The American Revolutionary War’s Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775

The American Revolutionary War with Great Britain started on April 19, 1775, with fighting in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Immediately thereafter, the colonists commenced a siege of the town of Boston, where the British troops were quartered. For nearly the first two months of the siege, there were only minor skirmishes between the two forces as the British soldiers were confined within Boston.

The British, however, wanted to break out of their confinement and to protect Boston against colonial attacks from the hills overlooking the town.[1]

On May 25th, the immediate events leading to the Battle of Bunker Hill commenced. On that date British generals began developing a plan to break out and protect Boston from attack from the adjacent hills. On June 12th they finalized a plan to take the Boston and Dorchester Necks (narrow strips of land separately connecting the town of Boston and Dorchester Heights to the mainland), fortify the Dorchester Heights to the southeast of the town and then attack the colonial forces stationed in Roxbury to the south of the town.

Boston map 1775
Map of Charleston & Breed’s & Bunker HIlls, 1775

Once the British southern flank had been secured, the British plan called for having troops cross the Harbor north of the town to take the two hills behind the town of Charlestown (Breed’s Hill, 62 feet above sea level, and Bunker Hill,110 feet above sea level). These hills overlooked both Boston and its harbor and thus were critical vantage points. Assuming these objectives were secured, the plan was then to attack the colonial forces in Cambridge. The British attack was set for June 18th.

On June 13th (the day after these plans were finalized), however, the colonial forces received intelligence about the plans. As a result, the colonials decided that additional defenses needed to be erected on the Charlestown Peninsula, specifically on Bunker Hill. After a prayer service led by Harvard College President Langdon, 1,200 colonial troops In the dark of the night on June 16th stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and the adjacent lower Breed’s Hill. They constructed an earthen redoubt or wall on Breed’s Hill (not Bunker Hill), probably because Breed’s Hill was closer to where the British ships were positioned allowing the colonists a better attacking position than at Bunker Hill. That night the colonists  also built lightly fortified lines across most of the Charlestown Peninsula.

At sunrise the next day (June 17) the British were surprised to discover the new colonial positions on the two hills, and some of the British ships in the Harbor started shelling those positions with little effect. Although Bunker Hill was the original objective of both British and colonial troops and is the name of the battle, most of the actual fighting later that day took place on the shorter hill closer to the Harbor (Breed’s Hill).

British 1st assault,  Breed’s Hill
British 1st assault,         Breed’s Hill (H. Pyle)

The initial British attack did not take place until after 3:00 that afternoon due to a shortage of boats to bring the British troops from Boston, poor navigational maps and tides. They landed east of the town of Charleston. When colonial snipers began firing, the British had the town set afire by cannon shots from their ships. The British continued their assault. The British just expected to march up the hill and scare the colonists away. The British troops advanced with bayonets fixed; many of their muskets were not even loaded. The British troops, wearing their bright red wool jackets and weighed down by heavy equipment, marched up hill over farm fields and low stone walls hidden in the tall grass.

As the colonists saw this massive red line approach slowly and steadily, they remained calm and did not open fire. Once the British came within range, the colonists began firing, and the British soldiers started to fall rapidly. This resistance and resulting casualties forced the British to retreat.

British 2nd assault, Breed’s Hill
British 3rd assault, Breed’s Hill

The British immediately regrouped and started a second assault. Again they suffered heavy casualties and retreated.

The third assault, however, was successful with the British taking control of both hills. The colonial troops were running out of ammunition and were forced to retreat to Cambridge, suffering their most significant losses on Bunker Hill.This assault and the Battle were over by approximately 6:00 p.m.

While the result was a victory for the British, they suffered heavy losses: 828 wounded and 226 killed (nearly a third of the deployed forces of 3,000), including a notably large number of officers. The battle is seen as an example of a Pyrrhic victory because the immediate gain (the capture of Bunker Hill) was modest and did not significantly change the state of the siege, while the cost was high. Meanwhile, colonial forces were able to retreat and regroup in good order, having suffered few casualties (115 wounded and 305 killed). Furthermore, the battle demonstrated that relatively inexperienced colonial forces were willing and able to stand up to regular army troops.

Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather) and three of his brothers–John, Benjamin and William Brown–were members of the colonial forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill.[2]

Their regiment left their camp in Cambridge around noon that day and for unknown reasons halted about an hour at Lechmere Point (near the eastern edge of present-day Cambridge). When they arrived later at the northern base of Bunker Hill, they were met by a man who said that additional troops had been ordered to halt. But the regiment’s commander said those were “Tory orders” and instead ordered the men to follow him into combat. They actually arrived at the hostilities just before the colonial retreat was ordered at the end of the battle.

During the colonial retreat, John Brown was shot in the left thigh near the bone and in his right heel, rendering him unable to walk. The regiment’s captain took Brown under one arm and their two muskets under the other and moved Brown out of immediate danger. The captain then found Brown’s brother, Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather), who carried John the rest of the way to safety.

