Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston
The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775, mostly on and around Breed's Hill, during the Siege of Boston early in the American Revolutionary War. The battle is named after the adjacent Bunker Hill, which was peripherally involved in the battle and was the original objective of both colonial and British troops, and is occasionally referred to as the "Battle of Breed's Hill."
On June 13, 1775, the leaders of the colonial forces besieging Boston learned that the British generals were planning to send troops out from the city to occupy the unoccupied hills surrounding the city. In response to this intelligence, 1,200 colonial troops under the command of William Prescott stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill, constructed an earthen redoubt on Breed's Hill, and built lightly fortified lines across most of the Charlestown Peninsula.
When the British were alerted to the presence of the new position the next day, they mounted an attack against them. After two assaults on the colonial lines were repulsed with significant British casualties, the British finally captured the positions on the third assault, after the defenders in the redoubt ran out of ammunition. The colonial forces retreated to Cambridge over Bunker Hill, suffering their most significant losses on Bunker Hill.
While the result was a victory for the British, they suffered heavy losses: over 800 wounded and 226 killed, including a notably large number of officers. The battle is seen as an example of a Pyrrhic victory, because the immediate gain (the capture of Bunker Hill) was modest and did not significantly change the state of the siege, while the cost (the loss of nearly a third of the deployed forces) was high. Meanwhile, colonial forces were able to retreat and regroup in good order having suffered few casualties. Furthermore, the battle demonstrated that relatively inexperienced colonial forces were willing and able to stand up to regular army troops in a pitched battle.
Boston, situated on a peninsula, was largely protected from close approach by the expanses of water surrounding it, which were dominated by British warships. In the aftermath of the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the colonial militia, a force of about 15,000 men had surrounded the town, and effectively besieged it. Under the command of Artemas Ward, they controlled the only land access to Boston itself (the Roxbury Neck), but, lacking a navy, were unable to control or even contest British domination of the waters of the harbor. The British troops, a force of about 6,000 under the command of General Thomas Gage, occupied the city, and were able to be resupplied and reinforced by sea. They were thus able to remain in Boston indefinitely.
However, the land across the water from Boston contained a number of hills, which could be used to advantage. If the militia could obtain enough artillery pieces, these could be placed on the hills and used to bombard the city until the occupying army evacuated it or surrendered. It was with this in mind that the Knox Expedition, led by Henry Knox, later transported cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to the Boston area.
The Charlestown Peninsula, lying to the north of Boston, started from a short, narrow isthmus (known as the Charlestown Neck) at its northwest, extending about 1 mi southeastward into Boston Harbor. Bunker Hill, with an elevation of 110 ft, lay at the northern end of the peninsula. Breed's Hill, at a height of 62 ft, was more southerly and nearer to Boston. The town of Charlestown occupied flats at the southern end of the peninsula. At its closest approach, less than 1000 ft separated the Charlestown Peninsula from the Boston Peninsula, where Copp's Hill was at about the same height as Breed's Hill. While the British retreat from Concord had ended in Charlestown, General Gage, rather than immediately fortifying the hills on the peninsula, had withdrawn those troops to Boston the day after that battle, turning the entire Charlestown Peninsula into a no man's land.
Throughout May, in response to orders from Gage requesting support, the British received reinforcements, until they reached a strength of about 6,000 men. On May 25, three Generals arrived on : William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. Gage began planning with them to break out of the city, finalizing a plan on June 12. This plan began with the taking of the Dorchester Neck, fortifying the Dorchester Heights, and then marching on the colonial forces stationed in Roxbury. Once the southern flank had been secured, the Charlestown heights would be taken, and the forces in Cambridge driven away. The attack was set for June 18.
On June 13, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was notified, by express messenger from the Committee of Safety in Exeter, New Hampshire, that a New Hampshire gentleman "of undoubted veracity" had, while visiting Boston, overheard the British commanders making plans to capture Dorchester and Charlestown. On June 15, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety decided that additional defenses needed to be erected. General Ward directed General Israel Putnam to set up defenses on the Charlestown Peninsula, specifically on Bunker Hill.
