The Battle of Bunker Hill is so famous that the most historically illiterate Americans—and there are a lot of them—have at least heard of it and can probably figure out that it was fought during the Revolutionary War. Many may recall from High School or an old Peabody and Sherman cartoon that an order was issued—“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.” Whatever that meant. And most will assume it was a great American victory for George Washington. Almost all of that would be wrong or misunderstood. The real story is more complex and interesting.
By mid-June 1775 the Colonial rabble-in-arms had kept the English army bottled up in Boston since April 19 when they chased them back to the city after the battles of Lexington and Concord during a costly, harassed retreat. Meanwhile the original force of Massachusetts Militia and Patriot Minutemen on the mainland surrounding the city swelled to more than 15,000 with volunteers and Militia from Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire all under the overall—but loose—command of Artemas Ward, a veteran Militia and Provincial troops colonel with combat experience in the French and Indian War.
Boston was a near island in Boston Harbor where 6,000 regulars under General Thomas Gage were holed up. The bulbous shaped Peninsula was connected to the mainland by the Charlestown Neck. All that separated it from the Charlestown Peninsula on the mainland was a narrow Charles River.
Gage could be resupplied by sea so that the Patriot siege, which blocked re-provision from mainland farms, was not totally effective. He had also received reinforcements including the arrival of three subordinate generals—William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton.
Shortly after their arrival on May 25, Gage convened councils of war at which they discussed plans for a break-out. By June 12 they had arrived on a plan. First the English would seize via a boat landing and fortify Dorchester Heights located on the knob of a mushroom shaped peninsula jutting from the mainland south of Charlestown then march on Roxbury to secure the flank. Then the main body of troops would rush across the Neck and secure the highlands overlooking the city from behind the village on the salt flats of the Charlestown Peninsula. The Peninsula had been a kind of no man’s land since Clinton had retreated to the city.Dr. Joseph Warren was a much beloved senior Patriot leader. His well oiled intelligence operation inside Boston helped alert Colonial forces that General Gage planned a break-out from the besieged city. He had just been elected a general of the new Massachusetts Provisional Army, but word of his appointment never reached him. He turned down field command on the day of the battle marched out as a civilian fighting in the ranks like a common soldier.
But Boston was still just sort of an overgrown small town in which secrets were hard to keep. Fortunately for the rebels, two leading Patriots, Dr. Joseph Warren and James Otis maintained an effective intelligence operation in the city—the same one that had discovered the plans to march on Concord to seize the Patriot arsenal there. There was plenty of loose tavern talk and the civilians on whom British officers were quartered or their servants passed on information. So did the occasional visitor. One of those was a New Hampshire merchant who returned to his home by ship. The Patriot Committee of Safety in Exeter, New Hampshire dispatched a warning to the Massachusetts Provisional Congress confirming the rumors gathered by Warren’s operation.
On June 15 the Massachusetts Committee of Safety directed General Ward to occupy and fortify the Dorchester and Charlestown Heights. Ward gathered his own senior officers for their council of war. Key to the plan was occupying and fortifying Bunker Hill, at 110 feet high the most commanding of the hills on the Heights which also included lower Breed’s Hill closer to the exit from the Neck. There had already been some preliminary excavations on Bunker Hill which would give the occupying Colonial troops a head start at digging in. From Bunker Hill the Rebels could command Boston with artillery. It was a good plan with every chance of success.
The next decision was the selection of a commander for the mission and units. Ward initially offered command to the highly respected Dr. Warren, who was popular with the troops. But Warren had never been a Militia officer and declined. He would join the ranks as a civilian and fight as a common soldier.
General Israel Putnam, Colonial Commander.
Over-all command fell to Connecticut General Israel Putnam, who had served in Rogers Rangers in the French and Indian war. Massachusetts Militia Colonel William Prescott, a veteran of King George’s War and the Siege of Louisburg and the Battle of Fort Beausejour in the French and Indian War, was given command of the troops assigned to take the heights. He commanded 1500 Militiaman and Volunteers from his own regiment and Putnam’s Connecticut Regiment to be commanded in the field that day by Thomas Knowlton.
