Date: 17 JUN 1775Forces Engaged: American Colonial (rebel) forces: To give you an idea of the difficulty of figuring out who was on the Yankee side of the barricades on the Charlestown peninsula that day, I give you BG William Prescott.
The fortification of the position on Breed's Hill began with a force of roughly 1,000 to 1,200 on the night of the 16th/17th. This initial group is reported by the brigade commander (BG Prescott of Massachusetts) to have included
"...a party of about one thousand Men consisting of 3 hundred of my own Regiment, Coll. Bridge and Lieut Breckett with a Detachment of theirs, and two hundred Connecticut Forces commanded by Capt. Nolten."In his report Prescott has already identified two of the units incorrectly and does not seem to have included CPT Gridley's artillery company; 49 gunners, matrosses and 6 fieldpieces. To make things more confusing, in a separate manuscript source Private Peter Brown seems to include two additional Massachusetts regiments, Frye's and Nixon's, to the group.
This is all messed up. Let's try and figure this out.
In his fine work, Decisive Day, Richard Ketchum explains that Prescott's "Lieut Breckett" detachment was a group of probably 350 Massachusetts soldiers from Frye's Regiment under their 2IC, a LTC Breckett, COL Frye being indisposed with the gout that evening, and that Brown (a company clerk in Prescott's Regiment) had confused Nixon's Regiment for Bridge's.
But at any rate, the colonials appear to have initially fielded roughly 1,000 infantry and 6 guns.
As the battle progressed the rebel numbers increased throughout the day. This was not a thoroughly planned movement, and the results were a trifle chaotic. Regiments arrived in pieces, or not at all. At the time of the first British assault the rebel lines are reported to have contained perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 troops and 2 artillery pieces (about which we'll speak more in a bit). Regiments represented included Prescott's, Bridge,s Frye's, Brewer's, Nixon's, Woodbridge's, Little's, and Doolittle's Massachusetts troops, Stark's and Reed's regiments of New Hampshire, Knowlton's Connecticut troops as well as odds and sods from many other units from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island present at the Siege of Boston. Perhaps as many as 2,000 more may have been wandering about on Bunker Hill during the afternoon's fighting. The overall "command" at this point is supposed to have been exercised by Massachusetts MG Israel Putnam, but to call what Old Put did "commanding" is to stretch the term out of recognition. Other influential American officers were MG Joseph Warren, and Prescott himself.
American strength decreased by withdrawal, desertion, and casualties during the afternoon until probably no more than 150 men stood with Warren and Prescott to defend the redoubt against the and no more than 1,000 rebel soldiers remained in the defenses for the third British assault. It was this force that fell back across Charlestown Neck at the end of the day.
So between 1,000 and 2,500 infantry, approximately 50 artillerymen and 6 cannon under MG Putnam. No cavalry.
British (government) forces: Land forces - included the light infantry companies of the following regiments of foot: 4th, 5th, 10th, 23rd, 38th, 43rd, 47th, 52nd, 59th, and 65th. Grenadier companies of the 4th, 5th, 10th, 23rd, 38th, 43rd, 47th, 52nd, 59th, and a composite company of the grenadiers of the 18th and 65th Regiments of Foot.
The center companies of the 5th, 38th, 43rd, 47th and 52nd Regiments of Foot were landed, and a two-battalion landing force of Royal Marines meant that the British had seven full battalions present plus 15-18 independent companies, approximately 3,500 infantrymen. Approximately 350 gunners and matrosses of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, four 6-pound fieldpieces, four howitzers, as well as four 12-pound guns in two floating batteries. A total of perhaps 3,500 to 4,000 foot and artillerymen, 8 cannon and 4 howitzers, under MG William Howe. The British had cavalry in Boston that were not engaged.
Naval forces: the naval vessels directly engaged included HMS Somerset: third-rate battleship, 68 (or 70) 9- to 24-pound guns; HMS Lively, HMS Glasgow: sloops-of-war, 20 x 9-pound guns; HMS Symmetry: armed transport, 18 x 9-pound guns; HMS Falcon: sloop-of-war, 14 x 6-pound guns.A 6-gun sloop or similar small auxiliary named Spitfire is mentioned in the after-action reports, but I cannot determine whether this was a Royal Navy ship, privateer, armed transport (that is, a civilian vessel operated by the Royal Army), or acting in some other capacity. The Royal Navy forces engaged also included a 6-gun battery of 24-pound cannon and crew (possibly as many as 60-80 sailors) emplaced on Copp's Hill in northwest Boston. Under the overall command of VADM Samuel Graves.
The Sources: Numerous, and many are easily available. The Massachusetts Historical Society has a very good website that includes photostatic copies of contemporary manuscript accounts of the battle. Both the British and United States governments maintain good documentary records of the armed forces of the time including strength and casualty returns, and after-action reports.
Of secondary sources there are several of note. These include Victor Brooks "The Boston Campaign" and the Ketchum work referenced above. Several worthwhile published works are, sadly, out of print.These include Frothingham's "History of the siege of Boston: and of the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill", John Elting's "The Battle of Bunker's Hill", one of the better military analyses of the engagement and the Donald Chidsey's "The Siege of Boston".
There is the usual abundance of information, worthwhile or otherwise, on the web. I enjoyed the blog "Boston 1775", which included this fascinating report of an archeological investigation into the probable location of a mass grave of British grenadiers. Intriguing stuff.
"Revolutionary War Animated" has an entertaining little website that shows the battle in simplified but clear and comprehensible graphics.
For pure entertainment value, you might try "The Dreamer", a webcomic whose heroine, Beatrice “Bea” Whaley is described as having "...vivid dreams about a brave and handsome soldier named Alan Warren--a member of an elite group known as Knowlton’s Rangers that served during the Revolutionary War."Big fun; history, romance, high school, treason, high adventure, and my favorite historical character from this story, Elizabeth Loring, the hoochie mama of 1775, about whom there will be more in a bit.
