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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Battle of Bunker Hill

The first shots in the Battle of Bunker Hill came from the British sloop-of-war Lively. They landed far short of the men on Breedís Hill and caused no damage, but they frightened the militiamen to such a degree that many dropped their shovels and axes and tried to hide behind the redoubt. Colonel Prescott assured them that the shipís cannon could not reach their position and that they must continue working on the breastwork. The shooting from the Lively soon stopped, but cannon fire from the other British ships in the Charles River took over. Most of these shots also were short, but one shell hit a water supply and another hit a militiaman working outside the redoubt.

Throughout the early morning hours Prescott encouraged the militiamen by walking along the top of the walls of the redoubt, praising those who had worked hard and joking with them about the need to hurry. Other officers followed Prescottís lead in keeping up morale even though they knew they were in view of the British gunners.

In Boston, the British heard rumors about the patriotsí activities. Governor Gage was advised by Major General Clinton that they should be prepared to mount a dawn attack on the Charlestown Peninsula, but Gage believed the early reports of patriot troop movement were overstated. He chose to wait for daylight before he decided what to do. When daybreak came, Gage saw that the noise he thought represented the change of patriot sentries had been caused by the building of an imposing fortification.

Prescottís militiamen had worked for about 12 hours, they had little, if anything, to eat, and they had no drinking water. Some expected to be relieved by other troops and were shocked when Prescott informed them that nearby troops had to stand ready in case the British attacked at another point. He did send for a few additional soldiers and for some food and water, but he made it clear that those who had built the redoubt would be its defenders.

Meanwhile the British had decided to land troops at Mortonís Point, march up the hill, and dislodge the patriot militiamen (see Drawing 1). Governor Gage then assigned positions: Major General Howe with Brig. Gen. Robert Pigot under his command would lead the attack; Brig. Gen. Sir Hugh Percy would be in charge of troops at Boston Neck; Clinton would wait in Boston until Howe signaled him for help; and Major General Burgoyne would command guns at Coppís Hill.

By 1 p.m. British regulars began landing on Mortonís Point. They quickly formed lines and marched to the foot of Breedís Hill. Then in sight of the tired and hungry patriot troops, they unpacked substantial meals and sat down to eat. Hungry, thirsty, tired, and terrified, the Americans wondered what would come next. Their spirits revived a bit when Dr. Joseph Warren came as a volunteer to help in the fight. The men from Massachusetts considered his appearance to be a happy omen. An important leader of the patriot cause and a newly commissioned major general, Warren was as well known locally as Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Then, as the British soldiers completed their meal, General Putnam brought patriot militia to dig in on Bunker Hill. Col. John Stark and two New Hampshire regiments fortified an existing fence between the breastwork and the Mystic River with additional posts and rails and stuffed it with hay and grass to provide cover for men positioned there. They also constructed and fortified a stone wall on the Mystic River beach as an extension of the rail fence. This defense was to prevent the British from surrounding the redoubt.

From the warships and from Coppís Hill came bombardments of ball and shot. Approximately 1,100 British troops under Howe set out along the beach of the Mystic River to outflank the colonists. The remaining 1,100 soldiers under Pigot started up the hill toward the patriotsí redoubt. Both groups wore heavy red-woolen coats, bore heavy packs on their backs, and carried fixed bayonets that glinted in the sun. The progress of Pigotís troops over the uneven, grass-covered ground was slow, and the Americans were anxious to begin shooting them down. Mindful of their small amount of ammunition, colonial officers cautioned the troops to use their weapons carefully. Legend has it that Prescott uttered the famous line, "Donít fire until you see the whites of their eyes" to encourage soldiers to make each shot as effective as possible. Colonial officers also told troops to aim low and try to hit the officers, the men in the fanciest uniforms, in order to break up the British chain of command.

The first assault by the British forces came from the Mystic River beach when Howe gave the order for his soldiers to overrun the rail fence and the breastworks below the redoubt. When the command to fire finally came, patriot soldiers shot with deadly accuracy. The British lines broke as one redcoat after another dropped under the feet of his comrades. Soon the call for retreat resounded. The American colonists had repelled a major assault by the superior British army.

Within minutes Pigotís forces were in position to attack the front of the redoubt. The British soldiers found it difficult to march up the hill. They each carried 60 pounds of equipment and had to wade through tall grass and step over stone walls as they climbed the steepest part of the hill on a hot June afternoon. Again the patriots withheld their fire until the British regulars were within 50 yards. They shot with deadly accuracy and again the British lines were broken as officers and soldiers dropped to the ground, killed or wounded. Again came the order for retreat.

The British generals watching the battle from Coppís Hill could not believe that what they had deemed to be the finest soldiers in the world were being slaughtered by backwoods colonials. After receiving orders from Gage to supply additional reinforcements, Clinton arrived in Charlestown with men from the 2nd Marine Battalion and the 63rd Regiment to support Pigot. Howe ordered his remaining haggard troops to once again form themselves into a marching line. He permitted them to take off their heavy packs and even allowed some to take off their bloodstained red coats.

Finally the third British advance was mounted against the redoubt and breastworks. Many terrified militiamen had already left the scene of battle. Most of those who remained had only one round of ammunition left with no hope of getting more. The British stormed the fort brandishing their bayonets. When the redcoats came close, the colonists fired one to two volleys then most stood their ground to face the British. Fierce hand­to­hand fighting occurred within the redoubt. Casualties were high on both sides. Among those killed during the third assault was patriot leader Dr. Warren. Those colonists who were not killed or captured began a headlong flight toward the Charlestown Neck and across to Cambridge.

The British took possession of both Breedís Hill and Bunker Hill. They had won the battle, but at a terrible cost: out of 2,200 troops, 268 British soldiers and officers had been killed; another 828 were wounded. The Americans also suffered heavy casualties with 115 killed and 305 wounded. The British armyís military victory at the battle of Bunker Hill was a moral victory for the colonists, however. Colonists throughout America realized that the conflict was no longer just a rebellion of Bostonians and other Massachusetts colonists against British occupation. They had proved to themselves that, united, they had the ability and the character to confront the superior force of the British army. The cost of British victory was so great that serious doubts were raised about English leadership; many now understood that war with the colonies would be hard, long, and expensive to both sides.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Why do you think the colonial officers needed to boost morale during the fortification of Breed's Hill?

2. Why do you think the appearance of Dr. Joseph Warren had a positive effect on the troops from Massachusetts? In turn, what impact did his death have on them?

3. Why did the colonists hold their fire until the British were almost upon the redoubt?

4. How many assaults did the British army make during the Battle of Bunker Hill?

5. After the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British considered abandoning the use of the frontal assault. Why? Do you think this method of assault was effective?

6. If the Battle of Bunker Hill was a military defeat for the colonists, why do you think it was considered decisive in uniting the colonists into a Continental army?

Compiled from Polly M. Rettig, "Bunker Hill Monument" (Suffolk County, Massachusetts) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975; the National Park Services visitor's guide for Bunker Hill Monument; Charlestown Navy Yard District Training Manual, National Park Service, 1993; and Philippa Kirby, Glorious Day, Dreadful Days: The Battle of Bunker Hill (Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 1993).

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