The Battle of Bunker Hill, also known as Battle of Breed's Hill, was the first major battle of the American Revolution, fought in Charlestown during the Siege of Boston.
The Battle of Bunker Hill started when the colonists learned about the British plan to occupy Dorchester Heights. The colonists were understandably shaken by this news. They thought of this as the last straw, and they had to protect their land and freedom.
In Massachusetts, the patriot army was growing. Thousands of rebels poured into England ready to drive the British out of the colonies, and more specifically, out of Boston.
The American colonists heard news that the British planned to control the Charlestown peninsula between the Charles and Mystic Rivers. The peninsula was narrow to the northwest and it extended about one mile toward the southwest into Boston Harbor. At its closest approach, less than 1,000 feet separated it from the Boston Peninsula. Bunker Hill is an elevation at the north of the peninsula, and Breed's Hill is near the Boston end, while the town of Charlestown occupied the flats at the southern end. Bunker's and Breed's Hill overlooked both Boston and its harbor, thus making the hills critical vantage points.
A crude "army" was made to defend the hills. The army was not a national one, for no nation existed. Instead, the army was made up of men from Cambridge, New England, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Also, this hastily combined force of men had no assigned commander in chief, but did what their revered Generals instructed them to carry out.
On the night of 16th June 1775 around 1,500 American troops under command of Colonel William Prescott of the Massachusetts regiments and General Putnam’s Connecticut regiment occupied Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill on the Charlestown peninsula. The ultimate aim was sensible enough: to tighten the encirclement of Boston by commanding the heights both north and south of the town—Dorchester as well as Charlestown—and to deny those commanding hills to the British.
The American troops began to build a redoubt. But the spot chosen for fortification was not Bunker Hill but Breed's Hill, only 75 feet high and 600 yards farther from the neck, controllable from the higher ground at its rear and isolated from the sole route of retreat. And even in the best positions the ill-equipped, altogether untrained troops of the New England army could hardly be expected to hold out against sustained attacks by British regulars led by no less that four general officers experienced in warfare on two continents.
Prescott and his men began digging a fortification 160 feet long and 80 feet wide with ditches and earthen walls. They added ditch and dike extensions toward the Charles River on their right and began reinforcing a fence running to their left. The fortification was complete by the morning, after a night of frenzied work.
The presence of the Americans on the peninsula was observed by His Majesty’s Ship Lively, which opened fire on them. The British General, Gage, dispatched 2,300 troops under the command of Major General Howe to take control of the hill. It took almost six hours to organize an infantry force and to gather up and inspect the men on parade. General Howe was to lead the major assault, drive around the American left flank, and take them from the rear. General Robert Pigot on the British left flank would lead the direct assault on the redoubt. Major John Pitcairn led the flank or reserve force. The sun was shining from a cloudless sky a little past noon on June 17 when a British force of 1500 men landed on Charlestown Heights. The British Regulars advanced with bayonets fixed; many of their muskets were not even loaded. The British troops, wearing their bright red wool jackets and weighed down by heavy equipment, marched up hill over farm fields and low stone walls hidden in the tall grass.
As the colonists saw this massive red line approach slowly and steadily, they remained calm and did not open fire. General Putnam had known that the Americans did not have a large supply of ammunition, so he had ordered the men to not "fire until you see the white of their eyes." He had told them to be patient and make every shot count by picking off the officers first. While the preparations were in train the Americans extended their fortifications from the redoubt to the seashore, to prevent a flank attack. They had also called for reinforcements. The only troops to reach the forward positions were the 1st and 3rd New Hampdhire regiments of 200 men, under Colonels John Stark and James Reed. Stark's men took positions along the fence on the north end of the American position. When low tide opened a gap along the Mystic River along the northeast of the peninsula, they quickly extended the fence with a short stone wall. A stake about 100 feet was placed in front of the fence and orders were given that no one should fire until the regulars passed it. Private John Simpson disobeyed and fired as soon as he had a clear shot, thus starting the battle.
When the colonists began firing, the British soldiers started to fall rapidly. General Howe detached both the light infantry companies and grenadiers of all the regiments available. Along the narrow beach, the far right flank of the American position, Howe set his light infantry. They lined up four across and several hundred deep, led by officers in scarlet red jackets. The light infantry column was repelled with heavy casualties. General Howe now launched a frontal assault on the redoubt with the main body of his troops. This attack was driven back with heavy loss, in spite of an American shortage of ammunition. The reserve, gathering just north of the town, was also taking casualties from rifle fire in the town. During the attack the British left wing suffered from the fire of Americans in the town of Charlestown and the town was set ablaze. All 400 or so buildings and the docks were completely burned, but the snipers withdrew safely.
Howe's men reformed on the field and made a second unsuccessful attack at the wall. The second attack was launched along the length of the American entrenchments and was again driven back with heavy loss.
Some of Howe's remaining officers begged him then to break off the attack and review the situation. Instead, he called for reinforcements, ordered his troops to throw off their heavy equipment, stationed his artillery where it could rake the whole American line, and called for a third assault—a bayonet charge against the central barricades. Again the advancing line was thrown back by the defenders' fire, and again great gaps were torn in the marching ranks. But this time the fire was less intense and it could not be sustained. The 700 exhausted defenders had been sent no reinforcements; they had no supplies except what they had carried with them the night before. As the third charge neared the line of fortification their powder ran out, and though they fought desperately with everything they could lay hands on, they could no longer force the British back. For two and a half hours of intense battle, greatly outnumbered, they held out until they were bayoneted out of the stifling, dust-choked redoubt they had thrown up on Breed's Hill. Grenadiers and light infantrymen poured over the parapets and through the thin barricades, and dove into groups of defenders. The Americans turned and fled up over and around Bunker Hill. They were not vigorously pursued. So the battle came to an end.
Half of the British forces had been casualties; perhaps a third of the 1,500 Americans engaged had been killed, wounded, or captured.
The American withdrawal and British advance swept through the entire peninsula, including Bunker Hill as well as Breed's Hill. Under Putnam, the Americans were quickly in new positions on the mainland. Coupled with the exhaustion of Howe's troops, there was little chance of advancing on Cambridge and breaking the siege.
The Battle of Bunker Hill was the first action for the Continental Army and showed how much work there was to be done in molding an effective army. While most of the soldiers in the entrenched works fought tenaciously, the intended reinforcements on Bunker Hill refused to advance to the support of their comrades and there was the greatest confusion between the officers as to precedence.
The battle had a number of lessons for the British. The attitude of the British was significantly changed, both individually and as a government. The senior officers had little idea how to conduct a battle with any degree of sophistication. Thomas Gage was soon recalled and was replaced by General Howe shortly afterward. Howe learnt his mistake in making a frontal assault. At every subsequent battle, where possible, he carried out flanking assaults.
The Battle of Bunker Hill proved that raw, untrained American troops could fight well if they had to; that success would come to the British only if they responded flexibly and imaginatively to the demands of warfare in colonial territories; that if the disunited, legally British states of America were to fight with any hope of success, a continental war against the greatest military power on earth would have to be forthcoming.
Only a few days after the battle, George Washington would lead a group of men up to Dorchester Heights, aiming their canons at the British, and then watched the Red Coats retreat from the hill. So even though the British had won the battle, it was a short-lived victory since the colonists took control of the hill again, but this time with more soldiers to defend it.