By Matt Phillips
Charlestown Peninsula, Massachusetts
June 17, 1775
The knee-high grass on the hill almost concealed the remains of our comrades, mowed down by lead and fury the first two times we tried to oblige the rebels to quit the field. As we stepped over our brothers, their corpses reminded us why this third assault must be the last.
Few die well that die in a battle.
I mouthed Shakespeare’s words with a rueful smile. Little more than a year earlier, at Covent Garden, I played a soldier at Agincourt. Now, I led real soldiers, in a real assault on real works, where hundreds of very real men waited with their muskets, ready to shred us again.
From “Will Stansfield in Henry V, as Michael Williams, a soldier,” to Lieutenant William Stansfield, 5th Regiment of Foot, His Majesty’s Army.
From an actor to an officer. From my family’s shame to their red-coated pride.
I squinted in the afternoon sun and cringed at the air’s hot stench of blood and smoke. Sweat trickled from under my tall bearskin hat.
My company held formation, for now. “Steady, men, steady—”
The rebels loosed a thunderous volley. I flinched from the whistle of a ball inches from my ear.
I clenched my teeth, kept my eyes forward, even as men in my company fell screaming from the line, only footsteps from me.
On with it, then. Mustn’t embarrass Father. Mustn’t shirk my duty to His Majesty. Forward, now, forward. Here the drama reaches its climax. For death or …
Glory. I suppressed my smirk and shouted, “Very well, lads. The King’s sharp steel for these insolent bastards. Charge!”
We lowered our muskets and ran toward the rebels’ redoubt, whose five-foot earthen walls were surrounded by a shallow trench. My heart raged in rhythm with my pounding footsteps. Our bayonets gleamed like the fangs of metal beasts.
The rebels’ fire grew sporadic, like the popping of dying embers. If their ammunition ran out, we might finally prevail. But many threw rocks—One flew toward my head. I ducked just in time, but it knocked my hat off and skewed my powdered wig. The wig slid, then tumbled to the ground.
With a ragged growl, I leapt over the trench. Whilst gripping my musket in one hand, I grasped the wall with the other and clambered up and over.
The redoubt was spattered with guts and pooling blood. The rebels backed toward the far wall. Some climbed out. I pushed into the fray but stopped when a cloud of smoke and dust parted along the next wall. There a fat, bespectacled man with curly brown hair stood his ground, even as his fellows retreated.
I stared at him and fought my growing recognition. For my King—and my family—required me to kill all rebels in arms. No exceptions. Not even for the man I once cherished as my dearest friend. But how—
A loud crack from behind me—my friend’s face contorted. Harry dropped his musket and gripped his chest where a red spot flourished on his dirty linen shirt. He slid into the corner.
No—This must be a trick of the mind—the heat, the blood, the smell ….
But I shook my head, and Harry still lay there, drawing heaving breaths. I pushed through the struggling bodies, knelt before him, and placed my hand on his shoulder.
His eyes opened to narrow slits. A wavering smile stretched his stubbled cheeks. His lips moved, and I leaned in to hear him over the grunts and screams nearby.
“A strange meeting, this,” he said.
“Quiet now,” I said. His head slid onto a pile of stony dirt at the base of the wall. I removed my uniform coat, rolled it up, and cushioned his head. “You’re … here?”
“Not for long, mate. Never thought you’d see me turn martyr, eh?”
“I didn’t even know you’d come to America.”
His trembling right hand removed something from his coat pocket. I grasped it, dumbstruck, and he drew his fingers back, leaving a small gold locket in my hand.
“See that this returns to my wife … Worcester …”
Harry’s eyes bulged with a fit of coughing and wheezing. I tied the locket’s chain around my belt before reaching up to loosen Harry’s collar.
A shriek behind me froze my heart.
Before I could turn my head, a bayonet sliced through my right hand and pinned it just above Harry’s collarbone. Bolts of pain shot up my arm. Harry’s mouth opened and gurgled before his body went limp. I screamed and turned to face the soldier. He was a private from His Majesty’s 38th Regiment.
“Die, rebels!” he said with bared teeth and wild eyes. A tremor overtook me when I remembered: I no longer wore my red coat, wig, or bearskin hat. The rest of my uniform was covered in dirt. Amid this chaos, little distinguished me from the enemy in the eyes of this battle-mad private.
He pushed the bayonet forward and back, up and down. I quaked and lurched; I felt bones snap, tendons rip, nerves scrape on steel.
He withdrew the blade. When he raised his weapon again, several retreating rebels knocked him down and trampled him.
All sounds faded. My vision swirled and blurred into gray, then a darkness behind my eyes consumed all.
Some unknown span of time passed, as in a deep sleep, before the darkness lightened a bit. The light grew and formed the image of a small candle flame. Then a new light, a bigger one, appeared a few feet away. A roaring fire.
Men laughed and sang. The air was warm and stale, redolent of smoke. Not the battlefield’s hellish odor of gunpowder smoke, but tobacco’s earthy aroma.
“So, Will, what think you?”
A moment passed. The voice became real, not a memory’s echo.
