Sword of Bunker Hill, The
DESCRIPTION: An old veteran, dying, bid his son to bring "the sword of Bunker Hill." Grasping the sword, in a burst of energy, he tells the boy how he captured the blade from a British officer. The old man dies
EARLIEST DATE: 1949 (Flanders/Olney), but dating at least to the Civil War era; see NOTES
KEYWORDS: battle dying patriotic
June 17, 1775 - American defeat at the Battle of Bunker Hill
FOUND IN: US(NE)
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Flanders/Olney, pp. 224-225, "The Sword of Bunker Hill" (1 text, 1 tune)
Thomas-Makin', p. 88, (no title) (1 fragment, very likely not this song but associated by the informant with Bunker Hill, and it fits better here than anywhere else)
WolfAmericanSongSheets, #2279, p. 153, "The Sword of Bunker Hill" (8 references)
ST FO224 (Partial)
The Banner of the Free ("He lay upon the battle-field," by Eugene Johnson) (WolfAmericanSongSheets pp. 6-7)
The Rebel Flags. Exhibited at the Capitol, February 22, 1862 ("Sadly we gazed upon the Flags," by John A. Fowle) (WolfAmericanSongSheets p. 132)
White Star Division ("Star, the brightest star of fame," probably referring to the second division of the Union XII Corps) (WolfAmericanSongSheets, p. 177)
NOTES [340 words]: Although this song, by implication at least, praises American conduct at Bunker Hill, the record of the Colonials at that battle was in fact rather poor. Sent on the night of June 16 to garrison Bunker Hill, American troops instead occupied Breed's Hill, which was lower, less defensible, and closer to the British artillery. The British under General Gage attacked the next day. The Americans did show unaccustomed discipline, which caused the battle to last longer than usual, but ultimately the British forced them back.
The battle was a dreadful strain on the British, though, who suffered more than 1100 casualties (see Stanley Weintraub, Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783, Free Press, 2005, p. 9), compared to 441 American losses.
The "Warren" of the song is Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who had organized Paul Revere's Ride and a leading figure in the rebel forces (although not one of their commanding officers). He was killed in the battle. (It will tell you something about conditions at the time that Warren, although he worked as a physician, actually earned his degree in theology, because that was the only curriculum taught at Harvard College at the time; see Weintraub, p. 8).
I have in my collection a damaged songster, date unknown but almost certainly from the period 1865-1885, attributing this to "Covert"; in the same songster, a piece called "Follow the Drum" is credited to "B. Covert." The Flanders/Olney text is nearly identical to the songster version.
Although rarely collected in tradition, this was well-enough known to have been used as the tune for several Civil War pieces (see the Same Tune list), one of which, "The Banner of the Free", was popular enough to be printed at least eight times. The song itself was also widely printed in the 1860s; Edwin Wolf 2nd, American Song Sheets, Slip Ballads, and Political Broadsides 1850-1870, Library Company of Philadelphia, 1963, p. 153, lists eight broadsides from that period, by at least four different publishers. - RBW
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