Prelude to battle
Fortification of Breed's Hill
On the night of June 16, colonial Colonel William Prescott led about 1,200 men onto the peninsula in order to set up positions from which artillery fire could be directed into Boston. This force was made up of men from the regiments of Prescott, Putnam (the unit was commanded by Thomas Knowlton), James Frye, and Ebenezer Bridge. At first, Putnam, Prescott, and their engineer, Captain Richard Gridley, disagreed as to where they should locate their defense. Some work was performed on Bunker Hill, but Breed's Hill was closer to Boston and viewed as being more defensible. Arguably against orders, they decided to build their primary redoubt there. Prescott and his men, using Gridley's outline, began digging a square fortification about 130 ft on a side with ditches and earthen walls. The walls of the redoubt were about 6 ft high, with a wooden platform inside on which men could stand and fire over the walls.
The works on Breed's Hill did not go unnoticed by the British. General Clinton, out on reconnaissance that night, was aware of them, and tried to convince Gage and Howe that they needed to prepare to attack the position at daylight. British sentries were also aware of the activity, but most apparently did not think it cause for alarm. Then, in the early predawn, around 4:00 am, a sentry on board spotted the new fortification, and notified her captain. Lively opened fire, temporarily halting the colonists' work. Aboard his flagship , Admiral Samuel Graves awoke, irritated by the gunfire that he had not ordered. He stopped it, only to have General Gage countermand his decision when he became fully aware of the situation in the morning. He ordered all 128 guns in the harbor, as well as batteries atop Copp's Hill in Boston, to fire on the colonial position, which had relatively little effect. The rising sun also alerted Prescott to a significant problem with the location of the redoubt – it could easily be flanked on either side.
When the British generals met to discuss their options, General Clinton, who had urged an attack as early as possible, recommended an attack beginning from the Charlestown Neck that would cut off the colonists' retreat, reducing the process of capturing the new redoubt to one of starving out its occupants. However, he was outvoted by the other three generals. Howe, who was the senior officer present and would lead the assault, was of the opinion that the hill was "open and easy of ascent and in short would be easily carried". Orders were then issued to prepare the expedition.
When General Gage surveyed the works from Boston with his staff, Loyalist Abijah Willard recognized his brother-in-law Colonel Prescott. "Will he fight?" asked Gage. "[A]s to his men, I cannot answer for them;" replied Willard, "but Colonel Prescott will fight you to the gates of hell." Prescott lived up to Willard's word, but his men were not so resolute. When the colonists suffered their first casualty, Asa Pollard of Billerica, a young private killed by cannon fire, Prescott gave orders to bury the man quickly and quietly, but a large group of men gave him a solemn funeral instead, with several deserting shortly thereafter. However, while crossing the river, Howe noted the large number of colonial troops on top of Bunker Hill. Believing these to be reinforcements, he immediately sent a message to Gage, requesting additional troops. He then ordered some of the light infantry to take a forward position along the eastern side of the peninsula, alerting the colonists to his intended course of action. The troops then sat down to eat while they waited for the reinforcements.
Colonists reinforce their positions
Prescott, seeing the British preparations, called for reinforcements. Among the reinforcements were Joseph Warren, the popular young leader of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, and Seth Pomeroy, an aging Massachusetts militia leader. Both of these men held commissions of rank, but chose to serve as infantry. Colonel Stark placed a stake about 100 ft in front of the fence and ordered that no one fire until the regulars passed it. Just prior to the action, further reinforcements arrived, including portions of Massachusetts regiments of Colonels Brewer, Nixon, Woodbridge, Little, and Major Moore, as well as Callender's company of artillery.
Behind the colonial lines, confusion reigned. Many units sent toward the action stopped before crossing the Charlestown Neck from Cambridge, which was under constant fire from gun batteries to the south. Others reached Bunker Hill, but then, uncertain about where to go from there, milled around. One commentator wrote of the scene that "it appears to me there never was more confusion and less command". While General Putnam was on the scene attempting to direct affairs, unit commanders often misunderstood or disobeyed orders. Brigadier General Pigot's force, gathering just south of Charlestown village, were taking casualties from sniper fire, and Howe asked Admiral Graves for assistance in clearing out the snipers. Graves, who had planned for such a possibility, ordered incendiary shot fired into the village, and then sent a landing party to set fire to the town. The smoke billowing from Charlestown lent an almost surreal backdrop to the fighting, as the winds were such that the smoke was kept from the field of battle.