John was unable to go to a hospital or home and remained at a nearby residence to recuperate. That October he finally was able to return home to Leicester, Massachusetts. In April 1777 the Massachusetts legislature granted him a pension of 20 shillings per month for his disability, and in 1786 the new nation awarded him a pension. He died in 1821 at the age of 87.

As I was researching for this post, I had three unanswered questions. First, why did the British not execute their plan to take control of the Dorchester Heights? Second, given the obvious strategic importance of Breed’s and Bunker Hills, why had the colonists not constructed fortifications before June 16th and why had they not stationed troops there? Third, given that same strategic importance, why did the British not maintain their victorious positions on the two hills? I would greatly appreciate comments with answers to these questions and any corrections to the above account of the Battle of Bunker Hill.


[1] E.g., T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frenk Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 150 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Four (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) (collection of original documents).

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 6, 11-27, 31-41, 50 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994); Emory Washburn, Topographical and historical sketches of the town of Leicesterin the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1826); Emory Washburn, Historical sketches of the town of Leicester, Massachusetts, during the first century from its settlement (1860.

The American Revolutionary War’s Siege of Boston, April 19, 1775-March 17, 1776

After the April 19, 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, the 1,700 British soldiers returned to their quarters in Boston, then a town of approximately 15,500 people in addition to the British troops. The colonial Minute Men, numbering at least 14,000 to 16,000, were gathered four miles to the west in Cambridge.

The stage was thus set for the colonists’ Siege of Boston.

Boston map, 1775
Boston map, 1775 & Today

Geography is the key to understanding this American use of the military tactic of siege, i.e., militarily surrounding a town or other place with the intent of preventing free movement to or from the place or conquering by attrition rather than by attack.

The town of Boston then was located on a peninsula surrounded on virtually all sides by the Charles River and the Boston Harbor and connected to the south mainland only by a narrow strip of land (“The Boston Neck”). (Today landfill has eliminated the Boston Neck.) Although British ships controlled the water and thus were able to resupply the British troops in the town, as they did in May 1775 with an additional 4,300 troops (for a total force of 6,000), these troops essentially were land locked.

Siege of Boston map, 1775-1776

The Americans obviously understood the British predicament, and with the Americans having the larger number of troops and not wanting to wage war in Boston, they imposed a siege of the town of Boston by stationing the militia men in a line starting in Chelsea to the northeast of Boston, going west to Charlestown and then south to Roxbury. This siege line was able to prevent the British troops from leaving Boston and engaging in war against the Americans. The Siege was an American offensive maneuver implemented for defensive purposes until the very end of the siege.

Among those participating in the Siege were Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather) and three of his brothers–John, William and Benjamin. All four apparently had enlisted for eight months or through the balance of the year of 1775, and all except for John presumably were engaged in the Siege at least until then. John’s service unfortunately ended on June 17, 1775, when he was wounded in the Battle of Bunker Hill as we will see in a subsequent post.[1]

For most of the 11 months of siege, there were relatively minor skirmishes between the two forces except for the just mentioned Battle of Bunker Hill.

One of the skirmishes occurred in May of 1775 on Noddle’s and Hog Islands in the Harbor northeast of Boston (near today’s Boston Logan International Airport). Because of their domination of the sea, the British were using the farmers and livestock on the island to supply the British troops with fresh meat. In addition, the British were storing some naval supplies there. The colonists responded by removing livestock and hay from the islands or by killing the livestock and burning the hay and barns. On May 27 and 28, 1775, the opposing forces fought the Battle of Chelsea Creek, which was a creek between the two islands and the mainland.

The colonists without suffering any fatalities were successful in forcing the retreat of the British troops in this battle. In addition, the colonists’ cannons were able to capture and sink the British ship, HMS Diana, the first such accomplishment in the war and a big boost to their morale. One of the colonists in this military engagement was Benjamin Brown.

General George Washington
General Washington’s Headquarters, Cambridge, 1775-1776

Nearly three weeks after the Battle of Chelsea Creek, on June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress voted to establish the Continental Army for purposes of common defense by incorporating the 16,000 or so militia men already in action in the Boston area plus the 5,000 other men in New York. The next day (June 15th) the Congress unanimously elected George Washington as the Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

On July 3, 1775, General Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts to take command of the troops in the field. He established his headquarters and abode in a beautiful house in Cambridge that later in the 19th century was owned by the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (The house is now open to the public as a National Historic Site.)

On January 24, 1776, the colonists obtained a major strategic advantage with the arrival in Cambridge of over 50 heavy cannons that had been seized eight months earlier (on May 10, 1775) from the British Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of Lake Champlain in present-day upstate New York. (The reconstructed Fort is now open to the public.)

