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Sir William Howe Reports
Camp upon the Heights of Charlestown, June 2z and 24
, . The troops were no sooner ashore than it was instantly perceived the enemy were very strongly posted, the redoubt upon their right being large and full of men with cannon. To the right of the redoubt they had trips in the houses of Charles Town, about 200 yards distant from the redoubt, the intermediate space not occupied, being exposed to the cannon of the Boston side battery.
From the left of the redoubt, they had a line cannon proof, about 80 yards in length; and from thence to their left, close upon the Mystic River, they had a breast work made with strong railing taken from the fences and stuffed with hay, which effectually secured those behind it from musquettry. This breast work about 300 yards in extent—they had made
As a specimen of our knowledge of service, the century’s on the Boston side had heard the Rebels at work all night without making any other report of it, except mentioning it in conversation in the morning. The first knowledge the General had of it was by hearing one of the ships firing at the working and going to see what occasioned the firing. Their works when we landed were crowded with men, about 500 yards from us.
From the appearance of their situation and numbers, and seeing that they were pouring in all the strength they could collect, I sent to General Gage to desire a reinforcement, which he immediately complied with, the remaining
Light Companies and Grenadiers, with the 47th Battalion and 1 st of the Marines landing soon after. Our strength being then about 2200 rank and with six field pieces, two light ~ 2-pounders and two howitzers, we begun attack (the troops in two lines, with Pigott upon the left) by a sharp cannonade, the line moving slowly and frequently halting to give time for the artillery to fire.
~ The Light Companies upon the right were ordered to keep along the the whole in the night beach to attack the left point of the enemy's breast work, which being car ried, they were to attack them in flank. The Grenadiers being directed to attack the enemy's left in front, supported by the 5th and 52nd, their orders were executed by the Grenadiers and 2 battalions with a laudable perseverance, but not with the greatest share of discipline, for as soon as the order with which they set forward to the attack with bayonets was checked by a difficulty they met with in getting over some very high fences of strong raii ing, under a heavy fire, well kept up by the Rebels, they began firing, and by crowding fell into disorder, and in this state the line mixed with them. The Light Infantry at the same time being repulsed, there was a moment that never felt before, but by the gallantry of the officers it was all recovered and the attack carried.
Upon the left, Pigott met with the same obstruction from the fences, and also had the troops in the houses to combat with, before he could proceed to assail the redoubt, or to turn it to his left, but the town being set on fire b order at this critical time by a carcass from the battery on the Boston side, Pigott was relieved from his enemies in that quarter, and at the 2d onset he carried the redoubt in the handsomest manner, thus it was most obstinkly defended to the last. Thirty of the Rebels not having time to get away weK killed with bayonets in it. The little man is worthy of Our Master's favor.
But I now come to the fatal consequences of this action—9: officers killed and wounded—a most dreadful account. I have lost my aid de camp Sherwin, who was shot thro' the body and died the next day. Our friend Abercrombie is also gone—he had only a flesh wound, but is said to have been in a very bad habit of body. The General's returns will give you the particulars of what call this unhappy day. I freely confess to you, when I look to the consequences of it, in the loss of so many brave officers, I do it with horror. The success is too dearly bought. Our killed, sergeants and rank and file, about 160; 300 wounded and in hospital, with as many more incapable of present duty. The Rebels left near 1oo killed and 30 wounded, but I have this morn ing learnt from a deserter from them that they had 300 killed and a great number wounded.
We took five pieces of cannon, and their numbers are said to have been near 6000, but I do not suppose they had more than between 4 and 5,000 engaged.
The corps remained upon their arms the night of the action, where we are now encamped in a strong situation, with redoubts commanding the isthmus in our front, the enemy being in two corps about one mile and a half distant from us and both well entrenched; the principal body being upon a height called Summer Hill commanding the way from thence to Cambridge the other called Winter Hill upon the road to Midford (or Mystich) on tlL side of Roxbury—they are also entrenched and have artillery at all their post.
