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Definition: Bunker Hill, Battle of from Philip's Encyclopedia

(June 17, 1775) Battle in the American Revolution fought on Boston's Charlestown peninsula. The first large-scale battle of the war, it was actually fought S of Bunker Hill on Breed's Hill. Although the Americans were driven from their position, they inflicted heavy losses on the British.


Summary Article: Battle of Bunker Hill from Battles That Changed American History: 100 of the Greatest Victories and Defeats

Date

June 17, 1775

Location

Charleston Peninsula, Boston, Massachusetts

Opponents (*winner)

*Great Britain

American Patriots

Commander

Major General William Howe

Major General Israel Putnam

Approx. # Troops

2,400 regulars, some field artillery, and warships providing gunfire support

2,500–4,000 militiamen, 6 small cannon

Importance

A costly British victory, it nonetheless instills confidence on the Patriot side and imposes caution on Howe as subsequent commander of British forces in North America.

Learning that British forces in Boston intended to launch attacks on June 18, 1775, to occupy Dorchester Heights, Roxbury, Cambridge, and the Charlestown Peninsula, on June 15, 1775, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety ordered forces to move into Charlestown Peninsula. Colonel William Prescott led three regiments, totaling some 1,200 men. Equipped with entrenching tools, the men were to erect fortifications on Bunker Hull. The indefatigable Prescott was the key leader on the American side in the ensuing battle.

The area north of Boston was dominated topographically by Bunker Hill and the lower Breed's Hill in front of it. On June 16 the American militiamen occupied Bunker Hill, the highest ground and a favorable position as long as the adjacent land and narrow escape route could be held. In order to repel the expected British disembarkation, the militia also occupied Breed's Hill, which was closer to Charlestown and was lower and more vulnerable to a flanking attack.

In reaction to this colonial move, on the morning of June 17 the British sixth-rate ships Glasgow (24 guns) and Lively (20 guns) and the sloop Falcon (14 guns) shelled the American positions, while the armed transport Symmetry (18 guns) and two gunboats raked Charlestown Neck. Meanwhile, British commander Lieutenant General Thomas Gage called a council of war. He and a majority rejected a plan put forth by Major General Henry Clinton for an immediate landing by 500 men south of Charlestown Neck and behind the American redoubts to trap the colonial forces in the peninsula. Gage and the others held that interposing a force between two hostile bodies was a violation of sound military practice.

The plan that was adopted called for landing a strong force below Moulton Point on the southeast corner of the peninsula followed by a march up the east side along the Mystic River. This would flank the American position and have the British out of range of musket shot. The British could then take the Americans from the rear. The British attack was delayed until high tide in the early afternoon, and in the interval the Americans extended their lines to cover such a possibility.

In preparation for the landing, the British third-rate ship of the line Somerset (68 guns), two floating batteries, and guns at Copp's Hill in Boston shelled the American redoubt; the Glasgow and Symmetry and two gunboats shelled Charlestown Neck; and the guns of the Falcon and Lively swept the ground in front of Breed's Hill to clear it for the landing. While this was in progress, 28 British barges crossed to Charlestown Peninsula with some 1,500 troops under Major General William Howe. At about 1:00 p.m., they came ashore without opposition at Moulton Point and then formed up in three ranks on Moulton's Hill as Howe examined the American position.

Painting Death of General Warren, by John Trumbull, depicts the Battle of Bunker Hill of June 17, 1775. Trumbull was himself a participant in this sanguinary fight between American militiamen and British Army regulars that had profound effect on the Revolutionary War. (National Archives)

Howe could see that the situation had changed since the early morning, for the American breastworks now extended eastward. There was still an opportunity to flank the American position, but Howe was concerned about the presence of American troops on Bunker Hill. The men there were constructing a covering works, but Howe mistook them to be a reserve. He could also see colonial reinforcements marching to Breed's Hill; these were New Hampshire men under colonel John Stark (other colonial militia units had refused to cross into Charlestown Peninsula). In all, some 2,500–4,000 colonial militia and six small cannon now opposed the British regulars. Major General Israel Putnam had command.

Reluctant to impose his own force between the two bodies of colonial troops on Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill, Howe rested his men and called up reinforcements. These having arrived, he addressed the men and then ordered an attack on the American breastworks. Although the British ships continued to provide covering fire, Howe's own artillery was useless, for the guns’ ammunition boxes were found to contain solid shot for 12-pounders rather than the 6-pounder guns on hand. He ordered the guns to fire grapeshot, but the distance was too great for it to be effective.

Howe still hoped to carry out a flanking attack by smashing the American left while appearing to carry out a frontal assault. This did not work out as planned, for the American left proved to be too strong. Twice the British were thrown back with heavy losses. It was 90 degrees, and the soldiers were carrying heavy packs, which did not come off until the third and final assault. The uphill climb also prevented the British from charging with bayonets during the American reload. The British troops also tended to fire high. On their side, the Americans demonstrated excellent fire discipline, with Putnam reportedly ordering “Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” He also ordered the men to fire low.

Having received some 400 reinforcements, sent to Howe after the failure of the first assault, and with the American militia out of powder, the British took Breed's Hill with bayonets. The militia withdrew to Bunker Hill and then across Charlestown Neck to the mainland, suffering most of their casualties in the retreat. They then began to fortify Winter Hill and Prospect Hill on the road to Cambridge. The British troops did not cross Charlestown Neck.

Although the British had won, it was at a very high cost. Of 2,400 men engaged, Howe's force suffered 1,054 casualties (including 82 officers), 226 of them dead. Probably some 1,500 Americans of perhaps 3,200 on the peninsula had actually taken part in the fighting; of these, some 140 were killed, 380 were wounded, and 39 were captured. In terms of percentage of casualties to forces engaged, Bunker Hill was one of the most sanguinary battles of the entire century. The battle shook Howe and may well have contributed to his subsequent failure as commander in chief to press home attacks against the Americans. Perhaps most important, the Battle of Bunker Hill demonstrated that relatively inexperienced colonial forces could stand against British regulars in pitched battle.

Further Reading
  • Brooks, Victor. The Boston Campaign. Combined Publishing Conshohocken PA, 1999.
  • Chidsey, Donald Barr. The Siege of Boston. Crown Boston, 1966.
  • French, Allen. The Siege of Boston. Reprint Co. Spartanburg SC, 1969.
  • Ketchum, Richard M. Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill. Doubleday Garden City NY, 1974.
  • Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution, Vol. 1. Macmillan New York, 1952.
  • Spencer C. Tucker
    Copyright 2014 by Spencer C. Tucker

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