- James Houser
June 17, 1775 - The Battle of Bunker Hill
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 17, 1775. A beautiful summer’s afternoon in New England is about to become part of history and myth. Just north of Boston, a small colonial force looks at the British force disembarking to attack their positions. The Americans have made their position on Breed’s Hill, but the battle will be known for the hill to their rear – Bunker Hill. Here is the true beginning of the American Revolutionary War.
General Thomas Gage was having one of those summers that just didn’t seem to end. The British Commander-in-Chief for the Colonies found himself in a desperate position after the failed arms confiscation that resulted in the battles of Lexington and Concord. There, British redcoats had been forced to withdraw after virtually the entire countryside turned out to shoot at them. Things like that had a way of making people cautious. For the next two months, then, Gage kept his troops within Boston, probably thinking every colonial he saw was a spy. He wasn’t far wrong, the colonists outside of Boston had good knowledge on all his comings, goings and doings.
At the dawn of the Revolution – a war that no one had really wanted, and no one had really prepared for except a handful of New England radicals – everyone suddenly had to reshuffle their priorities. The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to function as a *de facto* government for the rebelling colonies, and drew up some pompous statements of their aims and some messages to petition the King. If you thought the modern Congress was uncooperative, wait until you get a load of these people. The only important thing they really did in this time frame was to appoint George Washington, an experienced Virginia militia officer, as the commander of the Continental Army that, um, didn’t exist yet. The only army the Continental Congress had at the moment was the colonial militia that had sprung up to keep the Redcoats in Boston in check.
The colonial militia that had surrounded Boston was…well, it was something. One of the major features of American militia throughout the Revolutionary War was that they had no discipline, did whatever they wanted, and were only controllable by the steadiest and most charismatic officers. George Washington would only arrive to take command two weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill, but his assessment of the militia as having “an unaccountable stupidity in the lower class of these people” was not too far from the mark. The militia were fickle and extremely concerned with their rights but not their duties. They were quintessential Americans, with qualities that every older generation has seen in the younger, of being uncommitted, lazy and arrogant – but from this straw would be built the bricks of a nation.
But not yet. 15,000 militia surrounded the 6,000 British troops in Boston, who dared not venture far beyond the city. The British troops could only be supplied from the sea, which meant that around April 20, 1775, the British control over America extended to the approximately square mile that held Boston proper. Everything else would have to be reconquered somehow, and poor Thomas Gage was not the man to do it – especially not with only 6,000 men.
His position in Boston was extremely vulnerable. Boston at the time sat on a spit of land dangling out on the south side of Massachusetts Bay, and was matched by another spit of land jutting out from the north. This peninsula held the small town of Charlestown, but included several key hills that could, if occupied, dominate Boston and its harbor. These hills included Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. While the Americans didn’t have a lot of artillery at the moment, that wouldn’t be the case for long. Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys had just captured Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York, and by year’s end Henry Knox would undertake the expedition that transported most of the captured artillery from Ticonderoga down to Boston.
On May 25, 1775, three British generals arrived in Boston to assist Gage in the defense of the city. These men – William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton – would dominate the British war effort in America until the end. They immediately put their heads together to try and break the colonists’ stranglehold on Boston harbor, finally coming to a conclusion on June 12. This involved a several-pronged assault that would quickly seize the heights surrounding Boston, including Dorchester to the south and the peninsula of Charlestown to the north. The attack itself was set for June 18.
The American militia around Boston was not made up of budding military geniuses, and no one had thought to occupy the heights near Charlestown. This changed when the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts received information from a “New Hampshire gentleman of undoubted veracity” that the British planned to capture Charlestown peninsula. Gage had been right to worry about the rebel Americans hearing all his plans. On June 15 General Artemas Ward, the commander of the Massachusetts militia, ordered General Israel Putnam to take some troops and occupy the Charlestown peninsula to keep the British from taking it. Ward was apparently operating on the logic of “I didn’t want it until YOU wanted it.”
