William Prescott is best known for his timeless words, spoken with such bravery to his men: “Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Prescott, a colonel in the Continental Army, was a brave American War hero, who will always be remembered by his country.
Early Life and Military Beginnings
Statue of Col. William Prescott in Charlestown Massachusetts
William Prescott was born on February 20, 1726, in Groton, Massachusetts. In 1758, he married Abigail Hale, and they had one child together.
William served in the provincial militia during the French and Indian War prior to the Revolutionary War. However, when the Americans began forming an army in 1774, Prescott was there to fight for his country’s independence. He was appointed colonel of the Pepperell Company in Massachusetts.
The news that the British were coming on April 8, 1775 did not reach Pepperell until around 10 a.m. the next day, however, as soon as the word reached Prescott, he alerted all the companies near him and they rode down toward Concord. By the time they arrived, the day’s battle was over, but they were part of the army that laid siege to Boston afterwards.
Battle of Bunker Hill
On June 16, 1775, Prescott was given 1200 men to go and defend Charleston. They lined themselves up on Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill and readied themselves to defend against the British. William knew that they had limited ammunition and that their musket fire would be most effective at close range. He urged his men to let the British get close before they fired, to make for more accurate shots.
The British advanced and the men were able to fight them back. Then the second wave came and once again the men were able to push them back with their fire. Finally, Colonel Prescott looked around and realized they were almost out of ammunition for the third attack from the British. Then he called out the command to his men, loud and clear “Do not fire until you see the whites of their eye!”
The third volley of musket fire took out many British troops, and at that point the men were close enough to fight with bayonets. The Americans fought for as long as they could before they were forced to retreat and surrender Bunker Hill to the British. This was the battle that made Colonel Prescott famous through the years.
John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, painted by John Trumbull. Colonel William Prescott is right of center wearing all brown, just behind Captain Morgan in white.
After the Continental Congress ordered Washington to take control of the forces at Boston, William Prescott was given control of the 7th Continental Regiment. After his regiment fought in New York in 1776, historians are unsure exactly what Prescott did.
Periodically, he popped up in various battles or other activities. Prescott is depicted in a painting by John Trumbull of the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga. It’s believed that his departure from the military might be from due to injuries that rendered him unable to fight.
William Prescott died in 1795 in his home at Pepperell.