The phrase "wait until you can see the white of their eyes" is woven in the fabric of American folk history. It is most commonly attributed to one of two major Revolutionary War figures. However, there are serious doubts regarding whether either of these men actually coined the phrase.
Putnam and Prescott
Colonel William Prescott and General Israel Putnam were present at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Their American militia had little training and even less ammunition against a force of British nearly twice their number. Their one advantage was their hastily entrenched position atop Breed's Hill outside Boston. Whether they used the phrase is debatable, but Prescott and Putnam did order their troops to hold fire until the regulars were within 50 yards, repelling two charges before running out of ammunition. The British won the battle, but lost nearly half of their 2,300 regulars, while the Americans lost roughly 400 men.
Historian Nathaniel Philbrick suggests the person most likely to have coined the phrase was Parson Weems. Weems was an American biographer known for writing dubious anecdotes about George Washington, General Francis Marion and other figures of the Revolutionary War -- including the heroes of Bunker Hill.
Sir Andrew Agnew
Scotsman Sir Andrew Agnew is also credited with using the phrase while ordering his Scots Fusileers to use a novel tactic against French cavalry in the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. Agnew reportedly had his troops move aside and let the French ride through, setting up a crossfire at point blank range.
- Journal of the American Revolution: The Whites of Their Eyes
- U.S. History: Bunker Hill
- The Phrase Finder: Don't Shoot Until You See the Whites of their Eyes Earliest Quote
- Sons of Liberty Chapter: The Battle of Bunker Hill
- Smithsonian.com: The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill
- Electric Scotland: Significant Scots: Sir Andrew Agnew
- George Washington's Mount Vernon: Parson Weems
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