As usual, the Osprey campaign series covers this engagement, including it and the Battles of Lexington and Concord in a single volume entitled "Boston 1775: The Shot Heard Around The World". The author has published several of these little illustrated paperbacks covering the colonial period and, while his writing is merely serviceable does a good job of mining the original sources for information.
The Campaign: We had a good discussion of the opening of the Boston Campaign last April. After the defeat on the road to Concord the roughly 5,000 to 7,000 soldiers in the British Army's New England garrison were besieged in Boston by a colonial army of 10,000 or so. After two months the military situation was still relatively fluid.
The tempestuous and violent uprising of the Massachusetts countryside after the events of 19 APR 1776 had taken MG Gage, the garrison commander, badly leftfooted. He had not expected an armed attack on Smith's raiding force, and he had not expected the colonial rustics to treat the fighting of that day as a casus belli.
But the British general knew that Boston could not be abandoned to the rebels. First, Boston was ideally situated for defense. It was isolated from the mainland by a narrow causeway, protected from the sea by shallow mud flats and salt marshes with narrow channels for the passage of ships. The harbor was one of the best in America, and the bottom line was that whoever controlled Boston would control all of the New England region, from New York to the upper reaches of the wilderness of Maine.
Gage had done a reasonable job of fortifying the Boston peninsula, with two puzzling exceptions.He had failed to secure the Dorchester Heights to the south and east of Boston Neck. This was not entirely inexplicable. The British garrison had been confined to Boston proper - in 1775 a true peninsula, almost an island, and had no way of taking the Heights other than by a coup de main, which before 19 APR Gage had no reason to make, and after which he had not the strength.
The more truly difficult to understand was his failure to do something about the Charlestown peninsula. This pendant of land was a salient into Boston Harbor aimed directly at the city itself. It was a hillocky point of land, and the eminence of Bunker Hill rose just over 100 feet above sea level, as high as Copp's Hill and Beacon Hill, a perfect site for rebel artillery to clear the harbor and threaten the garrison.
The reason this is so difficult to understand is that on the evening of April 19th the British held Charlestown beyond any rebel hopes of dislodgement. The entirety of BG Lord Percy's 1st Brigade as well as the survivors of COL Smith's elite company raiding force - as many as 1,500 to 1,800 troops - camped there to rest and refit after the bloody fight the day before. VADM Graves, otherwise better known as a sluggard, a quarrel-seeker, and a bully, had perhaps his one good idea of the entire campaign; seize Rochester, Dorchester and Charlestown and fortify the heights, he recommended. Gage, shocked by the bloodshed and still hoping for reconciliation, refused to countenance the idea, and withdrew the exhausted troopers back into Boston on the 20th. The British would not reoccupy the peninsula for almost two months.In Boston proper, although the garrison was well supplied by sea - or, at least, as well supplied as the British commissioners of the Treasury could manage, which was somewhat more haphazard that those of us modern soldiers would expect - the city was jammed full, what with native Bostonians, Tory refugees from the surrounding area, and the British garrison. The situation was not a good one for Gage. And then, in late May, 1775, he received a reinforcement he probably could have lived without.
Three officers; MG Clinton, MG Burgoyne, and MG Howe, arrived on HMS Cerberus on 25 MAY 1775. All three were intended for command in the American colonies. Only what command or commands, and where they fit in with the Commander-in-Chief of the Americas, Gage, it seemed that no one really knew.
We've seen this before, back in April. Then, as in May, the Secretary for the Americas, Lord Dartmouth, managed to require his military officers to do everything, whilst clarifying nothing. He did not accompany the generals with orders that organized their military relation to one another. He directed Gage neither to attack, negotiate, or prepare to withdraw from Boston. The North Administration seemed to expect the rebels to solve their problems for them, and to be dumbfounded when they did not.
The newly arrived generals didn't help matters much.
Clinton, a quibbling, self-absorbed sort of man, worried about the tactical situation and looked for some opportunity for distinction.
Howe, less of an introvert and more of a libertine, found a snug little barque of frailty in the person of Mrs. Joshua Loring, wife of a prominent Tory, to beguile the spring evenings while he waited for the commander-in-chief to call out the troops.
One of the great strumpets of history, Elizabeth Lloyd Loring was accused of everything from fornication to treason by both sides; the rebels for swiving an enemy commander, the tories for distracting that officer with her (presumably rebelliously American) feminine wiles. A jingle of the day went "Sir William he,/snug as a flea,/Lay all this time a snoring./Nor dreamed of harm as he lay warm,/In bed with Mrs. Loring."
For all the vituperation there is no evidence that her interest in the general was either political or treasonous, indeed, anything but carnal. Whatever his other faults it is pleasant to note that after her willingly cuckolded husband passed away in 1789 that Howe endorsed her petition for a pension from the Crown for the services her Tory husband and family - rather than her horizontal accomplishments - had rendered.Burgoyne penned histrionic proclamations disparaging the upstart Yankees and denigrating the besiegers that were received by Britishers and Americans alike with unholy mirth.
All three intrigued against Gage, who finally called a council of war some time in the first week of June. Expecting the usual confusion of plans and schemes instead he was presented with a single plan of operations that Howe recounted in a June 12 letter to his brother; he would land at Dorchester on 18 JUN, with Clinton in support, and Burgoyne covering Boston Neck and providing indirect fire support. Then, when Dorchester and Roxbury were secured, the enterprising Sir William would take Charlestown Heights and drive across Charlestown and Boston Necks to fall upon the rebel cantonments around Cambridge.
It would all be easy and slicker than water off a cat's ass.
