Whites of Their Eyes
Who said, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes?"
It seems that many military officers have uttered this famous directive, or variations of it. It was a practical command for 18th-century armies, considering the inaccuracy of smooth-bore muskets and the risk of ammunition shortages. Similar commands are attributed to such military legends as British General James Wolfe during the French and Indian War and Prussian soldiers during the time of Frederick the Great, among others. However, the phrase is usually associated with the Battle of Bunker Hill early in the American Revolution. Historians have not settled the debate over exactly which American officer gave the order.
In May of 1775, British General Thomas Gage planned to occupy Dorchester Heights, part of a peninsula that was of strategic importance to holding and defending Boston. General Artemus Ward, commander of Patriot forces around Boston, placed Colonel William Prescott in charge of defending the peninsula from the British. Prescott and his forces dug in on Breed’s Hill, next to Bunker Hill, to build a fortification. British forces in the harbor opened fire on the men, but Prescott managed to convince the troops to continue working on the fortification by deliberately exposing himself to the fire from the British ship. Brigadier Israel Putnam also risked his life to travel between the Bunker and Breed Hills into Cambridge to demand reinforcements and additional equipment.
The American troops on the peninsula were short on powder and lead, so they had to conserve their ammunition. When the British infantry attacked, Patriot commanders Brigadier General John Stark, Thomas Knowlton, Prescott, and Putnam all ordered their men to keep silent. Just before the battle commenced, according to eyewitnesses, one of the commanders ordered their men not to fire “until you see the whites of their eyes.” Some reported that Prescott gave the order, but others remembered Putnam or Stark uttering these famous words. It is also possible that Prescott, commander of the forces on Bunker and Breed Hills gave the order and others repeated it. We will probably never know.
After a bloody battle, the Americans ran out of ammunition and were forced to retreat from the peninsula. However, the American militia’s valor earned them considerable respect, and Bunker Hill proved to the British that the Patriots were serious. Although they were the victors, the British sustained many more casualties (226 dead, 828 injured) than the Americans (140 killed, 271 wounded). General Gage compared Patriot soldiers’ behavior to his perception of colonists’ conduct during the French and Indian War, observing that the Americans showed “a Spirit and Conduct against us, they never shewed against the French.” The Battle of Bunker Hill put the British on notice that they might be fighting a long war.
Ketchum, Richard M. The Battle of Bunker Hill. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1962.
Shy, John. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1976.
Fleming, Thomas. Now We Are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1960.
Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York & Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982.
Nelson, James L. With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2011.