Editor: Michael Spilling and Consultant Editor: Chris McNab
American Battles and Campaigns – The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17 1775
At the commencement of open warfare, 20,000 New England militia mustered under Gen Artemis Ward and surrounded Boston. The Americans learned through spies that British governor and Gen Thomas Gage intended to occupy the Charlestown peninsula and strategic heights overlooking Boston. Two days before Gage’s move, on the advice of Gen Israel Putnam, 1000 colonials under William Prescott and Richard Gridley with two small cannon constructed at night a redoubt on Breed’s Hill.
The position at Bunker Hill north of Boston lay in the line of the planned British advance and directly under British observation, the covert and necessarily hasty establishment of the position limiting the amount of food and ammunition the Americans had on hand. British ships commenced an ineffective bombardment at daylight, Gage and his generals deciding upon an immediate attack before the Americans could link the new fortification with their others. Tides, wind, shallows and the height elevation hampered the British Royal Navy’s efforts to assist the army’s attack. The first British difficulty in launching an infantry assault upon the position was in securing enough water transport to land Gage’s allotted force of 2600 men, the first British wave of 1000 troops digging in and prompting Ward to reinforce the American position to 1400 men, while Prescott frantically tried to firm up the resolution of his green troops and anchor his line on the Mystic River. The British failed to scout the line of their planned attack, which was crossed with stony ridges, long grass and fences. Gen Putnam did his best to solidify the American defenders, who wavered in some cases between fleeing before the attack or attacking outside of the defenses.
Additional British forces landing in Charlestown came under American fire and retaliated by burning the town. The British plan, followed repeatedly in the course of the ensuing war, was to flank the Americans out of their position; in this case the British right found fences and a well-designed
American position pouring an effective fire into their advance despite the British artillery bombardment. With the flanking movement failing, Charlestown in conflagration and evening approaching, Gage ordered his entire force into a headlong attack up Bunker Hill.
The celebrated American order was, ‘Don’t fire ’til you see the whites of their eyes’ and, with breastworks, walls and fences to steady them, the Americans obeyed it, maximizing the effectiveness of their minimal ammunition supplies. As the British force drew back with casualties, Gen Henry Clinton moved through burning Charlestown and launched another attack upon the American left, victorious so far, but now searching the fallen for ammunition.
British artillery finally cleared the American defenders and the British finally rolled up the American flank. Both sides resorted to the bayonet as the Americans slowly withdrew, suffering 310 casualties and 30 prisoners, having inflicted 1053 British casualties. Despite the efforts of the British light infantry to exploit the Americans’ withdrawal, sufficient resistance and reinforcements remained to halt further advance, leading to stalemate on the peninsula upon which the battle of Bunker Hill had been fought.
Both sides considered the engagement a classic ‘Pyrrhic’ victory, one not worth the costs to the victorious British side. The Americans found a battle cry and a sense of confidence from the clash, in which untried numbers had faced, fought and bloodied one of the finest armies in the world. The stage was set for more long years of sanguinary struggle.
Dr. Chris McNab is the editor of AMERICAN BATTLES & CAMPAIGNS: A Chronicle, from 1622-Present and is an experienced specialist in wilderness and urban survival techniques. He has published over 20 books including: How to Survive Anything, Anywhere — an encyclopedia of military and civilian survival techniques for all environments — Special Forces Endurance Techniques, First Aid Survival Manual, and The Handbook of Urban Survival. In his home country of Wales, UK, Chris provides instruction on wilderness hunting techniques and he is also an experienced martial arts instructor.