One of the problems confronting the British in Boston, both before and after the battles of 19 APR was that the British purse was empty, or as near as dammit. No money meant no spies, and no traitors looking for payouts. On the other side of the hill, the British notion of operation security seems to have been Bill Howe restraining his urge to use his movement orders as pillow talk with Liz Loring.
So a New Hampshireman who left Boston on 9 JUN had heard the major elements of the Howe plan from "conversing with the principal officers of General Gage's army," and had no difficulty passing this information on to the Committee of Safety in Exeter.
This intel was taken to confirm the latrine talk and soldier rumors of some action outside Boston in early June, and on Thursday, 15 JUN the Massachusetts Provincial Congress Committee of Safety officially advised the Council of War that
"possession of the Hill, called Bunker's Hill, in Charlestown, be securely kept and defended..Therefore, Resolved, Unanimously, that it be recommended to the Council of War, that the abovementioned Bunker's Hill be maintained, by sufficient force being posted there..."What followed was a delightful example of the colonial way of war.
MG Putnam, with two officers of his staff and two members of the Committee, went to visit the headquarters of MG Thomas. This fellow had set up virtually an independent satrapy in Roxbury with the "right wing" of the Massachusetts forces. Worried about the strength of his defenses before Boston Neck, he not only refused to have anything to do with a move on Charlestown but vetoed any stroke against the other known British objective, Dorchester. That meant that Putnam and company had to ride, buckety, buckety, back to Cambridge to take the issue up with the de jure commander of all Massachusetts troops, LTG Artemas Ward.
This old boy, a worn-out tub of guts still aching and nervous in the service from his experiences in the French and Indian War, was neither brilliant nor creative, but he had a sound grasp of the military basics. Earlier in May he had quartered Reed's 200-some New Hampshire "regiment" just west of Charlestown Neck with the idea of blocking that avenue of approach to Cambridge. Now he listened to Putnam and the others and sometime on Friday, 16 JUN, issued the orders that put Prescott and his troops in motion.
Let's let young Peter Brown take up the story:
"Friday th 16 of June we were orderd on parade at six 'o Clock, with one days provision and Blankets ready for a March somewhere, but we knew not where but we readily and cheerfully obey'd, the whole that were call'd for, were these three Collo (COL) Prescotts, Frys, and Nicksons Regiments -- after tarrying on parade till Nine at Night, we march'd down, on to Charleston Hill against Copts hill in Boston..."The little brigade, with the overwhelmed gunners struggling with their fieldpieces, marched northeast, past Lechmere's Point where the British raiding force had landed in the midnight darkness what probably seemed an eternity ago, across Charlestown Common, a "sparsely settled, desolate stretch of clay pits, moors, and scrub growth" (Ketchum, 1974) and out onto the Charlestown peninsula. About one hundred yards past the Neck itself Prescott halted the brigade to conduct an ORP briefing.Of all the events of that night, this one is perhaps the most crucial and the least understood. None of the participants left a record of what happened there on the western slope of Bunker's Hill. The only record we have is a letter from a second party, one Samuel Gray of Roxbury, Massachusetts, to a friend named John Dyer in London. In his letter, quoted in full in Frothingham (1849), does not identify Gray or explain how he comes to know what he reports. But he states that;
"...that the engineer and two generals went on to the hill at night and reconnoitered the ground; that one general and the engineer were of the opinion that we ought not to entrench on Charlestown Hill til we had thrown up some works on...Bunker Hill, to cover our men in their retreat, if that should happen, but on the pressing importunity of the other general officer, it was consented to begin as was done."Ketchum (1974) points out, in deliberation and the clear daylight the problem seems to be a simple one. The larger (Bunker's) hill is "the only position which commanded and approach from the mainland or any point on the peninsula itself. Such a fort would have been beyond the range and elevation of British naval guns, and the cannon on Copp's Hill could have reached it only ineffectually."But I think Ketchum misses a fairly critical part of the problem; the Americans didn't have true heavy artillery and wouldn't until the cannons taken in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga that May would be dragged the 300 miles to Boston in the winter of 1776. The light rebel fieldpieces would have been unlikely to discommode the British firing from Bunker Hill. The closer Breed's (or Charlestown) Hill was more dangerous to the enemy, even if more exposed to British counterbattery fire.
So one of the American generals, either Prescott or perhaps Putnam, ordered the column to move out onto the lower, closer hill. The troops were, by this time, probably doing what all troops do on halts at night; dozing, some bullshitting quietly, a few perhaps digging for a snack in their pockets, but most of them leaning sleepily on their muskets. So it would have caused a brief shiver of startlement when Prescott strode back to the line of march, hissing orders to his element commanders. A muted rattled of equipment, a hushed mutter of orders, and the long homespun column marched off over the black bulk of Bunker's Hill and down the slope towards the lights of Boston across the bay.
Near midnight, the first dull sounds of spade and mattock turning earth announced the prosaic beginning of the battle of Bunker Hill.
The Engagement: Our fashion of military history tends towards the grand, the noble and notable; we tend to like to read about great deeds done despite fear and adversity. Certainly we've moved away a bit from the Great Captain school of military history, but retain something of a taste for the heroic in our battles.That's sort of a shame, because military history is made as much by the weak, the fearful, the clueless and the fucking idiots as by the Great and the Noble.
17 JUN 1775 - Midnight to Dawn:
COL Gridley, commander of Massachusetts artillery and Chief Engineer of the Provincial Army, was one of the more fearfully clueless idiots on Charlestown Hill that night.
His initial layout of the redoubt, a rough rectangle "...ten Rods long, and eight wide, with a Breastwork of about eight more," (Brown) was fair enough, but he forgot two items you'd think an artillerist would have remembered; firing platforms and embrasures for the cannon. The Engineer, who was widely disliked for his personal failings as well as his professional faults of nepotism, timidity and sloth, was not a particularly bold officer, either, and the proximity of the small prominence to British firearms did not encourage him. At some time in the small hours of the morning he bolted off the hill, taking what engineering expertise the Provincial Army had with him.
