Battle of Bunker Hill

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A number of places and things are named for this battle, see: Bunker Hill (disambiguation).

Bunker Hill was a battle of the American Revolutionary War that took place on June 17, 1775 during the Siege of Boston. Although it is known as Bunker Hill, most of the action was on Breed's Hill. British forces under General Howe drove the American militia from fortified positions on Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill. The battle was a pyrrhic victory for Howe. His immediate objective was achieved, but the attack demonstrated the American will to stand in pitched battle, caused substantial British casualties, and did not change the status of the siege. After the battle, British General Henry Clinton remarked in his diary that "A few more such victories would have surely put an end to British dominion in America."


Contents

Background

Boston had been occupied by the British army since 1768. Since May of 1774 Massachusetts had been under martial law under General Thomas Gage. After armed conflict with the colonialists started on April 19, 1775 at the Battle of Lexington and Concord Gage's forces had been besieged in Boston by 8,000 to 12,000 militia led mainly by General Artemas Ward. In May, the British garrison was increased by the arrival of about 4,500 additional troops and Major General Howe. Admiral Samuel Graves commanded the fleet within the harbor.

General Gage started work with his new generals on a plan to break the siege of Boston. They would use an amphibious assault to remove the Americans from the Dorchester Heights or take their headquarters at Cambridge. To thwart these plans, General Ward gave orders to General Israel Putnam to fortify Bunker Hill.

The battleground

(For a 1775 map of the battle see: Library of Congress map (http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3764b.ct000251))

The Charlestown Peninsula extended about 1 mile (1600 meters) toward the southwest into Boston Harbor. At its closest approach less than 1000 feet (300 meters) separated it from the Boston Peninsula. Bunker Hill is an elevation at the rear of the peninsula, and Breed's Hill is near the Boston end, while the town of Charlestown occupied the flats at the southern end.

Description of the battle

On the night of June 16 Colonel William Prescott led 1,500 men onto the peninsula. At first Putnam, Prescott, and their engineering officer, Captain Richard Gridley, disagreed as to where they should locate their defense. Breed's Hill was viewed as much more defensible, and they decided to locate their primary redoubt there. Prescott and his men, using Gridley's outline, began digging a fortification 160 feet (50 m) long and 80 feet (25 m) wide with ditches and earthen walls. They added ditch and dike extensions toward the Charles River on their right and began reinforcing a fence running to their left.

In the early predawn, around 4 am, a sentry on board the HMS Lively was first to spot the new fortification. The Lively opened fire, temporarily halting the Americans' work. Admiral Graves, on his flagship HMS Somerset, woke irritated by gunfire he hadn't ordered. He ordered it stopped, only to reverse himself when he got on deck and saw the works. He ordered all 128 guns in the harbor to open up on the American position. The broadsides proved largely ineffective, since the ships couldn't elevate their guns enough to reach the fortifications.

It took almost six hours to organize an infantry force, gather up and inspect the men on parade. General Howe was to lead the major assault, drive around the American left flank, and take them from the rear. Brigadier General Robert Pigot on the British left flank would lead the direct assault on the redoubt. Major John Pitcairn led the flank or reserve force. It took several trips in longboats to assemble Howe's forces on the northwest corner of the peninsula. On a warm day, with full field packs of about 60 pounds (30 kg), the British were finally ready about two in the afternoon.

The Americans, seeing this activity, had also called for reinforcements. The only troops to get to the forward positions were two New Hampshire regiments of 200 men under John Stark. Stark's men took positions along the fence on the left or north end of the American position. Since low tide opened a gap along the Mystic River, they quickly extended the fence with a short stone wall to the north. Gridley or Stark placed a stake about 30 meters in front of the fence and ordered that no one fire until the regulars passed it.

But Prescott had been steadily losing men. He lost very few to the bombardment, but had ten volunteers to carry every wounded man to the rear. Others took advantage of the confusion to join the withdrawal. Two generals did join Prescott's force, but both declined command, and simply fought as individuals. One of these was Dr. Joseph Warren, the president of the Council and acting head of Massachusetts' revolutionary government. The second was Seth Pomeroy. By the time the battle started the total involved defenders numbered about 1,400 and they faced 2,600 regulars.

The first assaults both on the fence line and the redoubt were met with massed fire at close range and repulsed, with heavy British losses. The reserve, gathering just north of the town, was also taking casualties due to rifle fire from a company in the town. Howe's men reformed on the field and made a second unsuccessful attack at the wall.

The Americans had lost all fire discipline. In traditional battles of the 18th century, companies of men fired, reloaded, and moved on specific orders, as they had been trained. After their initial volley, the Americans all fought as individuals, and every man fired as quickly as he could reload and find a target. The British withdrew almost to their original positions on the peninsula to regroup. The navy, along with artillery from Copp's Hill on the Boston peninsula, fired heated shot into Charlestown. All 400 or so buildings and the docks were completely burned, but the snipers withdrew safely.

The third British assault carried the redoubt, due to a number of factors. The reserves were included. Both flanks concentrated on the redoubt. The Americans ran out of ammunition, reducing the battle to a bayonet fight, and most of the American soldiers' rifles didn't have bayonets.

Aftermath

The British had taken the ground, but at a stiff cost; 1,054 were shot (226 dead and 828 wounded), and a disproportionate number of these were officers. The American losses were only about 450, of whom 140 were killed (including Joseph Warren), and 30 captured, and most American losses came during the withdrawal.

British dead and wounded included almost all of their officers. Of General Howe's entire field staff; he was the only one not shot. Major Pitcairn was dead, and Colonel James Abercrombie fatally wounded. The American withdrawal and British advance swept right through to include the entire peninsula, Bunker Hill as well as Breed's Hill. But the number of Americans to be faced in new positions hastily created by Putnam on the mainland, the end of the day, and the exhaustion of his troops removed any chance Howe had of advancing on Cambridge and breaking the siege.

The attitude of the British was significantly changed, both individually and as a government. Thomas Gage was soon recalled, and would be replaced by General Howe. Howe himself lost the daring he had shown at Louisbourg, and was cautious through the rest of his service. Gage's report to the cabinet repeated his earlier warnings that "a large army must at length be employed to reduce these people" and would require "the hiring of foreign troops."

A famous saying came from this battle: "Don't fire till you see the whites of their eyes". However, it is uncertain as to who said it, since various writers attribute it to Putnam, Stark, Prescott and Gridley. Another reporting uncertainty concerns the role of African-Americans. There were certainly a few involved in the battle, but their exact numbers are unknown. One of these was Salem Poor, who was cited for bravery and whose actions at the redoubt saved Prescott's life, but accounts crediting him with Pitcairn's death are highly doubtful.

See also: Royal Welch Fusiliers

External links

References

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