Harry. Alive and well, sitting across from me at our favorite London public house, the Lamb and Flag.
I became aware of a piece of paper in my hand. I looked down, stared at the dull green woolen frock that had replaced my uniform coat.
“Be honest, now,” Harry said.
The candle guttered under Harry’s face as he leaned forward, his elbows on the table.
I examined the paper. Below the date of the 20th of March, 1774, an ink drawing of two men consumed most of the sheet. They stood face to face, scowling and pointing their fingers at each other. The man on the left was a portly, ruddy-faced man in a powdered wig and fine suit; the one on the right, a similarly attired but younger and thinner man. The fat one said, “You ungrateful whelps, we shall close your port!” His hand extended behind him, where a merchant representing the British East India Company put a coin his hand.
“How dare you threaten our coffers—I mean to say, our liberty!” the thin man said, with his hand stretched behind him to keep at bay a band of angry men. Labeled, “Boston warehousemen, ropewalk workers, etc.,” they cried, “Devil take our liberty, we want work!”
I covered my grin with one hand and handed the paper back to Harry with the other.
“A wicked commentary.” I sipped from a tankard of rum. “Think you’ll find a publisher for this one?”
“I shall help myself to my father’s purse and pay for the printing of pamphlets if I must.” Harry blew out a ring of smoke from his pipe. “I know where he secretes the money he saves for his whores.”
I pointed at the caricature on the left. “This is Lord North. Who’s the other gentleman?”
“A wealthy smuggler from Massachusetts called Hancock. A leading Whig over there.”
“Bloody hell, Harry, why insult both sides? If you’re going to risk a sedition charge by attacking the Tory government, at least befriend the Whigs, in case they care to defend you.”
He shook his head. “Someone must speak the truth. Show both sides for the frauds they are.”
“I’m about to put on a uniform for a fraud, then?”
“Am I wrong?”
I shrugged, sipped my rum.
“’Tisn’t too late to disappear, you know. Who better to take up such a venture than an actor? Take a false name, defy your father!”
I took another gulp and folded my hands. “It is too late. Would you believe this: When my father purchased my commission, he not only forced me to cancel the rest of my appearances in Henry V for the season, but he told me that he hired mercenaries—cutthroats!—to track me down should I fail to report.”
Harry leaned back and drew deep on his pipe. We stayed silent a moment.
“This is far too somber an affair. What say we find some women to send you off proper? Nothing says good luck in the army like a new case of the pox.”
I laughed and quaffed the rest of my rum before following Harry to the door.
“After you, soldier boy.”
When I pulled the door handle, a searing pain ripped through my hand and up my arm. The door opened to the purest, deepest black. The darkness swelled and blotted out everything—the door, the wall, Harry, the others in the tavern, and finally me—as if the scene were a drawing and the artist had spilled ink over it.
The pain burned hotter, throbbed, pounded, screamed—and I awoke.
I opened my eyes to find my right hand bandaged, but with four fingers missing. I tried to move it and groaned—‘twas as if dogs gnawed on phantom finger bones I still somehow felt.
But then I remembered. Harry. He was dead. But there was something he left behind. And something I had to do.
* * * * *
August 4, 1775
The old blacksmith pulled the reins, and the wagon ground to a halt. “There ‘tis, sir. The widow Salisbury’s house. Well, her father’s, truth be told.”
It was a modest two-story house, its clapboards unpainted. To the left, its kitchen garden nigh on burst with ripening vegetables. To the right, a verdant pasture sprawled behind a split-rail fence. I eased myself down and tipped my hat to the man.
“Happy to do any service for a friend of Harry’s, ‘specially one what bled with him at Bunker’s Hill. The redcoats paid dearly for that hill. A few more such victories might ruin ‘em.”
“Indeed, sir.” I flashed a grin. “Much obliged to you.”
I thanked the Lord for preserving my acting skill, even after more than a year away from the stage. After recovering from my wounds and receiving my discharge from the army for disability, I disposed of my uniform, donned a homespun frock, waistcoat, breeches, stockings, and wide-brimmed hat, and vacated my quarters in a Boston house. The rebels besieged Boston by land. But the Crown’s ships still traveled the waterways freely, and General Gage offered to ship civilians out of Boston to ease the strain on provisions in the city. My plain clothes allowed me to slip unrecognized onto a ferry to Chelsea. Thence I trudged along country roads to Worcester. And now I played a new part—a patriot militiaman, lately wounded and seeking to return a treasured heirloom to the family of a fallen brother in arms.
My story—and my attempt at a Massachusetts accent—passed muster with all I encountered, what with the locket and my maimed hand. But now the biggest test awaited.
A young woman opened the farmhouse door and glanced at my mud-spattered clothes before offering a tired smile.
“Good morrow, sir.”
“Ma’am.” I removed my hat. “I … I don’t mean to impose, but I seek Mrs. Henry Salisbury.”
“I am Mrs. Salisbury.”
I reached into my pocket and handed her Harry’s locket. “He charged me with returning it to you.”
Mrs. Salisbury brought her hand to her mouth. She opened the locket and smiled with a quick tremble in her lip before showing it to me. It held two tiny portraits, one of Harry and one of his wife.