Fortunately for Massachusetts, Prescott was not the sort of man to be dismayed by the craven behavior of his superiors, and he had enough fundamental military science to know what he needed to do. At some point in the early pre-dawn he dispatched a company or so of Charlestown men under CPT Nutting to prepare positions within their then-deserted town, both to act as listening posts/observation posts as well as screen the base of the hill from British recon elements. Later that morning he would send out another company, Maxwell's, to patrol the low ground between the hill and Boston harbor. In the earthwork Prescott must have pushed his soldiers hard, knowing that daylight would reveal him to British observation and, consequently, to British gunfire. By dawn, about five-thirty a.m. (although twilight must have lightened the sky as much as 40 minutes earlier), the rebels had the beginnings of a fairly decent fortification and Prescott must have been thinking about his next step.Unknown to Prescott, some British leaders already knew he was there. MG Clinton, who had been prowling about the Boston area all night preparing for the planned sortie, had either heard or been told about suspicious activity across the harbor and was advising Gage and the maneuver element commander, Howe, to prepare a move against whatever the colonists were up to. In our noisy Industrial Age we probably underestimate the quiet of an June night in the Boston of 1775; British guard positions in Boston proper are said to have heard the rebel activity, but in the absence of energetic leadership were disinclined to bring the matter to official attention. So it was about 4:00 a.m., still in the BMNT, that the officer of the deck of HMS Lively observed the rebel entrenchment, woke his duty gun crews and opened fire.
17 JUN 1775 - Dawn to Midday:
The Americans, morning
Prescott reports this factually: "Just before sun rising, when the Enemy began a very heavy Canonading and Bombardment..." but the first incoming must have been a nasty experience for the Massachusetts men.
They had no way of replying, and the fortification was not yet complete according to Peter Brown, who had the naturally suspicious nature of a born enlisted man. As the sun rose he
"...saw our danger, being against Ships of the Line, and all Boston fortified against us, The danger we were in made us think there was treachery and that we were brought there to be all slain, and I must and will say that there was treachery oversight or presumption in the Conduct of our Officers, for about 5 in the morning, we not having more than half our fort done, they began to fire (I suppose as soon as they had orders) pretty briskly for a few minutes..."This gunfire irked VADM Graves, who sent word to the Lively's captain to cease fire. An uneasy stillness must have fallen over the East Harbor for some time, perhaps a quarter of an hour, forty minutes or so. I suspect that up on that hilltop the American rebels, already hungry, tired and dirty from their work, could hear the drums beating the British troopers out of their cantonments and must have responded to danger in the ancient way of soldiers; some bad jokes, perhaps some brave show on the part of the younger men, surely a fair amount of whatever the 18th Century version of "Oooooh, that's gonna hurt!" was.
And then the British guns opened fire again. This time the Lively was joined by several other gun platforms, including the armed transport Symmetry, the Glasgow sloop, and the armed vessel Spitfire. By 9 a.m. the shore battery on Copp's Hill joined in, its big battleship guns throwing their 24-pound projectiles across the east harbor at the rebel fort. This cannonading was to continue through the entire morning and well into the afternoon.
For all of this gunfire, however, the earthwork, the elevation of the post, and the distance seem to have combined to make the British barrage rather ineffective. An observer in Boston reported that Prescott's men would "...fall down, and mount again as soon as the Shot was passed..." PVT Brown says that all of this fire "killed but one of our men", although the weight of incoming metal did much to discourage other rebels, many of whom "...apprehending the danger in a clearer manner than others who were more diligent in digging, & fortifying ourselves against them." proceeded to scamper off the hill and back to the safety of the mainland.
At some point soon after dawn Prescott had realized that his little fort had not entirely solved his defensive problem. It is difficult to guess, given the way that the landforms of the entire Boston metropolitan area have been so savagely altered since 1775, what the top of Breed's Hill looked like on that June morning. But my guess is that Prescott's redoubt was probably located either at the true summit, or on the southern or southeastern "military crest" (that is, roughly man-height below the topographic summit) of the hill. The tops of both Breed's and Bunker's hills were razed in the 19th Century for fill to make land in East Harbor and we know that they were originally taller and steeper.
Whatever the case, Prescott clearly felt that he could not cover the north side of the Charlestown peninsula with fires from his redoubt. A British movement there could easily turn his work and cut him off from the Neck and his own rear. Therefore, he "...found it necessary to draw a Line about 20 Rods in length from the Fort Northerly, under a very Warm Fire from the Enemys Artilary..." This "line" was in fact a roughly chest-high earth berm that was referred to as a "breastwork" in the military engineering terms of the day.
This must have been a demanding task for BG Prescott, and he seems to have remembered being especially irked by the disappearance of his army's Chief Engineer just when he could have used him. "About this Time..." he reports, "...the above Field Officers (that is, Gridley and his staff, such as it was) being indisposed could render me but Little Service, and the most of the Men under their Command deserted the Party."
As I said; history is made by the cowards and buffoons just as by the heroes...
At any rate, Prescott's men threw up this dirt berm down the north slope of Breed's Hill to some wettish low ground near the base of the hill. This still left a fairly wide strip of the north shore open to a British turning movement. A brief staff conference produced an agreement to send back to Cambridge for additional infantry to hold the north shore.
At this point we encounter some of the bad comedy that warfare seems to produce.
The Massachusetts artillery had arrived at the little fort some time between dawn and 10 or 11 o'clock, only after some hard words from Prescott and, probably, Putnam. The four guns under the command of CPT Samuel Gridley (yes, the Chief Engineer's son) and CPT Callender had made their own embrasures by firing through the walls of the redoubt. Their return fire - MG Burgoyne later recounted that two shot had passed overhead as he observed the artillery work from the Copp's Hill battery, smashing into a house and fence to his rear - was ineffectual in everything but motivating the British gunners to up their rate of fire.