On the night of June 16 Prescott led his men onto the Charlestown Peninsula. There he conferred with Putnam and his chief engineer Captain Richard Gridley. The three men disagreed about the best placement of defensive works. What happened is not exactly clear, but Prescott, against his original orders from Ward, decided to concentrate his troops on Breed’s Hill, closer to Boston, but lower. He set his men out to begin digging a square of fortification trenches on the top of the smaller hill. Those fortifications could not be completed before daybreak.
In Boston General Clinton spotted the Rebels digging in on the Charlestown Heights while on evening reconnaissance. He recognized the need for swift action to prevent the rebels from completing their work and installing artillery. But he could not rouse Gage and Howe from over-confident disdain of their rabble enemy and get them to immediately dispatch troops.
Around 4 am Royal Navy ships in the harbor also spotted activity and began lobbing shells at Breed’s Hill temporarily delaying excavations. The fire was temporarily suspended by Admiral Samuel Graves who was irked that it was undertaken without his order. By this time Gage was finally aware of the seriousness of the situation and directed Graves to open fire from all available ships as well as from Army artillery positions on Copp’s Hill in Boston opposite Breed’s Hill. Despite a lot of noise, the soft earth of the hilltop absorbed most of the damage and work was able to continue, even incorporating shell craters into the defenses.
Daylight also alerted Prescott to a flaw in his decision to fortify Breed’s Hill—it stood relatively isolated on the salt flats and could be easily flanked. He desperately ordered the beginning of construction of breastworks running down the east side of the hill. He did not have enough men to fortify the west side.Cautious General William Howe commanded the English on the field.
Meanwhile the English dithered. They had too many Generals. Clinton still pressed for an immediate attack. Howe and Burgoyne, both contemptuous of the Colonial rabble saw no need to rush, confident that Redcoat Regulars could sweep the defenders aside in good time. Howe was placed in command of an attack.
It took Howe several hours to gather his infantry and then to inspect them on formal review. Meanwhile boats were gathered to ferry the troops across the water to a corner of the Charlestown Peninsula known as Moulton’s Point. It took several trips to bring all 1,500 men across. The plan was for Howe to lead the major assault driving around the left flank to take the Rebels from the rear. Brigadier General Robert Pigot on the British left flank would lead the direct assault on the hilltop redoubt, and Marine Major John Pitcairn would command the reserve.
Howe had most of his men ashore by 2 pm, but then spotted Rebels on Bunker Hill. Mistaking Prescott’s secondary defenses for a major reinforcement, the ever cautious Howe held up his attack and sent word back to Boston for reinforcements of his own. He sent some light infantry to take up forward positions on the left, alerting the Patriot army to his ultimate intentions. Then he ordered his men to break out their mess to await help.
Surveying the situation, Prescott issued his own appeal for reinforcements. Among those responding were Dr. Warren and an old warhorse Militia officer, Seth Pomeroy who also elected to fight as if a private since his own command was not engaged. Prescott ordered the Connecticut men under Knowles to occupy and hastily finish breastworks on the left which consisted of a rude dirt wall topped by fence rails and hay bales. 200 men from the 1st and 3rd New Hampshire regiments, under Colonels John Stark and James Reed arrived just in time to occupy the end of that line—the gap Howe could have used had he not dallied. They extended the line further to the low tide mark of the Mystic River. Stark placed a stake in the ground before the defenses and gave orders that no one should fire until the English passed the mark.
Other reinforcements arriving to take their places in the redoubt or along the breastwork were elements of the Massachusetts regiments of Colonels Brewer, Nixon, Woodbridge, Little, and Major Moore, as well as Callender’s company of artillery.
There was confusion despite the best efforts of General Putnam to straighten out the situation as subordinate commanders misunderstood their orders or disobeyed them. Some troops sent from Cambridge came under British cannon fire and balked at crossing the Neck to Charlestown. Others reached the foot of Bunker Hill but milled around uncertain of what to do.
