To the Last Drop of Blood: The Battle of Bunker Hill
Roughly two months after the crash of musketry signaled the beginning of the Revolutionary War at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, American militiamen stood ready to fight again. On June 17, 1775, American troops entrenched on Breed’s Hill on the Charleston peninsula across from Boston Harbor faced off against British soldiers and Marines led by General William Howe in the first pitched battle of the Revolution. The savage combat that took place along this hilly landscape left an enduring memory of bloody horror in the minds of the Redcoats and proved that the American citizen-soldier was not a foe to be taken lightly.
Following the opening action of the war in the small Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, British troops based in Boston were quickly surrounded by thousands of American militiamen. After receiving reinforcements, British General Thomas Gage set plans in motion to break out of Boston and squash the colonial rebellion, once and for all. Before he could make his move, however, the Americans beat him to the punch.
British General Thomas Gage. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
After discovering that the British commander intended to march troops out of Boston to seize the commanding high ground surrounding the city, the Americans reacted swiftly and moved 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 militiamen under the command of Colonel William Prescott ended up fortifying “Breed’s Hill, an adjacent mound, afterward renamed,” as noted by historian Benson Bobrick. After a night of backbreaking work and further labor on the 17th, the sleepless, hungry, and tired Americans had constructed a strong redoubt and other defensive entrenchments.
The rising sun on the morning of June 17 revealed the new American positions to stunned British lookouts. It did not take long for the Redcoats to respond. At 5:30 a.m., British artillery opened fire on the Americans, bombarding the militiamen with “an incessant shower of shot and bombs,” according to an eyewitness, and waking up the town and countryside. As General Gage studied the American lines through his spyglass, he asked an aide, “Who is that officer commanding?” The aide revealed that Colonel William Prescott led the Americans. Gage inquired further: “Well, will he fight?” Gage’s aide, who happened to be Colonel Prescott’s brother-in-law, replied, “Yes, sir, depend upon it, to the last drop of blood in him, but I cannot answer for his men.” In the action that followed, the aide’s prediction about Prescott proved to be entirely accurate. As it turned out, many of Prescott's men were also willing to fight to “the last drop of blood” in themselves.
Colonel Prescott atop the redoubt on Breed's Hill. (Photo Credit: American Battlefield Trust)
Determined to meet the Americans with force, General Gage made the decision to mobilize British troops for an attack against the enemy. His subordinate, General William Howe, was given command of the field and entrusted with leading the offensive. As the Redcoats prepared to move out throughout the day, British guns in Boston and on nearby naval ships concentrated their firepower against the American defenses. During the bombardment, Prescott’s men continued their efforts to strengthen their positions and received a boost when around 800 troops under Colonel John Stark arrived as reinforcements. At approximately three that afternoon, the British guns began to fall silent. Once the smoke from the cannon of the Crown began to clear, the Americans could see some 40 barges loaded with British soldiers and Marines crossing over from Boston Harbor to strike.
With around 1,550 front line troops and a reserve numbering approximately 700-strong, General Howe led two columns forward for the opening assault. As Bobrick describes the scene, “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 only added to the difficulty for the soldiers and Marines who had to march up the steep hill to engage the Americans. As the colonials hunkered down in their defenses and steeled themselves for the thick columns of professional troops advancing their way, Colonel Prescott allegedly urged his men to be patient, telling them, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”
Patriots standing ready to take on the Redcoats from their redoubt on Breed's Hill. (Photo Credit: Don Troiani)
Although the Redcoats began the attack “with great confidence, expecting an easy victory,” according to a British officer, the Americans took sharp aim, unleashing “an incessant stream of fire,” and repulsing two of Howe’s assaults. “So precise and fatal was our fire,” reported one American, “that, in . . . a short time, they gave way and retired, leaving many wounded and killed.” The strength of the defenders and the terrible slaughter they inflicted caught many of the British by surprise, including General Howe, who said he experienced “a moment that I never felt before.” Despite the bloody shock, Howe rallied his troops and launched a third assault. By this time of the fight, the Americans were nearly out of ammunition and could not hold back the renewed British attack. Even as many of the Redcoats were practically on top of them with their bayonets, many Americans in the redoubt continued to fight until the very end.
In a battle that lasted no more than two hours, the Americans were ultimately forced to retreat. While the British gained the ground, they paid dearly for their victory. According to historian John Ferling, “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.”
British troops battling their up Breed's Hill in the face of withering American fire. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)
At the Battle of Breed’s Hill, which is popularly known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, between 300-500 Americans were reportedly killed, wounded, or captured. One of the most painful losses on that bloody day was the death of Joseph Warren, a physician who had emerged as one of the most prominent Revolutionary leaders in Massachusetts. After he was wounded in action at Lexington in April, Warren stepped forward to fight again at Breed’s Hill. As Bobrick writes, he was among the last Americans to “hold out” in the redoubt against the British until he “was felled with a point-blank shot to the back of his head.”
The war against the British Crown was still just getting started, but because so many American citizen-soldiers fought to the last drop of blood on Breed’s Hill, the Redcoats were handed a bloody shock that they would never forget. Their stand was proof that ragtag American militiamen had the power and the spirit needed to take on the mightiest empire in the world.
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.
National Park Service: Bunker Hill Monument.
Smithsonian Magazine: The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill.