The Battle of Bunker Hill was the first major conflict of the Revolutionary War. The British won a pyrrhic victory against the Patriots on June 17, 1775, but casualties were so high as to embolden the colonial forces to continue prosecuting the war against the enemy.
Scroll down to see a detailed breakdown on the background events and the main occurrences of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The Second Continental Congress
- The colonists began to divide into Loyalists (who wanted to remain part of Great Britain) and Patriots, who wanted independence.
- New England militiamen had closed off the port of Boston to British ships.
- The Second Continental Congress met on May 10, 1775 in Philadelphia. The battle at L&C was less than a month old.
- Some representatives (John Adams for example) pushed to declare independence from Britain, but the majority of delegates did not want this.
- Ft. Ticonderoga was a British fort in upstate New York near Lake Champlain. It was lightly guarded and was in a state of disrepair.
- It was captured on May 10, 1775 by colonial militia led by Ethan Allen (“Green Mountain Boys”) and Benedict Arnold.
- The capture of the fort gave the colonies several cannon (78 in all!) and much needed supplies.
- Arnold and Allen then took control of all of Lake Champlain as far north as Fort St. John at the northern end of the lake.
- Arnold took 150 men and captured a 70-ton British sloop at Fort St. John, just 20 miles south of Montreal. He sailed it back to New York.
- Arnold put forth $1000 pounds sterling of his own money to help pay for this campaign.
The Situation around Boston
- The patriot colonial governments appointed commanders who began to organize the militia companies into regiments (600 men) with 10 companies each (60 men per company). This took time.
- Discuss Boston's geography: It was almost an island, connected to the mainland by a narrow neck south of town. There was high ground to the southeast (Dorchester Heights) and to the northwest (the Charlestown Peninsula) with three hills: Morton's Hill, Breed's Hill, and Bunker Hill.
- From these hills, the patriots could rain down artillery into the town.
- On May 27, Massachusetts and NH militia troops seized Noodle's Island, northeast of Boston. British troops attempted to retake the island, but the patriots fought them off.
- The colonials wanted to put artillery pieces on the Dorchester Heights, but they had almost none. The British chased them off in early June, occupying the heights themselves. This left only one area of high ground left to the rebels.
Militiamen Occupy Breed's Hill
- On June 15, the militia leadership decided to occupy Bunker Hill in order to have a place from which to fire artillery into Boston.
- About 1200 militiamen moved on to the Charles Town peninsula, but the commanders decided to place them on Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill.
- On Breed's Hill, the militiamen constructed a redoubt (an earthen fort 130 feet square and with six-foot high walls). The redoubt had a ditch in front of it.
- They also built a wall of earth and stone facing the west side of the peninsula. The wall stretched from the north (left) side of the redoubt to a stone wall to the left (north side of the peninsula). Part of the wall was actually a fortified rail fence.
- The British fleet fired cannonballs at them, but they were mostly ineffective.
- Despite this, many militiamen left the hill to return home. By the next day, the American force in the redoubt was down to five or six hundred.
- One colonial commander, Israel Putnam, summoned reinforcements. About 200 men under Colonels John Stark and James Reed arrived and manned the wall that ran between the redoubt and the Mystic River.
- The most notable reinforcement to arrive was General Joseph Warren, who arrived just as the British began to move. He did not serve as an officer, but just as a volunteer.
The British Prepare for the Battle of Bunker Hill
- General Gage called a council of his senior commanders. Clinton suggested seizing the neck of the peninsula, trapping the rebels on it. Gage rejected this idea.
- Howe proposed to land several regiments and a battalion of Marines on the Charles Town peninsula. He would lead an attack from behind on the redoubt while the Marines would demonstrate in the front of the redoubt.
- Gage agreed to this plan. He wanted to show that no American militiamen could resist British regulars, even if they were inside fortifications. Meanwhile, British ships in the Charles River fired on Charles Town to eliminate any snipers. They ended up burning down much of the town. They also fired at the redoubt.
- Around 2 PM, the last of about 1600 British troops landed on the peninsula at Moulton's point (southeast corner of peninsula). Howe realized he needed more soldiers, so he summoned 700 reinforcements from Boston. Howe had the original force rest until reinforcements could arrive.
The First British Charge at the Battle of Bunker Hill
- At 3 PM, the reinforced British army (now up to about 2200 soldiers) began to mount a bayonet charge toward the wall and the redoubt. General Howe personally led the attack on the rail fence.