On the night of June 16, Colonial William Prescott led 1,200 men to occupy the peninsula, but as soon as they arrived he and his officers started arguing about where they should set up their defense. They had been ordered to fortify Bunker Hill, but decided independently that Breed’s Hill was closer to Boston and a stronger position. They began to dig in on Breed’s Hill, without noticing the major issues in the evening gloom. The hill was directly in the middle of the peninsula, which meant it was open to being bypassed or flanked from either side, so Bunker Hill would probably have been a better choice.
At dawn on June 17, British General Clinton noticed the colonial breastwork and notified Gage and Howe. The British began to prepare an improvised attack to drive the Americans from the position as soon as possible. An American artillery battery on Breed’s Hill could dominate Boston and cut the entire British army in America off from its supply; it was imperative that the hill be stormed as soon as possible. As the Royal Navy began bombarding the colonial position, and the guns in Boston thundered away in unison, they realized that their fire had little effect. The Americans would not be scared off. They would have to be driven away from Breed’s Hill.
Clinton proposed landing at the base of the peninsula and cutting off the colonists, but Howe demurred, believing they would not put up much fight. Burgoyne agreed, stating that the “untrained rabble” would be easily scattered. As the day went on, Howe rounded up his force; he would lead the attack on Bunker Hill himself. His initial force of 1,500 men crossed the bay in longboats to land on the coast below Breed’s Hill, under the watchful eyes of the Americans.
General Putnam’s morning had not gone well either. When he realized how exposed his position was, and also realized that it was too late to retreat back to Bunker Hill since the British had already noticed him, he began to extend his defensive position to either side and called for reinforcements. More men arrived quickly, among them Joseph Warren, the young and popular leader of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. Even though the famous Warren had been appointed a general the day before, his commission had not arrived yet so he fought as a private in the front rank of his regiment.
Already there were poor signs for the colonial militia. On the march to Breed’s Hill, some men had turned around and run for home as soon as they heard the boom of cannon. Other men already on Breed’s Hill saw the first casualty killed by a cannonball and decided that was just about enough war for today, and ran for home. Many of the reinforcements had no idea where to go or what to do, and milled around in confusion; chaos reigned. John Stark’s Connecticut militia reinforced Putnam’s left, and his troops stayed well in hand. While Putnam himself formed some of these men into a second line on Bunker Hill, many of the colonials never played an effective part in the battle due to the utter lack of discipline and leadership.
At about 3pm, Howe ordered his first assault on the American position. As he led the main flanking maneuver to the right, General Thomas Pigot led a diversionary assault on the center of the American position. Here was a little earth fort that the Americans had erected overnight – the “redoubt.” Howe’s troops quickly colliding with Stark’s Connecticut men, who had only just arrived, and were quickly blown back by several barrages of musket fire. Pigot’s attack not only faced a withering fire from the redoubt, but also caught sniper fire in its left flank from colonials hiding within Charlestown. Pigot had the Royal Navy bombard Charlestown with incendiary shell and had his own troops set more fires in the town, and soon the whole place was ablaze, casting demonic light and heavy smoke over the whole battlefield.
The first British assault had obviously failed. Howe ordered a second one that was sure to drive off the “undisciplined rabble.” This time Pigot’s attack was the main one, and the second attack had basically the same outcome as the first. The British were essentially launching frontal attacks against a well-entrenched enemy, a poor tactic that they would never have carried out against, say, the French or the Spanish. They figured the Americans would be so impressed by the discipline and stamina of the British regulars that they would be shocked into retreat.
The Americans, though, were proving to be made of sterner stuff. It’s not sure who exactly said the quote “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” but this phrase did not originate at Bunker Hill in 1775. Its earliest recorded use is by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden to his own infantry in the 1630s, repeated many times in later years by men who had read their military history. The Americans probably picked it up from General Wolfe’s use of the instruction at the Battle of Quebec in 1759, when the British conquered Canada; the most likely candidates to have said it on June 17 were either Colonel Prescott or General Putnam.
