Chaplains at the Battle of Bunker Hill

“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, 17 June 1775” by John Trumbull – From the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Public Domain.

Just eight weeks after the battles of Lexington and Concord which officially ignited the War of Independence, though not officially declared by the Continental Congress, militias from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire gathered at Bunker and Breed’s Hills, overlooking Boston, to send a message to the British forces that their presence there would no longer be tolerated. Among those who assembled there to fight for freedom and liberty were ministers who joined the cause along with their parishioners.

J. T. Headley’s book, “The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution” reflects on the clergy during the American Revolution, many of whom served as chaplains to the troops: “Suffering for their patriotism, as these clergy did, and expecting a halter if the Colonies should fail in their effort to obtain freedom, they deserve to be remembered with honor, and have their names go down to immortality, linked with that most important struggle in the world’s history. In the first gathering of the yeomanry at Lexington and Concord, as well as afterwards in the miscellaneous enthusiastic assembling of the army around Bunker Hill, they bore an important part, not merely as servants of God in the discharge of their official duties, but as patriots – haranguing the soldiers, and even leading them into the conflict.1

“As before hostilities commenced, there was scarcely a military muster at which [the clergy] were not present, exhorting the militia to stand up manfully for the cause of God—on some occasions saying, ‘Behold, God himself is with us for our captain, and his priests with sounding trumpets to cry the alarm’—it was to be expected, when war actually broke out, they would be found in the ranks of the rebels, urging froward what they had so long proclaimed as a religious duty. The first outbreak at Lexington and Concord gave them no opportunity to exhibit their zeal officially, and so some shouldered their muskets, and fought like common soldiers. Among these were [at least two ministers], who showed that [clergy] could fight as well as pray.”2

The militia “troops were also religious, and their respect for the opinions of the clergy unbounded… To avoid the expense of chaplains, the clergy in the neighborhood of the camp [near Bunker Hill] were invited by Congress to perform divine service, thirteen of them every sabbath; a request they punctually complied with. Three or four chaplains, however, were attached to the army, and prayed with the troops every morning on the common.”3

As the Battle at Bunker Hill began in the early morning of 17 June 1775, as Samuel Swett recounts, the British “… fire was for some time without effect, but [for] the men venturing in front of the works, one of them was killed by a cannon shot. A subaltern informed Col. Prescott, and inquired of him what should be done. ‘Bury him,’ he was told.­ ‘What,’ said the astonished officer, ‘without prayers!’ A chaplain, who was present, [suspected to be Joseph Thaxter since he was assigned to Prescott’s unit,] insisted on performing service over this first victim, and collected many of the soldiers around him, heedless of peril. Prescott ordered them to disperse; but religious enthusiasm prevailing, the chaplain again collected his congregation, when the deceased was ordered to be taken and buried in the ditch…”4

Thaxter graduated from Harvard College in 1768 “and was licensed to preach in 1771. He was present at the fight at Concord Bridge and at the battle of Bunker Hill. [Later,] on the 23rd of January, 1776, he was elected a chaplain in the army… He was in the ranks at Cambridge, in different parts of New Jersey and at the battle of White Plains, and, as is supposed, went to Lake George and Ticonderoga.”5

Thaxter was wounded at Bunker Hill6 and “in a later action, [he] was so severely wounded that through the remainder of’ his long life he walked with a limp. Discharged because of this injury, his heart and mind lingered with his beloved soldiers”7 and “on the 17th of June, 1825, he was called upon to officiate at the laying of the corner stone of the Bunker Hill Monument,” an honor which reveals his impact as a chaplain in the Revolution.8

Another one of these ministers-turned-chaplain who served at the Battle of Bunker Hill was David Avery. David Felts, writing for the Massachusetts society of the Sons of the American Revolution wrote of chaplains, including Avery: “Chaplains often bore arms, and some had professional medical training, serving as surgeons, as well. One such chaplain was David Avery, who owed his conversion to the ministry of George Whitefield, a British Evangelist who visited America years earlier. After his conversion, Avery was determined to add to his medical education and become a minister. He entered Yale as a freshman in 1765, [and] was a brilliant 13-year-old who would later serve as an army chaplain.”9

Committed to serving the cause of the Revolution “Avery brought his own medicine and instruments to supplement what was lacking in the army’s supplies. He served at the Battle of Bunker Hill and was reported to be ‘intrepid and fearless in battle, unwearied in his attentions to the sick and wounded.’ Avery suffered the hardships and deprivations of army life with a cheerful attitude, no doubt bolstered by his patriotism and love for his country. It was said that he was ‘everything Washington wanted in a chaplain.’ Avery often rode with Gen. Washington and took meals with him.”10

J. T. Headley also wrote about Avery: “In the battle of Bunker Hill… this brave, godly man stood on Bunker Hill in full sight of the conflict, and as Moses, who stood on the hill, and held up his hands that Joshua might smite the Amalekites, so he, while the adjacent heights and shores were shaking to the thunder of cannon, and the flames of burning Charlestown were rolling heavenward, lifted up his hands and prayed that God would give victory to the Americans. Breed’s Hill, dimly seen through the rolling smoke of battle, amid which flashed the deadly vollies [sic], and gleamed the glittering lines, and in the background this patriotic divine, with upraised hands beseeching Heaven for victory, would make an appropriate picture of that bloody prelude to the revolution. He thus notes the event in his diary; –

