaintance with this gentleman.

  "Mr. Johnson states that he was a private in Capt. Benjamin Perkin's
company, and about 18 years of age, at the time of Bunker Hill Battle.
... All this was before the battle commenced. 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 good marksmen; you, can take a squirrel from the tallest
tree; don't fire till you see the whites of their eyes.'


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