“You fought alongside him?”
I took a deep breath and responded in my natural voice. “Not alongside him.”
Her brow crinkled over narrowing eyes.
“Forgive me, Mrs. Salisbury, for neglecting to introduce myself. William Stansfield, 5th Regiment of Foot … Well, lately discharged from His Majesty’s Army.” I pointed at my disfigured hand.
She leaned back, her eyes now like saucers. “Will. Harry’s friend from London! Please, do come in.”
Mrs. Salisbury summoned her niece and had her serve us cider in the parlor. There I recounted my reunion with her husband and my journey to fulfill his dying wish.
“You took a great risk going to him,” she said, “and you paid a dear price.”
“Not nearly so dear as the price he paid. My condolences to you, ma’am.”
“Harry would’ve wished for you to call me Hannah.”
“Never one for the finer graces of society, was he?”
She laughed and shook her head. “It lightens my heart that the Lord brought you to his side at the end. He spoke of you often, wondered if you were among the redcoats occupying Boston, but he thought any attempt to find you would raise too many suspicions.”
“What brought him here?”
Hannah told me Harry departed London in May of last year, not two months after I bade him farewell. His drawings had stirred up so much scandal that his father sent him to Massachusetts to work in a cousin’s mill near Worcester.
“Our courtship was brief,” Hannah said, her voice catching. “He said he never felt so alive as he did here, could scarce wait to proceed down this new path his life had taken.”
“I’m so grateful he found such joy here. If there’s one thing that could’ve turned Harry from a cynic to a devotee of a cause, it’s love.”
“No, no, no.” She waved her hand. “He didn’t take up arms because of me. I begged him not to get involved.”
“Then what changed? Forgive my candor, ma’am—Hannah—but Harry once called the Sons of Liberty a band of coin-hungry smugglers leading a self-important but mindless rabble. Immediately after denouncing Parliament as a gang of thieves and shirks, of course.”
She smiled. “That does sound like his style. And he did arrive here expecting to find mob rule and greed. But the truth was far different. Especially after Harry saw the effects of Parliament’s response to the dumping of the tea, when he saw them try to eliminate the colony’s self-governance, prohibit town meetings, install judges and sheriffs accountable not to the people’s elected representatives but to the royal governor alone.”
“What had all that to do with Harry?”
Hannah leaned forward. “Our neighbors who fought you at Lexington, at Concord, at Bunker’s Hill—they’re good men. Harry saw that straightaway. They own their land, and they’re pleased to work it with their own hands and provide for their families. They wish to govern themselves as free men, as they always have, for then their families’ livelihoods remain in their hands. This was all so new to Harry—this expectation men here have to chart their own path—and it excited him. He felt compelled to help stop Parliament from taking it away.”
A flood of light burst through a lifetime’s memories, as if I’d just noticed the midday sunbeams streaming through the parlor window. The embittered cynic I’d known my whole life in London was really just a role Harry played. In truth, he longed for something to rally to. The farmers of Massachusetts had something worth fighting for.
I held Hannah’s gaze. In a matter of minutes, this woman had opened the eyes of my mind and soul to understand my lifelong friend in a new way. It wasn’t that he became a new man here, but the best version of the man he already was.
“Thank you, Hannah. I believe I take your meaning well.”
She nodded and stood. I rose as well, but she waved me back into the chair. “Please, sit. You’ve had a long journey. I shall speak with my father. I’ve no doubt he’ll be pleased to provide a room for you here until you are ready to return to England. He loved Harry, too. And don’t fret—I’ll never breathe a word about your past as a redcoat.”
I parted my lips, about to tell her that a return to England, to my father’s scornful gaze, was the last thing I wished. But I could not admit to her that I had no firm prospects.
I strolled around the parlor as I awaited her return. A newspaper page was nailed to the wall amid sundry old portraits. It was from the Massachusetts Spy, dated the 22nd of September, 1774, and a picture dominated the page. I could tell it was Harry’s work. It showed judges in their flowing white wigs and black robes, labeled, “The Royal Governor’s Cronies.” They walked toward a courthouse, where farmers with mud-caked shoes awaited them with muskets ready to fire. A smashed ballot box lay at the judges’ feet. They held manacles toward the farmers and said, “Come now, these are for your own good.” With their jaws set grimly, the farmers said, “We cannot say likewise.”
I thanked Harry, wherever he might be, that he gave me a way to find a refuge here. For all I wished at that moment was a clean bed, a hot meal, and perhaps some good conversation with friendly folk. Beyond that, I could not say what might lie ahead. But somehow, this step into the unknown I had taken at Harry’s behest invigorated me. It seemed right. For if Harry could find a larger purpose and a new direction for his life on these shores, so might I.
Matt Phillips lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife and son. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in history and from Georgetown University with a master’s degree in national security studies. His love of historical fiction began when he read Johnny Tremain in elementary school. He is working on a novel inspired by his ancestors’ experiences fighting Tories and gathering intelligence on the Pennsylvania frontier during the Revolutionary War.