The beginning of the Revolutionary War and America’s independence from England was simmering in New England in June of 1775. The Battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred just two months prior in April and the British were trying to break out of the city of Boston. General George Washington was on his way from New York at the time as the new head of the Continental Army but arrived too late before the battle was completed. But the clash would essentially pit the might of the British Empire against the Continental Army for the first time in a major battle.
While the Americans technically lost the battle and were forced off the heights in Charlestown, right next to Boston they showed the British that this was going to be a long, protracted war and their will to fight the mightiest army in the world was real. It was also the bloodiest engagement the British suffered in terms of officers lost in the war.
They under-estimated the plucky Colonials whom they thought of as rabble and the direct assault on the high ground of Charlestown would be the last time they would attempt that in the war. This was a story that every school in Massachusetts would teach but has sadly faded into an obscure footnote of our history.
The British Plan: British troops had been bottled up in Boston since Lexington and Concord. General Thomas Gage had been requesting reinforcements for his troops and they began arriving bring his force close to 6000 strong. Gage’s plan called for the British troops to take Dorchester Neck and once they reinforced the high ground on Dorchester Heights, the infantry would push the Colonials out of Roxbury. Then the British would turn their attention to heights in Charlestown. The attack was to begin on June 18.
Colonial spies found out about the plan and alerted the military and civilian leaders in New Hampshire. On June 15, General Ward ordered General Israel Putnam to set up defenses on the Charlestown Heights, specifically Bunker Hill.
On the evening of June 16th, the Colonials under the command of Col. William Prescott led 1200 troops onto the peninsula where they could set up artillery to bear fire on the city of Boston. Prescott’s Engineer CPT Richard Gridley advised Prescott not to fortify Bunker Hill but the smaller Breed’s Hill which was more defensible. It was also closer to Boston.
The British could see the work being done on Breed’s Hill and shelled the colonists with 128 guns from the HMS Somerset and Lively as well as from Copp’s Hill in Boston but with little effect.
Opening Moves: British General Henry Clinton wanted to advance immediately through Charlestown Neck, cutting off any hope of retreat for the Colonials, but his idea was shot down by the other generals in part due to overconfidence and a bit of arrogance. Generals Thomas Burgoyne and William Howe wanted a frontal assault up the hill and thought the “rabble” of Colonials on the heights would be no match for their trained troops.
The British arriving on shore from longboats took nearly six hours to land 1500 troops of Howe’s on the eastern tip of the peninsula. He was reinforced with more troops of General Robert Pigot who, on the left flank would lead the direct assault on top of the hill. Howe, being cautious waited for Pigot’s men before beginning the assault lost an opportunity to flank the forces on Breed’s Hill, but while he was waiting for more longboats, it allowed the Colonials to place reinforcements of the 1st and 3rd New Hampshire on the northern flank under the command of Colonels John Stark and James Reed.
The Colonials behind the scenes were a tangled mess of confusion. Orders were mixed up or directly ignored. Some units didn’t cross into Charlestown as ordered and others milled around Bunker Hill in utter confusion.
First British Attack at 3 p.m.: The troops of General Howe, now numbering close to 2400 were finally ready by three in the afternoon and began their march. Pigot’s forces were receiving sniper fire from Charleston and incendiary fire from offshore set fire to the town. Pigot was to feint a frontal assault and draw some of the forces away from the flank.
Prescott, in an effort to conserve the Americans’ limited supply of ammunition, reportedly told his men, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” And he’d forever live in history as one of the first American heroes.
Howe then attempted to turn the Colonials left flank, he led his force of light infantry and grenadiers along the narrow beach and ran straight into the two New Hampshire regiments that had only just occupied their positions. But the New Hampshire men held the higher ground and had a bit of cover behind a fence which also was used to steady their aim. The Colonials put devastating fire on Howe’s troops and forced them into retreat, with heavy casualties.
Second British Assault: The British quickly reformed and hit the Colonials again. This time Pigot’s forces attempted a frontal assault on the hill where the Americans were dug in with good cover with a trench that they were able to stand in with good fields of fire. Howe’s troops moved along the rail fence instead of the beach attempting to envelop the men on Breed’s Hill.
Once again, the American militia held firm. Pigot’s men were forced back down the hill with heavy casualties. Howe’s troops fared even worse the second time with some companies sustaining nearly 90 percent casualties. Losses of the officers in the British assault was extremely high. The British were forced to retreat a second time.