‘Early in the morning … the enemy attacked our entrenchments, but was driven back. After repeated trials they succeeded in dislodging the troops. In the retreat many of Col. Sherbourne’s men were killed. My dear friend, Dr. Warren, was shot dead. I stood on a neighboring hill (Bunker) with hands uplifted, supplicating the blessing of Heaven to crown our unworthy arms with success. To us infantile Americans, unused to the thunder and carnage of battle, the flames of Charlestown before our eyes—the incessant play of cannon from their shipping—from Boston, and their wings in various cross directions, together with the terrors of the field, exhibiting a scene most awful and tremendous, but amid the perils of the dread encounter the Lord was our rock and fortress…’”11

“The night that followed this momentous day [Avery] spent in dressing the wounds of the soldiers and administering such spiritual consolation as the suffering needed. Day after day he devoted himself wholly to the wounded, and glided from cot to cot cheering the wretched, and pointing those who felt that death was near, to the Savior of sinners. He notes in his diary that the excessive duties preyed upon his health, but expressed the belief that God will sustain him.”12

A third chaplain who we know was present at the Battle of Bunker Hill was the “Rev. John Martin [who] had several close brushes with death… While trying to persuade reluctant civilians to evacuate Charlestown [before the British forces arrived], he entered a house for a drink of water only to have a cannon ball destroy the building. [Martin] fought and prayed, and by word and example, struggled to encourage his men. A newspaper article from Newport, dated July 3, 1775, tells of his spiritual efforts to affect morale, after the battle:

Last Friday evening the Rev. Mr. John Martin, who fought gallantly at Bunker’s Hill, and is since appointed to a post in the Rhode Island Regiment, preached an animated sermon in this town, from Nehemiah IV., and part of the 14th verse: ‘Be not afraid of them: Remember the Lord which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons and daughters, your wives and your houses.’ The next morning, he preached another sermon, at 5 o’clock, and then set out for camp.13

Also “numbered among the chaplains at this famous fight [at Bunker Hill] is the Rev. Samuel McClintock, pastor at Greenland, New Hampshire [who showed that support for the cause -and the soldiers fighting for it- is sometimes best rendered in spiritual ways]. Within sight of the action but out of the line of’ fire, [McClintock] remained in the ancient posture of prayer throughout the battle, standing erect with arms outstretched toward Heaven. Like Moses, he cried out to the God of Battles while his young Joshuas fought.”14

Swett describes McClintock’s presence at the battle, “intrepidly by his exhortations, prayers and example encouraging and animating [the soldiers] to the unequal conflict.”15 “It [was] a striking scene, and McClintock’s presence [and actions there] has been immortalized by Jonathan Trumbull in his renowned painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill. [It’s been said that] the old patriarch paid a terrible toll for his patriotism. Sending four sons to the army, one only returned to experience the hard-won blessings of Liberty.”16

The Battle of Bunker Hill was the first intentional and planned engagement in the Revolutionary War and while it was a victory for the Crown, it came at a tremendous cost which showed the British commanders that war with the American colonies would be long, brutal and costly while reassuring the patriots that they had a chance to win their freedom from Great Britain.

And, as has been seen in every significant engagement since Concord, chaplains were there. They were there sometimes with musket in hand, sometimes wielding a scalpel, but always with Bible and Prayer Book, encouraging and exhorting their fighting flock. Often, they could be seen with hands and eyes raised toward the Heavens, interceding for their soldiers and for the cause for which they fought.

On this day in Chaplain Corps history, 17 June 1775, chaplains were at the Battle of Bunker Hill, ministering to the spiritual and physical needs of the fledgling Army, putting themselves in harm’s way along with their flock, for God and country!

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1 J. T. Headley, The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution (NY: Charles Scribner, 1864), 58-59.

2 Ibid., 59-60.                                            

3 Samuel Swett, History of Bunker Hill Battle with a Plan (Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1826), 10.

4 Ibid., 22.

5 Westford Colonial Minutemen, 1775 (https://www.westford.org/westford1775/Joseph_Thaxter.html), accessed 7 June 2021.

6 Hillary Matheson, “War Chaplains: Remembering the Revolutionary History,” (11 November 2010, https://www.journalstandard.com/article/20101111/NEWS/311119958), accessed 7 June 2021.

7 Parker C. Thompson, From its European Antecedents to 1791, The United States Army Chaplaincy (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Department of the Army, 1978), 112-113.

8 Westford.

9 David J. Felts, 250th Series: Chaplains and the Revolutionary War (massar.org/2020/11/24/chaplains-and-the-revolutionary-war/), accessed 7 June 2021.

10 Ibid.

11 Headley, 294-296.

12 Ibid., 294-296.

13 Thompson, 113.

14 Ibid., 113.

15 Swett, 10.

16 Thompson, 113.

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