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Reading 2



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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Setting the Stage for a Battle

Tension between the British government and the American colonists had been steadily mounting during the months after the battles of Lexington and Concord. The British sent three important major generals--John Burgoyne, William Howe, and Henry Clinton--to help Royal Governor Thomas Gage deal with the increasingly rebellious colonists in New England. American militiamen established encampments along the Mystic and Charles Rivers and in nearby Roxbury. Early in the evening of June 16, 1775, about 800 Massachusetts and 200 Connecticut troops assembled and marched in review on Cambridge Common past patriot commander Col. William Prescott of Massachusetts.

The only man wearing a uniform at this mustering of troops was Colonel Prescott. He was also the only one who knew that the farmers and artisans turned soldiers would soon be preparing for battle against the British. Colonial spies had alerted the Massachusetts Committee of Public Safety to British plans for an imminent attack. Gen. Artemas Ward, the commander of the American forces gathered around Boston, ordered Prescott and his men to provoke an attack, hoping that surprise would allow the patriots to outmaneuver the British. Ward and Prescott decided that the best place for this gambit was Bunker Hill, on the Charlestown Peninsula.

The soldiers themselves knew nothing of this plan. They were told to be prepared to congregate on Cambridge Common and to be armed. Most carried muskets with the ammunition in pouches slung crossways over their vests. They wore jackets or long coats and low­heeled shoes with buckles. Only the very rich could afford to wear more practical boots.

After the troops had passed in review, they took part in a prayer and then were told that under cover of darkness they would march to prepare for battle. So they would not give their position away to the British, they were to march as quietly as possible and to stay absolutely silent. At about 9 p.m. they set out, led by two sergeants who carried lanterns, and followed by carts filled with shovels, pick axes, and other tools appropriate for excavating and moving earth.

Near Charlestown Neck they were called to a halt while several other officers joined the column of men. As they began the march again, the Mystic River was to their left and the Charles River to their right. They crossed the neck, and then climbed up and over a hill. By now they were surrounded by water on three sides. Off to their right were the buildings of Charlestown. Across the water ahead they could see Boston. They had reached Bunker Hill.

Again the men were called to a halt. Prescott and Gen. Israel Putnam of Connecticut called the engineer, Col. Richard Gridley, and other officers to gather round them to discuss the written orders they had received from General Ward. The orders had stated for them to fortify Bunker Hill, which stood 110 feet high, the largest of the hills around Charlestown. After a prolonged discussion, however, the officers eventually decided to move closer to Boston and fortify the smaller, lesser known, 62-foot-high hill known as Breed’s Hill.

By now it was nearly midnight, and the troops had to hurry their work if they were to have it completed by dawn. They were to build a redoubt and a breastwork in only a few short hours. The redoubt was to be a rectangular fort about 160 feet long and 80 feet wide, with six- to eight-foot-high earthen walls (see Drawing 1). Within the walls would be platforms for the soldiers to use as they shot out at the enemy. The breastwork, a long arm of logs and dirt, was to run from the redoubt to a swamp at the bottom of the hill, adding protection for the patriot militiamen. They dug the redoubt’s foundation, using the excavated dirt for the redoubt’s walls. To support those walls they used tree branches, whole and broken barrels—anything they could find that would provide strength. Then they packed the walls with mud to stabilize the structure and dug a trench around the redoubt. All this work was made especially difficult by the need for silence. The men were on top of a hill and they were surrounded by water, an excellent carrier of sound. Some troops were sent to patrol the shore watching for indications that sailors aboard the British warships had heard them and raised an alarm. Some of the men were sent to Charlestown to keep watch on the shoreline of Boston. All through the night Colonel Prescott watched and encouraged the men. He worried about what was to come. He knew the capabilities of his own men who had been well-trained, but he knew that most of the soldiers had never before heard gunfire except on a hunt. He did not know how they would react to combat.

By dawn, the redoubt was nearly completed, but there was still much work needed on the breastwork. Some of the men tried to get a little rest and have a bite to eat before they continued their efforts. They had little food with them, however, because they had been told to travel light. As dawn broke, sailors on the British sloop-of-war Lively noticed the fortifications and opened fire. The Battle of Bunker Hill that took place on Breed’s Hill was about to begin.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why would both the British and the colonists have wanted to control the Charlestown Peninsula?

2. When did the patriot troops realize they were preparing for battle and not simply taking part in a training exercise?

3. Why do you think the colonists disregarded their orders to fortify Bunker Hill and moved forward to Breed's Hill?

Compiled from David Rubel, America's War of Independence: A Concise Illustrated History of the American Revolution (New York: Silver Moon Press/Agincourt Press, 1992); and Philippa Kirby, Glorious days, Dreadful Days: The Battle of Bunker Hill (Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 1993).



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