Sunday, October 14, 2018

Episode 066: British Take Bunker Hill

Last week, I discussed how the provincial army decided to occupy Bunker Hill, then actually occupied Breed’s Hill on the night of June 16-17, 1775.  The next morning, the British under the command of Gen. William Howe crossed the harbor to land a force in Charlestown.  They expected to push the inexperienced colonists off the hill and off the Charlestown peninsula.  It took Howe all day to get his forces across the water and prepare for attack.  He held back his forces until all of them, including his reserves, were across.  Gen. Howe sensibly wanted to hit hard with all of his forces at once.

Provincial Defenses

The delay, however, gave Massachusetts Col. William Prescott, in command of the provincial forces on Breed’s Hill, more time to entrench and expand his defenses.  He also had time to call for reinforcements, though those never came. Also frustrating was the fact that that Prescott really did not have command of all the forces.  Prescott controlled the contingent on Breed's Hill where his Massachusetts militia had, build the main defenses.  New Hampshire Colonel John Stark used his colonial militia to build a defense of the provincial’s left flank, but did not really coordinate his work with anyone else.  Connecticut General Israel Putnam spent most of his day yelling at infantry and artillery on Bunker Hill, but not accomplishing much of anything else.

"Bunker Hill Flag" flown by the
provindials (from Wikimedia)
The three separate groups, however, did manage to create a rather formidable defense.  Each leader seemed to see the weaknesses left by the others and tried to fill in the gaps.  Prescott held a strong fortification in the center.  Stark built a surprisingly impregnable defensive line on the left flank, defending the line all the way to the water line.  Putnam got the forces on Bunker hill, primarily artillery, to prevent an easy path for the British around Prescott’s right flank.

British First Assault

By mid-afternoon, some time between 3:00 and 4:00 PM on June 17th Gen. Howe was finally ready to make his first advance on the provincial lines.  Howe divided his force in half, leaving his second in command, Gen. Robert Pigot to begin a direct assault on Breed's Hill.  Howe would lead the other half of his army against the right flank where General Stark and Captain Knowlton had thrown up breastworks.

While the British had disembarked, Putnam had sent militia into Charlestown village where they took up positions as snipers in the building.  Pigot’s men lining up for the assault took casualties from the harassing fire in the village. Howe approved Admiral Graves’ request to destroy the town.  Graves opened up on Charlestown with hot shot (iron balls heated to the point where they would set wooden buildings on fire when they came into contact) and carcasses (combustible materials fired from cannon, designed to set buildings on fire).  Graves also deployed a team of sailors with torches to complete the destruction.  The effort quickly burned the entire village of several hundred buildings to the ground. The provincial snipers either burned or retreated back up the hill.  The fire also contributed to the oppressive heat for everyone in the area.

British Grenadiers on Bunker Hill by E. Moran (1909)
(from Britanica)
Howe, advanced at the front of his line toward the provincial’s left flank.  Meanwhile Pigot advanced his troops directly against Breed’s Hill.  Howe also sent several light infantry companies along the beach, trying to get around the provincial lines and attack from the rear.

Howe’s planned attack quickly fell apart.  The 330 light infantry sent along the beach should have been able to push through the 50 militia defending the beach.  General Howe had requested that Admiral Graves position a ship to fire on the beach, but by late afternoon Graves could not move anything there to be of use that day.  Militia typically would panic and fire early before the enemy was in range.  Regulars could then charge their position and destroy them with bayonet.  Col. Stark, however, had carefully instructed his men not to fire until the British reached a marker on the beach that he had laid out.  In doing so, the militia held their fire until the British were close enough to take a devastating volley.  The British staggered back, attempting several more assaults, but given the thin strip of land, had to climb over their dead comrades, thus slowing their charges.  They never were able to break the provincial line.  Nearly a third of the British force lay dead or dying on the beach, with many more wounded.  Stark’s American left flank held.

Meanwhile, Howe and Pigot had their own problems advancing the main force up the hill.  The fields around Breed’s Hill had a number of low lying fences, which farmers used to mark property boundaries.  The soldiers stumbled to cross these fences in the face of enemy fire.  Like Stark’s men, Prescott got his soldiers to hold their fire until the regulars were well within range, then unleash devastating volleys.  He also used sharpshooters to pick off enemy officers at an alarming rate.  Meanwhile, Putnam had found the cannons abandoned by his artillery, grabbed a few infantrymen, and gave them a quick on the job training in artillery fire.  Soon, provincial artillery was firing into the advancing British lines with pretty effective results.

