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Battle of Bunker Hill

By: G-Stain

Boom, Bang, Crack! The sounds of muskets being fired, its ammunition ricocheting off rocks and splintering trees are heard all around. The pungent smell of gun powder stings the nose, and its taste makes the mouth dry and sticky. The battle is still young, but blood soaked uniforms and dead or dying men can already be seen, causing the fear of death to enter many of the soldiers’ minds. It is remembered that freedom is what the fight is for, so we must continue to gain independence. The battle has been going on for a short time now, although vision is already obscured from all the smoke and dust in the air. It is becoming increasingly difficult to breathe, with all of these air borne substances entering my lungs. People are still being struck by musket balls for the cries of agony rise above the many guns’ explosions. This is how the battle to be known as Bunker Hill began. On June 17, 1775 the Battle of Bunker Hill took place. It is one of the most important colonial victories in the U.S. War for Independence.

Fought during the Siege of Boston, it lent considerable encouragement to the revolutionary cause. This battle made both sides realize that this was not going to be a matter decided on by one quick and decisive battle. The battle of Bunker Hill was not just an event that happened overnight. The battle was the result of struggle and hostility between Great Britain and the colonies for many years. Many of the oppressive feelings came as a result of British laws and restrictions placed on them. It would not be true to say that the battle was the beginning of the fight for independence. It is necessary to see that this was not a rash decision that occurred because of one dispute, but rather the seeds sown to precipitate this battle were planted a long time ago and had just burst forth. Perhaps two of the most notable injustices, as perceived by the colonists, were the Stamp Act and the Intolerable Acts. The Stamp Act was passed by the British Parliament to raise money for repaying its war debt from the French and Indian War. The Act levied a tax on printed matter of all kinds including newspapers, advertisements, playing cards, and legal documents.

The British government was expecting protest as result of the tax but the level of outcry they received. The colonists were so angry because they had no voice in Parliament which passed the law, thus came the famous cry, “No taxation without representation!” The colonists would protest these laws with the Boston Tea Party. The British responded to this open act of rebellion by imposing the Intolerable Acts, four laws designed to punish Boston and the rest of Massachusetts while strengthening British control over all the colonies. These were not the only incidents that caused unrest to exist between the two countries. There had been friction between British soldiers and colonists for some time because of the Quartering Act, a law which required townspeople to house soldiers. This unrest and tension resulted in the Boston Massacre, an event that resulted in colonists death and both sides being more untrusting of each other. These feelings of discontent and the growing fear of an uprising would lead the British to proceed to Lexington and Concord and destroy colonial military supplies.

This left the colonists with the feeling of hatred and total malice towards the British. Because of these incidents neither side trusted the other, and had concerns that the opposition would launch an attack upon them. When the British planned to occupy Dorchester Heights on the Boston Peninsula, the colonists became alarmed at the build up of British troops off of the coast. The colonists decided that action had to be taken so as to stop the threatening British movement in this territory to protect themselves from an attack. It was because of this last situation as well as the bad blood that had accumulated over the years, which would lead the colonies into a confrontation with the British. 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.

A crude “army” was made to defend the hill. 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 June 15, 1775 the American colonists heard news that the British planned to control the Charlestown peninsula between the Charles and Mystic Rivers. Bunker’s and Breed’s Hill on this peninsula overlooked both Boston and its harbor, thus making the hills critical vantage points. In order to beat the British to the high ground, General Prescott took 1,200 of his often times undisciplined, disobedient, and sometimes intoxicated soldiers to dig into and fortify Bunker Hill with the cover of night on June 16. When dawn broke, the British were stunned to see Breed’s Hill fortified overnight with a 160-by-30-foot earthen structure.

The British General, Gage, dispatched 2,300 troops under the command of Major General Howe to take control of the hill (Encyclopedia Britannica 1990). So it came to be that General Prescott did not actually fortify Bunker’s Hill, but Breed’s Hill instead. How did this happen? One proposed idea is that that Colonel William Prescott, since fortifying the hill in the middle of the night, chose the wrong hill. Another theory is that the map the Colonel used was incorrect, since many maps during this period had commonly misidentified the hills. Another suggestion, and probably the most practical, is that Breed’s Hill is closer to where the British ships were positioned allowing the colonists a better attacking position than at Bunker Hill. Regardless of the reason, the Battle of Bunker Hill actually took place on Breed’s Hill.