The successful capture of the Fort was led by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys and Colonel Benedict Arnold. (Arnold in 1780 defected to the British and thereby became an infamous American traitor.)

Artillery for Boston, 1775

Between November 1775 and January 24, 1776, in a remarkable logistical operation Colonel Henry Knox and a team of engineers used boats, horse and ox-drawn sledges and manpower to transport the heavy cannons nearly 250 miles over poor roads, forest, swamps and the frozen Hudson and Connecticut Rivers to Cambridge.

Once in Cambridge, the canons were moved to Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston from the southeast. In early March 1776, the Americans started to bombard Boston with the cannons, killing some British soldiers and destroying some houses. The British returned artillery fire, but their cannons  could not reach the colonists’ weapons.

British Evacuation of Boston, 1776

After a planned British assault on the Dorchester Heights was cancelled due to a storm, the British decided to leave Boston. On March 8th General Washington received an anonymous letter saying the British would not destroy the town of Boston if they were permitted to depart without attack. Washington formally rejected the letter, but on March 17th the British evacuated Boston without hostile fire and without any destruction.

A British fleet of 120 ships with 9,906 British troops plus 1,220 women and children left Boston for the 400 mile northeastern sail to the unused British military base in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Now in Boston March 17th is celebrated as Evacuation Day.


[1] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 6, 11-27, 31-41, 50, 308-12(Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994). This account of the Brown brothers’ participation is based upon two secondary sources about the town of Leicester written in the 19th century by Emory Washburn: (a) Topographical and historical sketches of the town of Leicester in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at 49-50 (1826); and (b) Historical sketches of the town of Leicester, Massachusetts, during the first century from its settlement at 296-99(1860).

 

The American Revolutionary War’s Battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, April 19, 1775

As mentioned in a prior post, British relations with her American colonies deteriorated during the period from 1765 through 1775. Especially towards the end of that period, the colonists were organizing militias, training the Minute Men in how to wage war and gathering and storing munitions and weapons. One of the places for such storage was Concord, Massachusetts, which was about 20 miles northwest of Boston.

It was no secret to the British that the Americans were preparing for war, and the British had secret intelligence that colonial weapons and munitions were being stored in Concord.

Map of British Troop Movements, April 19, 1775

Hoping to surprise the Americans, on the evening of April 18, 1775, a British infantry force of 700 men boarded naval barges in Boston to cross the Charles River to Cambridge, about three miles to the west. Around 2:00 a.m. early the next morning, the troops started marching to Concord, approximately 17 miles to the west of Cambridge. Their objective was to seize and destroy the colonial munitions and arms stored at Concord.

The colonists, however, had intelligence that the British were going to try to seize the weapons and munitions in Concord, and the colonists previously had moved most of those materials to another location. Moreover, the colonists had intelligence on the night of April 18th that the British troops were going to make that attempt the next day.

Paul Revere, Ride,           April 18, 1775

This prompted the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere and another rider (William Dawes) to warn the militias in Lexington and Concord and others in towns along the way that the British were coming.

Battle of Lexington,        April 19, 1775

At sunrise on the 19th the British troops entered Lexington, a village of about 800 people. In the village common green, 80 or so Minute Men stood at attention in plain sight in parade-ground formation just watching the British troops. The British troops turned and advanced toward the Minute Men. There were shouts and confusion when one shot rang out by whom no one knows for certain. This precipitated other shots, and eight militia men were killed and ten were wounded.

The American Revolutionary War had started.

The 700 British troops soon reformed into a column and commenced their march to Concord, a village of about 1,500 people approximately seven miles to the west. As they approached Concord, about 250 militia men saw that they were heavily outnumbered and retreated, and the town was surrendered to the British. The British found three large cannons and smashed them so they could not be moved.

Battle at Concord North Bridge, April 19, 1775

At the North Bridge over the Concord River just outside the town, a contingent of militia men outnumbered the British troops. Gunfire erupted, and the British troops abandoned their wounded and fled to the safety of another contingent of British soldiers.  Around noon the British left Concord.

On their return march to Lexington, the British were ambushed and suffered losses as the number of militia men kept growing with reinforcements from other towns. Around 2:30 p.m. a full brigade of 1,000 British soldiers with artillery arrived to reinforce and rescue their retreating comrades. After a short rest at Lexington, they resumed their return march to Boston around 3:30 p.m. All along their return they were attacked by militia men, many firing their muskets from behind trees and stone fences.

The battles at Lexington and Concord were not major ones in terms of tactics or casualties. But they were important in showing the ability of the colonists to fight and the failure of the British to enforce the Intolerable Acts, capture weapons and munitions and prevent hostilities from the colonists.

In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson commemorated the fight at Concord’s North Bridge in his “Concord Hymn” with these words:”By the rude bridge that arched the flood; Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled; Here once the embattled farmers stood; And fired the shot heard round the world.”