Colonel William Prescott: A Glorious Immortality

Bunker Hill Monument, a granite obelisk, standing before a bright blue sky. A statue of a man stands in front of the Monument.
Colonel Prescott statue in front of the Bunker Hill Monument.

NPS Photo

"Prescott has retaken Bunker Hill; and with it, the hearts of all who are gathered on it at this hour, or who shall be gathered upon it, generation after generation, in all the untold centuries of the future." - Robert C. Winthrop, US Congressman and President of the Bunker Hill Monument Association at the dedication of the Prescott statue on June 17, 1881.[1]

In front of the gigantic Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts, stands a much smaller, bronze statue. The statue is a nine-foot-tall sculpture of a man brandishing a sword: Colonel William Prescott. Colonel William Prescott led the Provincial forces that fought against the British military in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. Prescott achieved great renown as a soldier and as a Massachusetts political leader.

Colonel Prescott came from a prosperous family in Pepperell, Massachusetts. His ancestors were among the first British colonizers of New England starting in the early 1600s. Here, he established his own family and married his wife Abigail. Together, they had one child.

The Fighter

About 50 years old at the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Prescott already had years of military experience. He likely served in his town's militia from at least age seventeen. At age nineteen, Prescott served in King George's War as British and French forces fought each other in Canada. Prescott and other Massachusetts militiamen served there for two years, from 1745 to 1746. British subjects in North America frequently fought on behalf of British interests.

Prescott fought again in Canada in 1755 during the French and Indian War. He served as a Lieutenant in the Provincial forces, helping lead the British to victory. During this expedition to Canada, Prescott impressed British General John Winslow. Winslow offered Prescott a commission in the British army, however, Prescott declined.

After the French and Indian War, Prescott returned home to resume a life of farming. In 1774, Captain William Prescott joined a conflict that became a prelude to the Battle of Bunker Hill. He supported the people of Boston as they faced starvation when the British government closed the port of Boston. The Boston Port Act was part of the Coercive Acts, joint punishment imposed on all the people of Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party.

Newspaper clipping about the Boston Port Act in 1774.
Colonel William Prescott opposed the 1774 Boston Port Act issued by the British Crown (above). In a letter to Bostonians, Prescott made clear that he would fight against the British Coercive Acts.

Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Captain William Prescott, as a Pepperell town official, sent a letter of encouragement to the Bostonians: "Is not a glorious death in defense of our liberties better than a short, infamous life…?"[2] About a year later, on April 19, 1775, Prescott led militia companies from Middlesex County in support of the residents of Concord, Massachusetts when British Redcoats marched on that town.

The Siege

To counter the British infantry attack on Concord, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety called for a Siege of Boston by Provincial militiamen from New England. Through this Siege, they hoped to deprive British forces of food and supplies.

Massachusetts General Artemas Ward, the commander of the Siege, chose Colonel William Prescott to lead the first major action of the Siege. Ward told Prescott to dig in on the top of Bunker Hill in Charlestown, the tallest hill in the Boston area. Taking Bunker Hill was a military necessity if the Provincials hoped to encircle Boston and threaten the British forces.

Accompanied by over a thousand Provincial militiamen with entrenching tools, Prescott marched to Bunker Hill on the night of June 16, 1775. This team of Provincial militia included Connecticut General Israel Putnam and soldiers from Massachusetts and Connecticut. Colonel Prescott oversaw the expedition since Massachusetts officials had called for and were leading the Siege. Another significant officer in the group was the engineer, Colonel Richard Gridley. Gridley supervised the construction of an earthen fort, or redoubt.

Colorful painting of British Red coat soldiers fighting patriots with one Patriot in focus dying on the ground.
Colonel William Prescott appears in two Revolutionary War paintings, one of which being "The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill June 17, 1775," by John Trumbull. Trumbull also included him in "The Surrender of General Burgoyne."

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Battle

These three officers--- Prescott, Putnam, and Gridley---decided to build the redoubt on an adjacent smaller hill located closer to Boston. This smaller hill became generally known as Breed's Hill years later. Colonel Prescott, as expedition leader, knew the danger of building a redoubt on Breed's Hill; his forces would appear more threatening to the British military than if they built the redoubt on Bunker Hill. He likely knew a battle might ensue.

Early on the morning of June 17, sailors from four British Navy ships started a barrage of cannon fire upon the redoubt on Breed's Hill to terrorize the Provincial militia. To help relieve the fears of the militiamen, Prescott "mounted the parapet [top of the redoubt] and walked leisurely around it, inspecting the works, giving directions to the officers, and encouraging the men…This had the intended effect. The men became indifferent to the cannonade or received the balls with repeated cheers."[3]

After the British Navy ended its cannon barrage, its infantry marched toward the Provincials defending Breed's and Bunker Hills. As the British infantry approached, Prescott shouted to his soldiers. The infamous order to "not fire until you see the whites of their eyes,"[4] is attributed to Prescott in American Revolution lore. While possibly a myth, Prescott likely reminded his militia to not fire at Redcoats too far away.

Painting of British and Colonial soldiers meeting on a battlefield.
John Trumbull also depicted Colonel Prescott in "The Surender of General Burgoyne," depicting the end of the Battle of Saratoga, NY in 1777.

Architect of the Capitol

Prescott may have also advised his militia to not fire until given a signal; it was crucial that everyone fire together. Whatever Prescott shouted, other officers repeated it up and down the Provincial line. Over 1,400 Provincials from three colonies fired their muskets simultaneously and injured or killed many British Regulars.