The fighting began as soon as the day did. As soon as the men on British frigate awoke they opened fire on the colonial fortifications. Carol McCabe states that one soldier wrote there would be firing for about twenty minutes, then a lull, then the ships would start firing again. At about 3:00 pm Thomas Gage, the British commander, ordered men to try and take control of the hill. It took Gage this long to issue a command due to a shortage of boats and an unfavorable tide. Peter Brown, an American soldier, would later write about this, “There was a matter of 40 barges full of Regulars coming over to us; it is supposed there were about 3,000 of them and about 700 of us left not deserted, besides 500 reinforcements. . . the enemy landed and fronted before us and formed themselves in an oblong square. . . and after they were well formed they advanced towards us, but they found a choakly [sic] mouthful of us (Here’s to the Losers: page 2).”

When the British forces were firmly established on the ground at the base of the hill they proceeded to charge. If you read the British letters and diaries, they expected to march up the hill and just scare the colonists away. 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. The fact they waited so long to commence an attack was that General Prescott has been assumed to have given the famous order, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.” If this command was given it would have been to either help preserve their already low ammunition supplies, and (or) to help keep the men from shooting out of their capable ranges.

Once the British came within range, the colonists began firing, and the British soldiers stated to fall rapidly. The British forces were driven back twice, but on their third and final thrust forward the British were able to break through the colonists’ line, overrunning the tentative American fortifications, thus taking the hill. The colonists fled back up the peninsula since it was there only escape route. This battle, which lasted for approximately three hours, was one of the deadliest of the Revolutionary War. Although the British technically won the battle because they took control of the hill, they suffered too many losses to fully benefit from it. The British had suffered more than one thousand casualties out of the 2,300 or so who fought. While the colonists only suffered 400 to 600 casualties from an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 men (The Henderson Island Website).

Besides having fewer deaths than the British, the colonists believe they had won in other ways as well. The Americans had proved to themselves, and the rest of the world that they could stand up to the British army in traditional warfare. And only a few days later, 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. The Battle of Bunker Hill was important for a variety of reasons. The first one being that it was the first battle of the Revolutionary War, and because of the fierce fighting that defined the battle it foreshadowed that it was going to be a long close war.

Another important event that came from the battle was that it allowed the American troops to know that the British army was not invincible, and that they could defeat the British in traditional warfare. The losses experienced on the British side also helped to bolster the colonists confidence. So it came to be that the Battle of Bunker Hill would be the foundation that the colonists would look back to for the may battles that occurred during the American Revolution. The first being that the British suffered heavy losses and would no longer be convinced of a victory when they went to battle the colonists. Rhode Island’s Nathaniel Grenne summed up the general feeling of the battle by saying “I wish we could sell them [the British] another hill at the same price (Here’s to the Losers. pg. 3)” Fifty years after the battle a movement began to rise in the young United States to create a memorial to the battle atop Breed’s Hill.

So, the Bunker Hill Memorial Association was formed and they bought fifteen acres of land atop of Breed’s Hill. Then in 1825 the cornerstone to the monument was laid. Through the course of the next 18 years the monument began to be constructed. It took this long to complete since the funding came from donations. The monument was slowly made from the granite taken from nearby Quincy. Even this close supply of rock did not keep the costs down. In order to finish the project, in 1839 the association had to sell ten acres of the land it had bought for the memorial in order to finance more work. The monument was finally dedicated on June 17, 1843 (68 years after the battle originally took place), and at the time Carol Mccabe says the monument had the national significance that the Washington Monument has today.

1. McCabe, Carol. “Here’s to the Losers” http://www.thehistorynet.com/HistoricTraveler/articles/1998/03986_text.htm 1998. The History Net 2. Unknown Author. “Major John Pitcairn” jump/majpit6.html Unknown year. Winthrop 3. Unknown author. “Bunker Hill, Battle of” Encyclopedia Britannica. 1990. Encyclopedia Britannica inc. Chicago.

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