Bernard Romans’ rare view of the Battle of Bunker Hill

Bernard Romans, AN EXACT VIEW OF THE LATE BATTLE AT CHARLESTOWN. JUNE 17TH. 1775. In which an advanced Party of about 700 Provincials stood an Attack made by 11 Regiments & a Train of Artillery, & after an Engagement of 2 Hours Retreated to their Main Body at Cambridge. Leaving Eleven Hundred of the Regulars Killed and Wounded upon the Field. London: Printed for Mess. Wallis & Stonehouse, No. 16, Ludgate Street as the Act directs. June 4, 1776.
Engraving and etching on wove paper, 10 ¾”h x 15 ¾”w at neat line plus title, legend and margins, uncolored. Faint mat burn, small numeric annotation in lower-right margin, else excellent.

Only the fourth known impression of this large-format depiction of the Battle of Bunker Hill by polymathic surveyor, mapmaker, military engineer, and natural historian Bernard Romans.

After the April 19th battles at Lexington and Concord American militia formed a ring of encampments and fortifications surrounding Boston. But they lacked the training or equipment to attack the town head-on, particularly as the British retained unimpeded command of the sea.

On the night of June 16th the American militia attempted a game changer. A force of some 1200 led by General Israel Putnam and Colonel William Prescott occupied the Charlestown peninsula and built a redout atop Breed’s Hill (Bunker Hill, which gave the battle its name, in fact lay north and west of Breed’s and was only lightly fortified). If the Americans were permitted to emplace artillery there, and could find the gunpowder to fire it, they would gain command of the Charles River and been able to bombard Boston itself.

The next morning the British in Boston awoke to this nightmare scenario. Commander-in-Chief Thomas Gage ordered several regiments to cross the Charles and assault the hill, with artillery support from naval vessels moored in the river. The attack was led by General William Howe—who in October of 1775 would succeed Gage as Commander in Chief in North America.  It consisted of more or less simultaneous direct assault on the redoubt and a move on the Americans’ left flank, aimed directly at a force of Connecticut militia positioned behind a rail fence.

The British expected a walkover: They had something like 3000 well-armed regular troops supported by heavily-armed vessels in the river, facing just over 2000 poorly-supplied and largely-untested American militia.  The assumption was that most Americans would turn and run when they saw the Regulars marching toward them, bayonets mounted.

But the Americans didn’t run, and the battle was a nightmare for the British: Their first two assaults were thrown back, though on the third they captured the redoubt and force the surviving Americans to retreat across Charlestown Neck. By the time the battle had ended the British had suffered over 1000 casualties; indeed, it is said that one eighth of all British officers killed during the Revolution died in the battle.  Indeed, the British General Henry Clinton—another future Commander in Chief—wrote in his diary that “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.”

Romans’ Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown
Romans has drawn his view of the battle from a vantage point beyond the right flank of the American lines. The Americans are emplaced behind a breastwork atop Breed’s Hill, with their right flank protected by additional troops and artillery. Just behind them is a mounted General Israel Putnam, who served with distinction at the battle. Charlestown is shown in flames, British vessels moored in the Charles River fire on the American position, while Boston lays in the distance at far right. Giving the view a time-lapse quality, the British are shown both advancing up the hill in line abreast and in retreat, leaving behind many casualties. One curious feature, entirely unexplained, is the “Broken Officer” shown at lower left.

Romans also in 1775 published a map of the events around Boston, an advert for which describes him as “on the spot at the engagements of Lexington and Bunker’s Hill” (Pennsylvania Ledger, August 19, 1775). This is almost surely incorrect: Romans was a top-drawer surveyor and mapmaker—more on which below—and if he had been present at the battle the view would presumably have been more accurate. Among other errors, Romans’ view depicts the battle taking place northwest of Charlestown, whereas Breeds Hill is to the northeast; the flanking line of Americans—at the famous “rail fence” under Captain Thomas Knowlton—was on the American left, not its right; and the American redoubt was a hasty earthwork, not the stone fortification shown here.

None of this detracts from the view’s effectiveness as American propaganda. It effectively compresses and elides the complex events of the day, highlighting the Americans’ steadiness under fire, while omitting entirely the fact that the British ultimately carried the redoubt. The image would have been shocking to most viewers, who reasonably enough would have thought it impossible for American militia to hold a position against thousands of British Regulars.

