Person

Richard Gridley

Plaque recognizing Richard Gridley's work constructing the redoubts at Bunker Hill.
This historical plaque recognizes Colonel Richard Gridley's work as Chief Engineer at Bunker Hill.

NPS Photo

Quick Facts

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1710, Richard Gridley became best known as the 1st American Chief of Engineers, an engineer and artillerist during the Battle of Bunker Hill and Siege of Boston, and as a British officer prior to 1775.

The youngest of twelve children, Gridley worked as an apprentice for a Boston merchant at an early age. He eventually ended up in the tutelage of John Henry Bastide, a British engineer charged with improving colonial defenses.1 Thus began Gridley's long and storied career in engineering.

At thirty-five, Gridley became Lieutenant Colonel Richard Gridley, Engineer-Artillerist with the Imperial Forces of England.2 He served as a military engineer during the French and Indian Wars. During the siege of Louisburg he became chief bombardier, supervised the building of batteries, and was Captain [sic] of the artillery train.3 Serving in more engineering and artillery roles for the Crown in subsequent years, Gridley received a pension of land and half-pay as a British officer.4

As things heated up in the colonies, Gridley spent time trying to understand why the British concentrated their available military strength in Boston. He concluded that England did not have a military move in mind but a political move backed by military force.5 However, he could not convince other provincial leaders of this nor of something that he knew well: the custom of the British Army to lie quiet and strengthen in winter and to move in the spring.6 Gridley may have entered into a secret agreement with Dr. Joseph Warren (who later died at the Battle of Bunker Hill) as early as 1774 pledging they would join the rebels in the case of a break with England.7 When asked by his agent in England which side he intended to fight on, Gridley replied in a letter, "I never drew my sword but in the cause of justice and such I consider my country's to be."8

On April 26, 1775 – shortly after the events at Lexington and Concord - the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts appointed Richard Gridley as Chief Engineer. In May he was commissioned as Colonel of Artillery with the rank of Major-General in the Grand Army.9

From the beginning of his command Gridley advocated for the fortifying of Prospect, Bunker, and Breed's Hills10 located to the north of Boston, in current day Somerville and Charlestown. However, this did not happen. Not until intelligence reports brought information that the British planned to seize Charles Town Heights11 did the Commander in Chief of the Massachusetts forces, General Artemus Ward, take action. He put Colonel William Prescott in command and instructed him that defenses were to be located and constructed as Engineer Gridley directed.12

The Committee of Safety sent orders to Ward to raise a strong redoubt on Bunker Hill.13 There are varying reports among historians as to what took place next, but all agree that colonial officers disagreed about which hill to fortify. For generations many have argued over who ultimately chose where to fortify a position on the lower, more centrally located hill known today as "Breed's Hill," rather than the higher prominence known today as "Bunker Hill."14 On the evening of June 16, 1775, Gridley laid out the lines of a redoubt and breastworks on Breed's Hill and supervised the hurried construction of them.15 Further, according to author Raleigh Buzzaird, Gridley, "when not busied with others, worked with spade in hand throwing up the fortifications."16

During the battle, Gridley fought alongside Prescott in the redoubt. They had decided that Gridley would judge when the British were within range and Prescott would give the firing commands.17 Near the end of the battle, Gridley witnessed Dr. Joseph Warren's death when a musket ball hit him in the face.18 Gridley himself was wounded and carried from the field. Although advanced in age, he soon recovered from his wound.19 While no one questioned Gridley's personal courage during the battle, the majority of his artillery officers performed poorly, some were even court-martialed, tarnishing his reputation.20 He also lost his half pay pension from the British on July 28, 1775.21

Even after the colonists' defeat at Bunker Hill, Gridley's skills as an engineer proved valuable.22 Congress appointed him as colonel and chief of artillery on September 20, 1775.23 However, two months later he was replaced in that role by Henry Knox.24 Gridley remained as chief engineer of the army and designed the fortifications on Dorchester Heights. The rebel fortifications there and on Nook’s Hill by General Washington forced the British to evacuate the city of Boston on March 17, 1776.25

After the Continental Army left Boston in the summer of 1776, Congress, at Washington's behest, replaced Gridley as Chief Engineer.26 Gridley remained in Boston as Chief Engineer of the Eastern Department.27 He served in that role until his retirement from the Continental Army February 26, 1781.28 He was 71 years old.

