The Decisive Day is ComeThe Battle of Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill

by Bernard Bailyn

"The story of Bunker Hill battle," Allen French wrote, "is a tale of great blunders heroically redeemed." The first blunder was the decision of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to fortify Charlestown heights and attempt to hold it against the British, cooped up in Boston after their withdrawal from Lexington and Concord. The ultimate aim was, in the abstract at least, sensible enough: to tighten the encirclement of Boston by commanding the heights both north and south of the town—Dorchester as well as Charlestown—and to deny those commanding hills to the British. But in fact the Americans did not have guns capable of reaching Boston effectively from Bunker Hill. And in addition, forces installed there were almost certain to be cut off since the British warships controlled Boston harbor and its confluence with the Charles River, and could easily keep the slim neck that joined Charlestown to the mainland under heavy fire. Nor, once committed, did the American commanders choose their ground wisely. The high point of the mile-long Charlestown peninsula was Bunker Hill—it rose 110 feet, and adjoined the only route of retreat, the roadway back to Cambridge. But the spot chosen for fortification was not Bunker Hill but Breed's Hill, only 75 feet high and 600 yards farther from the neck, controllable from the higher ground at its rear and isolated from the sole route of retreat. And even in the best positions the ill-equipped, altogether untrained troops of the New England army could hardly be expected to hold out against sustained attacks by British regulars led by no less that four general officers experienced in warfare on two continents.

Detail, engraving of Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Battle at Bunker's Hill Near Boston. June 17, 1775. Engraving by Archer & Boilly, n.d., after the painting by John Trumbull, 1786. 22 cm x 16 cm.

That for two and a half hours of intense battle, greatly outnumbered, they did just that—held out until, their powder gone and forced to fight with gun butts and rocks, they were bayoneted out of the stifling, dust-choked redoubt they had thrown up on Breed's Hill—was the result not only of great personal heroism but also of the blunders of the British. In complete control of the sea, they could have landed troops on the north side of Charlestown neck and struck the rebels in the rear while sending their main force against them face-on. But in an excess of caution they chose instead to land at the tip and march straight up against the fortified American lines. Such strategy as they had was confined to sending a single column along the thin strip of beach on the north shore of Charlestown peninsula hoping to reach the rear of the entrenchments by land and thus begin an overland encirclement. But this effort was doomed from the start. A delay in beginning the attack gave the Americans time to throw a barrier across the beach and to place behind it a company of New Hampshire riflemen capable of stopping the encircling column. The British attack therefore was altogether a frontal one, two ranks moving on a front almost half-a-mile long toward the set battle line, a line formed on the Boston Bay side by the deserted houses of Charlestown, the redoubt on Breed's Hill, its breastwork extension and a fortified rail fence, and completed on the far beach by the New Hampshiremen and their barricade.

No one of the thousands who crowded the housetops, church steeples, and shore batteries of Boston to watch the spectacle ever forgot the extraordinary scene they witnessed. June 17, 1775, was an absolutely still, brilliantly clear summer's day. Viewers in Boston only half a mile away could make out the stages of the battle clearly. The first assault was begun by the column of light infantry on the far beach, the American left flank, and was followed by the cannonading of Charlestown on the right flank, which set the town in flames; then came the slow forward movement of the main battle line: two ranks of scarlet-clad grenadiers and light infantrymen, almost 2,000 in all, marching in full kit pounds of knapsacks, blankets, food, and ammunition—across irregular fields of knee-deep grass broken by fences and low stone walls. The American troops—no more than 1, 500 men at any time, at the end only half that—held their fire until the first British line was within 150 feet of the barricades; when they fired it was almost at point-blank range, and the result was slaughter. The British front line collapsed in heaps of dead and wounded—"as thick as sheep in a field." General Howe's entire staff was wiped out in the main attack against the rail fence. Great gaps appeared in the once parade-perfect ranks, and the survivors spun back.

But they were professional soldiers, led by experienced and determined officers with reputations to make. They quickly regrouped for the second attack, directed now squarely at the redoubt and breastwork. Again the Americans withheld fire until the last moment, and again when it came it tore the line of upright marching men to shreds: "an incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel lines," a British officer wrote, "it seemed a continued sheet of fire for near thirty minutes." The forward units fell back against the second line moving up, then turned and fled back down the hill. Some of Howe's remaining officers begged him then to break off the attack and review the situation. Instead, he called for reinforcements, ordered his troops to throw off their heavy equipment, stationed his artillery where it could rake the whole American line, and called for a third assault—a bayonet charge against the central barricades. Again the advancing line was thrown back by the defenders' fire, and again great gaps were torn in the marching ranks. But this time the fire was less intense and it could not be sustained. The 700 exhausted defenders had been sent no reinforcements; they had no supplies except what they had carried with them the night before. As the third charge neared the line of fortification their powder ran out, and though they fought desperately with everything they could lay hands on, they could no longer force the British back. Grenadiers and light infantrymen poured over the parapets and through the thin barricades, and dove into groups of defenders. The Americans turned and fled up over and around Bunker Hill to the roads that led to safety. So the battle came to an end.

Heroes on both sides redeemed, perhaps, the blunders. The American hero was above all William Prescott, in command in the redoubt, whose nerve held throughout, who steeled the small band of armed farmers, and somehow made them into an effective fighting force. Miraculously, he survived, though Joseph Warren—physician, orator, liberal spokesman, writer, who had been appointed major general but who chose to fight as a private soldier in the redoubt—was killed in the final charge. A half dozen others—John Stark, Henry Dearborn, Seth Pomeroy, and Andrew McClary—would be remembered for their valor and leadership. And the commanding officer throughout the engagement, the venerable Israel Putnam, though his original battle plan had been ill-conceived, though he failed to resupply or reinforce the defenders at the barricades, though indeed he was unable to induce the hundreds of men who watched the action from Bunker Hill and from the roadways a mere 1,000 yards from the battle to come to the aid of the defenders—"Old Put" too would be honored in the end.

For generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne the battle was an introduction to years of frustration and defeat in the American war. Howe's personal courage had been clearly demonstrated but so too had his excessive caution, his inflexible commitment to formal battle tactics, and his entire lack of a killer instinct, which would have impelled him forward to overtake the fleeing Americans and to assault the weakly held American headquarters in Cambridge. Clinton too, hastily mobilizing reinforcements and charging with them in the third assault, had shown decision and courage, and his initial proposals for encircling the peninsula by sea had been the soundest strategy of the day. But his voice was not decisive, and his role was secondary throughout. As for Burgoyne, playwright, politician, man of style and spirit—"Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne had watched the battle from the Boston battery and wrote descriptions of it, memorable in themselves, that suggest something of the mentality that would account for the strategy and failure of Saratoga.

Half of the British forces had been casualties; perhaps a third of the 1,500 Americans engaged had been killed, wounded, or captured. What did the battle prove? It proved that raw, untrained American troops could fight, and fight well—but only if they had to; that success would come to the British only if they responded flexibly and imaginatively to the unorthodox demands of warfare in colonial territories 3,000 miles from home; and finally, that if the still disunited, still legally British states of America were to fight with any hope of success a continental war against the greatest military power on earth, a leader of great personal force and of great military and political skill would have to be forthcoming.

Memorials of the battle abound. Among the most vivid are the documents on display in the library of the Massachusetts Historical Society (through September 2000) and reproduced here in the Society's first "on-line" exhibition. Abigail Adams's letter to her husband John conveys the feelings and observations of an eyewitness. The letter of Peter Brown, a private soldier "hearty in the cause" who fought with Prescott in the redoubt, is the fullest description that survives of a participant in the ranks. The engraved "views" and maps of the battle and of Warren's death convey not so much the objective historical actuality as the contemporary sense of it. They also show the drift of images of the battle into popular iconography. Published reports and accounts show the use of the battle in what a later generation would call propaganda.