- Along the way they encountered many obstacles, including high grass, swamps, clay pits, brick kilns, fences, and (soon) the dead bodies of their comrades. Also it was very hot and the soldiers were loaded down with gear.
- The militiamen in the redoubt (under the command of Col. William Prescott) were armed with smoothbore muskets, which had an effective range of less than 100 yards. For this reason, Prescott ordered “Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes, then fire low!” He also said “Pick off the commanders!” (Although these words may have been legendary).
- When the rebels fired, 95 British were killed immediately, and dozens more fell wounded. The charge halted. New Hampshire Colonel John Stark said “I never saw sheep lie as think in the folds”
- The British turned and ran.
- While the first redcoat charge was occurring, the Marines were struggling to get to the front of the redoubt. Hidden skirmishers picked off many. They too retreated.
The Second and Third Charges of the Battle of Bunker Hill
- Howe reformed the troops and led another charge, this time with more men. The militiamen shot down 240 of them (killed or wounded). They retreated back down the hill.
- Howe's entire staff was killed. He later wrote “There was a moment I never felt before.”
- Howe summoned several hundred more troops from Boston. When they arrived, he led a third charge, which he led personally. This time he had his soldiers take off their heavy packs. This would be a bayonet-only assault.
- Meanwhile, the militiamen were running out of ammunition. They had expended 13,000 musket balls in the first two charges. Some militiamen threw rocks at the British.
- On the third charge, Howe focused entirely on the redoubt, rather than on the redoubt and the stone wall. As they marched, they shouted “fight, conquer, or die!”
- British soldiers poured into the redoubt. One American officer wrote “I cannot pretend to describe the horror of the scene within the redoubt… 'twas streaming with blood and strewed with dead and dying men, the soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the brains of others… we tumbled over the dead to get at the living, who were crowding out of the gorge of the redoubt.”
- The militiamen in the redoubt and at the stone wall retreated onto Bunker Hill and then off the peninsula altogether. Some were left behind in the redoubt; 30 of them were bayonetted to death by British soldiers.
- The battle thus ended in a British victory, but a costly one.
Aftermath of the Battle of Bunker
- The Americans left 140 dead, 271 wounded, and 30 missing behind. One casualty was General Joseph Warren
- The British were too exhausted to pursue. They lost 226 dead and 828 wounded. Of the wounded, about 250 wounded would die of their wounds. British losses totaled about 50% of their initial strength. (This is a VERY high casualty rate). They lost 92 officers killed and wounded out of 250.
- General Howe wrote “The success is too dearly bought.” Gage wrote “The trials we have had show that the rebels are not the despicable rabble too many have supposed them to be. In all their wars against the French they never showed so much conduct, attention, and perseverance as they do now.”
- “I wish we could sell them another hill at the same price!” wrote New Hampshire General Nathaniel Greene.
- The carnage shocked everyone - even battle hardened veterans.
- The Americans learned a valuable lesson about the importance of supply lines.
- It was the most costly battle of the entire war for the British in terms of number killed and wounded.
The Continental Army is Formed
- On June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress voted to establish a Continental Army for purposes of common defense, adopting the forces already in place outside Boston (16,000 troops) and New York (5,000).
- It also raised the first ten companies of Continental troops on a one-year enlistment, riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia to be used as light infantry, who became the 1st Continental Regiment in 1776.
- On June 15, 1775, the Congress elected by unanimous vote George Washington as Commander-in-Chief, who accepted and served throughout the war without any compensation except for reimbursement of expenses (John Adams nominated him.
- Four major-generals (Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, Philip Schuyler, and Israel Putnam) and eight brigadier-generals. (Washington was a Lieutenant General) were soon appointed.
- When Washington arrived on July 2 to take command, he was disturbed by the chaos and the wretched conditions. He worked to make the army more professional. He organized the soldiers into Continental regiments (removing state identifications).
- Unfortunately, less than 10,000 of the militiamen agreed to enlist into the Continental Army, and they only enlisted for one year.
George Washington Mini-Bio
- Born in 1732 in Northern Virginia. His father died when he was 11. From then he was raised and educated by his mother and his brother Lawrence. From ages 16-18, he worked as a surveyor.