Pigot, commanding the 5th, 38th, 43rd, 47th, and 52nd regiments, as well as Major Pitcairn's Marines, were to feint an assault on the redoubt. However, they continued to be harried by snipers in Charlestown, and Pigot, when he saw what happened to Howe's advance, ordered a retreat.
General Howe led the light infantry companies and grenadiers in the assault on the American left flank, expecting an easy effort against Stark's recently arrived troops. His light infantry were set along the narrow beach, in column, in order to turn the far left flank of the colonial position. The grenadiers were deployed in the middle. They lined up four deep and several hundred across. As the regulars closed, John Simpson, a New Hampshire man, prematurely fired, drawing an ineffective volley of return fire from the regulars. When the regulars finally closed within range, both sides opened fire. The colonists inflicted heavy casualties on the regulars, using the fence to steady and aim their muskets, and benefit from a modicum of cover. With this devastating barrage of musket fire, the regulars retreated in disarray, and the militia held their ground.
The regulars reformed on the field and marched out again. This time, Pigot was not to feint; he was to assault the redoubt, possibly without the assistance of Howe's force. Howe, instead of marching against Stark's position along the beach, marched instead against Knowlton's position along the rail fence. The outcome of the second attack was much the same as the first. One British observer wrote, "Most of our Grenadiers and Light-infantry, the moment of presenting themselves lost three-fourths, and many nine-tenths, of their men. Some had only eight or nine men a company left ..." Pigot did not fare any better in his attack on the redoubt, and again ordered a retreat. Meanwhile, in the rear of the colonial forces, confusion continued to reign. General Putnam tried, with only limited success, to send additional troops from Bunker Hill to Breed's Hill to support the men in the redoubt and along the defensive lines.
The British rear was also in some disarray. Wounded soldiers that were mobile had made their way to the landing areas, and were being ferried back to Boston, and the wounded lying on the field of battle were the source of moans and cries of pain. General Howe, deciding that he would try again, sent word to General Clinton in Boston for additional troops. Clinton, who had watched the first two attacks, sent about 400 men from the 2nd Marines and the 63rd Foot, and then followed himself to help rally the troops. In addition to the new reserves, he also convinced about 200 of the wounded to form up for the third attack. 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.
The third assault, concentrated on the redoubt (with only a feint on the colonists' flank), was successful, although the colonists again poured musket fire into the British ranks, and it cost the life of Major Pitcairn. The defenders had run out of ammunition, reducing the battle to close combat. The British had the advantage once they entered the redoubt, as their troops were equipped with bayonets on their muskets while most of the colonists were not. Colonel Prescott, one of the last colonists to leave the redoubt, parried bayonet thrusts with his normally ceremonial sabre. It is during the retreat from the redoubt that Joseph Warren was killed.
The retreat of much of the colonial forces from the peninsula was made possible in part by the controlled retreat of the forces along the rail fence, led by John Stark and Thomas Knowlton, which prevented the encirclement of the hill. Their disciplined retreat, described by Burgoyne as "no flight; it was even covered with bravery and military skill", was so effective that most of the wounded were saved; most of the prisoners taken by the British were mortally wounded.
The British had taken the ground but at a great loss; they suffered 1,054 casualties (226 dead and 828 wounded), with a disproportionate number of these officers. The casualty count was the highest suffered by the British in any single encounter during the entire war. General Clinton, echoing Pyrrhus of Epirus, remarked in his diary that "A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America." British dead and wounded included 100 commissioned officers, a significant portion of the British officer corps in North America. Much of General Howe's field 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
The colonial losses were about 450, of whom 140 were killed. Most of the colonial losses came during the withdrawal. Major Andrew McClary was technically the highest ranking colonial officer to die in the battle; he was hit by cannon fire on Charlestown neck, the last person to be killed in the battle. He was later commemorated by the dedication of Fort McClary in Kittery, Maine. A serious loss to the Patriot cause, however, was the death of Dr. Joseph Warren. He was the President of Massachusetts' Provincial Congress, and he had been appointed a Major General on June 14. His commission had not yet taken effect when he served as a volunteer private three days later at Bunker Hill. Only thirty men were captured by the British, most of them with grievous wounds; twenty died while held prisoner. The colonials also lost numerous shovels and other entrenching tools, as well as 5 out of the 6 cannon they had brought to the peninsula.
