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Notwithstanding the Lexington disaster, British hopes again ran high in Boston harbor during the spring of 1775. The arrival in May of Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne, with another army, raised the British force to ten thousand men. Gage seemed no longer to doubt his ability to put down the rebellion; and yet, to show his moderation, he issued a proclamation, offering a free pardon to all, except Adams and Hancock, who would lay down their arms and return to their allegiance, while those taken in arms were to be put to death. Gage had possession of Boston, and he might have felt secure but for the menace of the surrounding hilltops from which the enemy might throw shells into his camp and shipping. He therefore determined to occupy some of these hills.

Boston, a city of some seventeen thousand people, was situated on a peninsula jutting northward, while farther to the north, across a narrow channel of water, was the Charlestown peninsula, connected with the mainland by an isthmus known as Charlestown Neck. On the point of this peninsula lay the village of Charlestown, and back of the village rose an elevation called Breed's Hill, while farther back was situated a higher elevation known as Bunker Hill.

The American army occupied the mainland and extended in a grand semicircle for sixteen miles -- from Cambridge to the Mystic River. It was under the general command of an honored veteran of the late war, General Artemas Ward, whose headquarters were at Cambridge. Hearing of Gage's intention to occupy the hills above Charlestown, Ward sent a force of twelve hundred1 men on the night of the 16th of June to fortify and possess Bunker Hill and thus to forestall the English.

Under Colonel William Prescott, who had witnessed the dispersion of the Acadians twenty years before, this band of men marched silently to the place. Passing Bunker Hill, for some cause unknown, they reached Breed's Hill at midnight and began to throw up embankments. Faithfully they toiled on till break of day revealed their work to the gaze of the astonished British. The English guns were soon trained on the works, and the sleeping city was awakened by the boom of cannon. But the men on the hill toiled on, and by noon they were well intrenched behind a strong redoubt. The British meanwhile decided to storm the American works.

The British landed -- three thousand of them, led by Howe -- about three in the afternoon, and began the ascent of the hill toward the American breastworks. It was a daring thing to do -- and not only daring, it was foolish and suicidal. They might have gone round to Charlestown Neck and cut Prescott off from supplies and reŽnforcements, and eventually have forced his surrender. But here was a sample of the bulldog courage of the Englishman. Up they marched, in line of battle, with undaunted courage.

Not a shot was fired from the top of the hill; the Americans were coolly reserving their fire. General Putnam rode along the lines and ordered the men not to fire until they could see the whites of their enemy's eyes. When the British had come within a few rods, a flame of fire swept along the American lines and the front ranks of the enemy were cut to pieces.

Another volley followed, and another, until the British fell back in disorder, leaving the hillside strewn with dead and wounded.2 Scarcely fifteen minutes elapsed before they had re-formed their lines and made another dash up the hill, only to receive again such a murderous fire from the breastworks as no army, however brave, could have endured. Again they rolled down the hill in confusion -- except the hundreds who lay dead or wounded on the slope.

More than an hour now elapsed before the English could rally to a third attack, and it was only a blind tenacity of purpose, untempered by wisdom, that led them to make it at all. They had lost near a thousand men, while the Americans had suffered but little. It is true that the latter had almost exhausted their supply of powder, but this the British did not know; and but for this fact any number of assaults would have resulted as did the first two -- until the British army would have been annihilated.

With wonderful courage they now made a third charge up the hill. The first volleys of the Americans swept down their front ranks as before. But as the assailants neared the crest of the hill, they noted the slackening of the American fire, and Howe determined to charge with the bayonet.

Madly the English rushed forward and leaped over the parapet. The Americans were without bayonets to their muskets, and the fight was now an unequal one; hot with clubbed muskets and stones they made a valiant stand against the oncoming enemy. Scores of them were cut down, until Prescott, seeing the folly of continuing the struggle, ordered a retreat, and the British were left in possession of the field.

One of the last to leave the redoubt was General Joseph Warren, who lingered in the rear as though he disdained to fly, and this cost him his life. He had joined the ranks as a volunteer and had fought bravely during the day, but with the last English volley he fell dead with a bullet in his brain. Through his death the American cause suffered the most serious loss in a single life during the war.

The victory won by the British at Bunker Hill3 was a costly one. They lost in killed and wounded 1054 men, one tenth of whom were officers. Pitcairn was among the dead. Howe was wounded in the foot.

The victory enabled the English to hold Boston for nine months longer, but the moral effect lay wholly with the Americans, whose loss was 449. At Bunker Hill they had discovered their own prowess, their ability to stand before the regulars; and Bunker Hill became a rallying cry of the patriots in every contest of the war.


Footnotes

1These figures are given by Frothingham, "Battle of Bunker Hill," pp.17 and 40. [return]

2Fiske's American Revolution," Vol. I, p. 141. [return]

3Most of the fighting was done at Breed's Hill, but the higher eminence near by gave its name to the battle. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XII p. 244-247. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.




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