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American Revolution: Battle of Bunker Hill

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Battle of Bunker Hill - Date & Conflict:

The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders

Americans

  • Major General Israel Putnam
  • Colonel William Prescott
  • approx. 2,400-3,200 men

    British

  • Lieutenant General Thomas Gage
  • Major General William Howe
  • approx. 3,000 men

  • Battle of Bunker Hill - Background:

    Following the British retreat from the Battles of Lexington and Concord, American forces closed and laid siege to Boston. Trapped in the city, the British commander, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, requested reinforcements to facilitate a breakout. On May 25, HMS Cerberus arrived at Boston carrying Major Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne. As the garrison had been reinforced to around 6,000 men, the British generals began making plans to clear the Americans from the approaches to the city. To do so, they intended to first seize Dorchester Heights to the south.

    From this position, they would then attack the American defenses at Roxbury Neck. With this done, operations would shift north with British forces occupying the heights on the Charlestown Peninsula and marching on Cambridge. Their plan formulated, the British intended to attack on June 18. Across the lines, the American leadership received intelligence regarding Gage's intentions on June 13. Assessing the threat, General Artemas Ward ordered Major General Israel Putnam to advance onto the Charlestown Peninsula and erect defenses atop Bunker Hill.

    Battle of Bunker Hill - Fortifying the Heights:

    On the evening of June 16, Colonel William Prescott departed Cambridge with a force of 1,200 men. Crossing Charlestown Neck, they moved onto Bunker Hill. As work began on fortifications, discussion ensued between Putnam, Prescott, and their engineer, Captain Richard Gridley, regarding the site. Surveying the landscape, they decided that nearby Breed's Hill offered a better position. Halting work on Bunker Hill, Prescott's command advanced to Breed's and began working on a square redoubt measuring approximately 130 feet per side. Though spotted by British sentries, no action was taken to dislodge the Americans.

    Around 4:00 AM, HMS Lively (20 guns) opened fire on the new redoubt. Though this briefly halted the Americans, Lively's fire soon ceased on Vice Admiral Samuel Graves' order. As the sun began to rise, Gage became fully aware of the developing situation. He immediately ordered Graves' ships to bombard Breed's Hill, while British Army artillery joined in from Boston. This fire had little effect on Prescott's men. With the sun rising, the American commander quickly realized that the Breed's Hill position could be easily flanked to the north or west.

    Battle of Bunker Hill - The British Act:

    Lacking the manpower to fully rectify this issue, he ordered his men to begin building a breastwork extending north from the redoubt. Meeting in Boston, the British generals debated their best course of action. While Clinton advocated for a strike against Charlestown Neck to cut off the Americans, he was vetoed by the other three who favored a direct attack against Breed's Hill. As Howe was senior among Gage's subordinates, he was tasked with leading the assault. Crossing to the Charlestown Peninsula with around 1,500 men, Howe landed at Moulton's Point on its eastern edge (Map).

    For the attack, Howe intended to drive around the colonial left flank while Colonel Robert Pigot feinted against the redoubt. Landing, Howe noticed additional American troops on Bunker Hill. Believing these to be reinforcements, he halted his force and requested additional men from Gage. Having witnessed the British preparing to attack, Prescott also requested reinforcements. These arrived in the form of Captain Thomas Knowlton's men who were posted behind a rail fence on the American left. They were soon joined by troops from New Hampshire led by Colonels John Stark and James Reed.

    Battle of Bunker Hill - The British Attack:

    With the American reinforcements extending their line north the Mystic River, Howe's route around the left was blocked. Though additional Massachusetts troops reached the American lines before the start of the battle, Putnam struggled to organize additional troops in the rear. This was further complicated by fire from the British ships in the harbor. By 3:00 PM, Howe was ready to commence his attack. As Pigot's men formed near Charlestown, they were harassed by American snipers. This led to Graves firing on the town and sending men ashore to burn it.

    Moving against Stark's position along the river with light infantry and grenadiers, Howe's men advanced in a line four deep. Under strict orders to hold their fire until the British were within close range, Stark's men unleashed deadly volleys into the enemy. Their fire caused the British advance to falter and then fall back after taking heavy losses. Seeing Howe's attack collapse, Pigot also retired (Map). Re-forming, Howe ordered Pigot to assault the redoubt while he advanced against the rail fence. As with the first assault, these were repulsed with severe casualties (Map).

    While Prescott's troops were having success, Putnam continued to have issues in the American rear with only a trickle of men and material reaching the front. Again re-forming, Howe was reinforced with additional men from Boston and ordered a third attack. This was to focus on the redoubt while a demonstration was made against the American left. Attacking up the hill, the British came under heavy fire from Prescott's men. During the advance, Major John Pitcairn, who had played a key role at Lexington, was killed. The tide turned when the defenders ran out of ammunition. As the battle devolved into hand-to-hand combat, the bayonet-equipped British quickly seized the upper hand (Map).

    Taking control of the redoubt, they compelled Stark and Knowlton to fall back. While the bulk of the American forces fell back in haste, Stark and Knowlton's commands retreated in a controlled fashion which bought time for their comrades. Though Putnam attempted to rally troops on Bunker Hill, this ultimately failed and the Americans retreated back across Charlestown Neck to fortified positions around Cambridge. During the retreat, the popular Patriot leader Joseph Warren was killed. A newly appointed major general but lacking in military experience, he had declined command during the battle and volunteered to fight as infantry. By 5:00 PM the fighting had ended with the British in possession of the heights.

    Battle of Bunker Hill - Aftermath

    The Battle of Bunker Hill cost the Americans 115 killed, 305 wounded, and 30 captured. For the British the butcher's bill was an immense 226 killed and 828 wounded for a total of 1,054. Though a British victory, the Battle of Bunker Hill did not change the strategic situation around Boston. Rather, the high cost of the victory sparked debate in London and startled the military. The high number of casualties sustained also contributed to Gage's dismissal from command. Appointed to replace Gage, Howe would be haunted by the specter of Bunker Hill in subsequent campaigns as its carnage affected his decision making. Commenting on the battle in his diary, Clinton wrote, "A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America."

    Selected Sources

  • British Battles: Battle of Bunker Hill
  • Massachusetts Historical Society: Battle of Bunker Hill
  • Symonds, Craig (1986). A Battlefield Atlas of the American Revolution. Baltimore, MD: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America.

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