PVT Brown, ever the grunt, spared a few nasty words for the Massachusetts redlegs. "Our Officers sent time after time for Cannon from Cambridge in the Morning & could get but four..." he snarled, "...the Captn of which fir'd a few times then swung his Hat three times round to the enemy and ceas'd to fire." The artillerists were clearly not enthused about hanging about within counterbattery range, so when Prescott sent one MAJ Brooks to requisition a gunhorse they flatly refused.
Poor Brooks trudged off to Cambridge on foot, probably echoing Brown's acidity about gunners.
The rest of the morning went just about this way for the rebel contingent. MG Ward, unwilling to commit more troops to the Charlestown cul-de-sac, would only send 200 of Stark's New Hampshiremen. The British barrage continued, becoming especially dangerous along Charlestown Neck, where the two floating batteries were working in closer as the morning tide rose. MG Putnam arrived and ordered Prescott to send the entrenching tools back to the rear for safekeeping; Prescott objected, saying that not a man would return if he sent them. Old Put insisted, a body of troops gratefully collected up the tools and headed off; some to work on the breastwork Putnam was building on Bunker's Hill, many to simply slope off back to Cambridge. As Prescott had predicted, none returned.
The British, morning
MG Gage and his three counterparts had met soon after the firing began at dawn to discuss the latest events. Clearly any move against Dorchester would now have to wait on clearance of the Charlestown peninsula, and MG Clinton's hair was on fire.
Henry Clinton seems to have been one of those people who have a gift for irritating others. Perhaps it was that he was a smart man, and knew it, and tended to make that clear to duller people such as other major generals who didn't see things his way. Perhaps it was just his style; he is said to have been touchy, suspicious of disrespect or insult, and this often sets other peoples' backs up.
Whatever the reason, the other British generals immediately dismissed Clinton's suggestion for an immediate assault on both the tip and the neck of the Charlestown position, cutting off the rebel salient and bagging every rascal on Charlestown point. The others refused to consider the idea. Clinton seems to have insisted, with some heat, and Clinton's persistence seems to have served only to irritate his peers. Howe observed that the rebel position was "open and of easy assent and in short would be easily carried" (Ketchum, 1974).
Howe's plan called for a landing at Morton's Point, the furthest easternmost projection of the Charlestown peninsula. His order of battle featured an element we've seen before; the elite brigade of light infantry and grenadiers. Two large battalions of ten companies, one each of the combined flank companies, would embark from Boston's Long Wharf, along with the line (or "center") companies of the 5th and 38th of Foot. From North Battery, BG Pigott would embark five flank companies and the center companies of the 43rd and 52nd Regiments of Foot. The line companies of the 47th of Foot and the Marine battalions would wait at the North Battery marshaling area in reserve.MG Howe was, in good 18th Century style, a deliberate officer. He did not consider forcing the wharves in Charlestown, or landing his troops in the shallows off Charlestown and wading ashore to buy time. The assault force would wait on high slack tide which would occur at 3:00 p.m. that day. By about 9:00 the command group had drafted the movement orders, MG Howe departed to oversee the movement to the embarcation points, MG Clinton to assemble the reserve force, and MG Burgoyne to saunter about and make snarky observations.
MG Gage went out to see what the rebels were up to - the only time that day that he left his GHQ - and stood, probably near the thundering battery on Copp's Hill, peering through his telescope at the laboring force across the harbor. In the group with him was a gentleman named Willard, Bill Prescott's brother-in-law, who identified the tall fellow overseeing the work in the redoubt.
"Will he fight?" asked Gage. Willard probably thought about what he knew of the day's events and the character of his relation.
"I cannot answer for his men, but Prescott will fight you to the Gates of Hell."
17 JUN 1775 - Midday to Dusk:
Both sides were busy in the three hours between noon and mid-afternoon.
On the Charlestown peninsula the rebels were finally receiving reinforcements.
Looking at the big picture you can see why Massachusetts Council of War and Provincial Army had been less than eager to shove more men into the Charlestown bag. For all they knew, the British would use the provocation on Breed's Hill to hold the Americans by the nose whilst they sortied out Boston Neck, smashed through Roxbury and swung around to kick them in the Cambridge ass. And MG Ward, no military genius but no fool, either, could see what his counterpart Clinton saw; that the forces on Charlestown could be cut off by a bold strike at the Neck backed by naval gun support.
Add to that the total chaos in the rebel rear areas, where inexperienced officers were leading their troops the wrong direction, or refusing to lead them through the floating batteries' fire across Charlestown Neck, or, once across, deciding that Bunker's Hill was a perfectly good place to defend rather than continue on further into trouble.
But BG Prescott finally got some support, and good support, in the form of COL Stark's 1st New Hampshire Regiment and COL Reed's 3rd New Hampshire. Prescott, realizing that his fortification gave him the opportunity to defend Breed's hilltop with economy of force, pushed Stark and Reed out to his left along with COL Knowlton's 5th Connecticut.
Knowlton's galvanized farmers did what smart farmers do; they repaired a fence.
Moving north of the base of Breed's Hill the Connecticut men skirted some boggy ground and found a good place to defend running north-to-south between the marsh and the edge of the Mystic River beach. LT Dana, of 1st Connecticut described this as " ...a fence half of stone and two rayles of wood...(where) Nature had formed something of a breast-work, or else there had been a ditch many years gone."Like good soldiers, the Constitution Staters knew a strongpoint when they saw it. And, like good farmers, they knew how to use what was at hand. Knowlton's men proceeded to use additional fence rails to strengthen their field-expedient fortification and stuffed the spring hay into the openings - a Britisher who saw it later said that the final product was 10 feet thick.