When news of the battle spread through the colonies, it was reported as a colonial loss, as the ground had been taken by the enemy, and significant casualties were incurred. George Washington, who was on his way to Boston as the new commander of the Continental Army, received news of the battle while in New York City. The report, which included casualty figures that were somewhat inaccurate, gave Washington hope that his army might prevail in the conflict.
The Massachusetts Committee of Safety, seeking to repeat the sort of propaganda victory it won following the battles at Lexington and Concord, commissioned a report of the battle to send to England. Their report, however, did not reach England before Gage's official account arrived on July 20. His report unsurprisingly caused friction and argument between the Tories and the Whigs, but the casualty counts alarmed the military establishment, and forced many to rethink their views of colonial military capability. King George's attitude toward the colonies hardened, and the news may have contributed to his rejection of the Continental Congress' Olive Branch Petition, the last substantive political attempt at reconciliation. Sir James Adolphus Oughton, part of the Tory majority, wrote to Lord Dartmouth of the colonies, "the sooner they are made to Taste Distress the sooner will [Crown control over them] be produced, and the Effusion of Blood be put a stop to." This hardening of the British position also led to a hardening of previously weak support for the rebellion, especially in the southern colonies, in favor of independence. Gage wrote another report to the British Cabinet, in which he repeated earlier warnings that "a large army must at length be employed to reduce these people", that would require "the hiring of foreign troops."
Much has been written in the wake of this battle over how it was conducted. Both sides made strategic and tactical missteps which could have altered the outcome of the battle. While hindsight often gives a biased view, some things seem to be apparent after the battle that might reasonably have been within the reach of the command of the day.
The colonial forces, while nominally under the overall command of General Ward, with General Putnam leading in the field, often acted quite independently. This was evident in the opening page of the drama, when a tactical decision was made that had strategic implications. Colonel Prescott and his staff, apparently in contravention of orders, decided to fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill.
While the front lines of the colonial forces were generally well managed, the scene behind them, especially once the action began, was significantly disorganized, due at least in part to a poor chain of command. Only some of the militias operated directly under Ward's and Putnam's authority, and some commanders also disobeyed orders, staying at Bunker Hill rather than joining in the defense on the third British assault. Several officers were subjected to court martial and cashiered. Colonel Prescott was of the opinion that the third assault would have been repulsed, had his forces in the redoubt been reinforced with either more men, or more supplies of ammunition and powder.
The British leadership, for its part, was slow to act once the works on Breed's Hill were spotted. It was 2 pm when the troops were ready for the assault, roughly ten hours after the Lively first opened fire. This leisurely pace gave the colonial forces time to reinforce the flanking positions that had been poorly defended. Gage and Howe decided that a frontal assault on the works would be a simple matter, when an encircling move (gaining control of Charlestown Neck), would have given them a more resounding victory.
Once in the field, Howe, rather than focusing on the redoubt, opted (twice) to dilute the force attacking the redoubt with a flanking maneuver against the colonial left. It was only with the third attack, when the flank attack was merely a feint, and the main force (now also reinforced with additional reserves) was squarely targeted at the redoubt, that the attack succeeded.
Following the taking of the peninsula, the British arguably had a tactical advantage that they could have used to press into Cambridge. General Clinton proposed this to Howe; having just led three assaults with grievous casualties, he declined the idea. Howe was eventually recognized by the colonial military leaders to be a tentative decision-maker, to his detriment; in the aftermath of the Battle of Long Island, he again had tactical advantages that might have delivered Washington's army into his hands, but again refused to act.
"The whites of their eyes"
The famous order "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" was popularized in stories about the battle of Bunker Hill. It is uncertain as to who said it there, since various histories, including eyewitness accounts, attribute it to Putnam, Stark, Prescott or Gridley, and it may have been said first by one, and repeated by the others. It was also not an original statement. It was used by General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, when his troops defeated Montcalm's army on September 13, 1759. The earliest similar quote came from the Battle of Dettingen on June 27, 1743, where Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw warned his Regiment, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, not to fire until they could "see the white's of their e'en." The phrase was also used by Prince Charles of Prussia in 1745, and repeated in 1755 by Frederick the Great, and may have been mentioned in histories the colonial military leaders were familiar with. Whether or not it was actually said in this battle, it was clear that the colonial military leadership were regularly reminding their troops to hold their fire until the moment when it would have the greatest effect, especially in situations where their ammunition would be limited.