Finally, at 3 pm the 47th Foot and the 1st Marines arrived from Boston to reinforce Howe. Meanwhile General Pigot’s forces including the 5th, 38th, 43rd, and 57th Regiments were taking losses from colonial sniper fire from the village on the salt flats. Admiral Graves responded with incendiary shells that set the village on fire sending up plumes of smoke. An offshore wind kept the smoke from obscuring the main battle site, although colonial observers on the mainland were unable to follow the action because of it.
Howe led his attack of Light Infantry and Grenadiers on the American left. The Light Infantry attempted to make an end run along the sandy beach of the river at low tide while the Grenadiers attacked the main breastwork. A single errant Rebel shot elicited an early and ineffectual volley from the English. After that the Americans held their fire until Colonel Stark’s marker was passed. Then they set off a murderous volley. The advancing English got off one of their own. But the Rebels, shooting from behind cover and able to steady their aim on the fence rails fired with deadly accuracy while the British un-aimed musket fire mostly sailed over the heads of the defenders. The English took devastating losses including many officers and fell back in disarray.From an eyewitness sketch--the second assault on Breeds Hill. Note the village ablaze on the left and the open ground over which the British had to advance exposing them to murderous aimed volleys from behind the defenses.
On the other side of the battlefield Pigot, still taking losses from snipers, saw the disordered retreat on the left and fell back himself. Both forces regrouped on the field and changed objectives. Pigot, now reinforced with the 47th and the 1st Marines, would directly attack the redoubt at the top of the hill. Howe would shift his main attack away from the beach to concentrate on Knowles’s Connecticut men closer to the slope of the hill.
The second attack was even more devastating to the British as the Colonists once again held their fire for a single, devastating volley at short range. A British action report stated that “Most of our Grenadiers and Light-infantry, the moment of presenting themselves lost three-fourths, and many nine-tenths, of their men. Some had only eight or nine men a company left ...” Pigot’s attack on the redoubt likewise was sent reeling back.
By this time the Rebels were running short on ammunition. Many had entered the fight with only three to five balls for their muskets. General Putnam was urgently trying to get reinforcements from Bunker Hill to Breed’s with only limited success.
The third attack focused all forces on the Redoubt. The Patriots got off another effective volley, but the British were able to press on finally reaching the breastworks where their bayonets were lethally effective against the rebels who could only fight back using their muskets as clubs. Prescott ordered the redoubt abandoned and helped cover the retreat personally using his ceremonial sword to fight off bayonets. He was said to be the last man to get out. Dr. Warren was killed in the retreat.The chaos as the British finally overwhelmed the breastwork redoubt at the top of Breeds Hill in a bayonet attack is better reflected in this depiction than in the rigid lines of advancing automatons in familiar depictions.
Effective cover fire from Stark and Knowles on the flank prevented the retreat from becoming a complete rout. Most troops got over the Charlestown Neck safely and in relatively good order.
But there was no question the Colonists had tactically lost the battle. At the end of the day Howe’s troops occupied the battle ground including the heights which had threatened Boston. But it was at best a Pyrrhic victory. The British lost 226 killed with over 800 wounded, including a large number of officers among them Col. James Abercrombie in command of the Grenadiers, Marine Captain Pitcairn, and virtually all of Howe’s staff officers.
General Clinton confided to his diary after the action, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.”
In contrast Colonial losses were 115 dead, 305 wounded, and 30 captured. They also had proven to themselves that they could fight, at least from behind defenses, on an equal with British Regulars. Among the most regretted losses were four out of the five then irreplaceable cannon used in the battle. But the most widely mourned loss was the death of the beloved Dr. Warren. He had just been voted a Major General’s commission in the Massachusetts Provincial Army on June 15 but had not yet received it when he marched off with his musket on his shoulder.John Trumbull's heroic Death of General Warren was in the tradition of many fallen commanders paintings, notably Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe but it was historically wrong on most counts.
