PRESCOTT, WILLIAM. (1726–1795). Continental officer. Massachusetts. Born at Groton, Massachusetts, on 20 February 1726, the elder brother of Oliver Prescott, William Prescott served as a lieutenant in the expedition that took Louisburg in 1745. He settled in Pepperell, Massachusetts, became a prosperous farmer and militia captain (1756), and married Abigail Hale in 1757. Colonel of a regiment of Middlesex County minutemen, he arrived too late to see action at Concord on 19 April 1775, but he marched on to Cambridge, where he later became a member of the council of war and colonel of a provincial regiment.
On the night of 16-17 June 1775, he led his regiment and an assortment of others onto the Charlestown peninsula to fortify Breed's Hill. Over six feet tall, well-built, and possessing strong, clean-cut features, he had a way of inspiring respect and obedience as a military leader. The historian Christopher M. Ward has observed, "His customary movements were unhurried, and his coolness and self-possession in moments of danger were notable" (Ward, p. 76). As dawn broke on 17 June, he walked the parapet of the redoubt as his men dug furiously at his feet to finish their fortification before the British attacked it. A story based on later recollection captured the moment, even if it may be apocryphal:
It is said that [Thomas] Gage, studying him [Prescott] from Boston as Prescott stood on the parapet, handed his [spy]glass to Abijah Willard, the councillor, and asked if he knew him. Willard named him: his own brother-in law. "Will he fight?" asked Gage. Willard replied, "I cannot answer for his men, but Prescott will fight you to the gates of hell." (French, p. 219)
He led his men in the defense of the redoubt, the most prominent portion of the field, against a series of British attacks. They retired only when their ammunition was exhausted and the British were about to envelop their position. Prescott's inspired leadership, along with equal efforts by Thomas Knowlton and John Stark, prevented the collapse of the American defenses and ensured that the British would gain no quick military victory that might have shattered the rebellion. He served for the remainder of the Boston siege and was appointed colonel of the Seventh Continental Regiment for 1776. He took part in the evacuation of Long Island and the action at Kips Bay. The elderly warrior, who was further handicapped physically by an injury sustained in farm work, retired to his home at the end of the campaign. In September 1777 he served as a volunteer in the militia sent to help stop Burgoyne's invasion from the north. Bunker Hill had showcased his talents, but an opportunity never again presented itself for him to repeat the performance. He died at Pepperell on 13 October 1795.
French, Allen. The First Year of the American Revolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.
Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1952.
revised by Harold E. Selesky