But the Americans’ lack of a cohesive chain of command stopped them from pressing home the advantage. General Putnam on Bunker Hill was having little success at sending over reinforcements to Breed’s Hill and resupply was virtually non-existent. Ammunition was running low.
Final British Assault: The British were having problems in their rear of their own. The wounded who were ambulatory were streaming back to the beach and were taking the longboats back to Boston for medical treatment. Howe had signaled that he needed reinforcements. Clinton sent 400 more men from the Marines and 63rd Regiment of Foot to bolster the attack.
Clinton then personally exhorted the troops and convinced 200 more wounded troops to reform, return to the line and bolster the assault. Had the Americans done so as well from the mainland and from Bunker Hill, the battle may have turned out differently.
Some of the colonists began to panic and flee although they had to this point sustained few casualties. The British once again made a frontal assault on the hill. Howe on the flank only feinted at trying to envelop the colonial left flank. Casualties were again heavy on the British side as the fire from the heights took a deadly toll.
But the militia ran out of ammunition on top of the hill. Here is where the British Army showed the resolve and years of training that they were famous for. They continued to march up the hill and crested the heights. With bayonets fixed (which the militia didn’t possess), they pushed the Colonials off the heights.
The retreat was made in good order thanks to the excellent work done by the men from New Hampshire and Colonel Starke who even got grudging praise from his counterpart Burgoyne who wrote that the retreat was, “no flight; it was even covered with bravery and military skill”. Most of the wounded were saved and the men retreated back across the peninsula to the mainland by 5 p.m. and into Cambridge. The British had won the heights.
Casualties on the British side were appallingly high. They lost 1054 during the battle including 228 dead and 828 wounded. The British dead and wounded included 100 commissioned officers, a large percentage of their officer corps in North America. Much of General Howe’s staff was among the casualties Major Pitcairn had been killed, and Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie fatally wounded. General Gage, in his report after the battle, reported the following officer casualties (listing lieutenants and above by name):
- 1 lieutenant colonel killed
- 2 majors killed, 3 wounded
- 7 captains killed, 27 wounded
- 9 lieutenants killed, 32 wounded
- 15 sergeants killed, 42 wounded
- 1 drummer killed, 12 wounded
American casualties amounted to 450 with 115 dead, most of which occurred in the retreat from the heights. Thirty of the most seriously wounded were left on the field and were taken prisoner by the British. Of those, 20 died while in custody. The Americans also abandoned five of the six artillery pieces on the hill which the British quickly turned to their use. Their biggest loss was Dr. Joseph Warren who was the President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He was given a commission as a Major General on the 14th of June but it hadn’t taken effect by the battle and he fought and died as a volunteer private.
Aftermath: The bloody nose suffered by the British had an effect on their campaign in New England. They didn’t follow up their success with pushing the Continental Army out of the outskirts of Boston and hunkered down in static positions. In March of 1776, General Washington would seize all the surrounding hills and the British were forced to evacuate Boston.
The political fallout was even more profound. When General Gage’s report hit London, it caused in-fighting between the Tories and the Whigs and many in Parliament rethought their stance on the war in the Colonies. King George III took a much harder stance towards their brethren in America as well. The British hardening stance actually led to a move in the southern colonies to become more involved in the revolution.
Gage was sacked and replaced by Howe in October. But not before he wrote a scathing letter to Parliament in which he stated that, that “a large army must at length be employed to reduce these people (emphasis mine)”, that would require “the hiring of foreign troops.”
The die was cast and the British knew that the war was not going to over quickly and that would be a long, drawn-out affair. And when American/Colonial soldiers had good leadership, they often fought with the skill that they had mastered. But after Bunker Hill fallout from the American side showed resolve to stand together to fight the mightiest army in the world. The morale of the Colonists was bolstered by the results of the battle and after several bloody years of conflict, the Americans would win their independence.
So, while technically a defeat, the Battle of Bunker Hill laid the foundation for American Independence. And today, the ceremonies will mark where some pesky Colonial “rabble” showed the British Army that they were in for a long drawn out and bloody conflict.
Fifty years after the battle the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument was laid on Breed’s Hill by the Marquis de Lafayette with an address by Daniel Webster. The monument is a stone obelisk that rises 221 feet above the hill. An interesting footnote was when Lafayette died, he had dirt from Bunker Hill spread over his casket by his son Georges.
Painting by Howard Pyle, Map courtesy of Wikipedia, Monument photo courtesy of the State of Massachusetts