William Prescott, soldier, born in Groton, Massachusetts, 20 February, 1726 died in Pepperell, Massachusetts, 13 October, 1795. His father, Judge Benjamin Prescott, was the grandson of John, of Lincolnshire, England, an early settler of Lancaster, Massachusetts The son inherited a large estate and resided at Pepperell. In 1755 he served successively as lieutenant and captain in the provincial army under General John Winslow during the expedition against Nova. Scotia. His conduct in that campaign attracted the attention of the British general, who offered him a commission in the regular army, which he declined, and after the war he retired to his estate at Pepperell.
In 1774 he was appointed to command a regiment of minute-men, with which he marched, on 19 April, 1775, to Lexington, to oppose the expedition that was sent out by General Thomas Gage. Before Prescott arrived the British had retreated, and he then proceeded to Cambridge, where he entered the provincial army, the majority of his officers and men volunteering to serve with him during his first campaign. On 16 June, 1775, he was ordered to Charlestown with 1,000 men, and directed to throw up works on Bunker Hill. On arriving at the ground, it was perceived that the neighboring elevation, called Breed’s Hill, was a more suitable station, and on it the defenses, consisting of a redoubt and breastwork, were erected during the night. The following day a large British force commanded by General William Howe attacked the Americans, and, after the latter had repelled two assaults, and had exhausted their ammunition, succeeded in dislodging them. In this battle, which owes its importance to the fact that it demonstrated the ability of the provincials successfully to oppose British regulars, Bancroft says that “no one appeared to have any command but Colonel Prescott,” and that “his bravery could never be enough acknowledged and applauded.” He was one of the last to leave the entrenchments when lie found it necessary to order a retreat, and immediately offered to retake the position if the commander-in-chief would give him three regiments.
Before the attack Gage, reconnoitering the works, saw Prescott walking on tile parapet, and asked Counselor Willard who he was, and if he would fight? The latter replied, “That is Colonel Prescott–he is an old soldier, and will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins.”
Prescott was born in Groton, Massachusetts to Benjamin Prescott (1696–1738) and Abigail Oliver Prescott (1697–1765). He married Abigail Hale (1733–1821) on April 13, 1758, and they had one son, also named William, in 1762. Prescott owned a house in Pepperell, Massachusetts, on Prescott Street. Prescott served in the provincial militia in King George’s War where he served in the 1745 Siege of Louisbourg under William Pepperrell. He may have played a role in the naming of the town of Pepperell, Massachusetts after his commander when it was separated from Groton in 1753. In 1755, when the French and Indian War widened, he saw action at the Battle of Fort Beausejour. He turned down an offer to join the Royal Army for his service in that war.
In 1774, when Massachusetts towns began forming militia companies, Prescott was made a colonel commanding the Pepperell company. The alarm that was raised on the evening of April 18, 1775 that British troops were marching on Concord reached Pepperell about 10 am on April 19. Prescott immediately alerted the companies of Pepperell and Groton and rode toward Concord. The companies arrived too late to participate in the day’s battles but they became part of the small army that laid siege to Boston afterward.
When the American military commanders were alerted to British plans to capture undefended high ground at Dorchester Heights and Charlestown, Prescott was chosen to lead 1,200 men onto the Charlestown peninsula and erect defenses on Bunker Hill on the night of June 16, 1775. The next day, his troops, which were tired from working to construct a redoubt and other defensive works, and only had limited ammunition, formed the centerpiece of the American defenses when the British attacked the position. In spirited battle, Prescott’s men twice threw back British assaults on the redoubt. When the British made a third attempt, his men were almost out of ammunition; after an initial volley, he ordered a retreat from the redoubt. He was one of the last men to leave the redoubt, parrying bayonet thrusts with his ceremonial saber. While the British successfully captured Bunker Hill, the poorly-organized colonial forces inflicted significant casualties, and the British were unable to capitalize on their victory; Prescott is widely seen as having played a key role in the battle, keeping the relatively poorly-trained militia under his command well-disciplined.
Life After Bunker Hill
When the Second Continental Congress established the Continental Army it sent George Washington to take command of the forces besieging Boston. Prescott received a colonel’s commission, and his unit became the 7th Continental Regiment. The regiment saw service in the 1776 defense of New York. While he appears to have given up command of the regiment after that campaign, he apparently participated in some capacity in the 1777 Saratoga campaign, for he is depicted in the painting of the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga by John Trumbull, which hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. His departure from military service may be due to injuries sustained in an accident on his farm.
Early in 1777 he resigned and returned home, but in autumn of that year he joined the northern army under General Horatio Gates as a volunteer, and was present at Saratoga. After this battle he returned home and sat in the legislature of Massachusetts for several years. He wrote “A Letter from a Veteran to the Officers of the Army en-camped at Boston” (Boston, 1774). See Samuel Swett’s “History of Bunker Hill Battles” (Boston, 1827 ; new ed., with notes, 1835).
Before the Revolution he was successively major, lieutenant-colonel, and colonel in the militia, early in 1776 he was appointed a brigadier-general of militia for the county of Middlesex, and became a member of the board of war. In 1777 he was elected a member of the supreme executive council of the state, in 1778 he was appointed third major-general of militia in the commonwealth, and in 1781 he became second major-general, but soon afterward he resigned. In this year he was commissioned by the government to cause the arrest and committal of any person whose liberty he considered dangerous to the commonwealth. From 1779 till his death he was judge of probate for Middlesex county. He was very influential in suppressing Shay’s rebellion.
In 1780 he became a fellow of the Academy of arts and sciences, and he was a trustee, patron, and benefactor of Groton academy.
His grandson William H. Prescott was a noted historian and author, who married the granddaughter of Captain John Linzee, captain of the HMS Falcon, one of the British ships that fired on Bunker Hill.
The former town of Prescott, Massachusetts, was named in his honor. The town was disincorporated in 1938 as part of the building of the Quabbin Reservoir, and the land now makes up Prescott Peninsula, which divides the main branches of the reservoir.
Prescott’s likeness was made into a statue for a memorial for the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Prescott’s house is located in North Pepperell, Massachusetts.
Prescott appears as a character in Thomas Wm. Hamilton’s science fiction novel Time for Patriots, ISBN 978-1-60693-224-7.