Charlestown Ablaze

Charlestown In Flames
Robson Map: Depicts the Battle of Breeds Hill, where Charlestown was burned by the British.

242 years ago on June 17, 1775, Charlestown was set ablaze to drive out three companies of American militia. At the outset of the Battle of Breeds Hill, these militiamen had taken positions on the north side the town. As the ranks of redcoats marched up the slope of Breeds Hill to Warren’s Redoubt the militiamen and fired into their ranks, likely taking a hundred or more out of the battle before the main action got started.

Imagine you are in the militia with these men. It is a sweltering afternoon with the sun high overhead. The British gunships on the other side of town in the Charles River and the battery at Copps Hill in Boston blast a screaming leaden hail of fiery-hot grapeshot at the mostly wooden buildings you have been using for cover and concealment. The gun-smoke blowing on the wind is, by degrees, pushed out by wood-smoke as the temperature in Charlestown rises.

My ancestor, Isaac Frye, was one of these militiamen, serving as a 2nd lieutenant and quartermaster for Colonel James Reed’s 3rd New Hampshire Regiment. During the battle Isaac Frye was assigned to Captain Josiah Crosby’s company along with a number of the men from his hometown of Wilton, New Hampshire.

In The War has Begun, Chapter 5 describes what I imagined it would have been like to be there, marching into Charlestown, taking up positions, and firing on redcoats who were marching by–easy targets, far too easy. It must have weighed on those men’s souls to shoot an enemy who was not facing them. The inferno driving them from Charlestown, to some, must have seemed as if gates of hell had been thrown open.

Burning of Charlestown
Alexander Hogg: View of the Attack on Bunker Hill with the Burning of Charlestown, June 17, 1775

If the illustrations and engravings depicting Charlestown’s fate are true, the flames from the resulting conflagration towered a hundred feet, and the smoke could be seen for dozens of miles.

It took three years to definitively locate Isaac Frye during the battle. The idea was that I could help my oldest son with his 5th grade history project. We decided to figure out where Isaac Frye was during the Battle of Breeds Hill. In the two weeks he had to finish his project, we learned Isaac Frye was in Reed’s regiment, and therefore he was either at the rail fence or there was a chance of him being with Crosby’s company in Charlestown.

About two years later I discovered New Hampshire’s Rolls of the Soldiers in the Revolutionary War, where I learned the composition of Crosby’s company, which included men from Wilton.  The final proof came a year later when I learned there were additional volumes in New Hampshire’s state papers pertaining to the Revolutionary War.  There, I found a record for the men of Crosby’s company who had lost clothing and other articles in Charlestown, and the list included Isaac Frye, who lost a coat and hat.

-CEF

Sources:

Bouton, Nathaniel D.D. 1878. “Provincial Papers. Documents and Records Relating to the Province of New-Hampshire, From 1764 to 1776; Including the whole Administration of Gov. John Wentworth; the Events immediately preceding the Revolutionary War; the Losses at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the Record of all Proceedings till the end of our Provincial History.” Volume VII. Orren C. Moore, State Printer. Nashua, NH. p 596.

Frothingham, Richard, 1873, “History of the Siege of Boston, and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. Also, an Account of the Bunker Hill Monument. With Illustrative Documents.” Fourth Edition, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, MA. p136: Lists Crosby’s company as being in Charlestown.

Hammond, Isaac, W. 1885. “Rolls of the Soldiers in the Revolutionary War 1775, to May, 1777 with an appendix, embracing diaries of Lieut. Jonathan Burton ” Volume I of War Rolls. Volume XIV of the Series. Parsons B. Cogswell, State Printer, Concord, NH

Hogg, Alexander 1783 “View of the Attack on Bunker’s Hill with the Burning of Charlestown.” Engraving after Millar. In Edward Bernard, The New, Comprehensive and Complete History of England. London

Page, Thomas Hyde 1775 “A plan of the action at Bunkers-Hill, on the 17th. of June, 1775, between His Majesty’s troops under the command of Major General Howe, and the rebel forces,”

Robson, T. 1778 “Plan of the town with the attack on Bunkers-Hill in the peninsula of Charlestown, the 17th. of June 1775. Newcastle upon Tyne [Eng.].