The advance of the British army was like a solemn pageant in its steady headway, and like a parade for inspection in its completeness. This army, bearing knapsacks and full campaign equipment, moved forward as if, by the force of its closely knit columns, it must sweep every barrier away. But, right in the way was a calm, intense love of liberty. It was represented by men of the same blood and of equal daring.
A strong contrast marked the opposing Englishmen that summer afternoon. The plain men handled plain firelocks. Oxhorns held their powder, and their pockets held their bullets. Coatless, under the broiling sun, unincumbered, unadorned by plume or service medal, pale and wan after their night of toil and their day of hunger, thirst, and waiting, this live obstruction calmly faced the advancing splendor.
A few hasty shots, quickly restrained, drew an innocent fire from the British front rank. The pale, stern men behind the slight defence, obedient to a strong will, answer not to the quick volley, and nothing to the audible commands of the advancing columns,—waiting, still.
No painter can make the scene more clear than the recital of sober deposition, and the record left by survivors of either side. History has no contradictions to confuse the realities of that momentous tragedy.
The British left wing is near the redoubt. It has only to mount a fresh earthbank, hardly six feet high, and its clods and sands can almost be counted,—it is so near, so easy—sure.
Short, crisp, and earnest, low-toned, but felt as an electric pulse, are the words of Prescott. Warren, by his side, repeats. The words fly through the impatient lines. The eager fingers give back from the waiting trigger. “Steady, men.” “Wait until you see the white of the eye.” “Not a shot sooner.” “Aim at the handsome coats.” “Aim at the waistbands.” “Pick off the commanders.” “Wait for the word, every man,—steady.”
Those plain men, so patient, can already count the buttons, can read the emblems on the breastplate, can recognize the officers and men whom they had seen parade on Boston Common. Features grow more distinct. The silence is awful. The men seem dead—waiting for one word. On the British right the light infantry gain equal advance just as the left wing almost touched the redoubt. Moving over more level ground, they quickly made the greater distance, and passed the line of those who marched directly up the hill. The grenadiers moved firmly upon the centre, with equal confidence, and space lessens to that which the spirit of the impending word defines. That word waits behind the centre and left wing, as it lingers at breastwork and redoubt. Sharp, clear, and deadly in tone and essence, it rings forth,—Fire!