The Battle of Bunker Hill
To prevent British soldiers from conducting further attacks on the countryside after the march to Lexington and Concord, 20,000 provincial militiamen encircle Boston in the spring of 1775. The Charlestown peninsula and Dorchester Heights, commanding both the city of Boston and Boston harbor, lie abandoned. Hoping to make the British "masters of these heights," General Gage, in conference with Major Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne, plans to seize the neglected positions before the colonists do so. News of Gage's intent filters across from Boston and down from New Hampshire on 15 June. Acting quickly on this intelligence, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety orders General Artemas Ward, commander of the colonial militia surrounding Boston, to race the British to the Charlestown peninsula, capture Bunker Hill, and then seize the Dorchester hills.
The following day, Ward orders Colonel William Prescott, with the aid of one thousand colonial troops, to take and fortify Bunker Hill. Unknown to the British, Prescott and his troops arrive at the Charlestown peninsula that same night. Prescott and other officers ultimately decide to bypass Bunker Hill, rising 110 feet and situated near the only route back to Cambridge, and instead give "orders to march" to Breed's Hill, a smaller mount further south and within cannon range of Boston and British ships in the harbor. The colonists toil industriously throughout the night and early morning to construct an earthen fort 160 feet long and 30 feet high atop the hill, with breastworks and a rail fence all the way down to the Mystic River.
Astonished British generals wake on the morning of 17 June to discover the newly erected defenses. As the day continues, British ships bombard the untrained militia as they work, and Colonel Prescott walks the bulwarks to raise morale. Thirsty and tired, the soldiers receive "no refreshment." Back in Boston, Gage summons a war council.
At three o'clock in the afternoon, over 2,000 British soldiers, commanded by General Howe and wearing flashing red coats, land on the Charlestown shore. Continental snipers fire at the British as they march, and General Howe orders a combustible shell launched on Charlestown. Amid smoke and flames, local inhabitants flee their homes in order to escape "Charlestown's dismal fate." From rooftops and hilltops, spectators watch Charlestown burn. The clear day affords views to residents as far off as Braintree, including Abigail Adams and an eight-year-old John Quincy Adams who later recalls living in "unintermitted danger."
British troops head uphill, where they are frustrated by fences, pits, and tall grass. In dust and heat, the continental militia wait behind their walls. They hold fire until the British are in within 150 feet of the redoubt. "Heavy and severe Fire" decimates the thick British ranks. Recoiling from the first attack, General Howe relies on "the Bravery of the King's Troops" and immediately orders his stumbling and disordered soldiers to make a second charge, this time only at the hill and rail fence. Again the colonists slaughter the King's troops with their fire.
An hour passes as the British recover from the two attacks. They receive 400 new troops from Boston. A third time, General Howe orders his soldiers, with the help of the reinforcements, to charge the breastworks and the rail fence. With "Bravery and Resolution," Prescott's men again wait until the last minute to open fire. This time, however, they are running short on ammunition and are soon overrun by the British, whom they fight with rocks and the butts of their muskets as they dodge the "Arrows of death."
No longer able to withstand the British attack, Prescott's men retreat north over the road to Cambridge, as General Stark's New Hampshire troops cover them in the rear. One of the last to abandon the fort on Breed's Hill, Joseph Warren is killed as he retreats, and he is mourned with "the tears of multitudes." In total, 140 colonists are dead and 271 are wounded. Before dark, the British again command the Charleston peninsula, though 226 British lie dead and 828 are wounded.
Despite renewed British control of the peninsula, colonial forces still trap the British in Boston. As supply issues and shortages plague them, the British prepare for further military commitment to defeat the "poor and ignorant" colonists. Meanwhile, the colonies scramble to assemble more soldiers. Britain replaces General Gage with General Howe in early October 1775, and two weeks after the battle at Breed's Hill, on 2 July 1775, George Washington arrives in Cambridge to take command of the Continental Army.
Click here to read a related essay on Bunker Hill by historian Bernard Bailyn.
List of supporting documents:
"masters of these heights"
Map and published letter, A Plan of the Battle of Bunkers Hill, (London, 1775)
"Afternoon I went by invitation of Brother Webb to attend the Funeral of the Remains of Dr. Warren ... The Corps of Dr. Warren was Carried into the Chapell Dr. Cooper prayed & Mr Provoz Morton delivered an Oration on the Occasion. There was a handsome Procession of the Craft with Two Companies of Soldiers."
Diary of John Rowe,
8 April 1776