On the furthest American left, Stark's men got to the north shore of the Charlestown peninsula and realized that they had a problem.
The tide, and the flow of the Mystic River to the north, had gouged a beach berm along the whole north shore some 6 to 9 feet high. The river beach itself was narrow but passable and provided a covered approach that would allow a British force to move to the rear of Breed's Hill while entirely in defilade. Stark's left-flank elements clambered down onto the beach and began piling up the stones that any New Englander could have told you were abundant along the strand. Within a fairly short time Stark had a decent stone wall to defend.
So by 2 o'clock the Americans had a solid line of works from the top of Breed's Hill to the Mystic River shore; Prescott and his Massachusetts men in the redoubt and along the breastwork to near the north foot of the hill, a mixture of Massachusetts outfits in several angled trenches (called "fleches") behind the swamp, Knowlton's Connecticut men along the south end of the fence berm, and the Granite State men of 1st and 3rd New Hampshire along the north end and behind the beach boulder wall to the water's edge.
Only the south side of the peninsula was uncovered, and Prescott had posted a screening force between the redoubt and Charlestown, counting on the tangle of houses and streets to prevent the British moving that way in force.
What was good, because the British were arriving in force.
The first wave of British troops put off from Long Wharf and North Battery at about 1:30pm. The navy landing boats put them ashore on Morton's Point beginning with the Royal Artillery's field battery and following with the flank companies of light infantry and grenadiers. Loaded with full rucksacks the infantrymen shook out their lines and moved off a short distance to the west. MG Howe ordered four companies of lights to move further out front, along the north shore, while the remainder of the force halted in line at Morton's Hill, stood easy and ate some dinner.
One of the puzzling things about this day is why Howe stopped. He could see colonials arriving along the crest and north side of the hill. Every minute added to the numbers he would have to defeat. He had no real idea whether, or how fiercely, his enemies would fight. And yet he ordered his men to halt, lay on their arms, and wait for reinforcements.
One reason may be that his original plan called for a turning movement around the rebel left. This was now impossible, as Howe could plainly see by the ranks of heads behind the fence and the pile of beach cobbles. A different commander might have adapted his plan on the spot, but Howe was not that commander. Instead, he send word back to Boston that he would need the reserves, and waited.
Howe now planned to execute what the U.S. Army calls a "deliberate attack" against a "deliberate defense". This tactical problem may be the simplest for an armed force to execute, but the most difficult to execute successfully. A young officer is usually cautioned to attack a prepared enemy position only under the most unavoidable circumstances.The combination of a dug-in defender and an attacker that must expose himself to the defenders' preplanned fires is usually one that ensures many dead attackers and, often, broken and failed attacks. Heavy fire support, extremely good reconnaissance (to expose the weakest points of the defense) and an overwhelming superiority - conventional wisdom is 3-to-1 or more - is recommended for the young commander if such an attack must be made.
Perhaps the only real excuse for Howe's performance on 17 JUN was that he, like almost every other British officer in Boston that day, did not believe that the American rebels would fight.
Ambushing COL Smith's raiding party on the road from Concord was one thing; this meant standing up before the assault of disciplined European infantry. The only explanation I can come up with for Howe's actions for the remainder of the day was a fixed conviction that if the Americans would only get that they were fighting the King's infantry, men who would not stop advancing unless they were all killed, that they would run away and the army of rebellion would be broken.
So instead of reconnoitering the American line, or attempting MG Clinton's indirect approach, Howe made several decisions, most of which were either counterproductive or ineffective.
First, he wanted more fire support for his right; he thought that naval gunfire might help dislodge the rebels behind the cobble beach wall. Like many an Army officer, however, he didn't calculate the effect of the tide. His orders started the floating batteries moving down the peninsula from Charlestown Neck to float around to the Mystic River side. But the slackening, and then falling, tide meant that these batteries would not either be able to get into action on the north shore or return to their original positions commanding the Neck.Then he turned to the problem of Charlestown. Rebel shooters - their crude weapons make it difficult to call them "snipers" - were annoying BG Pigott's force on the British left. Howe might have sent in a unit to clear the town from the landward side, or even asked for a naval landing party to swarm in over the Charlestown wharves, but instead he asked VADM Graves what the navy could do to help.
Graves, a man of little subtlety whose idea of a good time seems to have been something like date-rape or drowning puppies, suggested burning the town. Howe agreed, and the navy fired the town with red-hot shot and incendiary rounds ("carcasses") from the Copp's Hill battery.
With his reserve arriving, Howe was ready to attack.
On the American side, Prescott was having problems with his artillery.
Seeing that the British appeared inclined to threaten his left, he ordered his gunners to limber two fieldpieces and shift left to support Knowlton and Stark. Instead, CPTs Gridley and Callander took their entire battery, all four guns, and buggered off all the way back to Bunker Hill. In fact, they were in the process of moving off back to Cambridge, shouting to all who approached that they were out of ammunition, when MG Putnam himself apprehended them, opened the "side boxes" (the ready-ammo containers on the cannons) and found them full of shot.
These appear to have been the only balls the Massachusetts redlegs had for no sooner had Putnam ordered them back to the front and departed then they fled, leaving their cannons and equipment behind. The only honor remaining to the American artillery that day belonged to one CPT Sam Trevitt, whose two guns arrived from Cambridge some time in the early afternoon and were placed in battery on the American left in keeping with Prescott's original plan, where they did good murder among the British infantry.
So now all the parties were in place. All that remained was the Queen's Move of black-powder warfare; the clash of heavy infantry.
Before the attack went in, however, MG Howe made one more curious decision. His plan called for his Right Wing to smash through the American left, while his Left under BG Pigott demonstrated before the Yankee line on Breed's Hill. But his attack forces were nearly evenly divided; Howe with the Light and Grenadier Battalions, the 5th and 52nd of Foot, Pigott with six companies of grenadiers and lights, the 38th, 43rd, 47th and the 1st Marine battalions. Howe, with the main attack, had 37 companies and the artillery; Pigott, with the secondary attack, had 38 companies. Neither wing had the 3-1 advantage we recommend to a modern commander.