At the forge he owned Gridley may have played a role in developing and manufacturing the first cannon for the Continental Army.29

Richard Gridley died on June 21, 1796 at the age of 86. He is buried at Canton Corner Cemetery where there is a monument to him made of Quincy Granite.30 The monument carries several inscriptions including this quote by General Washington: "I know of no man better fitted to be Chief Engineer than General Gridley."31

Footnotes

  1. Steven M. Baule, "Richard Gridley: A Nearly Forgotten Patriot," Journal of The American Revolution (September 18, 2013), https://allthingsliberty.com.
  2. Robert R. Ellis, "Richard Gridley: First Chief Engineer of the Army," The Military Engineer 55, no. 365 (1963), 157-60, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44570948.
  3. Mark Mayo Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994), 458-459.
  4. Baule, "Richard Gridley: A Nearly Forgotten Patriot."
  5. Ellis, "Richard Gridley: First Chief Engineer of the Army."
  6. Ellis, "Richard Gridley: First Chief Engineer of the Army."
  7. Raleigh B. Buzzaird, "America's First Chief Engineer." The Military Engineer 39, no. 266 (1947), 505-510. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44570948. However, Ellis, Robert R. "Richard Gridley: First Chief Engineer of the Army." The Military Engineer 55, no. 365 (1963), 158, refutes this since there is no direct evidence connecting Gridley to the promotion of the Revolution, calling the report "an old chimney-corner story."
  8. Massachusetts Historical Society. “Richard Gridley.” Accessed July 6, 2021, https://www.masshist.org/terrafirma/gridley.
  9. Buzzaird, "America's First Chief Engineer."
  10. Buzzaird, "America's First Chief Engineer."
  11. Robert R. Ellis, "Richard Gridley: First Chief Engineer of the Army Part II" The Military Engineer 55, no. 366 (1963): 265-68, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44570948.
  12. Ellis, "Richard Gridley: First Chief Engineer of the Army Part II"
  13. Ellis, "Richard Gridley: First Chief Engineer of the Army Part II"
  14. "The Battle of Bunker Hill," National Park Service. 
  15. W.F. Heavey, "The Corps in the Days of the Revolution" The Military Engineer 30, no. 180 (1963), 410-13.
  16. Buzzaird, "America's First Chief Engineer."
  17. Ellis, "Richard Gridley: First Chief Engineer of the Army Part II"
  18. Ellis, "Richard Gridley: First Chief Engineer of the Army Part II"
  19. Buzzaird, "America's First Chief Engineer."
  20. Baule, "Richard Gridley: A Nearly Forgotten Patriot."
  21. Baule, "Richard Gridley: A Nearly Forgotten Patriot."
  22. Baule, "Richard Gridley: A Nearly Forgotten Patriot."
  23. Baule, "Richard Gridley: A Nearly Forgotten Patriot."
  24. Baule, "Richard Gridley: A Nearly Forgotten Patriot."
  25. Heavey, "The Corps in the Days of the Revolution."
  26. Heavey, "The Corps in the Days of the Revolution."
  27. Mark Mayo Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994), 458-459.
  28. Buzzaird, "America's First Chief Engineer."
  29. Baule, "Richard Gridley: A Nearly Forgotten Patriot."
  30. John Healy, "Richard Gridley," Welcome to Historical Canton, https://cantonmahistoricalworks.com. This website page is no longer accessible, however, similar information can be found on Masonicgenealogy.com: http://www.masonicgenealogy.com/MediaWiki/index.php?title=GLStJRGridley
  31. Healy, "Richard Gridley."

Boston National Historical Park

Last updated: October 22, 2021