A significant number of notable people fought in this battle. Henry Dearborn and William Eustis, for example, went on to distinguished military and political careers; both served in Congress, the Cabinet, and in diplomatic posts. Others, like John Brooks, Henry Burbeck, Christian Febiger, Thomas Knowlton, and John Stark, became well known for later actions in the war. Stark became known as the "Hero of Bennington" for his role in the 1777 Battle of Bennington. Free African-Americans also fought in the battle, notable examples include Barzillai Lew, Salem Poor, and Peter Salem (the leadership would not allow slaves to fight, as this was anathema to the very idea of the freedom for which they were fighting). Another notable participant was Daniel Shays, who later became famous for his army of protest in Shays' Rebellion. Israel Potter was immortalized in Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile, a novel by Herman Melville. Colonel John Patterson (New York), commanded the Massachusetts First Militia, served in Shay's Rebellion, and became a US Congressman from New York. Lt. Col. Seth Read, who served under John Patterson at Bunker Hill, went on to settle Geneva, New York and Erie, Pennsylvania, and was said to have been instrumental in the phrase E Pluribus Unum being added to US Coins.  </ref>
John Trumbull's painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill (pictured above), while an idealized and inaccurate depiction of Warren's death, shows a number of participants in the battle. John Small, a British officer who was among those storming the redoubt, was a friend of Israel Putnam's and an acquaintance of Trumbull. He is depicted holding Warren and preventing a redcoat from bayoneting him.
The Bunker Hill Monument is an obelisk that stands 221 ft high on Breed's Hill. On June 17, 1825, the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, the cornerstone of the monument was laid by the Marquis de Lafayette and an address delivered by Daniel Webster. (When Lafayette died, he was buried next to his wife at the Cimetière de Picpus under soil from Bunker Hill, which his son Georges sprinkled upon him.) The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge was specifically designed to evoke this monument. There is also a statue of William Prescott showing him calming his men down.
The National Park Service operates a museum dedicated to the battle near the monument, which is part of the Boston National Historical Park. A cyclorama of the battle was added in 2007 when the museum was renovated.
Bunker Hill Day, observed every June 17, is a legal holiday in Suffolk County, Massachusetts (which includes the city of Boston), as well as Somerville in Middlesex County. Prospect Hill, site of colonial fortifications overlooking the Charlestown neck, is now located in Somerville, which was previously part of Charlestown. State institutions in Massachusetts (such as public institutions of higher) located in Boston also celebrate the holiday. However, the state's FY2011 budget requires all state and municipal offices in Suffolk County be open on Bunker Hill Day and Evacuation Day.
On June 16 and 17, 1875, the centennial of the battle was celebrated with a military parade and a reception featuring notable speakers, among them General William Tecumseh Sherman and Vice President Henry Wilson. It was attended by dignitaries from across the country. Celebratory events also marked the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) in 1925 and the bicentennial in 1975.
- Royal Welch Fusiliers
- New England
Most of the information about the battle itself in this article comes from the following sources.
- (Paperback: )
Specific facts not necessarily covered by the major sources come from the following sources.
Various commemorations of the battle are described in the following sources.
- (ProQuest document number: 118450359)
- This book contains printings of both Gage's official account and that of the Massachusetts Congress.
Pages about the battle
- Library of Congress page about the battle
- Bunker Hill Web Exhibit of the Massachusetts Historical Society
- SAR Sons of Liberty Chapter list of colonial fallen at Bunker Hill
- SAR Sons of Liberty Chapter description of the battle
- The Battle of Bunker Hill: Now We Are at War, a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan
- TheAmericanRevolution.org description of the battle
- BritishBattles.com description of the battle
- Animated History of the Battle of Bunker Hill
Pages about people in the battle
- WGBH Forum Network-Patriots of Color:Revolutionary Heroes
- Israel Putnam Website
- Genealogy of Captain Samuel Cherry, who fought at Bunker Hill
- Dr. John Hart, Regimental Surgeon of Col Prescott's Regiment who treated the wounded at Bunker Hill
Other external pages