Entre nous, I have heard a bird sing that we can do no more this campaign| than endeavour to preserve the town of Boston, which it is supposed thl. Rebels mean to destroy by fire or sword or both—and it is my opinion, with the strength we shall have collected here upon the arrival of the 4 battalions I last from Ireland (one of which, with Bailey of the 23d, came in the day before yesterday), that we must not risk the endangering the loss of Boston—tho' should anything offer in our favour, I should hope we may not let pass I the opportunity.
The intentions of these wretches are to fortify every post in our way; wait to be attacked at every one, having their rear secure, destroying as many of us as they can before they set out to their next strong situation, and, in this defensive mode (the whole country coming into them upon every action), they must in the end get the better of our small numbers. We can not (as the General tells us) muster more now than 34oo rank and file for duty, including the Marines and the three last regiments from Ireland.
Sir Howe Reports on Bunker Hill - History
The sources gathered under this heading will provide you with brief summaries of information about topics in American history. The information contained in these sources aren't bound by subject or time, but contain comprehensive listings of information across the expanse of the historic record of the United States. Sources like these are useful for gaining basic factual information and suggestions for further reading about any given topic.
The Dictionary of American History is arranged by subject so that each topic related to American history is given an entry, which is designed to describe the basic elements of the event - when, where, who and the outcome. Each entry contains a brief overview or summary of the event. At the end of the entry, the author provides a bibliography for further reading. Both the summary and the bibliography will be useful for your research. Within each entry, there are many clues or key words that may be helpful to you write them down on note cards and keep track of where you get the information you write down. You may want to go back to these reference sources later in the research process. By using note cards, you can keep the information you find organized and maintain a list of sources you have examined. Use the four sections outlined below to arrange the information on your note cards:
- Names of people
- Place names - towns, cities, geographic features, bodies of water, mountains, lakes, rivers, etc.
- Dates and Statistics
- Outcome Statements - what was the end result of the event?
Here is a list of terms taken from the Bunker Hill entry in the Dictionary of American History broken down by sections:
People: Colonel William Prescott, Major General Israel Putnam, Brigadier General Sir William Howe, John Stark, Major Pitcairn, Joseph Warren
Place names: Bunker Hill, Boston, Charlestown, Breed's Hill, Mystic River, New Hampshire, Lexington
Dates and Statistics: Day of the battle - June 17, 1775
1200 American militia were sent to Charlestown to seize Bunker Hill - June 16, 1775
British casualties: 1054
American casualties: 441
Battle lasted 2 hours
Outcome Statements (summary):
After an engagement lasting less than two hours, the British were masters of the peninsula, but with heavy casualties of 1054, while the Americans lost, in killed, wounded and prisoners, but 441.
At first regarded by the Americans as a defeat, Bunker Hill, Because of the way in which militia resisted regulars, came to be regarded as a moral victory, leading to a dangerous overconfidence in unpreparedness.
Research Activity - Choosing the Next Step in the Research Process
Now it is time to choose the next step in your research. You can go directly from sources like the Dictionary of American History and the others listed below to the recommended reading on the topic given in the bibliography section of the entry. Within the entry for the Battle of Bunker Hill, in the Dictionary of American History , the author recommends two secondary sources related specifically to Bunker Hill for further reading. If you choose to go directly to a secondary source, then you should have a look at the Using Secondary Sources as a Reference Tool before moving forward.
Research Activity -- Bunker Hill - Finding Evidence within the Exhibit
There are conflicting reports of the precise timeline of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The evidence is not conclusive regarding the exact time of day the Battle began or ended. Ask yourself these questions: What type of evidence can answer these questions? Can you find evidence in any of the letters used in the exhibit that reveals what time of day the Battle began? How long it lasted? What the weather was like the day of the Battle? Does what Peter Brown said about the time of the Battle differ from what the Dictionary of American History entry says? Which is more accurate? Why?
Howe reports on the Revolutionary War.
The entire front page and a bit of page 2 are taken up with: "The Narrative of Lieut. General Sir William Howe. Relative to his Conduct during his late Command of the King's Troops in North America" with his report beginning:
* Previous to the loss of Trenton I had detached General Clinton with 6000 men to take possession of Rhode Island.
followed by a terrific amount of text concerning the progress of the Revolutionary War (see for portions). Great to have such content on the front page of a period newspaper.
