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The Battle of Bunker's Hill - 17 June 1775

Captain Thomas Knowlton is featured in this painting by John Trumbull

Following the skirmishes in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775, state militiamen from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont assembled in Cambridge and the area surrounding Boston. British General Gage and 6,500 soldiers and marines were in possession of Boston proper, while the American force consisted of over 16,000 men. Sickness and missing brought the number of effective soldiers closer to 9,000. In addition the American force was woefully short of gunpowder, having only some 30 or so half barrels of powder beyond that carried in the horns of the citizen soldiers.

In the two months following Concord, efforts were made to bring organization and order to the American Army. But the work was difficult and the progress slow. By mid-June the army was still a collection of individual Militia regiments, headed by officers who were viewed more as neighbors and fellow citizens of the common soldier rather than trained and capable leaders. The Continental Congress was working on legislation to regularize the militia and see that they were paid by the Congress, but by mid-June still had not acted To complicate matters, militia units were responsible only to their own militia commanders and their own state governments. General Artemus Ward was commanding general of the Massachusetts militia, and leading the largest contingent of troops, held nominal authority over the non-Massachusetts forces.

General Gage considered his force too small to effectively attack the Rebels and hold the countryside outside of Boston. At the same time he became concerned that the surrounding heights of Dorchester and Charlestown provided an excellent opportunity for Rebels to place cannon and threaten Boston. Consequently, he began to plan measures to secure these strategic positions. But word leaked out and the Boston Committee of Safety recommended to Ward that he pre-empt the British move and seize Bunker Hill above Charlestown. Col. William Prescott supported the plan and was asked to lead a night mission to establish a redoubt (small fort) on Bunkers Hill. Together with 300 men of Prescott's regiment, and parts of Ebenezer Bridge's and Colonel James Frye's regiment were added 200 Connecticut men under Captain Thomas Knowlton from Putnam's regiment and Captain Samuel Gridley's artillery company with two light guns. About 5pm in the evening of June 16th this force assembled on the common in Cambridge and after a prayer set off quietly for the Horse's Neck.

Poised like a syrup drop extending into the harbor just to the north of Boston, the Charlestown peninsula is approximately one and a quarter miles long and lies between the Charles River on the West and the Mystic river on the East. On the north, the peninsula is joined to the mainland by a narrow neck which is only thirty feet wide at high tide. Bunker's Hill rises across the narrow western end of the peninsula and at 100 feet high, dominates the Neck. Any fortifications constructed there would be out of effective range of the British battery on Copp's Hill in Boston and would be too high to permit elevation of shipboard guns in the harbor. To the south and east of Bunker's Hill lies Breed's Hill, some 60 feet high gradually sloping to the harbor and Charlestown to its south and west.

Under the cover of darkness, the American force crossed the Neck and mounted Bunker's Hill. On the far slope the column stopped and a violent argument broke out among the leaders, with Prescott asserting that Ward's verbal orders had been to fortify the lower and more exposed Breed's Hill. Colonel Gridley, who was serving the role of engineer added to the ruckus contending that valuable time was being lost. At last the decision was made to make Breed's Hill the primary fortification and Bunker Hill the secondary fortification, if and when time permitted. The column moved on the Breed's Hill where at its apex, Gridley staked out the outline of a redoubt approximately 132 feet square. As the clock struck midnight, the men began to dig, throwing up dirt at a furious pace.

Prescott next detailed a company to patrol the shore and another to lay by close to the town. About 4 o'clock, the lookout on His Majesty's sloop-of-war Lively, with 20 guns, spotted the work on the redoubt and sounded the alarm. Captain Thomas Bishop immediately beat to quarters and opened fire on the redoubt. Bishop who had recently been found guilty by court-martial for deliberated neglect of duty over the disposition of the proceeds of a captured Spanish ship was doubtless determined not to be caught neglectful again. The Admiral of the fleet, sent a boat to stop the shooting but then seeing the problem for himself in the improving light, ordered his ships and the Copp's Hill battery to open fire on the redoubt.

Gage called a hasty council of war. After exploring a number of options with Generals Clinton and Howe, Gage decided on an amphibious assault with a landing on Moulton's Point below Breed's Hill. In the meantime, Prescott's men had consumed their one-day's ration in the course of digging the redoubt and a lucky cannonball had crashed the two barrels of water that had been brought along. As the cannonade continued, the men in the redoubt began to question the wisdom of remaining under fire. In the light of full day, British troops could be seen across the harbor assembling in Boston. Colonel Prescott was determined to fight. He had already quelled the men's fears by leaping to parapet after the first man was killed by a cannon shot, and slowly strolling along its exposed top to demonstrate the relative lack of danger from cannon fire. Now with the British preparing operations against them they were ready to leave. In fact some did leave, heading up and over Bunker's Hill and on to the Neck and Cambridge.

In the meantime, General Issac Putnam had ridden out to confer with Col Prescott soon after the Lively opened fire. Soon he rode back to Cambridge in search of General Ward to urge the reinforcement of Prescott. Ward was concerned that reinforcing Prescott would weaken his forces elsewhere and felt he had to wait to learn for certain where the British would attack. By 11 o'clock two British gondolas approached the Neck as close as possible and began firing at anything that moved along the neck. What actual affect this effort had remains unclear, though there were some casualties. By noon the British were in the boats and Howe with about 1,500 men embarked at one. Whether Ward had issued reinforcement orders or not before the British made their move, he did so now, sending orders to nine Massachusetts regiments, John Stark's and James Reed's New Hampshire regiments, and several artillery companies. All was confusion, with each regiment moving as it thought best and all the time men and officers dropping off and melting into the woodwork. The scene at the neck was chaotic. Several Massachusets regiments blocked the entrance fearful of crossing under direct cannon fire.

