Revolutionary War Historical Article
The Battle of Bunker Hill
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the March 1985 Edition of the Valley Compatriot Newsletter
After the British defeat at Lexington and Concord, General Thomas Gage found himself besieged in the City of Boston. He had command of the Harbor with the presents of the Fleet and had fortified the land approaches. The Patriots did not have the men and equipment necessary to attack the city itself, hence we had a stand off. Neither side attempted to fortify the heights that dominated the city - Dorcester Heights and Bunker Hill. Control of those two positions would have given the holder a decided advantage - in fact, they were the key to success or failure.
On June 13th, 1775, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety
received intelligence that Gage intended to cross the Charles River
to the Charlestown peninsula and seize Bunker Hill. By June 15th,
the Committee had decided to take the offensive - take Bunker Hill,
fortify it, thereby denying Gage the advantage. At approximately
6 :00 P.M. on the 16th, the Regiments of Col. William Prescott, Col. James Frye, Col. Ebenezer Bridge, two hundred men for the work party under Captain Thomas Knowlton, and the artillery Company commanded by Captain Sam Gridley, consisting of forty-nine Massachusetts men with two light field pieces were paraded in Cambridge Common. They numbered less than 1,200 men. Shortly after 9 :00
P. M. they marched to the Charlestown peninsula.
General Putnam obtained the entrenching tools and the materials
for building the fortifications and had them loaded in wagons.
He met Colonel Prescott at Charlestown Neck. From there the entire
column proceeded up the gentle slopes of Bunker Hill. Prescott led
a party of men two hundred yards further down the peninsula to the
foot of an unnamed hill rising some sixty-two feet above the Harbor.
This hill was later named "Breed's Hill". A two hour discussion followed regarding the placement of the fortifications. Prescott's orders were to fortify Bunker Hill, but for reasons unknown, the group elected to build the primary fortifications on Breed's Hill and the Secondary fortifications on Bunker's Hill. This proved to be a major tactical error. Bunker Hill rose 110 feet above the harbor and owing to it steep southerly slope would have been almost impregnable. Being further from the Harbor, it would have been out of range of the larger man-o-war laying at anchor in the Harbor.
Breed's Hill was virtually untenable with gently rising slopes on all quarters and within easy range of the naval guns in the Harbor. Christopher Ward is his book "The War of the Revolution" , 1952, stated that General Putnam's argument was that they should first fortify Bunker Hill to cover their retreat if necessary, other wise they would be forced, if defeated, to cross the narrow Charlestown Neck with the enemy firing on them from above. Whereas, if they fortified both hills, conducting the anticipated battle on Breed's Hill, they could safety retire to Bunker Hill or off the peninsula entirely without concern for being either trapped or routed. His arguments had merit and apparently swayed Prescott. Later, the Committee of Safety was to say that the selection of Breed's Hill was a mistake. However, it was the choice of the officers in the field. Colonel Richard Gridley, an experienced Army engineer staked out the redoubt on Breed's Hill, which was about 120 feet square, and ordered the construction to begin.
It wasn't until 4 :00 A.M. when the British learned what was
happening. In the early morning light, shapes and shadows of the
men and the redoubt were seen by sentries on the H.M.S. Sloop of
War Lively. The ship opened fire, but to no effect. In four hours
the patriots had thrown up a redoubt that was practically invulnerable
to the cannon shot of the British ships.
General Gage called a council of war to discuss this new threat to his besieged city. General, Sir Henry Clinton advocated an immediate attack against the redoubt before it could be completed. He proposed that General William Howe would attack the redoubt from the front, while he led a force of 500 men up the Mystic River and landed behind the American position, thereby cutting them off from a possible retreat. It would appear that the other generals opposed the plan. General Gage elected to follow the course of Action proposed by General Howe. That plan, as we will see, involved the landing of a substantial force near Moulton's Point and attack the American left flank. And simultaneously making a frontal assault on the American redoubt. The catch was that to launch an amphibious attack it was necessary to wait until high tide at 2 :00 P.M., which proved to be a fatal delay. This gave the Americans ten hours more to complete their efforts and reinforce the irregulars still working on Breed's Hill.
