Soon after the British soldiers returned to Boston from their disastrous venture to Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, to participate in the battles that began the American Revolution, colonial troops laid siege to the city. In June, reinforcements arrived from England to strengthen General Thomas Gage's attempts to drive away the rebels menacing his army. Once they learned that the British were planning an attack against the colonial positions, the colonials decided to surround Bunker Hill near Charlestown in order to strengthen their position. On the night of Friday, June 16, 1775, approximately 1,140 men, under the command of Colonel William Prescott, marched across Charlestown Neck.
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After a discussion with his fellow officers, Prescott opted to fortify Breed's Hill, which was lower than Bunker Hill but threatened British lines, in the hope of provoking them to attack. At midnight, the troops began digging earnestly to create a substantial redoubt near the crest of the hill. On the left flank, New Hampshire troops of Captain Thomas Knowlton fortified some fence rails with rocks and straw, while shortly before the battle, reinforcements under Colonel John Stark entrenched on the beach of the Mystic River on the far left flank.
At dawn, the British officers spotted the fortifications and crafted a plan to defeat the rebels. Sir Henry Clinton advocated an amphibious landing behind the hill to cut off their retreat, but General Gage overruled his plan in favor of one by Sir William Howe. Howe advocated two separate landings of troops, who would attack simultaneously against the left flank and the center of the position.
Howe believed that when confronted with disciplined redcoats with bayonets ready, the colonists would break and run. Shortly after noon, on a perfectly clear but oppressively hot day, Royal Navy barges ferried Howe's 2,800 troops onto the Charlestown peninsula. Unforeseen delays ensued, allowing the colonists time to further strengthen their defenses.
Hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, nearly half of the original colonists slipped to the rear by late morning, while reinforcements passed them on the way to the fortifications. By the time the British began their advance, at around three in the afternoon, Prescott had nearly 900 men in his lines. While thousands of spectators sat on roofs in Boston to watch, Howe advanced.
Stark's men decimated the initial British thrust on the colonial left flank, along the banks of the Mystic River. Howe personally led the attack on the rail fence with his grenadiers and the 5th and 52nd Foot Regiments. As the redcoats marched in the searing 95-degree heat under full pack, through knee-high grass, and over numerous fences and low stone walls, they encountered withering rebel fire.
Within fifteen minutes, Howe lost over 50 percent of his forces, including 80 percent casualties in the grenadiers. British regulars under General William Howe and colonial volunteers under Colonel William Prescott met in the first major engagement of the American Revolution on June 17, 1775. The misnamed Battle of Bunker Hill was actually fought on Breed's Hill across the Charles River from Boston.
(Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) On the colonial right flank, British warships set the abandoned town of Charlestown ablaze in an effort to drive off rebel sharpshooters. Three British regiments and a battalion of marines suffered an equally bloody repulse from Prescott's troops. Howe rejected the advice of some of his officers to retreat and instead called for reinforcements.
He pinned the rebel left with artillery fire and concentrated his next thrust on the redoubt atop the hill, where Prescott's 150 men had nearly exhausted their ammunition. Ordering his men to drop their gear, Howe ordered a fast march up the hill, over the bodies of comrades fallen in earlier engagements. Prescott's men staggered them for a short time, but the well-trained redcoats breached the walls and overran the redoubt with bitter hand-to-hand fighting, forcing the rebels to retreat.
Stark conducted a solid fighting withdrawal, preventing a rout. The British gained the summit of Bunker Hill a few minutes later, shortly after five o'clock, with little opposition. At this point, Howe chose not to press on the attack across Charlestown Neck toward the main rebel army stationed at Cambridge, and the battle thus came to a close.
The British army won the field but paid a steep price, suffering 226 killed and 828 wounded, while 140 Americans were killed and 271 wounded. Although holding a relatively poor military position and fighting with untrained soldiers, the Americans had held out for over two hours against some of the best British soldiers and generals. The Americans learned that they could stand up to the British, and the British learned that the colonial rebels could be a formidable foe when properly motivated.
After the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British never mounted another local offensive against their besiegers, and they eventually evacuated Boston on March 17, 1776. Judkin Browning See also: Army, British; Gage, Thomas; Military and Diplomatic Affairs (Chronology); Military and Diplomatic Affairs (Essay); Revolutionary War; War. Bibliography Brooks, Victor.
The Boston Campaign: April 1775March 1776. Conshohocken, PA: Combined, 1999. Fleming, Thomas J.
Now We Are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill. New York: St. Martin's, 1960.
Ketchum, Richard M.Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.
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