Lieutenant John Waller

A handwritten letter on well worn parchment.
Lt. John Waller wrote this letter to an unidentified recipient. June 21, 1775.

Massachusetts Historical Society

Quick Facts
The accounts of British Lieutenant John Waller, written in the aftermath of the Battle of Bunker Hill, testify to the immediate reaction of a small-unit commander to the day’s tumultuous events.
Place of Birth:
Sandwich, Kent, England
Date of Birth:
Place of Death:
Jamaica, New York
Date of Death:

British Lieutenant John Waller, adjutant to the 1st Battalion of Marines, served as a junior officer at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775.1 For all involved, the two-hour battle proved a crucible of fire, which concluded in British military victory. Despite initially being a victory, this battle has since been widely perceived as a moral victory for the colonists and a psychological blow to the British. Waller's eyewitness accounts provide surprising insight into the British perspective of this battle.

Hailing from Sandwich in the county of Kent, England, Waller came from an aristocratic military family. He was the son of a Royal Navy captain and had both a brother and a nephew serving in the Royal Navy. While it is unclear when he became a Marine, Waller joined as an officer in Britain's powerful, yet small, military. 

Britain's professionally trained force largely comprised of volunteers.2 Military recruiters often filled the ranks from lower classes. Recruits likely enlisted for patriotic and economic reasons, receiving the "King's Shilling" as a signing bonus. Conversely, the officers who led these troops did not receive an enlistment bonus, but they rather purchased their commissions. Many had backgrounds similar to Waller, coming from British high society. Waller also exemplified many of the attributes and experiences of the typical British officer of the late 1700s. He was only in his 20s, and he had no prior combat experience. Nonetheless, Waller and other officers assisted with recruiting and led soldiers directly into combat.

Waller and the Marines arrived in Boston in March 1775, under the command of Major John Pitcairn. Boston had been under British military occupation since May 1774 in response to the Boston Tea Party. Many Bostonians detested this occupation. As a Marine, Waller's primary duty was to serve as a constabulary force aboard warships preventing mutiny. However, as tensions in Boston rose, Marines had to be prepared to take on additional duties. Any available soldier, sailor, or Marine could be called to battle. On June 17, these Marines answered this call and were deployed into pitched battle as part of the British amphibious assault on Charlestown.

Privileged of command, Waller faced the risks of leading from the front. The Battle of Bunker Hill had been raging for an hour when Waller and the Marines departed Boston for the third (and final) assault on the colonial redoubt at 4:30 p.m. Although Waller indicated colonial fire was initially ineffective, colonial forces nonetheless forced the Marines into a defensive prone position. The Marines then marched over an obstacle-laden terrain of walls and fences. Immediately below the redoubt the momentum of their attack ground to a halt. British units became "jumbled" together and colonial fire grew increasingly lethal.3 After an agonizing 15 minutes of waiting, the assembled British units charged up and over the redoubt with fixed bayonets.

In one of the most graphic firsthand accounts of the battle, Waller wrote:

I cannot pretend to describe the Horror of the Scene within the Redoubt, when we enter’d [sic] it 'twas streaming with Blood & strew'd [sic] with dead & dying Men, the Soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the Brains of others was a sight too dreadful for me to dwell any longer on.4

After merciless hand-to-hand combat, the British gained possession of the redoubt. They then advanced across the length of the Charlestown peninsula, setting up camp for the night on the heights facing the colonial defenses of Cambridge. In the haste of their attack, Waller and the other officers had no supplies and so "obliged to lie in soldiers' tents."5

Having survived the day, Waller wrote two letters, one on the June 21 (recipient unknown) and one on the 22 (to his brother Jacob). Both provided similar accounts of the battle. Waller described how colonial marksmen targeted British officers like himself. These marksmen appeared to have "both poisoned and chewed the musket balls, in order to make them the more fatal."6 He sadly listed the names of friends who perished in combat, including Major Pitcairn. Colonial forces killed or wounded an estimated 92 British officers. Perhaps to excuse the losses, Waller exaggerated the number of colonial troops engaged.

In his letters, Waller also gave voice to the deeply held conviction of professional soldiers. More than mere mercenaries of the Crown, their efforts had exemplified "as much gallantry and spirit as was ever shown by any troops of any age."7 Indeed, the British had achieved "a complete victory."8 Far from demoralized, Waller noted "The army is in great spirits, and full or rage and ferocity at the rebellious rascals."9

Lieutenant John Waller died in Jamaica, New York, in 1781 of unknown causes. The British evacuated New York City two years later. He was one of nearly 24,000 British soldiers who did not survive the war, the majority of whom died of disease. Waller performed admirably as a soldier – following orders and seizing hazardous military objectives. However, individual valor and tactical battlefield victories could neither squash nor reverse a political revolution.


  1. The 1st Battalion of the Marines were later designated Royal Marines in 1802.
  2. Volunteers did not always comprise the Royal Navy as were frequently enlisted.
  3. "Letter from J. Waller to unidentified recipient, 21 June 1775," Massachusetts Historical Society,
  4. "Letter from J. Waller to unidentified recipient, 21 June 1775," Massachusetts Historical Society.
  5. J. Waller, "British Account of Bunker Hill," Teaching American History. Accessed 2023.
  6. Waller, "British Account of Bunker Hill."
  7. Waller, "British Account of Bunker Hill."
  8. Waller, "British Account of Bunker Hill."
  9. Waller, "British Account of Bunker Hill."


Bell, J.L.. "Major Pitcairn Was Killed Close to Me." Boston 1775. February 8, 2009.

Chandler, David. The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994.

Drake, S.A.. Bunker Hill: The Story Told in Letters From the Battle Field. Boston, Nichols and Hall, 1875.

"Letter from J. Waller to unidentified recipient, 21 June 1775." Massachusetts Historical Society.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill. New York, Penguin Books, 2014.

Phillips, Kevin. 1775: A Good Year for a Revolution. New York, Viking, 2012.

Waller, J.. "British Account of Bunker Hill." Teaching American History. Accessed 2023.

Boston National Historical Park

Last updated: March 1, 2023