Complete in 8 pgs., 8 1/2 by 11 in., rubbing to the front page, particularly the last column where there is a small hole causing loss to about 4 words. Howe's record in the war was marked by the costly assault on Breed's Hill known as the Battle of Bunker Hill and the successful capture of New York City and Philadelphia &mdash the latter of which would have significant strategic implications.
wikipedia notes: William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe, KB, PC (August 10, 1729 &ndash July 12, 1814) was a British General who was Commander-in-Chief of British forces during the American Revolutionary War, one of the three Howe brothers. He was knighted after his successes in 1775 and was henceforth Sir William, inheriting the viscountcy only upon his brother Richard's death in 1799.
Howe's record in the war was marked by the costly assault on Breed's Hill known as the Battle of Bunker Hill and the successful capture of New York City and Philadelphia &mdash the latter of which would have significant strategic implications.
The American Revolution
Major General Howe arrived at Boston on May 15 at the head of the 4,000 additional troops sent to General Thomas Gage. Gage's orders were to clear the American Army and break their Siege of Boston. Howe's plan was to take Cambridge, but the Americans fortified the high ground above the town.
Howe planned to crush the American's position by massive assault. He was thus in command at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. He personally led the left wing of the attack. His leadership on the field was outstanding, and the British did succeed in gaining their objective, but the cost was appalling. General Thomas Gage called it a "A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us."
While Howe wasn't injured in the battle, it had a pronounced effect on his spirit. The daring, aggressive commander who had served with Wolfe became the cautious, reluctant General who was slow to seek direct confrontation. His concept that those in open rebellion were a small minority of Americans who would fold with a display of force was shattered. Howe's report to Lord Germain called for 19,000 additional troops and included the prophecy that ". with a less force. this war may be spun out until England will be heartily sick of it."
The battle for New York
On October 10, 1775, he replaced Lieutenant General Thomas Gage as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in America when Gage returned to England. He became Sir William when he was knighted in 1775. In April of 1776 the appointment was made permanent, although forces in Canada were placed under Guy Carleton. He successfully defeated General George Washington in the Battle of Long Island in the summer of 1776. In September 1776 he ordered the execution of Nathan Hale for espionage.
Howe failed to support the Saratoga Campaign in 1777. Instead he launched the campaign to capture Philadelphia. He succeeded, just as he had in New York, but again failed to crush Washington.
Battle of Bunker Hill
This battle was one of the earliest in the American Revolution. The battle&aposs name is a misnomer because the major part of the engagement was actually fought on Breed&aposs Hill nearby. The place for this battle was in Charlestown, Massachusetts across the Charles River from Boston.
The British commanders for this engagement were General Thomas Gage and General Sir William Howe. These two generals were highly skilled in leading legions of British troops in battle. The Americans commanders were Colonel William Prescott, General Israel Putnam and Joseph Warren. These generals were fairly skilled in combat.
Here is the account of Bunker Hill. On June 16, 1775 ( at night ) more than 1,000 patriots (rebel fighters), under the command of General Prescott, marched to Breed&aposs Hill over the Charlestown neck and fortified it with trenches, bales of cotton and hay by the morning of June 17. After they were done with this, General Israel Putnam took some men and began to fortify Bunker Hill.
Meanwhile in the town of Boston, the British Commander, General Gage just happened to see the Americans occupying the two hills. he ordered the British ships to start bombarding the Americans positions until the British troops could arrive. Soon after the order the British started moving troops to the east of Breed&aposs hill from Boston.
