Today in History: June 17
The Battle of Bunker Hill
On June 17, 1775, American troops displayed their mettle in the Battle of Bunker Hill during the siege of Boston, inflicting casualties on nearly half of the British troops dispatched to secure Breed's Hill (where most of the fighting occurred).
A plan of the action at Bunkers-Hill, on the 17th. of June, 1775…,
By Sir Thomas Hyde-Page, 1775.
Approximately 2,100 British troops under the command of General Thomas Gage stormed Breed's Hill, where colonial soldiers were encamped. In their fourth charge up the hillside, the British took the hill from the rebels, who had run out of ammunition. After suffering more than 1,000 casualties during their attacks on Breed's Hill, the British halted their assaults on rebel strongholds in Boston. The last rebels left on the hill evaded capture by the British thanks to the heroic efforts of Peter Salem, an African-American soldier who mortally wounded the British commanding officer who led the last charge.
When George Washington assumed command of colonial forces two weeks later, he garnered ammunition for Boston troops and secured Dorchester Heights and Bunker Hill.
Several speeches in the American Memory collection African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907, contain references to Peter Salem, the former slave and hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill:
Mr. Everett has described Peter Salem, a black man, and once a slave, as having been among the most prominent and meritorious characters at the battle of Bunker's Hill. Indeed, the historical painting of that scene, by Col. Trumbull, an eyewitness, done in 1785, gives Peter Salem , with other black patriots, a conspicuous place. One of the latter is thus commemorated:
"To the Honorable General Court of the Massachusetts Bay: The subscribers beg leave to report to your Honorable House (which we do in justice to the character of so brave a man), that, under our own observation, we declare that a negro man, called Salem Poor, of Col. Frye's regiment, Capt. Ames' company, in the late battle at Charlestown, behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier. To set forth particulars of his conduct would be tedious. We would beg leave to say, in the person of this said negro, centres a brave and gallant soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a character, we submit to the Congress."
Cambridge, Dec. 5, 1755.
"A Reading on Slavery, from the Early Presidents."
Opinions of the Early Presidents, and of the Fathers of the Republic, upon Slavery and upon Negroes as Men and Soldiers.
Prepared for the Celebration of Washington's Birthday at Lyceum Hall, Salem, February 22, 1863.
African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907
Learn more about the Battle of Bunker Hill in American Memory:
- Search on Peter Salem in African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907 to find references to the former slave and hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
- Search the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 for documents related to the Battle of Bunker Hill, including Washington's estimate of British casualties at the battle.
Birdseye View of Charlestown and Bunker Hill,
between 1890 and 1910.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920
- Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920 contains several photos of Boston, including photos of Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill. Search the collection on Boston.
- Search America Singing: Nineteenth Century Song Sheets on Bunker Hill for musical compositions commemorating the battle.
- An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera contains a number of items related to the battle and subsequent monument.
- American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I and the 1920 Election contains a speech by Calvin Coolidge on equal rights that includes references to Revolutionary War battles, including the Battle of Bunker Hill.
- The January 28, 1795, entry in the Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, 1789-1873 includes a petition from a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill to be added to the list of invalid pensioners. Search on Bunker Hill in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 for additional petitions from men wounded at the battle.
- See the Today in History feature on artist John Trumbull whose paintings depicting the Battle of Bunker Hill and other events of the Revolutionary period have become American icons. Search the Today in History Archive on revolution to find other features on the Revolutionary War.
- See the 1905 film Spirit of '76 from the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. The film is a dramatic recreation of Archibald Willard's famous painting by the same title and was made to illustrate the well-known song "Bunker Hill."
Spirit of '76, American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1905.
The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
James Weldon Johnson, "Lift Every Voice and Sing (external link)," written in 1900 on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln's birthday and published in Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems (New York: Viking Press, 1935).
Portrait of James Weldon Johnson,
Carl Van Vechten, photographer,
December 3, 1932.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964
Poet, diplomat, songwriter, and anthologist of black culture James Weldon Johnson (external link) was born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida. He attended Atlanta University, where he earned A.B. and M.A. degrees, and Columbia University in New York City.
Johnson began his career as principal of the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville. He began practicing law in Jacksonville in 1898, upon his admission to the Florida bar. In 1901, he moved to New York City with his brother, composer John Rosamund Johnson. In New York, the Johnson brothers wrote some 200 songs for Broadway productions.
President Theodore Roosevelt appointed James W. Johnson United States consul to Venezuela in 1906. In 1920, he became the chief organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Of his many accomplishments, Johnson is best known for his poetry and his anthologies of African-American poetry. An important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson provided invaluable encouragement and recognition for the influential generation of artists coming of age in the 1920s and 1930s.
Carl Van Vechten,
Carl Van Vechten, photographer,
May 8, 1934.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964
Carl Van Vechten, the photographer responsible for the portrait of James Weldon Johnson pictured above, was born on June 17, 1880, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, Van Vechten, formerly a music and dance critic at The New York Times, developed an interest in promoting black artists and musicians. His portrait of Johnson is one of several he took of prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
Search the following American Memory collections for more information about Johnson, Van Vechten, and the period in which they lived:
- Search on James Weldon Johnson in African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920: Selected from the Collections of Brown University for song lyrics penned by Johnson. This collection, from the Brown University Library, consists of 1,305 pieces of African-American sheet music dating from 1850 through 1920. The collection includes many songs from the heyday of antebellum black face minstrelsy in the 1850s and from the abolitionist movement of the same period. Numerous titles are associated with the novel and the play Uncle Tom's Cabin. Civil War-period music includes songs about African-American soldiers and the plight of the newly emancipated slave. Post-Civil War music reflects the problems of Reconstruction and the beginnings of urbanization and the northern migration of African Americans.
Bob Cole, composer,
J. W. and Rosamond Johnson, words and music [edited],
African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920: Selected from the Collections of Brown University
- Search James Weldon Johnson in The African-American Experience in Ohio: Selections from the Ohio Historical Society for newspaper clippings about Johnson. This selection of manuscripts and printed texts and images drawn from the collections of the Ohio Historical Society illuminates the history of black Ohio from 1850 to 1920, a story of slavery and freedom, segregation and integration, religion and politics, migrations and restrictions, harmony and discord, and struggles and successes.
- Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964 includes a biography and a chronology for Van Vechten. Browse the Occupation Index to explore Van Vechten's portrait photography.
- Search across American Memory for various images and documents related to Broadway throughout American history.
- Search the Today in History Archive on Harlem or Van Vechten to find more features on some famous Americans photographed by Van Vechten.
- Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920 contains photographs of Venezuela taken during the time Johnson represented the United States there. Search on Venezuela to retrieve them.