Publication history
As was standard practice at the time, Romans’ plan was for subscribers to pledge the funds to sponsor publication. He announced his intentions in the Pennsylvania Gazette for September 20, 1775:

“Philadelphia, September 13, 1775, IT IS PROPOSED TO PRINT An exact VIEW of the late Battle at Charlestown, June 17, 1775 ….  It shall be printed on a good crown imperial paper, and to be delivered to the subscribers in about ten days: The price to subscribers is 5s. plain, and if coloured 7/6. Subscriptions are taken by [followed by a list of book and printsellers, including “Nicholas Brooks, printer of said view”] (p. 1)

The promised ten-day delivery inevitably slipped, and the print was only available sale around November 1.

Romans’ view was immediately pirated in Philadelphia, with a much-reduced engraving by Robert Aitken appearing in the September 1775 issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine, apparently before the folio print was available. Then in June 1776 London publishers Wallis & Stonehouse published the folio version offered here, identical in all essentials to the Philadelphia folio-size version but with more refined engraving.

The partnership of Wallis & Stonehouse was newly formed and focused on contemporary events; for example they collaborated with William Faden in the publication and selling of Faden’s “The attack and defeat of the American Fleet under Benedict Arnold, by the Kings Fleet commanded by Sir Guy Carleton, upon Lake Champlain” (1776). Stonehouse has not been identified, while John Wallis had a long and distinguished career as a mapmaker and -publisher. He is particularly associated with educational and game maps, but also produced a commemorative map of the United States after the signing of the preliminary Treaty of Paris.

Bernard Romans (ca. 1720-1784)
Bernard Romans was born in Delft, Netherlands about 1720. He learned mapmaking and surveying in England, then emigrated to the North American Colonies in 1757. He worked as a surveyor in Georgia, where he would rise to become Deputy Surveyor General in 1766. He eventually moved on to Florida, where in 1773 he was appointed Deputy Surveyor General for the Southern District under William Gerard de Brahm, though the two men soon came to hate one another. In 1775 he published his A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida, one of the most important colonial works on Florida, and also produced the monumental Maps of East and West Florida.

Romans was in Boston when war broke out in 1775, keeping tabs on Paul Revere as the latter engraved his maps of Florida. Romans enlisted in the American cause, was appointed a Captain and served with Benedict Arnold and Nathaniel Greene in their attacks on Fort George and Fort Ticonderoga. He may have fought at Lexington and Concord and/or Bunker Hill, though I doubt it. He did go on to oversee construction of fortifications at Constitution Island on the Hudson River across from West Point, then in April 1776 took command of a Pennsylvania company on service in Canada.

Controversy followed Romans everywhere, however: he feuded with the commissioners overseeing the Constitution Island works, which were ultimately deemed insufficient for proper defense of the Hudson; and in Spring 1776 he was court-martialed for the licentious behavior of the troops under his command in Canada, though he was soon acquitted. There is then a nearly two-year gap in our knowledge of his activities, but in July 1778 he resigned his military commission and moved to Wethersfield, Connecticut. There he married one Elizabeth Whiting in January 1779.

From early 1779 until his death, Romans’ last years are “shrouded in uncertainty.” The two dominant narratives have him being captured by the British and imprisoned for several years, either in Montego Bay, Jamaica or in England itself. Both accounts have him dying at sea on his return to America in 1784, possibly murdered for his money.

Despite wartime conditions, in addition to this view Romans produced a striking number of important cartographic publications during the Revolution. During the 1775-76 siege of Boston he published a map of the area around Boston, entitled “The Seat of Civil War In America”,  dedicated to John Hancock. Later he published three maps in New Haven, including “Connecticut and parts adjacent” (1777), the “Chorographical Map of the Northern Department of North America” (1778) and “A Chorographical Map of the Country Round Philadelphia” (1778). All three were reissued in 1780 by Covens & Mortier in Amsterdam, perhaps through an arrangement with Romans himself.

Census and references
Examples of this London edition are known only at Colonial Williamsburg, the Winterthur Museum, and in a private American collection. The Philadelphia edition is only somewhat less rare, with impressions located at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Public Library (Stokes Collection), and the Yale University Art Gallery.

Stokes and Haskell, American Historical Prints, #1775-B-91 (the Philadelphia edition). Winterthur Museum, Prints pertaining to America (1963), #81. Not in OCLC or Library Hub Discover.