Battle of Bunker Hill: British Earn Costly Victory Against Colonial Troops
Today in Military History: June 17, 1775
This conflict was the first stand-up fight between forces of the British crown and American colonial forces besieging the port of Boston, Massachusetts. Although the British drove the Americans from the field, they suffered far more casualties than expected. It also demonstrated conclusively that the "damned rebels" were not going to lie down and give up without a fight.
After the abortive attempt to raid the colonists' powder and arms stores in the towns of Lexington and Concord April of 1775, the British pulled back to the relative shelter of the port of Boston. Almost immediately, colonial militias from the other New England colonies converged on the city, blocking land movement by the "lobsterbacks." However, the rebels had made no arrangements to interrupt movement by sea. Consequently, the British were able to receive supplies and reinforcements quite easily.
British General Thomas Gage (1720?-1787)
By late May of 1775, the British had some 6000 soldiers in the city of Boston, commanded by General Thomas Gage – who was also the appointed royal governor of Massachusetts. By contrast, the American force besieging the port-city numbered about 15,000 effectives. Despite being under the nominal command of General Artemas Ward, the colonial militia had no real organization, supplies were lacking, and discipline was generally lax. On May 25, a Royal Navy vessel carrying three British generals arrived in Boston. They were William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton, each man who would have a future role to play in the American Revolution. Consulting with these new arrivals, General Gage began formulating plans to break out of the hemmed-in position.
It was proposed that the British occupy Dorchester Heights south of Boston, a local prominence which – if fortified with artillery by the colonials – could bombard any point in the city of Boston as well as the harbor. They would then descend upon the town of Roxbury, which commanded the single land access to Boston, and drive away the colonial militia. Then, the British would march to the west and north around the outskirts of Boston to occupy the Charlestown Peninsula. This spit of land, which contained the town of Charlestown, had several hills that could be used to set up batteries to bombard the city. The British would then march on nearby Cambridge, the main gathering center of the colonial militia, and disperse them. This plan was scheduled to begin on June 18.
On June 13, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress received word that the British were planning a major attack. General Ward was informed of this intelligence, and decided to take steps to counter the British threat. He ordered General Israel Putnam of Connecticut, a veteran of the French and Indian War, to fortify the hills above Charlestown on the Roxbury Neck, with the intention of threatening the enemy position in Boston.
Preliminaries to the Battle
Bunker Hill at top left, Breed's Hill at center of map
On the night of June 16, about 1200 American troops moved under cover of darkness onto the Charlestown Peninsula to occupy Bunker Hill, the tallest (at 110 feet) of three major hills on the peninsula. Colonel William Prescott, commanding the colonials, decided that Bunker Hill was too far north of Boston harbor to be an effective site for a redoubt. Therefore, against Putnam's orders, he directed his men to move to nearby Breed's Hill (62 feet high), which was closer to Boston and deemed more defensible. The militia worked through the night, building a square redoubt that was 130 feet on each side, consisting of ditches and earthen walls six feet high.
Later, at sunrise, Col. Prescott realized that the redoubt could be easily outflanked. He then set his men to work building a breastwork running down the hill to the east to the shore of the Mystic River, which fed into Boston Harbor. [Prescott decided he did not have the manpower to fortify both of the hill's flanks.] In addition, a crude dirt wall, topped with fence posts and hay bales, was hurriedly thrown up on Breed's Hill on the left flank of the redoubt. Three v-shaped trenches were quickly dug in front of the dirt wall.
The British were not completely unaware of the American activities. Several British sentries in Boston noticed the work, but felt no compunction about informing their superiors. A lookout on the HMS "Lively," one of several Royal Navy ships in Boston Harbor, sighted the redoubt at about 4:00 am. He informed his captain, who ordered an immediate bombardment of the rebel fortification. However Admiral Samuel Graves, the commander of the Royal Navy flotilla, became irritated that the gunfire had disturbed his sleep and ordered the firing stopped. General Gage countermanded the admiral's instructions, and ordered all 128 guns of the flotilla – as well as cannon on Copp Hill in the north side of Boston – to fire on Breed's Hill. The bombardment did little damage to the redoubt.
Gen. William Howe (1729-1814)
As soon as it was light enough, Gage and his fellow generals began to make plans to assault the redoubt. [Boston was fairly packed with British troops. In the end, half of the occupying soldiers took part in the battle.] The light infantry and grenadier companies of nine regiments were formed into a single force under the command of Gen. Howe; their job was to swing to the north of the American redoubt and cut off their retreat. The major assault on the redoubt would be the job of the 5th, 38th, 43rd, 47th, and 53rd Regiments of Foot, along with men from the 1st Marine battalion. This attack was to be led by Brigadier Gen. Robert Pigot. A flank or reserve force was stationed on the far left flank, commanded by a Major John Pitcairn.
It took the British nearly six hours to organize the assault and ferry their men across Boston Harbor, but were held up by the lack of boats. The attack was originally to begin some time between 1:00 and 2:00 pm. However, Gen. Howe observed a large number of colonials on Breed's Hill. Fearing that his initial forces – some 1500 men – would be insufficient to carry the day, Howe sent a message to Gage asking for additional reinforcements. Howe directed some of the light infantry on his right flank to advance a bit towards the American lines and sit down a spell (thus giving the colonists some advance warning of their objective). It took another hour before Howe was satisfied by the new arrivals. As the regulars waited for reinforcements, Gen. Putnam sent further colonial militia from Bunker to Breed's Hill, including a company of light artillery. All told, about 2400 colonial militia were now ensconced on and around Breed's Hill.
The Battle of Bunker Hill: First Phase
Finally, at about 3:00 pm, the British movement began. There is compelling evidence that the four British commanders suffered from a severe lack of appreciation of the fighting quality of the American militia. They basically expected their regiments to march up Breed's Hill – drums playing, bayonets glistening in the sun – and the inexperienced colonials would be overawed by the sight of His Majesty's army and run away without a shot being fired. There is also evidence that many of the British soldiers – equally convinced of the fragile morale of the militia – did not even bother to load their muskets.
The British launched two secondary feints, one directly at the redoubt on Breed's Hill, another at the breastwork on the north slope of the hill. The initial main attack was directed at the breastwork along the Mystic River shore. [One contemporary writer stated that Col. Prescott had ordered a stake driven into the ground about 100 yards in front of the breastwork, telling his men not to begin firing until the British formations reached that feature. This act is probably the origin of the likely apocryphal story of Prescott telling his men, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes."] Some light artillery was sent with the regulars for use in the assault; however, they were rendered useless, as the six-pounder pieces had been issued round shot suitable only for 12-pounders!
The feigned assault on the redoubt, commanded by Gen. Pigot, did not even get underway before they began taking sniper fire from militiamen hiding in houses in Charlestown. Pigot requested assistance, and Admiral Graves ordered his ships to fire incendiary shot into the town. Before long, much of Charlestown was ablaze, sending a column of thick smoke into the air. The prevailing winds, however, blew the haze away from Breed's Hill. When Pigot's force began moving, they took even more fire from the redoubt. Consequently, Pigot's men withdrew to an area south and east of Charlestown.
Meanwhile, Howe's men began moving forward at about the same time as Pigot's feint. The light infantry moved along the narrow beach; the grenadiers were formed into a colossal block, four men deep and several hundred men long. Once these men moved into range of the militia's muskets, they began taking severe casualties, especially among the officers. After only minutes, the two attacking forces fell back.
A mere fifteen minutes later, the British regrouped and launched a second assault. This time, Pigot's force took the lead by attacking the redoubt, with Howe's light infantry-grenadier companies combining for a feint against the rail fence. The result was the same: several tremendous, damaging volleys from the entrenched militiamen, causing horrendous casualties among the regulars. One British observer wrote that many companies received casualties of 75 or even 90 percent, saying, "Some only had eight or nine men a company left."
Seeing that the American position was a tougher nut to crack than first imagined, Howe sent a message back to Gen. Clinton asking for more men. Clinton sent 400 men from the 63rd Regiment and the 2nd Marines, bringing these reserves to the battlefield himself. In addition, Gen. Pigot circulated among the wounded gathered on the landing beach, and convinced about 200 walking wounded to join the remaining regulars to make a final assault on the rebel position.
Things were not all rosy on the colonial side. Militiamen began to realize they were nearing the end of their powder and ammunition supplies. During the interval between the second and third assaults, General Putnam continued trying to direct troops toward the action. Some companies, and leaderless groups of men, moved toward the action; others retreated. John Chester, a Connecticut captain, seeing an entire company in retreat, ordered his company to aim muskets at that company to halt its retreat; they turned about and headed back to the battlefield.
At about 4:15 pm, the third assault began. The main assault was again directed at the redoubt with only a demonstration against the breastwork. As the regulars advanced, they noted that the fire from the colonial lines was beginning to slacken. Finally, the British overran the outer trenches and began climbing into the redoubt itself. The battle now went to close quarters, where the regulars had the advantage: They were armed with bayonets, and were fairly skilled in its use, while the militiamen – out of powder and ammo – were reduced to using their muskets like clubs. Though they bravely contested their fortification, the colonials were eventually pushed out.
While many of the militiamen ran pell mell for the mainland – it was at this point in the battle that the majority of the Americans' casualties were sustained – not all did so. Col. Prescott and his men abandoned the breastwork and rail fence, and with uncommon courage and discipline, covered the retreat. By 5:00 pm, the colonial militiamen had left the peninsula and made for the relative safety of their camps at Cambridge; the battle of Bunker Hill was over.
The butcher's bill for the "lobsterbacks" was staggering: 226 killed, 828 wounded – slightly more than one-third of the total force. Nearly 100 commissioned officers were among the dead and wounded. On the colonial side, 115 men were killed, 305 wounded and 30 men captured (20 of these men would later die of their wounds). The British learned that they were in for a long, hard struggle, while the Americans learned they British were not invincible.
Footnote #1: In his diary that night, Gen. Clinton noted – like Pyhrrus of Epirus – A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America."
Footnote #2: Bunker Hill Day is celebrated as a legal holiday in Suffolk Country, Massachusetts (which includes the city of Boston). However, this year's state budget requires all state and municipal offices in the county to be open.
Footnote #3: A 221-foot tall obelisk crowns the top of Breed's Hill today. Its cornerstone was laid on June 17, 1825 – the 50th anniversary of the battle – by the Marquis de Lafayette, and the monument dedicated in 1843. The Bunker Hill Monument is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.