Many historians have been very critical of General Gage's plan of Battle. In defense of what appears to be a traditional European strategy, one must consider the facts that Gage had available to him. From his roof top observation point, General Gage could see only a hastily prepared redoubt. He could see nothing in the form of fortified positions between the redoubt and the Mystic River. He could not see if the town of Charlestown was being defended. His most pressing problem was the establishment of a beachhead on the Charlestown peninsula. Mouton's Point was visibly undefended and out of range of the muskets in the redoubt. Once established, he could launch his attack from that position. As for the balance of his plan - a head-on frontal assault against a fortified position! But, remember, this was June of 1775. Gage was attacking untried irregulars, farmers, merchants, but certainly by no stretch of the British imagination, soldiers! They were defending a hastily built earthen fort. The recent retreat from Lexington and Concord proved to the British General that the American force was disorganized and that their marksmanship was terrible. No one would believe that these colonials would stand their ground while under a naval bombardment, and a frontal assault by the King's Own Infantry. Gage had no way of knowing that a handful of experienced American Officers would be able to control their irregulars and mold them into a fighting force to be reckoned with.
Twenty-eight barges, loaded with fifteen-hundred English soldiers debarked from Boston for Moulton's Point under the protection of the 68 gun ship of the line HMS Somerset, two floating batteries, and a reinforced battery on Copp's Hill. The Frigate HMS Glasgow, and the armed transport HMS Symmetry, along with two gun boats were to directly cover the landing site. The sloops of War HMS Lively and HMS Falcon positioned themselves off of Charlestown.
General Howe succeeded in landing all of his man without major incident. However, from the beachhead he could see that the Americans had and were still reinforcing their positions. He decided to delay the attack until he too brought in reinforcements. He sent the barges back to Boston. Lt. Col. Robert Pigot, commanding the 38th Regiment, advanced to the base of Breed's Hill with the battalion companies of his own Regiment and the 43rd Regiment of foot - sixteen companies in all.
Our Patriot ancestors were not sitting idly by while the British
made such elaborate preparations for battle. Colonel Prescott had
the breastworks extended another one hundred yards. His own Regiment
and elements of the Regiments of Colonel Jonathan Brewer, Colonel John
Nixon, Colonel Moses Little, Colonel Ephraim Doolittle and Colonel
Ebenezer Bridge defended this line. Between the Breastworks and the
Mystic River was a short stone wall surmounted by a two rail fence.
Prescott ordered Colonel Thomas Knowlton to take his troops and defend
that line. Knowlton's men dismantled a fence further back and added
those rails to the existing fence. They then stuffed recently cut
hay into the remaining openings. This was done, obviously not to stop
musket balls, but to make the defense works seem more formidable.
Colonel John Stark of New Hampshire arrived on the scene and
observed that Knowlton's men were stretched too thin, so he ordered two regiments of New Hampshire Troops to reinforce the fence. He also noticed a major flaw in the defense Along the Mystic River, obscured by an eight foot high embankment was a thin strip of a beach. Using that bank as concealment, the British could slip a sizable force behind the left flank of the defense line. Stark personally led a detachment of his own regiment to the beach and erected a stone wall to the water's edge. He retained three ranks of his best marksman, and sent the balance of his regiment to reinforce Knowlton.
Three Companies were sent to fortify Charlestown.They were
Wheeler's (Doolittle's Regiment), Crosby's (Reed's Regiment) and
one from Colonel Woodbridge's Regiment. Stationed behind a rock wall
and in a barn was the Company of Captain John Nutting, (Col. Prescott's
Regiment). Colonel Gridley of the Artillery had some of the Massachusetts
men hastily throw up three "V" shaped forts known as fleches
and man them.