- When he was 17, George moved to Lawrence's estate (Mount Vernon), which he inherited upon Lawrence's death in 1752. He also inherited Lawrence's position as a major in the Virginia militia.
- Within 2 years, Washington had been promoted to Lt. Colonel.
- In 1754, the governor of VA sent Washington to clear the French out of the Ohio Country, which VA claimed. Washington and his force of about 100 were surrounded and sent back home by the superior French force at the Forks of the Ohio.
- A year later, the British government sent regular troops to the colonies. The commander of one force, Edward Braddock, asked Washington to serve on his staff. They marched to Fort Duquesne but were ambushed at the Battle of the Monongahela. Braddock was killed, but Washington rallied the survivors and led them back to VA.
- Washington became a hero. He tried to get a commission in the regular British army but was unsuccessful.
- In 1759, he married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow, took a seat in the House of Burgesses, and left the militia, living as a wealthy farmer.
- He became increasingly disillusioned with the British government, who increasingly imposed taxes and restrictions on western settlement in the 1760s.
- In 1774 he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.
- Washington, the owner of around 200 slaves, was pushed further into the rebel camp by the 1775 proclamation of VA governor Lord Dunmore, who promised to free any slaves who would run away to British lines. He even organized some into an “Ethiopian Regiment.” This proclamation struck terror into the hearts of the Virginia gentry.
- Washington was elected to the Second Continental Congress. He wore his old militia uniform to the meetings. He was put in charge of a committee to build defenses of NYC and then another committee to help supply the army.
- On June 15, he was offered overall command of the Continental Army. “I this day state with the utmost sincerity I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.” He nevertheless accepted.
- Physician and Patriot leader Benjamin Rush wrote that Washington “has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among 10,000 people. There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side.”
- When Washington appeared in front of his army, according to Nathanael Greene, “Joy was visible on every countenance and it seemed as if the spirit of conquest breathed through the whole army.”
American Reaction to Bunker Hill
- The Second Continental Congress (from here on just “Congress”) greeted the news of Bunker Hill with jubilation.
- On July 6, Congress produced a document called the Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms. It was written by John Dickinson, who used an earlier draft written by Thomas Jefferson.
- In it, they declared “We fight not for glory or conquest and we that mean not to dissolve that Union with Britain that has so happily existed between us.” But they went on to state they were “resolved to die free men than to live as slaves.”
- They also sent (on July 8) the “Olive Branch Petition” (written by John Dickinson) to the king. This document stated that the colonists would end their armed rebellion if the king would withdraw British military forces from the colonies and revoke the Intolerable Acts.
- John Adams and other pro-independence delegates thought the Olive Branch Petition was a waste of time.
British Reaction to Bunker Hill
- King George and British PM Lord North rejected the Olive Branch Petition. North told the king the rebellion should be treated as a foreign war. The king issued a proclamation saying (in essence) that the “gloves” had to come off.
- Parliament passed an act prohibiting trade and commerce with Europe. All American ships were subject to capture and confiscation.
- John Adams wrote “King, Lords, and Commons have united in sundering this country from that, I think, forever. It is a complete dismemberment of the British Empire… it makes us independent in spite of our supplications and entreaties.”
- The total strength of the British army was only 38,000. The Navy only had 18,000, but only 29 ships in North America, only 3 of which were “ships of the line.” Most of the Army and Navy were needed in other parts of the world.
- To solve the problem of manpower, King George chose to hire German mercenaries. Patriots heavily criticized this, but it had a long tradition in Europe. The mercenaries came from all over the German lands, but they came to be called “Hessians” after the state of Hess-Kassel, where most hailed. A total of 18,000 Hessians would serve with the British.
- General Gage was relieved of command and replaced with William Howe.
- Howe mini-bio: Howe joined the army in 1746. He saw extensive service in the War of the Austrian Succession and Seven Years' War. He became known for his role in the capture of Quebec in 1759 when he led a British force to capture the cliffs at Anse-au-Foulon, allowing James Wolfe to land his army and engage the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Howe also participated in the campaigns to take Louisbourg, Belle Île and Havana. He was the hero of Bunker Hill and was the youngest of three military brothers (the oldest, George, had been killed in the French and Indian War, and the second, Richard, was the commander of the British fleet in North America). When George Howe was killed, the grateful Massachusetts Assembly paid for a monument to him to be placed in Westminster Abbey. Because of this, both Richard and William looked fondly upon the American colonists.