At about 3 o'clock the British artillery on Morton's Hill began a sharp little barrage. The lighter 6-pound battery went forward with the Grenadier Battalion but found immediate trouble. First mired in soft ground at the base of Morton's Hill the cannon were discovered to be accompanied by 12-pound shot, a defect that the furious British gunners blamed on the chief of artillery, an antique officer accused of being more interested in "dallying with the schoolmaster's daughters" (devastatingly seductive, these American girls...) than his job.
While their gunners swore and kicked their guntrails the British infantry stepped off into the hot day. The light battalion trotted along the beach in column, while the bright red line moved ponderously forward towards the armed rubes waiting behind their defenses.It was slow going. The British troops were loaded with full battle rattle, including three days rations and all their ash and trash. The fields at the east end of the Charlestown point were no treat, either. The waist-high field grass hid the usual rotten footing of a New England pasture; rocks from cobble to boulder size, potholes, gorse and thistle. The infantrymen had to clamber over or knock down ten to a dozen stone walls and cross or dodge around brick kilns, soft ground and swamp, and Pigott's men were climbing the entire time. Rail fences had to be climbed or knocked over, and the going was even worse for the field artillery, so the infantry line had to stop and wait for the gunners to get out front and fire.
As the red lines approached the rebel works the British naval guns had to cease fire, and in the absence of that thunder the June afternoon must have seemed suddenly, perhaps ominously, still. The noises would have been reduced to the sound of 2,000 British soldiers moving, the orders of sergeants and officers, the intermittent crash of the field guns and the roar and crackle of Charlestown burning.
The British assault got to within 50 yards of the American lines before the rebels fired their first volley.You know what happened then.
The light infantry attack along the beach was perhaps the worst hit. In column a bullet that missed the front rank man had many opportunities to hit the man behind him. Stark's men were well trained, and fired steady rolling vollies that tore apart the leading company of the 23rd Foot and ripped apart the slack point outfit, the 4th (King's Own) light company. Something like 95 dead or critically injured light infantrymen were later pulled off the beach or out of the Mystic. The Lights were shattered; they broke and ran "in great disorder down to the point where they had landed & there some of them even into their boats..." (Ketchum, 1974). The flank attack had failed.
To their left, the Grenadier battalion was receiving a similar savaging from Stark, Reed and Knowlton. The big men in their tall hats halted in disorder, the regular squaddies of the 5th and 52nd shoving into them from behind, all three units trying unsuccessfully to suppress the deadly American fire. Even the best formed troops, in the open, without heavy artillery support, would have been utterly incapable of overwhelming dug-in defenders so long as those defenders kept up a steady fire and did not run away. And the Americans didn't; instead it was the Regulars who broke and ran for it, leaving their dead and wounded behind.
Pigott, whose left was still trouble by American fire from the burning town, never tried to close up on the redoubt and fell back when the British right broke.
The Americans were jubilant, believing, as all green troops, that all that was needed was one good fight and their day would be over. The British, professionals that they were, were of a different opinion, and Howe had his troops reformed within a quarter hour. This time he put the lights in the first line alongside the grenadiers; one try at the beach wall had been enough. The sergeants dressed the lines, the officers took their places in front, and the entire force stepped off again.And within a half hour were tumbled back again, leaving another strandline of dead and crippled soldiers before the American lines. Prescott reports;
"I was now left with perhaps 150 Men in the Fort, the Enemy advanced and fired very hotly on the Fort and meating with a Warm Reception there was a very smart firing on both sides. after a considerable Time finding our Amunition was almost spent I commanded a sessation till the Enemy advanced within 30 yards when we gave them such a hot fire, that they were obliged to retire nearly 150 yards before they could Rally and come again to the Attack."Howe's right wing likewise made no impression on the rebels along the fence. After an hour of hard fighting and two attacks, the British force had nothing to show for their work except casualties.
But the American defenders were in trouble. "Our Amunition being nearly exausted could keep up only a scattering Fire." says Prescott, and the Connecticut and New Hampshire troops were in no better case. And by this time the Americans knew that the British would be coming forward again.And so they would.
MG Howe finally chose to metaphorically strip his command to its shirtsleeves. He order the men to drop their rucks. He weighted up his line, this time on his left, leaving only a handful of soldiers to demonstrate against the rail fence, the 52nd and the grenadier battalion to attack the breastwork while the mass of his force attacked the redoubt. He moved all his artillery forward to rake the American lines. And then, at nearly 4 o'clock, the British force pushed forward again.Again the rebel fire scourged the attackers. Again, British soldiers dropped, injured, dying or dead. Again, the British regulars demonstrated the kind of disciplined ferocity that was their trademark, then and since.
And this time, they succeeded.
What helped them was American logistics. Most of the rebels had started the day with no cartridge box, and many of them had no more than a pocketful of prepared rounds. The defenders had been firing as rapidly as possible for probably half an hour total, and many men were either out of ammunition or down to their final round. Certainly the American accounts claim that the critical difference between the final assault and the preceding two was the slackening of their fires.
Whether it was raw courage or a lucky respite from gunfire, the bayonets flooded into the redoubt, and Americans were killed or driven out, and with the center breached the entire position was not untenable.But even then the rebels were not routed; Prescott's men were broken, but Knowlton, Reed, and Stark conducted an excellent withdrawal under pressure. It is revealing that the British captured no more than a handful of rebels, and most of those too badly injured to move. Howe and his troops were exhausted; it remained to MG Clinton to take the assault over Bunker's Hill (which he was surprised to find relatively undefended) and down to the Neck, where he halted, content to have restored the peninsula to British control.
