The famous order from Col William Prescott as American rebels faced the British redcoats at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 was reportedly not to shoot until they could see “the whites of their eyes”.
But in his excitement Private John Simpson of Deerfield, New Hampshire, could not contain himself and he prematurely fired off the battle’s first shot in what was the first big engagement of the American War of Independence.
The gun Simpson used, a .79-calibre Dutch flintlock musket, had passed by descent through subsequent generations of his family for 244 years. On October 23 it came for sale at Morphy Auctions of Denver, Pennsylvania, taking a premium-inclusive $492,000 (£381,400) on the second day of the Extraordinary Firearms Auction against an estimate of $100,000-300,000.
The auction house said it came with “with impeccable provenance and a voluminous archive of supportive documentation”.
Simpson was only lightly reprimanded for disobeying orders and later rose to the rank of major. The musket was accompanied by his New Hampshire commission to second lieutenant, plus several copies of a 50-page book detailing the history of the musket, the Simpson family, Battle of Bunker Hill, and Simpson’s court martial.
The buyer of the gun, an individual who wishes to remain anonymous, has arranged for it to be publicly displayed at the National Museum of Military Vehicles, which is currently under construction in Dubois, Wyoming.
The $100m, 140,000sq ft museum will open in May 2020 to serve as the permanent home for 150 historic war vehicles and a $10m historic weapons collection that includes a rifle fired at Custer’s Last Stand and a pistol used by General John J Pershing in the First World War.
Naval game changer
Another item marking a significant moment in military history is on offer at Pook & Pook’s November 16 Firearms, Militaria & Sporting Auction in Downington, also Pennsylvania.
A cane inscribed Main Mast of Cumberland – destroyed 9th of March, 1862 on the brass ferrule is estimated at $2000-2500. The USS Cumberland was rammed and sunk by the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) at Newport News, Virginia (actually on March 8).
The engagement was the first time wooden ships had been sunk by an ironclad vessel. On March 9 – dubbed the Battle of Hampton Roads – the Virginia took on the Union ship Monitor in the first clash between ironclads, which ended inconclusively.
Estimated at $1600-2200 in the same auction is a French model 1777 Maubeuge flintlock pistol.
These pistols were brought to the US by Marquis de Lafayette who became a commander of the Continental Army and a hero of the American independence struggle. They were used extensively in the American War of Independence and the War of 1812.