The city of Charlestown, Massachusetts occupies a hilly peninsula to the north of Boston, at the point where the Mystic River meets the Charles. Like Boston itself, much of what is now Charlestown was once Boston Harbor. In 1775 the town was a virtual island, joined to the mainland only by a thin “neck” of land.
Thousands of Patriot Militia poured into the area following the April battles of Lexington and Concord, blocking British forces in control of Boston and its surrounding waterways.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress received word on June 13 that a massive assault was planned for the 18th, intending to take the high ground at Dorchester Heights to the south, and Charlestown to the north. Major General Israel Putnam was directed to set up defenses on Bunker Hill, on the northwest end of Charlestown.
Col. William Prescott led 1,200 men onto the peninsula on the night of the 16th, with orders to construct fortifications on Bunker Hill. Some work was performed on the hill which gives the battle its name, but it was farmer Ephraim Breed’s land 1/3rd of a mile closer to Boston, which offered the more tenable hill from which to defend the peninsula.
Shovels could be heard throughout the night. The sun rose on the morning of June 17 to reveal a six-foot-high defensive earthwork running the length of Breed’s hill. Peering through the early morning fog, General Howe was astonished at what he saw. “The rebels,” he said, “have done more work in one night than my whole army would have done in one month.”
The warship HMS Lively opened fire on the redoubt shortly after 4am, with little effect, as Prescott’s men continued work on the entrenchment. 128 guns joined in as the morning bore on, including incendiary shot, setting fire to the town.
Ten miles to the south, a 7-year-old future President of the United States stood atop a hill with his mother Abigail, listening to the thunder of the guns and watching the smoke rise above Charlestown. John Quincy Adams would later write that he “witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own.”
Militia continued to reinforce the high ground throughout the morning hours, as Regulars commanded by Major General William Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot crossed the Charles River and assembled for the assault.
The British line advanced up Breed’s Hill twice that afternoon, Patriot fire decimating their number and driving the survivors back down the hill to reform and try again.
Militia supplies of powder and shot began to give out as the Redcoats advanced up the hill for the third assault. “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”. The quote is attributed to Prescott, but the order seems to have originated with General Putnam and passed along by Prescott, Seth Pomeroy, John Stark and others, in a desperate attempt to conserve ammunition.
Finally, there was nothing left with which to oppose the British bayonets. In desperate hand to hand fighting, the Militia was forced to retreat.
Most of the colonists’ casualties occurred at this time, including Boston physician and President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, Dr. Joseph Warren. Warren had been appointed Major General on June 14, but declined command, believing Putnam and Prescott to be more experienced soldiers. On this day, Dr. Warren fought as a private soldier.
Two months before the battle, Joseph Warren had spoken to his men. “On you depend the fortunes of America”, he said. “You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”
That they did. The Americans had gone toe-to-toe with the most powerful military of its time, suffering 452 killed and wounded. Lieutenant Lord Rawdon recognized Dr. Warren on the third assault, and killed him with a musket ball to the head. Warren’s body was bayoneted beyond recognition and thrown into a ditch.
Dr. Warren’s body was exhumed some ten months later after the British evacuation of Boston, and identified by a false tooth made for him by the amateur dentist, Paul Revere. It may be the first instance of forensic dentistry, in American history.
The Battle of Bunker Hill was a military victory for the British side, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Howe lost 226 men killed and 828 wounded, over a third of his number and over twice that of the Militia. One-eighth of all the British officers killed and one-sixth of those injured during the entire Revolution, occurred on Breed’s Hill.
General Thomas Gage wrote after battle, “The loss we have sustained is greater than we can bear.” Private Nathanael Greene, destined to become one of the Continental Army’s most important Generals, quipped “I wish [we] could sell them another hill at the same price.”