Warren’s body was desecrated by the British in the days after the battle. Navy Lieutenant James Drew, of the sloop Scorpion, “…went upon the Hill again opened the dirt that was thrown over Doctor Warren, spit in his Face jump’d on his Stomach and at last cut off his Head and committed every act of violence upon his Body.” Ten months later Paul Revere recovered his friend’s body, identifying the head by a tooth he had made and placed in Warren’s jaw. He was re-buried with military honors at Grainery Burial Ground. His body was moved twice more finally coming to rest in 1855 in his family vault in Forest Hills Cemetery. Warren’s death was also commemorated in the idealized heroic painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill by John Trumbull.
After the initial shock of losing the Hill wore off, the Rebels began to realize what they had accomplished. The battered and ever cautious Howe refused Clinton’s urging to immediately follow up with an attack on Wards now understandably disordered main camp in Cambridge. The Colonial army had time to regroup, lick its wounds, and appreciate that they had stood up to the vaunted Redcoat regulars.
In Boston Gage was taken aback by the scope of the losses. His gloomy official report to London predicted that “a large army must at length be employed to reduce these people” and that it would have to include hired foreign troops. Despite the accuracy of the prediction, Gage was dismissed three days after the report was received. Howe, the actual architect of the calamitous victory, was rewarded with overall command in the Colonies. He would never again attempt a serious break-out from Boston.
General George Washington, newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of a barely formed Continental Army was in New York City on his way to assume command of the siege when he received an account of the Battle from the Massachusetts Committee on Safety. The report exaggerated British losses and papered over the difficulties Putnam had experienced trying to assert command, but it heartened the new commander. He arrived on July 2 to find the army in some disarray and a general stalemate between the two sides. He spent the next months gaining the confidence of his new command and its officers, reorganizing—basically creating—the Continental Line while trying to keep his Militia and volunteers on duty. There were a few indecisive skirmishes and both sides suffered near starvation and from smallpox outbreaks over an exceptionally harsh winter.
But that same snowy winter allowed the rotund young former bookseller Col. Henry Knox to drag the heavy cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga overland. Some of the cannon, under Knox’s command were able to begin shelling Boston on March 2, 1776. On March 5 Washington moved more cannon to the commanding Dorchester Heights in an overnight surprise operation. That placed the fleet, as well as the city under Continental guns. An astonished Howe is said to have proclaimed, “My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months.” It was checkmate and game over. After delays because of unfavorable winds, British boarded ships and sailed from the city on March 17. American troops, all handpicked for earlier exposure to and survival of smallpox, led by Artemas Ward entered the city on March 20.
The first campaign of the American Revolution has ended in less than two years with a stunning victory for the Continentals. But it might never have been possible if the defenders of Breed’s Hill had not cost the British so dearly.
The battle quickly settled into legend. Even though the action occurred primarily on Breed’s Hill, Putnam and Ward stubbornly referred to it as the Battle of Bunker Hill in honor the intended target for fortification in their original plans. The name stuck. Most Americans have never heard of Breed’s Hill.
But the greatest legend was the story that Col. Prescott—usually misidentified by his old Militia rank of Captain—had ordered his troops “Don’t fire until you see the Whites of their Eyes.” before the initial Redcoat assault. He assuredly never said any such thing. The notion seems to have come either from Col. Stark’s stake marker or orders being issued up and down the line to hold fire until the last possible moment to conserve ammunition and for the deadliest effect. Variations of the Whites of their eyes command had been used by several European commanders dating back to the Swedish General and King Gustavus Adolphus in the 16th Century and was said to have been repeated by General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, when his troops defeated Montcalm’s French army below Quebec on September 13, 1759. The veterans of the French and Indian Wars among senior Colonial commanders would have been familiar with the idea and phrase.The Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown. The statue of Col. William Prescott, an undeniable hero of the engagement, was added later reinforcing the myth that the officer had given the order, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes"
By the early 19th Century, the phrase, with Prescott’s name usually attached, was a staple of schoolbooks.
On June 17, 1825, the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument on Breed’s Hill was laid by the Marquis de Lafayette and orated over by Daniel Webster. The 220 foot high obelisk was completed in 1843 and dedicated on June 25, 1844. Daniel Webster again gave the main address.