On Bunker Hill, General Putnam was busily building fortification on that hill. He was using stragglers that managed to cross Charlestown neck in spite of the naval bombardment, and a few men who wandered back from Breed's hill. While there two famous volunteers arrived: 69 year Seth Pomeroy and Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
Just before 1:00 O'clock, the British bombarded the town of
Charlestown, using "Hot Shot". The effect was to set fire to the
town and drive out Wheeler's and Crosby's snipers. These marksman were
harassing the British left flank. At the same time, the British reinforcements
arrived. The 47th Regiment of Foot, six more flank companies
and the First Royal Marine Battalion. Howe was now ready.
The plan of attack required that Lt. Col. Pigot commanding the British left was to advance toward the redoubt, holding the defenders in their position, while General Howe's right wing moved around the American left, entrapping them. The front rank of the attacking Regulars would consist of the Grenadier Companies and the Battalion companies of the Fifth and Fifty-Second Regiments in the second rank. Their objective was a frontal attack on the rail fence. Hidden from view, along the narrow stretch of beach of the Mystic River, 11 companies of Light Infantry would by-pass the American defenses and attack those positions from the left rear.
To assist the attacking force, the British moved up several field pieces,all six-pounders. They were to engage the defenders of the rail fence and force them to retreat from that position. This attempt was a dismal failure. Once in position the gunners found that the gun carriages were filled with 12-pound balls. They were unable to get close enough for effective grape shot, hence proved useless.
Along the beach, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers led the 11 Companies of light infantry toward what must have appeared to them as a small rock wall and a handful of defenders. Colonel Stark kept most of his New Hampshire man out of sight. The Fusiliers got within fifty yards of the rock wall and deployed for a bayonet charge. Stark gave the order to fire. . .his marksman devastated the first ranks. Without hesitation, much to their credit, the survivors of the leading companies of Regulars charged. They too, were cut down. Up came the King's Own Regiment (the 4th Regiment of Foot) and the 10th Regiment of Foot. They charged with incredible valor. They surely thought they could be upon the farmers before they could re load their muskets. But, Stark, an experienced officer, had his men in three ranks, not the traditional two, hence, one rank was always ready to fire. The charging British were again met with a devastating volley. The Light Companies of the 52nd Regiment came forward, seeing the masses of dead and wounded red-coated soldiers laying along the beach, and none within twenty-five yards of their objective. Brave yes, stupid no. They retreated in spite of attempts by their officers to convince them otherwise. When they fell back toward Moulton's Point, carrying their wounded, they left ninety-six men dead. The flanking maneuver had failed.
General Howe, for reasons unknown chose to continue the attack in spite of the failure of his main effort. He personally led
the frontal attack against the rail fence. To the credit of the
American Officers, their men held their fire - Israel Putnam's
famous orders : "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes"
(also attributed to Col. Prescott).
The irregulars did hold their
fire, and when they did, at the order 'fire', the effects were awesome.
The survivors of the first rank of Grenadiers fell back on the second
rank, causing confusion. A Second volley thundered into their ranks
and the attack was broken. The American fire then became independent,
and constant. The Regulars fell back to reorganize.On the American Left flank, Col. Pigot's attack met the same fate. A terribly effective volley at close range. He too was forced to retreat and reorganize.
Within fifteen minutes, Howe prepared to launch the second attack. He planned that he and Pigot would led the frontal. assault against the redoubt, while the Light Infantry attacked the rail fence. Again the Americans held their fire, this time until the attacking formations of the British soldiers were thirty yards away. The effect was more terrible than the repulse of the first attack. But, still on came the British. The constant fire from the redoubt and the breastworks was even more murderous than before. The green slopes of Breed's Hill were turning red with the bodies of fallen British soldiers. Again they retreated.
The Americans had suffered few casualties, they were now dangerously low on ammunition. They were out of water, and the hot 90 degree June day was taking its effect. Israel. Putnam had ridden to Bunker Hill trying to secure reinforcements for Prescott. Most of the colonial troops were afraid to cross the Charlestown neck, as the naval bombardment was very heavy. Reinforcements and additional ammunition was simply not to be had.