Colonel's Stark and Reed of the New Hampshire troops got the order to advance at two in the afternoon. Hastily assembling their men, they discovered that many were short of powder and shot. When the men were issued shot, time was lost as the men beat the shot into the proper caliber for the weapon each carried. When the New Hampshire troops arrived at the entrance to the Neck and found the Massachusetts troops blocking the way, Major Andrew McClary pushed his way to the frond and asked, "If Massachusetts didn't happen to need the road just then, would they mind moving over to let New Hampshire through?" The Massachusetts men moved smartly into the ditches as Stark and Reed calmly marched their men across the Neck.

By two, Howe had his troops landed and surveyed situation and determined that he needed more men. He sent a boat back across to Boston requesting reinforcements. The artillery battery that had been brought over by boat was now deployed on the forward slope of Breed's hill and opened fire at 3 pm. By now two recently appointed American general's had arrived on the scene: Dr. Joseph Warren and General Seth Pomeroy. Neither wished for command and asked but to be directed to where the fighting was expected to be the hottest. They went to the redoubt and greatly cheered the now weary and thirsty defenders.

By three, Howe's reinforcements had arrived and he formed the men on line in three ranks. In the meantime, Stark and the New Hampshire troops and some other units had arrived and using a stone fence and placing hay between an existing fence and hastily assembled wood fence extended the breastworks from the redoubt left to the water. As the British advanced, the Americans determined not to fire until the British were close. Stark had placed a stake in the ground 30 yards in front of his fence and urged his men to wait until the enemy passed the stake before firing. In the redoubt, Prescott is said to have instructed his men not to shoot until they saw the whites of their eyes. On Bunker's Hill a strange collection of men gathered. Some who had straggled in from the neck and others who had given themselves leave from the ensuing fight. General Isaac Putnam tried sorely to roust the men either to commence work on the Bunker Hill defenses or to go in support of Prescott and Stark. All his efforts, even threatening at sword point, were of no avail. The only regimental commander who was with him was Col. Samuel Gerrish, who depending on accounts was either trying to help Putnam or hiding himself. Generally considered a coward, Gerrish managed to elude scandal until a skirmish several weeks after Bunker's Hill showed his true colors.

When the British closed to thirty yards the Americans opened fire with devastating effect. In some companies 7 out of 10 were killed in others 9 of 10 died. The survivors stumbled back down the hill. When Howe returned to the bottom, he asked why the artillery battery had ceased firing while they were still approaching the Americans. To his chagrin he discovered that boxes of 12 pound shot had been sent over and that the artillery had only 6 pound cannons. Howe ordered them to shoot grape shot and sent back across the water for the proper shot. On Howe's left the American Company, still in the town, had taken to firing into his left flank. The Admiral landed and asked if burning the town might be of assistance and Howe readily agreed. The Admiral returned to his fleet and ordered the firing of red hot shot into Charlestown. The town of 400 buildings caught fire in 50 places and immediately went up in a huge conflagration.

The British came on twice more with similar losses. The third try succeeded, just barely in over-running the redoubt. The men with Prescott being out of powder and trying to make do by braking the powder out of artillery casings and using scrap metal for bullets. Finally, in the midst of hand-to-hand fighting Prescott called a retreat and the survivors scrambled over the back of the redoubt and trough the narrow exit. Joseph Warren was killed when he was shot in the back of the head.

Finally several more American Regiments got across the neck in good order and passing to the right of Bunker's Hill laid down a covering fire for Prescott's men. Gardner was first and was soon wounded. Michael Jackson took over for him and was soon joined by companies of Connecticut troops. Soon the British advanced on them and were in a bloody stand-up fight. In good order the troops fell back turning time and again to lay down delaying fire. Thus, did most of the men escape across the Neck to Cambridge.

The British wanted to pursue but the men were just played out. Howe proceeded to fortify Bunker's Hill and the Americans began throwing up breastworks on the far approaches to the Neck. In the initial British report, 19 officers and 207 enlisted men were killed, 70 officers and 738 enlisted men were wounded. On the American side, numbers varied, but Ward's record book showed 115 killed and 305 wounded.


Sources:

Carrington, Henry B. "Battles of the American Revolution", Promontory Press, New York. 1877.

Elting, John R. "The Battle of Bunker's Hill", Philip Freaneu Press, Monmouth, N.J. 1975

Johnson, Curt. "Battles of the American Revolution", Roxby Press, London. 1975

Scheer, George F. And Rankin, Hugh F. "Rebels and Redcoats", Da Capo Press, New York. 1957.


From "The History of Essex County, Massachusetts, p. 299" we have the following:

The tradition is that the company came near being surrounded toward the end of the battle, and that as the enemy came up on each hand a British soldier ran up to Capt. Davis, saying, "You are my prisoner." Capt. Davis, who was a resolute, powerful man, replied, "I guess not," at the same time running the soldier through with his sword.

"The blood spurted over his breeches as he drew it back, and he made his escape. It is also said that he took one of his wounded men upon his back, just after escaping from the redoubt, and carried him out of the reach of danger. As he was crossing the hollow between the hills (Breeds and Bunker), which was exposed to the fire from a British vessel, he saw before him a board fence. Capt. Davis, exhausted by excitement and the weight of his comrade, said: "I don't see how we can get over this fence," In an instant after, a cannon-ball knocked it to pieces and left the way clear.