D.H.T.Shippey  &  Michael Burns

American General Israel Putnam had given the orders on where to place the cannons. His men were to cross the small strip of land towards Charlestown and take up semi-entrenched positions on Breed’s Hill. One artillery company, in fear, had already disobeyed and stayed on the mainland. Captains Samuel Gridley and John Callender were terrified as they brought their guns to the redoubt. John Callender had been elected by his neighbors and fellow militia members to be the commander of his artillery company. The respect and confidence shown by his neighbors had brought him, with thousands of others, to surround Boston after the battles of Lexington and Concord, and now to the field of what would be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill. The British ships began to rain fire down on Charlestown, and boats full of professional soldiers in red coats began landing on the shore.

   Model of the Redoubt on Breed’s Hill

    Callender and Gridley saw what was happening around them, and were terrified. It’s easy to understand how panic and fear could consume men in battle. In the 18th century battle plans were designed to make the enemy give up the field in fear. The power of the British Army was in their discipline; they followed orders and moved forward like a machine. Callender and Gridley had already been defeated; fear had already overcome them. They were sure that their position would be overrun and decided to retreat across Bunker Hill, just behind Breed’s Hill. The artillerymen could be seen dragging the guns from their redoubt and harnessing the horses to drive the guns away. They were about to begin their dash back across Charlestown Neck, leaving their fellow soldiers alone to defend the hill without artillery support, when General Putnam stopped them. The Captains claimed that they were out of ammunition, but Putnam threw open their side boxes to find them full of 3 lb. cannonballs.

General commanded them to immediately return to the hill. As the battle raged, on Putnam continued to move between the areas of the battlefield as he was needed. As soon as the General was out of site, the Captains abandoned their guns and ran away from the battle.

     We all know the story of the Battle of Bunker Hill (Breed’s Hill) and the brave militiamen who fought and held back waves of British Soldiers. Eventually, of course, the numbers proved too great and the ammunition did run out. Bunker Hill was an American defeat, but the cost to the British was incredibly high. Almost a third of their troops were casualties. The Americans, with few casualties, were able to regroup. Their willingness to stand and face the might of the British Army converted many to the side of the Patriots.

      Less than two weeks after the battle, George Washington took command of the American Army and General Putnam demanded that Artillery Captain John Callender be cashiered or shot for his cowardice. A committee of Congress submitted a report on the misconduct of officers at the battle, and a Court Martial was begun. John Callender was found guilty of cowardice in battle and sentenced to be cashiered. General Washington approved the sentence, stating as he did so, “It is with inexpressible Concern that the General upon his first Arrival in the army, should find an Officer sentenced by a General Court-Martial to be cashier'd for Cowardice. A Crime of all others, the most infamous in a Soldier, the most injurious to an Army, and the last to be forgiven-The General having made all due inquiries, and maturely consider'd this matter is to led to the above determination not only from the particular Guilt of Capt. Callender, but the fatal Consequences of such Conduct to the army and to the cause of America.”




      If the story of John Calender ended here it would not be surprising. Many men would have simply disappeared in shame; others might have felt pricked by injustice and become the enemy of those who they felt had wronged them. How many of us, after being fired from a company or having our crimes exposed and denounced by friends, would become bitter towards our past associates? But John Calender did not follow the path we might understandably expect. Calender recognized his failings as his own and the righteousness of the cause of Liberty as larger than himself. He set aside his pride and reenlisted-- as a cadet soldier--in the company he had formerly commanded.

      On August 27th 1776, just over a year after the Battle of Bunker Hill, John Callender found himself in an eerily familiar situation. Washington had defeated the British in the Siege of Boston and marched his army to New York.  The British had sent the largest amphibious assault force in history; in fact it would remain so until D-Day.  The British boats had landed 32,000 troops and the Battle of Long Island began on the 22nd. By the 27th, Private John Callender was with his entrenched guns and fellow artillerymen on Brooklyn Heights. Everything looked to be another Breed’s Hill situation; if the British attacked they would suffer grievous casualties. The British, however, discovered a small pass only lightly guarded that allowed them to flank the Patriots. What followed was a slaughter. John Callender saw the Captain (his replacement) fall to British fire. The Lieutenant assumed command and was killed as well. Suddenly throngs of Patriot soldiers began retreating past Callender’s position, blindly running from the horror before them. We can only guess what passed through Callender’s mind at that moment. Maybe he had died inside so many times while remembering his previous shame that death no longer held any fear for him. Perhaps he saw an opportunity to recover his lost honor, or it could be that the months of service as a lowly Private had disciplined him in a new way. Whatever the cause, John Callender, the coward of Bunker Hill, jumped in front of his retreating comrades and took command. He pulled his fellow artillerymen back to their positions and kept the cannons firing. More men fell around him, but Callender would not stop, even as the British came close enough to see their faces. The British charged Callender’s position and swept away the battery. The Private continued to load his gun while a group of British soldiers charged him with bayonets. As the blades were poised to pierce his body, a British Officer ordered them to stop. His intervention was an act of chivalry in admiration of the bravery shown by Callender—a man who 16 months earlier had been notable only for his cowardice. Callender was now a prisoner of the new masters of Manhattan Island, the British Army.

      John Callender remained a prisoner for over a year, not knowing that his bravery had been witnessed by others and brought to the attention of the Commander in Chief. Arrangements were made and Washington saw to it that prisoner exchanges included the return of John Callender, an almost unheard of honor for someone without an officer’s rank. Upon his return, General Washington ordered that John Callender’s previous sentence be expunged from the order books. Callender’s rank of Captain was restored, and Washington himself offered Callender his hand, thanking him for his service. John Callender served as Captain‑Lieutenant in Crane’s 3rd Continental Artillery from January 1, 1777 until he transferred to Corps of Artillery, June 17, 1783.  He became a Brevet Captain on September 30, 1783, and continued to serve until June 20, 1784.

After the war he returned to his law practice in Boston and was one of the original members of the Massachusetts Society of The Cincinnati. In 1794 he was awarded a land bounty for his service, with his reputation, his rank and his honor restored.

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