Home Massachusetts Battle of Bunker Hill Distressed Abigail Adams, 10 Miles Away

Battle of Bunker Hill Distressed Abigail Adams, 10 Miles Away

And it still upset John Quincy, 70 years later


Decades after the Battle of Bunker Hill, it still distressed Abigail Adams. Her son, who watched it with her, could still get overwrought when he remembered it.

Abigail just had to see the battle for herself, despite her husband’s warnings that she and the children must “fly to the woods” in the face of danger. Instead, she took seven-year-old John Quincy to the top of Penn’s Hill near their home in Braintree. From a granite outcropping they watched the smoke rise from Charlestown 10 miles away as the cannon thundered in their ears.

Abigail Adams, 1766 (Benjamin Blythe)

Abigail Adams, 1766 (Benjamin Blythe)

John Adams was away, journeying to Philadelphia to meet with the Continental Congress. Abigail wrote to him the next day as the cannon still roared.  “My bursting heart must find vent at my pen,” she wrote.

Charlstown is laid in ashes. The Battle began upon our intrenchments upon Bunkers Hill, a Saturday morning about 3 oclock & has not ceased yet & tis now 3 o’clock Sabbeth afternoon. Tis expected they will come out over the Neck to night, & a dreadful Battle must ensue.

Bunker Hill Distressed Abigail Adams

John Quincy Adams recalled the Battle of Bunker Hill in a letter. It was as overwrought 71 years after the event as his mother’s was the next day. In March 1846, he wrote to English abolitionist Joseph Sturge that his mother was  “liable every hour of the day and of the night to be butchered in cold blood, or taken and carried into Boston as hostages, by any foraging or marauding detachment of men.”

During those early months of the war, he wrote, she lived in,

…unintermitted danger of being consumed with them all in a conflagration kindled by a torch in the same hands which on the 17th. Of June lighted the fires of Charlestown — I saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard Britannia’s thunders in the Battle of Bunker’s hill.

Even on the day after the battle, Abigail Adams couldn’t eat, drink or sleep because of the noise of the cannon. In her letter, she promised her husband she’d take refuge at his brother’s if their friends warned her of danger.

Two days later she picked up her pen again.

I have been so much agitated that I have not been able to write since Sabbeth day. When I say that ten thousand reports are passing vague & uncertain as the wind I believe I speak the Truth.

She had another reason for getting upset by the battle.  The family’s dear friend Dr. Joseph Warren perished in the fight.  John Quincy Adams remembered his mother crying.

…witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own, at the fall of Warren a dear friend of my father, and a beloved Physician to me. He had been our family physician and surgeon, and had saved my fore finger from amputation under a very bad fracture.

 *  *  *

Years later, Abigail Adams would show remarkable fortitude and resourcefulness during her difficult time in the White House. Read about her sorrows and joys in Eat Like a President. You’ll also learn about life in the White House both upstairs and downstairs during five other presidencies.


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With thanks to John Adams by David McCullough. This story updated in 2023.



Vicki Stevens June 17, 2014 - 7:26 pm

She was a truly amazing woman.

Geoff Webb June 17, 2014 - 7:28 pm

She looks like Giamatti could have played her, too;)

Lisa Andre June 17, 2014 - 10:07 pm

Penn’s Hill? When it was still a part of Braintree?

Jade Lally June 17, 2014 - 10:13 pm

This is so moving, I can’t imagine watching my city burn with my son by my side.

Jade Lally June 17, 2014 - 10:13 pm

This is so moving, I can’t imagine watching my city burn with my son by my side.

Jessica Downing-Ford June 17, 2014 - 11:14 pm

The original Boston Strong 🙂

Scott L. Ratcliffe June 17, 2014 - 11:36 pm

She has more brains than today’s First Lady will ever have.

Diane Tufts June 18, 2014 - 8:42 am

like typical upper class people, they watched the battle without getting their hands dirty, while my husband’s family fought in it bravely. (you won’t hear THAT in a history lesson though)

John Francis Ryan June 18, 2014 - 5:02 pm

Would Dr . Warren be the exception to the rule , Diane .

Robert January 26, 2018 - 10:46 am

Wow such ignorance and racism in some posts. The ignorance is many people of weatlh fought in the revolution and made great sacrifices. Dr warren was killed at bunker hill. Je was very prominent Bostonian. And the dig at Michelle obama is wrong and racist. She is an amazing accomplished woman.

Comments are closed.

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