Biography of William Prescott, Hero of Bunker Hill
William Prescott was an officer in the Massachusetts Militia and Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He served in the militia during King George’s War and fought at the Siege of Louisburg in 1754. In 1755, he was promoted to Captain and fought at the Battle of Fort Beausejour during the French and Indian War. He was rewarded for his service with an offer to become an officer in the Royal Army, but he turned it down and returned to his home in Pepperell, Massachusetts.
In 1774, he was appointed Colonel of a Minutemen regiment and prepared for hostilities with Britain. When the alarm was raised through the Massachusetts countryside on April 19, 1775, Prescott mustered his men and raced to Concord. However, he arrived too late. The British were already well on their way back to Boston, so he followed but was still too far behind to engage them. He continued on to Cambridge and joined the Army of Occupation at the Siege of Boston, under the command of General Artemas Ward.
Two months later, the Continental Congress transformed the Army of Occupation into the Continental Army and appointed George Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Washington was ordered to go to Washington and take command. Prescott was commissioned as a Colonel in the Continental Army and his men became the 7th Continental Regiment.
Soon after, Ward gave Prescott orders to fortify Bunker Hill. The British responded with a naval bombardment and land assault. Prescott led the fierce American defenses at the Battle of Bunker Hill. His men were low on ammunition, and legend has it Prescott gave the order to hold their fire until they saw “the whites of their eyes.” Although the British were able to force the Americans to flee from the redoubt, Prescott and his men inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and proved they could fight with the British Regulars.
After the siege ended and the British withdrew from Boston, Prescott was sent to New York to help defend the city. At some point, he resigned his command, but returned to participate in the Saratoga Campaign and may have been present when General John Burgoyne surrendered his army.
This illustration of the battlefield shows the position of the American redoubt on Breed’s Hill. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
5 Things to Know About William Prescott
- William Prescott was born in East Pepperell, Massachusetts, on February 20, 1726, and died in Pepperell, Massachusetts on October 13, 1795. His father was Benjamin Prescott and his mother was Abigail Oliver.
- On April 13, 1758, he married Abigail Hale. They had one son, William Prescott, Jr.
- As the British prepared to assault the redoubt, legend has it that an order was given, “Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Credit for the order, if it was in fact said, is usually given to Prescott. However, there is speculation that Israel Putnam may have given the order.
- The next day, Prescott wanted to make an attempt to retake the hill, but the commanding officers decided against it.
- In 1881, a statue of the likeness of Prescott was erected in Charlestown, at the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
What Was Important About William Prescott?
William Prescott is important to the history of the United States for his leadership of American forces during the war, especially at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He led the expedition that built the redoubt on Breed’s Hill and then commanded the defenses when the British attacked on June 17. He is often credited with giving the order, “Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”