On June 17, 1775
British regulars faced an assemblage of independently
minded colonial militia at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
By evening of that day the British held the Charlestown
peninsula, and a new respect for the determination and
resourcefulness of colonial forces. The colonials,
if shaken from what was for many the first taste of war
(and what it reveals of men's character), had proven to
themselves that in direct confrontation they could thwart
the British army, a force superior in training, equipment,
beginning of the war at Lexington and Concord on April 19,
1775 the citizens of Boston found themselves between two
armies. General Artemas Ward's New England
volunteers surrounded Boston and blockaded the land
approaches; General Thomas Gage and 4,600 British soldiers
held the city itself. One Bostonian wrote, "We are
besieged this moment with 10 or 15,000 men, from Roxbury
to Cambridge... We are every hour expecting an attack by
land or water."
Critical to the British occupation of
Boston was control of the hills on the Charlestown
peninsula. An army holding this position overlooked
both Boston and her harbor. On June 15 the Americans
learned that the British planned to occupy Charlestown.
To frustrate them the Americans decided to act first.
On the evening of June 16, Colonel
William Prescott, leading 1,200 Massachusetts and
Connecticut soldiers, left Cambridge to fortify Bunker's
Hill, the dominant hill in Charlestown. Prescott,
however, bypassed this position and instead dug in on a
lower hill closer to Boston called Breed's Hill. The
next morning, the British awoke to find Breed's Hill
fortified with an earthen redoubt measuring 160 feet by 30
feet. Gage ordered the position captured.
Major General William Howe, Gage's
senior officer, was given field command. A shortage
of boats, poor navigational maps, and ill-timed tides
affected Howe's strategy and delayed the operation.
In the end, Howe decided to land his troops at Moulton's
(or Charlestown) Point near the mouth of the Mystic River.
From her he could press westward across the peninsula,
outflank the American redoubt and seize Bunker's Hill and
Charlestown neck. While the British waited for the
tide to rise, the Americans used the time wisely.
Prescott's men extended their
fortifications to the north of the redoubt by building a
breastwork. As Colonel Stark's new Hampshiremen
arrived, they joined Connecticut troops fortifying a rail
fence that extended down the slope of Breed's Hill toward
the Mystic. Other soldiers constructed three
shelters of fence rails, called fleches, in the exposed
area between the breastwork and the rail fence. To
cover Prescott's right flank, still other men took up
snipers' positions in deserted Charlestown. In all,
between 2,500 and 4,000 New Englanders manned the lines.
The First Assault
By 3:30 p.m. transports had delivered
Howe's initial force, and reinforcements were landing on
the shore between Moulton's Point and Charlestown.
When colonial snipers began firing at the arriving
Redcoats, Howe ordered immediate retribution and the town
was set afire by cannon. As Charlestown burned and
spectators crowded to rooftops of Boston for the best view
of the spectacle, Howe launched his first assault.
Howe's primary objective was the rail
fence. As a diversion, Brigadier General Robert
Pigot was to lead an assault on the redoubt and adjoining
breastwork, while an elite group of light infantry would
proceed up the Mystic shore to outflank the colonials on
their left. Simultaneously, Howe and his principal
force would hit defenders of the rail fence hard.
The advance of the Redcoats must have
been a terrible sight to the Americans. But nervous
as they were, they had to wait. It was critical that
the first rounds of fire be coordinated, with men
alternately firing and loading to keep up a barrage
capable of breaking the enemy's charge. Whether or
not they were told to hold fire until they saw the "whites
of their eyes," the colonials were told to wait for the
order to fire, to aim low, and to pick off British
Interrupting the advance of Howe's and
Pigot's soldiers were fences and uneven terrain hidden by
tall grass. Unhindered by such obstacles, the light
infantry was able to move swiftly along the Mystic shore,
only to be met by Colonel Stark's deadly surprise - a
stone wall on the beach backed by soldiers who have no
ground. On the meadow above, as Howe's men
approached their enemy, they were met by premature but
increasingly steady musketry. In the struggle to
negotiate fences while under fire, momentum and discipline
were lost. Pigot's attack on the redoubt, too, was
repulsed. Prescott's men had held.
No sooner was the first assault turned
back than Howe regrouped and marched forward again in a
hasty, uncoordinated attack all along the American front.
Once again the assault was a costly failure.
The British Victory
The colonials were jubilant, but not for
long. Confusion, a lack of discipline, inter-colony
rivalries, and the resulting lack of reinforcements and
supplies were to take their toll. Howe had been
frustrated but not defeated. It was true that
British troops were no longer fresh or overconfident and
had suffered devastating losses of both rank and file and
officers. The officers that remained, however,
roused their troops and put together for the final charge
a group grimly determined.
This time the British drove against the
right and center of the American line. They cut
through the breastwork and overran the redoubt from three
sides. Stark managed to hold on at the rail fence
long enough to help cover Prescott's retreat, but the
final scene inside the redoubt was carnage.
The surviving colonials retreated
northward toward Cambridge. The British, bloodied
and exhausted, pursued only as far as Bunker Hill and
there dug in. By 5:30 p.m. the fighting was over.
Both armies had fought courageously and
learned much. For the Redcoats, the lesson was
painful. Although they had captured the hill, out of
2,200 soldiers engaged, 1,034 were casualties. The
British attempted no further actions outside Boston for
the next nine months. When Howe replaced Gage as
military commander in America, the events of that day
would continue to haunt him, and he would time and again
fail to follow up a victory over the Americans.
The Americans had shown they could stand
up to the British in traditional open field combat.
But where they had succeeded, it had been through
individual gallantry rather than tactical planning or
discipline. Some regiments had fought well, other
not at all. Of an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 men
engaged, 400 to 600 were casualties. Stronger
leadership would be critical to success in further
battles. This leadership was provided on July 2,
1775 when George Washington arrived in Cambridge to assume
his role as Commander-in-Chief of the new Continental
"Bunker Hill," Boston National