Howe realized his right flank on the beach had failed to break the enemy lines.  He now knew his main assault had to succeed.  But the fire against the regulars as they attempted to get over the fences and reform their lines was too much.  The regulars kept trying to fall back and reform lines before advancing again, but could not force their way into the redoubt.  Soon hundreds of regulars lay dead and wounded all over the field, creating even more impediments for future assaults.  Howe tried to order his field cannon closer to break the enemy lines, but the cannon got stuck in the muddy fields and could not get into position.

Pigot’s direct assault on Breed’s Hill took fewer casualties, but also failed.  Once he saw Howe’s line begin to retreat, he also pulled back to prevent the wholesale slaughter of the British left.

Provincial Lines Hold

Once the infantry pulled back, the artillery renewed its largely ineffective barrage of the provincial defenses.  Meanwhile, Prescott’s men were exhausted.  Most had been awake for nearly 36 hours, having built their defenses the night before.  They were beginning to run out of ammunition, having only what they carried in their cartridge boxes.

Prescott had maintained good firing discipline in the redoubt.  The entrenchments had protected most of them from enemy fire.  But desertion had reduced the redoubt to about 150 men.  Most of them were out of ammunition.  The officers found a few artillery shells and broke them open to use the powder in the muskets.  Still, there were not enough musket balls.  Defenders experimented with shooting small rocks or anything else they could fit down their barrels.

Colonial defenders at the rail fence
(from British Battles)
Prescott kept waiting for reinforcements.  The few companies that crossed Charlestown Neck, seemed content to observe the battle from Bunker Hill.  They did not even bother to start a second line of entrenchments on that larger hill, in the event that the British overran Breed’s Hill.  Only a single company of Connecticut militia serving under Captain John Chester joined Prescott in the main redoubt.  This supplemented the line with only about 20 more men.

The other person able to join Prescott was Major-General Joseph Warren, who had recently received his commission from the Provincial Congress while serving as that body’s President.  Warren had spent the morning in Cambridge suffering from a terrible migraine headache.  But he was determined to join the fight, despite the fact that everyone thought he was too valuable to risk on the battlefield.  But Warren said he could not ask other men to risk their lives if he would not do the same.  He wanted to be where the fighting was most dangerous.  He acquired a musket and joined Prescott in the redoubt.  Again, although he outranked Prescott, he left Prescott in command.

Despite the abysmal performance by provincial artillery, they did provide Prescott with a little support. Captain Samuel Trevett was the only artillery officer that day to make a pretty good account of himself.  He disobeyed Col. Gridley’s orders to remain off the Charlestown Peninsula and fire at the navy from the relative safety of Cobble Hill.  Instead, Trevett brought two field cannon across Bunker Hill, past the redoubt on Breed’s Hill, and set up in the defensive fletches just to the east of the redoubt.  From there, his crews could bring effective fire against the regulars trying to storm the redoubt.

According to some accounts, General Putnam also convinced another artillery crew to move down from Bunker hill and set up in a defensive location just to the west of the redoubt.  Although the inexperienced crews could not fire quickly, they did contribute to the fire against the regulars trying to take Breed’s Hill.

Second Assault

As soon has the regulars staggered back to the shore, Howe began almost immediately reforming his ranks for a second assault.  The regulars began their second assault right away, in hopes that the enemy would not have time to reinforce or reposition.

Battle of Bunker Hill
(from Reddit, used with permission)
The officers reformed the lines and made their second charge up Breed’s Hill.  Because ammunition was running low, Prescott ordered his provincials to wait until the British were within 30 yards of the redoubt.  Later retellings give the famous line “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”  But given these accounts came much later, it is unclear if Prescott ever really spoke those words.  Whatever words he did use though, Prescott got his men to hold their fire until the regulars were almost upon them.  He then unleashed what became some of the most brutal and devastating fire of the day.

The regulars tried to hold their ground and storm forward.  But the provincials kept up a three line volley fire, meaning a line fired about every ten seconds, while the other two reloaded.  Some British companies took 90% casualties.  By one account, some regulars began stacking up their own dead to use as a defense against the withering fire.

