“Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes?”

Don't shoot

Who said it?

Over at the Journal of the American Revolution, historian J.L. Bell (of Boston 1775 fame) answers this question for us. Here is a taste of his piece:

Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” is one of the most famous quotations to come out of the Revolutionary War. According to hallowed American tradition, the provincial commander at the Battle of Bunker Hill bellowed those words to his soldiers, warning them to preserve their gunpowder until their muskets could do the most damage to the British regulars.

Phrased in that way, the order to hold fire gained poetic qualities that make it memorable: assonance (those long I sounds) and hyperbole (no provincials literally waited until they could see the enemy’s eyeballs). Since ultimately the British chased the provincials off the field, remembering how American fighters had bravely watched the redcoats march closer and closer erased some of the sting of losing.

For over a century, American popular culture attributed the “whites of their eyes” line to Col. Israel Putnam of Connecticut. In more recent decades, however, a new pattern emerged. Many authorities now say that the quotation could be no more than a myth, and that if any officer at Bunker Hill gave that order, it came from Col. William Prescott of Massachusetts. This article examines how that quotation became popular, how scholars developed doubts about it, and finally what the printed record tells us about its actual origin in the eighteenth century.

Read the rest here.

Hint: Mason Locke Weems is involved.