Even with Prescott's leadership, the Provincials could not withstand the repeated assaults by the British Regulars. The Provincials retreated from Breed's and Bunker Hills after a third British assault. When the chaos of battle subsided, it became clear that the Provincials inflicted over twice the casualties on the Regulars than they suffered themselves during the battle.

The Continental Army

Despite the loss of Breed's and Bunker Hills by the Provincials, the Siege of Boston continued in hopes of driving the British forces from Boston. General George Washington, now Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, took command of the Siege from General Ward. Colonel William Prescott and his Middlesex County forces served under Washington for the duration of the Siege which lasted another nine months. In March of 1776, the Provincial Siege of Boston finally succeeded, and the British forces evacuated from Boston.

Portrait of William Hickling Prescott, a historian
The sculptor William W. Short used a photograph of William Hickling Prescott to help create the bronze statue of Colonel Prescott. A historian, William Hickling Prescott was the grandson of Colonel William Prescott.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Prescott continued to serve in the Continental Army; he fought around New York City and at Saratoga, NY for the cause of American independence. Prescott left the war and returned home in 1778 due to injury and illness.

The Legacy

Prescott continued serving his community and distinguished himself beyond the battlefield. Prescott served as Representative of his town in the Massachusetts legislature for about three years, from 1782 to 1785. At the age of 60, he participated in the suppression of the domestic disturbance called "Shays' Rebellion" in Massachusetts in 1786.

Colonel William Prescott performed his civic and military obligations throughout his life. In succession, he served loyally the British Crown, the revolutionary Continental Congress and finally the new country, the United States. He often left the safety and comfort of home to risk his life on behalf of his country. Prescott died at age 70 in 1796.

In 1880, the Bunker Hill Monument Association (BHMA), the citizens group that championed the building of the Bunker Hill Monument and Lodge, commissioned the Prescott statue. The American sculptor William W. Story created the work in Italy. By the time the BHMA had selected Story to create the statue, Prescott had been dead for 85 years. Story could not rely on portraits of Colonel Prescott as Prescott never sat for a portrait. Those who knew Prescott described him as being about six-foot tall and of medium build. In addition to this description of Prescott, Story used a photograph of Prescott's grandson, the historian William Hickling Prescott, to help create the bronze statue of the Colonel.

On June 17, 1881, members of the BHMA unveiled the Prescott statue on its seven-foot-tall, polished granite base on the south side of the Monument during a public ceremony. Mr. Story in his bronze statue depicts Colonel Prescott walking on top of the redoubt on Breed's Hill during the battle.

Angled photograph looking up at the Colonel Prescott Statue and Bunker Hill Monument.
The bronze statue of Colonel William Prescott stands before the Bunker Hill Monument.

NPS Photo

Years earlier, the BHMA commissioned a marble statue of Doctor Joseph Warren, another Battle of Bunker Hill notable, for the Bunker Hill Lodge. With the Prescott statue completed, the BHMA planned to have two more bronze statues on the Monument grounds to honor officers who assisted Prescott in the Battle: General Israel Putnam from Connecticut and Colonel John Stark from New Hampshire. Due to financial troubles, the BHMA never commissioned the statues of Putnam and Stark.

Daniel Webster, the well-known orator, writer, and public figure who helped dedicate the Bunker Hill Monument wrote about Prescott:

"In truth, if there was any commander in chief in the field, it was Prescott. From the first breaking of the ground to the retreat, he acted the most important part: if it were proper to give the battle a name…it should be called Prescott's Battle."[5]

Many years after the battle, the historian Samuel Swett expressed his mixed emotions about Colonel Prescott's actions in the Battle of Bunker Hill: Prescott "had not indeed secured final victory, but he had secured a glorious immortality."[6]


[1] Bunker Hill Monument Association, Proceedings of the Bunker Hill Monument Association at the Annual Meeting, June 17, 1881, Address of The Hon. Robert C. Winthrop at the Inauguration of the Statue of Colonel William Prescott, (Boston: BHMA 1881), 41.

[2] George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent Vol VII (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1858) 99.

[3] Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1851), 126.

[4] J.L. Bell, "Who Said, Don’t Fire Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes?" Journal of the American Revolution, June 17, 2020,

[5] Daniel Webster, "Reviewed Work(s): An Account of the Battle of Bunker Hill by H. Dearborn: A Letter to Major General Dearborn, Repelling His Unprovoked Attack on the Character of the Late Major General Israel Putnam by Daniel Putnam", North American Review and Miscellaneous Journal, July 1818, 225-58.

[6] Samuel Swett, History of the Bunker Hill Battle (Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1826), 49.


Everett, William. Oration in the Honor of Col. William Prescott Delivered in Boston 14 October 1895. Boston: Bunker Hill Monument Association, 1896.

Kinsmen and Kinswomen. "Reconstructing a Portrait of Colonel William Prescott." August 6, 2016.

Massachusetts Acts and Resolves [Prescott's legislative service],

Massachusetts Historical Society. An Act to Block up Boston Harbor,

Prescott, William. "Letter to John Adams 25 August 1775," Massachusetts Historical Society. MHS Collections Online: Letter from William Prescott to John Adams, 25 August 1775 (

Swett, Samuel. History of the Bunker Hill Battle. Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1826.

Wilson, James G and John Fiske. Appleton's Cylopaedia of American Biography, "Prescott, William, Soldier," V.5. New York, Daniel Appleton, 1900, 109.

Last updated: August 3, 2023