One American sharpshooter in a tree above the redoubt did his best to pick off officers with deadly accuracy.  He had several men below him reloading and passing him a loaded rifle, allowing him to take shots with great rapidity.  It is estimated that this one shooter alone took out about twenty officers before the enemy dispatched him.

After about thirty minutes of brutal fighting, the British staggered back in retreat for a second time.  One of the few regulars still standing on Breed’s Hill was Gen. Howe, who somehow found himself amazingly alive as everyone around him had fallen.  Stunned by the repulse, Howe remained standing.  The then slowly picked his way back down the hill, stepping over the hundreds of bodies that littered his path.

Third Assault

General Howe had to accept that his first two attempted assaults were complete failures.  The provincials had held their ground, contrary to all conventional wisdom.  Further, his own regulars had been unable to keep lines or withhold fire until within range.  He decided to make a few changes for the third assault.  First, he finally got his artillery within range of the enemy lines.  British grapeshot tore into many of the provincials outside and around the redoubt.  Howe also organized his men into five columns rather than lines.  Normally, marching columns into battle is a bad idea since a single cannonball could rip through most of the column.  But the provincials did not really have any effective artillery.  The few they did have were off to the sides.  The columns left gaps between the soldiers so they could more easily get around impediments while advancing.  He ordered his remaining exhausted and overheated regulars to remove their packs and any other encumbrances.  Howe also ordered his soldiers not to load their guns.  He did not want them stopping to fire and breaking stride.  This would be a bayonet assault only.

Inside the provincial redoubt, Prescott had more men now, but these were the men who had been protecting his flanks  They had moved inside to get away form the deadly British artillery fire. This time, Prescott ordered his men to withhold fire until the enemy was within 15 yards.  The regulars got so close that many thought the provincials had finally retreated and had abandoned the redoubt.

Death of Maj. Pitcairn
(from British Battles)
Instead, the provincials gave the regulars another deadly volley.  The British took heavy casualties but continued forward, storming the redoubt shouting “fight, conquer, or die!”  The provincials had killed most of the British officers, so confusion reigned.  Regulars got pinned down behind the final wall as both sides continued to fire.  One of the field commanders at the lead of the regulars was Major John Pitcairn, the same marine who had commanded the regulars on Lexington Green a few months earlier.  Pitcairn desperately charged his marines into the withering fire, taking a mortal wound to the chest.

Soon though, provincial fire slacked as they had no more ammunition.  The regulars swarmed the redoubt, expecting the provincials to surrender or flee.  Those provincials who had not deserted though, were the toughest of the lot.  They continued fighting hand to hand, using their guns as clubs.  Finally, Prescott and Warren called for a retreat.  General Warren used his sword to fight hand to hand as the soldiers pulled out.  Warren was determined to be the last man out of the redoubt.  As the men retreated, Warren called for one last volley.  At that moment a British officer’s aide pulled a pistol and fired, shattering Warren’s skull, killing him instantly.  Just to be sure, a group of grenadiers bayoneted his body repeatedly.  The regulars, angry at the high price they paid to take the hill, were in no mood to accept any surrenders, even if anyone even tried.

The provincials took most of their casualties for the day during the retreat.  The British fired repeated volleys as the survivors ran across an open field, escaping Breed's Hill and moving up Bunker Hill.  On Bunker Hill, Putnam attempted to rally a second line.  But even he could not stem the panicked retreat over Bunker Hill and back across Charlestown Neck.

Having captured the defenses on Breed’s Hill.  Howe decided not to pursue the retreating provincials.  His army was in disarray and most of his officers dead or wounded.  It was now near evening.  Gen. Clinton had  crossed into Charlestown without orders, bringing even more reinforcements.  But they were too late to engage.  The remaining provincial forces retreated across Charlestown Neck back toward Cambridge, leaving the peninsula completely in British control. The battle was over.

Bunker Hill Aftermath

Bunker Hill is considered a British victory because the regulars successfully took the hill and took control of the Charlestown peninsula.  But it was a costly victory.  The British suffered more than 1000 dead and wounded.  British officers took a big hit, with over 80 killed or wounded.  If you don’t count Clinton’s late arrivals, that is nearly a 50% officer casualty rate.