Either way, the tactic worked. It was common for undisciplined troops to fire a ragged volley at an approaching enemy far beyond effective range, only for the more disciplined men to close to point-blank range and deliver a withering hail of bullets that would shatter their foe. A big part of 18th-Century warfare was keeping your men disciplined enough to withstand the fire of your enemy, march carefully forward, close the distance and deliver a disciplined salvo that would carry both an actual and a psychological strike. The British tried to follow this tactic at Bunker Hill, but the Americans somehow had the patience and leadership enough to cause the redcoats heavy casualties.
Howe called for reinforcements; many of his units had suffered so severely that they had lost almost half their men. Clinton sent more men, and even convinced some of the slightly wounded to take their place back in line. Howe decided to order a third assault, even as many of the colonials began to finally break and run under fire from the Navy’s ships, British cannon, and the prospect of yet another British assault. This was where the difference began to truly emerge: the British would keep coming until they had taken Breed’s Hill. The Americans, untrained and undisciplined, could not stand the strain. Even as the British ascended for their third assault, the colonial lines had begun to disintegrate.
That did not mean the redcoats had it easy. The third assault concentrated on the redoubt and was finally successful, though the British hemorrhaged casualties as they stormed the earthwork. The Americans and British entered ferocious close combat with bayonet, sword, and musket butt as the colonists began to fall back to Bunker Hill. Major Pitcairn, who had commanded British forces on that morning at Lexington Green, was killed in this assault; so too was colonial leader Joseph Warren, who had been a man of such promise. Colonel Prescott fought off bayonet thrusts with his sword and was one of the last colonists to retreat.
The colonials now fell back from the peninsula, but General Putnam’s second line on Bunker Hill and the orderly retreat of John Stark’s Connecticut men kept the withdrawal from turning into a rout. Burgoyne described the colonial retreat as “no flight; it was even covered with bravery and military skill.” Most of the American wounded got out safely, and the whole force managed to escape without being cut off and captured as the British wanted. By 5pm, the colonists had reformed in Cambridge and the British controlled Breed’s and Bunker’s Hills.
The Battle of Bunker Hill (as it has always been known, even though most of the fighting was on Breed’s Hill) was a battle that neither side wanted and never needed to happen. The British gained hills they could have occupied a few days earlier with no loss, and the Americans lost hills that ended up not even being necessary to force the British out of Boston. Nevertheless, the first major battle of the Revolutionary War was enormously important.
The first result was the effect it had on the British in America. In taking Breed’s Hill, Howe’s troops had lost 226 dead and 828 wounded, 1,054 total – over a sixth of the entire British Army in America. In a time when the British Army as a whole only amounted to 48,000 men, this was near-catastrophic and unsustainable. General Clinton evoked Pyrrhus of Epirus when he said, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” This bloody, meaningless victory made generals like Howe and Clinton exceedingly cautious for the rest of the war – a caution that would allow George Washington and his Continental Army to escape from near-certain destruction more than once.
The colonials had lost about 450 men – 115 dead and 305 wounded – notably far less than the British. Considering that the British needed to reconquer all of North America, this was attrition on the wrong side of the balance sheet. The colonists grieved the death of Joseph Warren, but in only a couple of weeks George Washington would arrive to take command. Though the Americans counted Bunker Hill as a loss, Washington saw it as a sign of promise: the militia had stood up to British regulars. If he could turn that grit into something like a true army, there might be a future for America yet.
Finally, Bunker Hill had a shocking effect in England. The casualty lists sent a chill through the military high command, and forced a drastic reappraisal of the difficulty of the struggle they faced. The battle hardened George III’s attitude to the colonies, and his refusal of multiple peace offers throughout 1775 in turn hardened the colonies and bound them together closer. The British realized that they were not fighting a mob, but a real war. They began to prepare a full-scale military operation for 1776, but Bunker Hill began the depressive gloom that seeped into the British war effort. They could not fight the Americans one Bunker Hill at a time; they would run out of troops first.
Bunker Hill, then, could almost be a microcosm of the American Revolution as a whole.