William Prescott (February 20, 1726 – October 13, 1795) was an American colonel in the Revolutionary War who commanded the rebel forces in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Prescott is known for his order to his soldiers, “Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, such that the rebel troops may shoot at the enemy at shorter ranges, and therefore more accurately and lethally, and so conserve their limited stocks of ammunition. It is debated whether Prescott or someone earlier coined this memorable saying.
Prescott was born in Groton, Massachusetts, when East Pepperell was considered Groton, 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 child, also named William. 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 British Army for his service in that war.
===American Revolutionary 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 a.m. on April 19. Prescott immediately alerted the companies of Pepperell, Hollis, 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 actual defenses were built on Breeds Hill, as it was lower and closer to the harbor. The next day, his troops, who were tired from working to construct a redoubt and other defensive works, and had only limited ammunition, formed the centerpiece of the American defenses when the British attacked the position. The British began firing from the ship Lively at 4 a.m. attacked at 3 p.m. 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 their victory. They lost 50 percent of the force commanded by General Howe, that were killed or wounded. Prescott is widely seen as having played a key role in the battle, keeping the relatively poorly trained militia under his command well-disciplined.
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.
Prescott served in the Massachusetts General Court in later years. He also served in the militia called out in 1786 to suppress Shays’ Rebellion. His brother Oliver Prescott was said to be influential in the suppression of that outbreak. William died in 1795 in Pepperell.
Prescott’s likeness was made into a statue for a memorial for the Battle of 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 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.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, has a small granite monument to the place where, on the night of June 16, 1775, 1,200 Patriot men assembled and were addressed by General Prescott and Harvard President Langdon, before their march to Bunker and Breed’s Hills. See footnote for picture of its inscription. This monument is located on the lawn west of Harvard’s Littauer Center, itself west of Harvard’s Science Center, just outside Harvard Yard. See footnote for location map.
However, Prescott Street, two blocks from Harvard Yard in Cambridge is not named after General William Prescott, but after his grandson, William Hickling Prescott (May 4, 1796 – January 28, 1859). This grandson became a noted historian and author, who (in a remarkable moment of historical reconciliation) married the granddaughter of Captain John Linzee, captain of the HMS Falcon, one of the British ships that fired on Bunker Hill Patriots. The city of Prescott, Arizona, is also named in honor of his scholarly grandson.