Generals Howe and Pigot, both of whom led chargers survived unscathed, though all of Howe’s 12 aides who marched alongside him were killed or wounded.  While the British won the battle, they learned that the provincials would stand and fight.  Like British leaders before them, the new generals now understood taming the American rebellion would be no easy task.  In a letter following the battle, Gage wrote “The loss we have sustained, is greater than we can bear.  Small Armys cant afford such losses, especially when the Advantage gained tends to little more than the gaining of a Post.

The Americans took about 450 casualties that day.  Only about 30 were taken prisoner, and 20 of those died in captivity, likely due to serious wounds before capture.  Although over 3000 provincials claimed to participate in the battle in some way, there were never even 1000 men opposing the British assault at any point in the battle.  So as a percentage, casualty rate for the Americans who actually fought on Breed’s Hill was pretty high as well.

Death of General Warren by J. Trumbull (1786)
(from Wikimedia)
Gen. Gage had planned to take Dorchester Heights following the capture of Bunker Hill.  But the casualty rates from the battle changed his mind.  His army would occupy and entrench Bunker Hill, but would not attempt to take any more land from the Provincial Army.

The most painful loss for the provincials was the death of Gen. Warren.  James Warren would replace Joseph Warren as President of the Provincial Congress.  James was no close relation to Joseph.  He was married to Mercy Otis Warren, the sister of the famous James Otis.  The man who had played such a large role over many years in the events leading to the fighting in Boston.

The British guards on Charlestown Neck, eventually put up artillery to prevent any attempted counter attack.  The provincials fortified entrenchments between the Neck and Cambridge, to stem another British assault.  They also fortified their defenses in Roxbury, still expecting a British attempt to take Dorchester Heights.  Col. Gridley oversaw the new defenses, but received assistance from a new source, a Boston bookstore owner named Henry Knox.  Knox had long been a Son of Liberty and active in pre-war Boston.  Despite having no actual military experience, Knox had read all about military engineering and artillery.  He was ready to put his learning to work.

On the British side, General Gage had decided against any further assaults for now.  Both armies buried their dead and treated their wounded, a larger percentage of which would die over the next few weeks, given the state of military medicine.

Many British officers blamed their defeat on the poor performance of the regulars.  That poor performance, many argued, reflected poor training and drill, which in turn reflected on the officers.  Ultimately, Gage was to blame and would lose his command as a result of the losses at Bunker Hill. But that decision was still months away.  Instead, the American commander would be the next one replaced, when the Americans get a new Commander in Chief, General George Washington.

- - -

Next Episode 67: Washington Takes Command

Previous Episode 65: Provincials Occupy Bunker Hill

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Further Reading:


Ketchum, Richard "The Decisive Day Is Come" American Heritage Mag. Aug 1962, Vol. 13, Iss. 5:

John Stark

Samuel Gerrish

Bunker Hill Courts Martial:
Capt. Callender:
Maj. Gridley:
Capt. Gridley:

Samuel Gerrish Court Martial:

VIDEO: Nathaniel Philbrick discusses his book, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, C-Span, 2013:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bolton, Charles (ed) Letters of Hugh, Earl Percy, from Boston and New York, 1774-1776,  Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed, 1902.

Dana, Elizabeth Ellery (ed) Barker, John John Barker diary - The British in Boston, 1774-1776, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press 1924.

French, Allen The Siege of Boston, New York: Macmillan, 1911.

Frothingham, Richard History of the Siege of Boston, Boston: CC Little & J. Brown, 1851.

Frothingham, Richard Life and times of Joseph Warren, Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1865.

Lincoln, William (ed) The journals of each Provincial congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of safety, Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838.

Swett, Samuel History of Bunker Hill Battle: With a Plan, Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1826.

VIDEO: Uhlar, Janet Dr. Joseph Warren: Early American War Hero (1 hr) Bedford TV,  2016.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.

Borneman, Walter American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution, New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2014.

Fleming, Thomas Now We are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill, St. Martin’s Press, 1960.

Forman, Samuel Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty, Pelican Publishing, 2011.

Lockhart, Paul The Whites of Their Eyes, New York: Harper Collins, 2011.

Nelson, James L. With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011.

Philbrick, Nathaniel Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, New York: Penguin Books, 2013.

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution,  New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

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