June 17, 1775: The Battle of Bunker Hill
Some landmark moments of the American Revolution took place during the month of June in 1775. On June 14, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution to create an “Army of the United Colonies”. The following day, George Washington was assigned to command this army. As these decisions were being made, American militiamen were stationed around the areas of Boston, Massachusetts. On June 17, these forces clashed with British troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill. This early engagement turned into one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War.
In early June of 1775, Boston was a city surrounded by unoccupied hills. Whoever controlled these hills would have firm command over the Boston Harbor. The British already held Boston at this time and planned on sending troops outside of the city to fortify the important hills. American forces caught wind of this plan and positioned themselves on Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. The night before the battle, American troops constructed a strong defensive position on Breed’s Hill, which was just below Bunker Hill. Upon this discovery, British General William Howe launched a full frontal assault of 2,400 men to wipe out the defenders.
British grenadiers at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1909. (Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica)
The well disciplined British troops advanced in columns against the Americans. William Prescott commanded American forces during the battle. He told his men, “Don't one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Once the British had moved to within 40 yards of the American position, they opened a barrage of musket fire and forced the first wave of British troops to retreat. Howe reformed his lines and launched a second assault that met a similar fate. After the second assault, Prescott’s men were dangerously low on ammunition. General Howe remained persistent and launched a third attack that finally succeeded. The Redcoats had reached the American redoubts and were engaging the defenders in hand-to-hand combat. Outnumbered and on the verge of collapse, the Americans were forced to retreat.
A statue of American commander William Prescott at the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo: en.wikipedia.org)
Bunker Hill, Breeds Hill, and the Charlestown Peninsula fell to the British, but the cost of victory was incredibly high. According to history.com, “By the end of the engagement, the Patriot’s gunfire had cut down nearly 1,000 enemy troops, including 92 officers.” Nearly half of the British troops who had entered the battle were either killed or wounded. This horrific loss of life was shocking to many like British General Thomas Gage. Gage wrote, “The loss we have sustained is greater than we can bear.” Some historians would say that the British were overconfident going into the engagement. While the men they were fighting were by no means a professional fighting force, they had caused tremendous damage. Once General George Washington arrived in Massachusetts to take command of the American Army, the British would not underestimate its opponent again.
General George Washington taking command of the American Army. (Photo: mountvernon.org)
American forces are estimated to have suffered between 370 and 400 casualties during the Battle of Bunker Hill. Most of those came during the retreat. While the battle was unquestionably a loss, the Americans had proven their worth in combat. This gave much needed confidence and hope to those fighting for the American cause. The road ahead would not be easy, but the American spirit always endured.