Last updated: January 13, 2023
On June 17, 1775, New England soldiers faced the British army for the first time in a pitched battle. Popularly known as "The Battle of Bunker Hill," bloody fighting took place throughout a hilly landscape of fenced pastures that were situated across the Charles River from Boston. Though the British forces claimed the field, the casualties inflicted by the Provincial solders from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were staggering. Of the some 2,400 British soldiers and Marines engaged, some 1,000 were wounded or killed.
Join Ranger Patrick in an overview of how the Battle of Bunker Hill came to happen on June 17, 1775 across the hilly pastures north of Boston.
- 7 minutes, 47 seconds
The autumn and winter of 1774 proved to be a time fraught with growing tension and close-calls. Colonists began to mobilize for war while the British Army sent detachments to secure gunpowder and cannon in nearby towns. Finally, on April 19, 1775, fighting erupted in the small Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord. Running skirmishes took place throughout the day as the British detachment from Boston fought their way back to their home camps in Boston—a distance of some twenty miles. Local town militias mobilized quickly to defend and assist their neighbors from British attacks. By the end of the day, British-occupied Boston lay surrounded by thousands of militiamen. As alarm spread throughout New England, as many as 20,000 men marched to Boston from modern-day Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
By June, the British Army received expected reinforcements and the commander, General Thomas Gage, was under pressure to break out of Boston and end the colonial uprising. The British commanders agreed on a strategy to claim the heights to the north and south of Boston as locations from where they could launch final crushing blows to the rebellion. Details of these plans leaked, and the Massachusetts Provincial government learned of the British plans. Deciding to claim the hills first, a detachment of approximately 1,000 Massachusetts and Connecticut soldiers were ordered to march to "Bunker Hill" in Charlestown on the night of June 16, 1775.
Colonel William Prescott and General Israel Putnam were the ranking officers in the expedition to Charlestown, however Prescott, being from Massachusetts, commanded the majority of the men. For generations many have argued over who ultimately chose where to fortify a position on the lower, more centrally located hill known today as "Breed's Hill," rather than the higher prominence known today as "Bunker Hill." But on that night, construction began sometime around midnight as hundreds of men with pickaxes and shovels constructed a fort atop the lower hill overlooking the settlement of Charlestown and the beaches along the Harbor.
At dawn, lookouts on British warship and sentries in Boston quickly noticed the new redoubt constructed within cannon-range of the North End of Boston. Early cannon-fire upon the fortification quickly awoke the town and countryside. By mid-morning, General Gage had decided to assemble troops and mount an attack to clear this threat. While a cannonade from both British ships and Copp's Hill began to bombard the area of the redoubt, Prescott ordered his men to continue to expand the fort and dig in for an eventual assault. As the day progressed, units received conflicting orders whether to stay or reinforce the men under Prescott. Because Charlestown was a peninsula, it was very risky to send too many men to a place that could easily be cut off by a successful British attack. Yet with some 2,400 British solders, officers, and Marines assembling in Boston for transport to Charlestown, Prescott's numbers dwindled from men fleeing the scene under the cannonade.
By midday, the first wave of British boats landed British solders. They assembled out of musket range and awaited the second wave of troops. General William Howe was given command of the field by Gage, and it appears that he anticipated sending his force in two thrusts: One force would advance on the redoubt as a feint, a second would march to the right through an open pasture and flank, surround, and crush the resistance inside the redoubt. The tall grass in the area, however, covered up many of the hazards and obstacles that faced Howe's men in the flanking attack. Furthermore, desperately needed Colonial reinforcements were soon arriving under the command of New Hampshire Colonel John Stark. Rather than send his men into the redoubt with Prescott, Stark led his command of roughly 800 men to a fence in a downhill pasture to Prescott's left. This put Stark's men at the opposite end of the very same pasture Howe hoped to exploit in the flanking attack.
Join Ranger Patrick for our concluding installment in our three-part series about the Battle of Bunker Hill and its aftermath. Learn about how the British were eventually forced to evacuate Boston on March 17th, 1776.
- 10 minutes, 22 seconds
By early afternoon Howe felt he had enough soldiers to launch his assault. As the British forces began their advance, the cannonade from Copp's Hill and British warships ceased. In line formation, the two wings had to negotiate fences and other obstacles as they slowly neared the Provincial line. The men from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were ordered to hold their fire until the enemy drew so close that their musket fire would have its most devastating effect. It was at this time, legend claims, that one of the commanding officers from the colonies ordered: "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes!"
The musket fire proved devastating when the advancing British came into range. The pasture that was supposed to be the avenue for a flanking attack became a pen of slaughter. On the hill, fire from both the redoubt and from buildings at the edge of the abandoned settlement of Charlestown harassed the feint attack as well. At one point Prescott ordered his men to cease fire. Uncertain whether the colonists had fled the redoubt, British units marched closer, only to receive another heavy volley of fire. Meanwhile, British gunners trained their cannon on the abandoned town and set the buildings ablaze with red-hot heated cannonballs to drive out skirmishers at the edge of town
Howe was forced to order a withdrawal when all momentum was lost. After regrouping his forces and incorporating reinforcements, a final assault marched to the left of the redoubt rather than the right. As the British forces increased pressure upon the redoubt, men inside were exhausted and running desperately low on ammunition. As British soldiers and Marines mounted the walls, they engaged with bayonets in a bloody melee inside the redoubt. Any colonist able to flee ran as the British pursued. The British forces gave chase as far as the next hill—today's Bunker Hill. Survivors and forces that never engaged regrouped on the mainland on hills opposite Bunker Hill. Both sides awaited a counter-assault or follow-up attack. Neither came.
The battle lasted for no more than two hours. Yet the results were horrifying. Over 1,000 British soldiers, officers, and Marines were killed or wounded. Many of the wounded would die over the next days, weeks, and months from their wounds. Of the roughly 1,400 to 1,800 provincial soldiers directly engaged at Charlestown, some 300-500 were killed, wounded, or captured. Among the dead at Bunker Hill was the Patriot leader Joseph Warren. Warren, a physician turned political activist, had become the preeminent leadership figure in the revolutionary Massachusetts government. A commission as a Major General had just been approved for Warren, however he fought and died as a foot soldier inside the redoubt during the battle. His death proved to be a serious blow to the cause. Many mourned his death as the death of a heroic martyr.
In July, General George Washington arrived in Cambridge to assume command of a new Continental Army and direct the ongoing campaign at Boston. General Gage was eventually recalled to London to answer for the outcome of the battle. General Howe, the field commander at Bunker Hill, assumed command. Howe was unwilling to repeat another disaster he witnessed first-hand at Bunker Hill, and Washington lacked the supplies to mount any offensive. Thus the siege of Boston stalled into a stalemate. It would not be until the March of 1776 that the siege came to an end. After acquiring over fifty pieces of artillery from Fort Ticonderoga during the winter, General Washington ordered men to fortify Dorchester Heights to the south of Boston overnight. This position proved even more formidable than the one at Charlestown, and Howe ultimately decided to evacuate Boston entirely. The event at Dorchester Heights ended the campaign at Boston, but the war would continue for another seven long years.