The Afterward: The British remained in control of the Charlestown peninsula from the evening of 17 JUN 1775 until 17 MAR 1776, when a combination of supply problems, political decisions and the arrival of heavy cannon from Fort Ticonderoga gave the American forces a decisive advantage in artillery. After the British evacuated the city that spring Boston, and New England, while still playing an important part in the rebellion were not involved in further land operations.
The provincial army seems to have emerged from the battle with military credit and relatively minor physical loss. The chaotic state of the revolutionary army's organization made a certain determination of the day's fighting and losses difficult then and is problematic now.
MG Ward's orderly officer recorded the engagement that evening; "July 17. The battle of Charlestown was fought this day. Killed, 115, wounded 305, captured, 30. Total, 450." On assuming command in July, MG Washington wrote to his brother and put American losses at 138 killed, 276 wounded and 36 missing, the discrepancy probably due to the deaths from wounds in the month after the battle. The provincial artillery lost 5 of 6 cannon, and the quartermasters stores were badly diminished, particularly gunpowder (of which the rebels were chronically short).
Perhaps the single most grievous hurt inflicted by the British that day was on the leadership of the Massachusetts rebellion. Dr. Joseph Warren, member of the Provincial Congress, one of the most widely respected and even beloved leaders of the American rebellion, was killed fighting as a private soldier during the loss of the redoubt. His loss was deeply felt: "We want him in the Senate; we want him in his profession; we want him in the field." wrote Abigail Adams.The British had suffered a more tangible loss. Of the roughly 2,300 private soldiers that departed Boston for the Charlestown point that afternoon 226 were killed and more than 800 wounded. Entire units were destroyed; the light companies of the 23rd (Royal Welch Fusiliers) and the 4th (Kings Own) regiments had started the day with 39 men. The former reported four men for duty the following day, the latter three, the company being commanded by the senior private.
Officer casualties were horrific: a lieutenant colonel, two majors, 7 captains, and 9 lieutenants killed outright, more than 50 wounded; more than 50 sergeants were either killed or wounded. Among the dead was MAJ Pitcairn of the Royal Marines, whose actions back in April had played a huge role in the battles of Lexington and Concord.
The British never attacked the rebel siege lines again.
The Outcome: Tactical British victory.
The Impact: Both sides attempted to use the events of 17 JUN 1775 to further their political ends.Outside the rebel army, which considered themselves to have done well to bloody the regulars to thoroughly, the colonial spin was the weaker of the two. The ground had been lost, after all, and the notion of the value of killing regular private soldiers, even a LOT of private soldiers, was not really considered. Many colonial observers considered the day a defeat, badly planned and poorly carried out. Several rebel officers were tried, including both the artillery officers who had fled the redoubt, convicted and broken. It was a long time before Americans considered Bunker Hill anything but a defeat.
However, in the long run the battle strengthened the rebel cause. New England commanders such as Ward, who under other circumstances might have actively worked to undermine the new commander of the newly-reorganized Continental Army, instead accepted the authority of MG Washington without demur. Washington himself, looking at the reports of the day, recognized that in his new army he had men capable of fighting a stand up fight against the long-service British regulars and if not winning, at least coming away undefeated and unbroken.
The news of the fighting of April and June seems to also have had the effect of making a final, real division between colonist and colonial power, and uniting the previously fractious colonies. Samuel Ward of Rhode Island wrote that after Bunker Hill "...the southern colonies...are convinced that they have been pursuing a phantom (of a separate peace with Great Britain), and that their safety is a vigorous determined defense."
In Great Britain the appalling losses seem to have added to the division and unease that had characterized the entire war effort. The country itself was in a poor state; business bad, trade fallen off and ships laid up, hungry poor overwhelming the parish system. The bloody June day in Boston just added to the sense that the common people were suffering badly under George III's colonial policy.
The elites that mattered in the empire, however, we determined not to lose their colonial possession, and the news of the outrageous slaughter of Royal troops there merely to enforce the King's law on rebellion made the King and his ministers even more determined to punish the rebels. Gage was relieved three days after his report of the 17th was received in England, and his replacement was the commander of troops at Bunker Hill, MG William Howe.
The terrible June day, however, seems to have taken something crucial out of William Howe. He would never again throw his troops at an American defense as he had on the slopes of Breed's Hill. On Long Island the following year he had Washington's Continental Army broken and reeling but failed to close with and destroy his enemy. A dark, unshakable fear of the sort of killing that had surrounded him on the hills above Charlestown seems to have made him unable to summon the sort of final ruthlessness he would need to crush the rebellion.
He never did.
Touchline Tattles: What amazes me is the way the tale of Bunker Hill has grown in the telling; has spawned generations of legends and lies, from the stories of not firing until seeing the "whites of their eyes" to the grand death scenes of Warren and Pitcairn. The cowardice and disorganization has largely been forgotten and the image of the day remains the embattled farmers on the hilltop shaking their fists at the glittering scarlet ranks as they march inexorably to death and victory. The tales have become larger than the event, the legends larger than life.But in 1775 the hot afternoon of the 17th of June was still a day for ordinary living and dying, a day when men and women caught in the merciless insistence of war found themselves struggling to understand what had happened to them and to the people around them.
Jeremy Lister, ensign in His Majesty's 10th Regiment of Foot, was one of these people. His light company had been badly shot up in April, and had been savaged again that afternoon. Ensign Lister had been lucky and returned to Boston unhurt. His lieutenant had not been so fortunate.
Jeremy went from the debarkation point to LT Kelley's quarters to tell his wife that her husband had been wounded so badly that he was then dying on the wharf.He made shift to tell her the bad news, as best he could, and later remembered that he stood before the newly-made widow's silence feeling helpless, while she "for some time sat motionless with two small Children close by her."