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Bunker Hill, battle of.

By reinforcements from England and Ireland, General Gage's army in Boston, at the close of May, 1775, was 10,000 strong. With the reinforcements came Gens. William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne, three officers experienced in the military tactics of Europe, but little prepared for service in America. Thus strengthened, Gage issued a proclamation (June 12) of martial law, and offering pardon to all who should return to their allegiance, except Samuel Adams and John Hancock. At that time the New England army before Boston numbered about 16,000 men, divided into thirty-six regiments, of which Massachusetts furnished twenty-seven, and the other three New England colonies three each. John Whitcomb, a colonel in the French and Indian War, and Joseph Warren, president of the Provincial Congress, were appointed (June 15) major-generals of the Massachusetts forces. These provincial troops completely blockaded Boston on the land side, and effectively held the British troops as prisoners on the peninsula. Gen. Artemas Ward, the military head of Massachusetts, was regarded, by common consent, as the commander-in-chief of this New England army. The Americans had thrown up only a few breastworks — a small redoubt at Roxbury, and some breastworks at the foot of Prospect Hill, in Cambridge. The right wing of the besieging army, under [445] Gen. John Thomas, was at Roxbury, consisting of 4,000 Massachusetts troops, four artillery companies, a few fieldpieces, and some heavy cannon. The Rhode Island forces were at Jamaica Plain, under General Greene, with a regiment of Connecticut troops under General Spencer. General Ward commanded the left wing at Cambridge. The Connecticut and New Hampshire troops were in the vicinity.

It was made known to the committee of safety that General Gage had fixed upon the night of the 18th of June to sally out and take possession of and fortify Bunker Hill (an elevation not far from Charlestown) ; also Dorchester Heights, south of Boston. Both of these points would command the town. The eager provincials determined to anticipate this movement, and the Massachusetts committee of safety ordered Col. William Prescott to march, on the evening of the 16th, with 1,000 men, including a company of artillery, with two field-pieces, to take possession of and fortify Bunker Hill. This force, after a prayer by President Langdon, of Harvard, passed over Charlestown Neck; but, going by Bunker Hill, they ascended Breed's Hill (much nearer Boston), where they had a better command of the town and the shipping. They had been joined on the way by Major Brooks and General Putnam, and by wagons laden with intrenching tools. The patriot troops worked incessantly all night under the skilful engineer Gridley, and at dawn a redoubt about 8 rods square, flanked on the right by a breastwork which extended northwardly to marshy land, met the bewildered and astonished gaze of the sentinels on the British shipping in the Charles River. The guns of their vessels were immediately brought to bear upon the redoubt on Breed's Hill, and the noise of the cannonade aroused the sleepers in Boston. The Americans on Breed's Hill continued their work until eleven o'clock on that very hot June morning, under an incessant shower of shot and shell, with a scanty supply of provisions, after having worked all night. Putnam had removed the intrenching tools at noon to Bunker Hill for the purpose of casting up intrenchments there, and the right flank of Prescott was strengthened by a few reinforcements thrown into Charlestown at the southern slope of the hill. On the left a fortification against musket-balls, composed of a rail-fence and new-mown hay, was hastily constructed, almost at the moment of attack.

The British clearly saw their impending danger, and, to thwart it, picked corps of their army, 3,000 strong, led by Generals Howe and Pigot, embarked in boats from the wharves in Boston, and landed at the eastern base of Breed's Hill. Meanwhile the troops who had worked all night and half of a hot June day in throwing up intrenchments on Breed's Hill were not relieved by others, as they should have been. Colonel Prescott, at first, did not believe the British would attack his redoubt; and when he saw the movement in the town he felt assured that he could easily repulse any assailants, and it was nine o'clock before he applied to General Ward for reinforcements. Putnam had urged, early in the morning, the sending of troops. Ward, believing Cambridge to be the point of attack, would not consent to sending more than a part of Stark's New Hampshire regiment at first. Finally, the remainder was sent; also, the whole of Colonel Reed's regiment on Charlestown Neck was ordered to reinforce Prescott. General Putnam was on the field, but without troops or command. The same was the case with General Warren, who hastened to the scene of action when the conflict began. Stark's regiment took a position on the left of the unfinished breastwork, but 200 yards in the rear, and under imperfect cover, made by pulling up a rail-fence, making parallel lines with the rails, and filling the intervening spaces with new-mown hay.

At a little past three o'clock in the afternoon Howe's great guns moved towards the redoubt and opened fire upon the works. They were followed by the troops in two columns, commanded respectively by Howe and Pigot. The guns on the British ships, and a battery on Copp's Hill, in Boston, hurled random shots in abundance on the Americans on Breed's Hill. The occupants of the redoubt kept silent until the enemy had approached very near, when, at the word “Fire!” 1,500 of the concealed patriots suddenly arose and [446] poured such a destructive storm of bullets upon the climbers of the green slope that whole platoons, and even companies were prostrated. Flags fell to the ground like tall lilies in a meadow. The assailants fell back to the shore, and a shout of triumph went up from the redoubt. Some scattering shots had come from the houses at Charlestown; and Gage, infuriated by the repulse, gave orders to send combustibles into that village and set it on fire. It was done, and soon the town was in flames. This conflagration added new horrors to the scene.

Bunker Hill monument and plan of battle.1

The British again advanced, and were again driven back to their landing-place. Then General Clinton passed over from Boston to aid Howe and Pigot, and the troops were led to the assault a third time. The powder of the provincials, scanty at the beginning, now failed. Some British artillery planted pieces near the breastwork and swept it from end to end, while grenadiers assailed the redoubt on three sides at once and carried it at the point of the bayonet. Stark, meanwhile, had kept the British at bay at the rail-fence until the redoubt was carried, after which all of the surviving provincials fled in good order across Charlestown Neck, enfiladed by the fire from the vessels and floating batteries on the Charles River, but received very little hurt. Of the 3,000 British troops engaged in the fight, 1,054 were killed or wounded — a proportionate loss which few battles can show. The loss of the provincials was 450, killed and wounded. Among the former was General Warren, whose loss was irreparable. He came to the redoubt without command, and did not take it from Prescott. He fell, as he was leaving the redoubt, from the effects of a bullet-wound.

The result of the battle was a substantial victory for the Americans. They failed only because their ammunition failed. It tested the ability of the provincial army to meet a British force in the field; and so unsatisfactory was the battle to the British ministry, that Gage was superseded in command by General Howe. The general impression at the time was that the battle was on Bunker Hill, and so it figures in history as the “Battle of Bunker Hill.” It was fought on Breed's Hill, some distance from the former. The battle was seen by thousands who were on the neighboring hills and the roofs and balconies in Boston. The battle lasted about two hours.

1 on the right of the plan of the battle is seen a picture of the granite obelisk erected over the site of the redoubt. The form of the redoubt is seen in the diagram a in the map. The entrance to it was at a. which was on the end towards Charlestown Neck.

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