The Final Assault
Four hundred fresh troops arrived from Boston. This consisted of the 63rd Regiment of Foot and the 2nd Royal Marine Battalion. Howe prepared for a third assault. He ordered his men to drop their knapsacks and any other useless accoutrements. General Clinton had come over and organized a "Regiment of Invalids" - wounded soldiers still able to fight. Proper ammunition had finally arrived for the artillery, which was now pounding the redoubt and rail fence. Howe ordered the advance. Again the Regulars began the long climb to the crest of Breed's Hill. Again the Americans prepared to meet the might of the British Empire. The British Infantry advanced in column and were to deploy for a bayonet charge at fifty yards. Again the Americans held their fire.
The effects of their musket fire was terrifying. The British kept on coming. Then, the American fire let up, most of the Patriots had expended their powder. They did not retreat, but stood their ground prepared to meet bayonet with musket butt. The British swarmed into the redoubt from both sides. A desperate hand-to-hand combat took place on the ramparts and in the redoubt. Thirty of our ancestors were killed in the redoubt. Among them was Dr. Joseph Warren. Colonel Prescott, leading a group of survivors, fought their way out of the redoubt and retreated toward Bunker Hill.
To the everlasting glory of the American's who fought and died on Breed's Hill, the British supplied the best epitaph. General, Sir Henry Clinton wrote : "A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us." The American casualties are estimated at 140 killed (CLICK HERE TO SEE A LIST), and 301 wounded. The British losses were 19 officers and 207 men killed, 70 officers and 758 men wounded - or forty percent of the men engaged.
Of the thirteen hundred or more engagements fought between the American Patriots and the King's Regulars during the Revolution, the Battle for Breed's Hill did more to establish the conduct of the war than any other engagement. Although our ancestors ''lost" the battle, their efforts forced the Continental Congress into action. Even the most optimistic Americans saw little hope for reconciliation. On the negative side, it formulated the false opinion that 'patriotism' alone was the only necessary criteria for a soldier. For the British, it demonstrated that they had an earnest war on their hands. They also learned that frontal attacks on American fortified position were far to costly. Never again did the British Generals act with the aggressiveness necessary to achieve resounding military victories in the field. Bunker Hill was the beginning of the end for British North America.
THE DECISIVE DAY - The Battle of Bunker Hill - Richard M. Ketchum - 1962
NOW WE ARE ENEMIES - Thomas J. Fleming - 1960
BATTLE OF BUNKER HILL - Richard Frothingham - 1900
HISTORY OF THE SIEGE OF BOSTON - Richard Frothingham - 1849
FROM LEXINGTON TO LIBERTY - Bruce Lancaster - 1955
A MEMORIAL OF THE AMERICAN PATRIOTS WHO FELL AT THE BATTLE OF BUNKER HILL Boston City Council - 1890
GENERAL BURGOYNE'S ACCOUNT OF THE BATTLE OF BUNKER HILL - New England Historical and Genealogical. Society - April 1857, page 125
HORATIO GREENOIJGH, THE DESIGNER OF BUNKER HILL MONUMENT - New England Historical and Genealogical Society - January 1864, page 64
COLONEL THOMAS KNOWLTON - New England Historical and Genealogical Society January 1861, page 1
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION - Mark R. Boatner - 1966
BATTLE OF BUNKER HILL, JUNE 17, 1775 - The S.A.R. Magazine, Winter, 1984
COLONIALS AND PATRIOTS Frank B. Saries, Jr. - 1964
HERE WAS THE REVOLUTION - Harlan D. Unrau - 1977
THE SPIRIT OF 'SEVENTY-SIX - Henry Steele Commager - 1958
THE WAR OF THE REVOLUTION - Christopher Ward •- 1952
THE PICTORIAL FIELD BOOK OF THE REVOLUTION - Benson Lossing-1851
ASA LAWRENCE - OUR REVOLUTIONARY WAR ANCESTORS - THE VALLEY COMPATRIOT , Volume IV, Number 3, March 1984, by Compatriot Donald R. McDowell