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Rapid-Fire History: Battle of Bunker Hill


On Saturday, June 17, 1775, Colonial militiamen entrenched on Breed’s Hill on the Charleston peninsula across from Boston Harbor stared down British troops led by General William Howe in one of the earliest and most significant battles of the American Revolution. After discovering that British General Thomas Gage intended to march troops out of Boston to seize the commanding high ground surrounding the city, the Americans reacted swiftly, moving to occupy a 110-foot rise on the peninsula named Bunker Hill on the night of June 16. Under the cover of darkness, the 1,200 Massachusetts militiamen under Colonel William Prescott ended up fortifying “Breed’s Hill, an adjacent mound, afterward renamed,” as noted by the historian Benson Bobrick. After a night of backbreaking work and further labor on the 17th, the sleepless, hungry, and tired Americans had constructed a redoubt and other defensive entrenchments. Crown artillery opened fire on the rebel positions beginning at 5:30 a.m., bombarding the Americans with “an incessant shower of shot and bombs,” according to an eyewitness, until about three that afternoon when some 40 barges of British regulars were seen crossing over to attack.

Numbering around 1,550-strong with a reserve of 700 under Howe, two British columns lead the opening assault. As Bobrick records, “It was a blazing hot summer’s day, and the troops were absurdly encumbered with blankets, knapsacks, and provisions, altogether weighing 125 pounds per man,” which was no easy task for the soldiers who had to march up the steep hill. Although the Redcoats began the attack “with great confidence, expecting an easy victory,” according to a British officer, the militiamen took sharp aim, unleashing “an incessant stream of fire,” and repulsing two Crown attacks. The strength of the defenders and the terrible slaughter they inflicted caught many of the British by surprise, including Howe, who said he experienced “a moment that I never felt before,”but the Redcoats came again. After running out of ammunition, the Americans were unable to throw back the third British assault. Even as Howe’s troops were practically on top of them with their bayonets, many Americans in the redoubt continued to fight until the very end.

The Redoubt by Don Troiani, depicting the closing moments of the battle as British troops overwhelm the American redoubt. (Photo Credit: Don Troiani)

Although the Americans were forced to retreat, they made the British pay dearly for their victory. As the historian John Ferling writes, “Fully 50 percent of the regulars who saw combat were killed or wounded-226 had died, 928 were casualties. Ninety British officers, nearly 40 percent of the officers in Boston, died or were wounded.” General Gage was forced to admit that the “loss we have Sustained, is greater than we can bear.” Another British commander agreed, calling it a “dear bought victory,” and declaring that “another such would have ruined us.” Colonial losses were approximately 160 killed and some 271 wounded. The war against the Crown was still just getting started, but the American citizen-soldiers gave the British a bloody shock that they would never forget at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Sources

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.

American Battlefield Trust: Bunker Hill.

Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick.

Smithsonian.com: The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

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