Col. Prescott&aposs men would be the first attacked. This was the first charge with British army on the east side of the hill with the secondary doing a straight attack. General Howe&aposs men lead the attack with 5,000 troops up the hill. But they were not alone they were covered by cannon from British ships in the river. While this was going on, some of the British ships loaded their cannons with incendiary shells and
Map A plan of the action at Bunkers-Hill, on the 17th. of June, 1775, between His Majesty's troops under the command of Major General Howe, and the rebel forces,
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William howe battle of bunker hill
The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775, during the Siege of Boston in the first stage of the American Revolutionary War. A two-day battle between the British forces under the command of General William Howe and the American colonial forces under Colonel William Prescott will forever be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill. Gen. Oliver De Lancey’s brigade. Sent in 1775 to reinforce Gen. Thomas Gage in the Siege of Boston, he led the left wing in three costly but finally successful assaults in the Battle of Bunker Hill. And now my song is at an end, And to conclude my ditty ’Tis only Britons ignorant, That I most sincerely pity. Gage's orders were to clear the American Army and break their Siege of Boston. The Battle of Bunker Hill was a very important battle, though the battle was won by the british it helped the colonists realized they could fight the British. Perhaps the most important casualty of the battle from the American standpoint was the confidence of the British commander General William Howe. William Prescott leading the fortification of the hill, guided the colonial troops to prepare for their confrontation with William Howe and the British Army. One of the many battles that British and Americans fought, was the Battle of Bunker Hill. Battle of Bunker Hill. Battle of Bunker Hill. Battle of Bunker Hill by Pyle. Howe refused to allow the boats to transport his defeated troops back to Boston. The British seized the Charlestown peninsula on June 17 after a costly frontal assault, leading Howe to replace Gage. Britain replaces General Gage with General Howe in early October 1775, and two weeks after the battle at Breed's Hill, on 2 July 1775, George Washington arrives in Cambridge to take command of the Continental Army. Battle of Bunker Hill, 17 June 1775. In the aftermath of the battles The commander of the attack, Gen. Sir William Howe, won repeated victories later in the war with bold and decisive flanking movements. The British took possession of both Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill. The Battle of Bunker Hill was a battle in the American War of Independence. It took place on June 17, 1775, mostly on and around Breed's Hill, during the Siege of Boston early in the American Revolutionary War. The battle is named after Bunker Hill, which is close and which was involved in the battle. The two main generals were Artemas Ward, for America and William Howe, for Britain. He constructed the battle plans at headquarters, where he remained. $6.75. Prescott was chosen to lead 1,200 men onto Bunker hill to build a redoubt that they could fend off the British from. Boston was being besieged by thousands of American militia. The top commander of the Continental Army was Israel Putnam. 17 June 1775: During the night of 16-17 June, the American rebels, tightening their grip on Boston, occupied and entrenched Breed’s Hill, overlooking the harbour. Clinton suggested seizing the neck of the peninsula, trapping the rebels on it. William Howe lead the British to many victory's. Despite the heavy casualties at Bunker Hill, Gage granted Howe command over all British troops in North America on October 11 th, 1775. To complete the full order of battle, you’ll need 11 units of British infantry and 2 artillery batteries, along with 12 units of American infantry and 1 artillery battery. The battle of Bunker Hill was a part of the Siege of Boston, lasted from 19th April 1775 to 17th March 1776. In historiography of the American war he is usually referred to as Sir William Howe to distinguish him … Sir William Howe Reports. BATTLE OF BUNKER HILL Gerson A., Andrea P., Jonathan V. Major General William Howe • Major General William Howe, PDF. 268 British soldiers and officers died and 828 were wounded. Bunker Hill is a fantastic set-piece battle and could be an awesome centrepiece for any collection. Fighting remained stalemated for months, with both sides hesitant to attack. 29. Especially to break the siege, on June 16th, 1775, English troops marched towards Bunker Hill. C. William Howe D. George Washington 4) Which of the following was a result of the Battle of Bunker Hill? William Prescott is known for the quote, "Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes." This Escape Room has stude. They had won the battle, but at a terrible cost: out of 2,200 troops, 268 British soldiers and officers had been killed another 828 were wounded. General William Howe was second in command under Gage, and was field commander at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The name of Bunker Hill he dreads, Where he was flogg’d most plainly. The heart and pride of the American forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill was a sign Major General William Howe, a Britisher, learned of this early the next morning and began to take British troops across the Charles River to attack the fortification made by the Patriots. The Battle of Bunker Hill was one of the early battles of the Revolutionary War and the most significant battle of the Siege of Boston.. Major General William Howe, leading the British forces, could have easily surrounded the Americans with his ships at sea, but instead chose to march his troops uphill. This would be the first major battle of the war, and this would be … Although the British would win the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Americans earned something even more important: a boost in confidence, and the realization that they had the power and competence to fight, and defeat, Great Britain and win independence. It also gave confidence to the patriots that they could fight the Redcoats. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775. General William Howe, one of the British commanders, called their success "too dearly bought." Back and forth, up and down, men exhausted from a long day of fighting these are a few of the terms people can use to describe the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill. The troops were no sooner ashore than it was instantly perceived the enemy were very strongly posted, the redoubt upon their right being large and full of men with cannon. Stuck on the beach with nowhere to go, Howe and his staff and subordinate general officers rallied the British troops. In the aftermath of Lexington and Concord, the British forces under Thomas Gage became pinned down in Boston, then still restricted to an peninsular in the middle of Boston Harbour. Finally, on March 4, 1776,… The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775, during the Siege of Boston in the early stages of the American Revolutionary War. People: Colonel William Prescott, General Artemas Ward, General Israel Putnam Major General William Howe, and Brigadier General Robert Pigot Background: This battle resulted in a British victory but helped build morale for the colonists nonetheless. The following are some facts about the Battle of Bunker Hill: Howe was ordered to attack the American position, and after two slaughterous failures a third charge dislodged the Americans, who had run out of powder. Bunker Hill was fought on Breed's Hill In Charlestown, MA, were the colonists were on top of the hill the British sent 2000 men over the hill to take back the hill. British Commander - William Howe , 5th viscount Howe American Commander - William Prescott Casualties: The British suffered some 1,150 killed and wounded or nearly half of the force engaged. British Commander - William Howe , 5th viscount Howe American Commander - William Prescott Casualties: The British suffered some 1,150 killed and wounded or nearly half of the force engaged. The American colonies had occupied Breed's Hill in Charlestown on June 16, 1775, in order to protect the shipyard of nearby Boston. Almost 11 months after the shots at Bunker Hill were fired, Howe departed Boston and … Facts About The Battle of Bunker Hill. Boston, situated on a peninsula, was largely protected from close approach by the expanses of water surrounding it, which were dominated by British warships. A two-day battle between the British forces under the command of General William Howe and the American colonial forces under Colonel William Prescott will forever be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill.The American colonies had occupied Breed's Hill in Charlestown on June 16, 1775, in order to protect the shipyard of nearby Boston. As for our King and William Howe, And General Gage, if they’re taken, The Yankees will hang their heads up high, On that fine hill call’d Beacon. In response, the British began burning the town of Charlestown and sent 2,400 British soldiers, under command of General Gage and Howe, up Bunker Hill expecting to decimate the Yankee militia. But when called upon to serve by King George, Howe accepted, sailing for American in 1775. In the first phase, after achieving victory in the battle and occupying important positions at Bunker Hill, Breeds’ Hill, and Charlestown Peninsula General William Howe, and his troops celebrated it. Major General William Howe, leading the British forces, could have easily surrounded the Americans with his ships at sea, but instead chose to march his troops uphill. What did General Howe do in the Battle of Bunker Hill? The Battle of Bunker Hill. On the night of June 30, a force of sixty men detailed from the 2nd Connecticut set out under Captain Parsons, headed toward West … Upon arriving, they were immediately forced into the action. Colonel William Prescott’s orders were to fortify Bunker’s Hill, but he chose Breed’s Hill instead. And now my song is at an end, And to conclude my ditty ’Tis only Britons ignorant, That I most sincerely pity. (Their orders specified the fortification of Bunker Hill, which was a little higher). Archer & Boilly sc. Following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the British soldiers returned to the relative safety of Boston.The commander, General Thomas Gage, was concerned about the city’s vulnerable position, lying as it did in the shadows of surrounding hills.The wisdom of securing those heights was considered, but not acted upon. After the battles at Lexington and Concord, the British had realized that the Americans were occupying the countryside, where Bunker and Breed’s Hills had stood. Almost 11 months after the shots at Bunker Hill were fired, Howe departed Boston and moved north to … When colonial forces surrounded Boston, they received information about possible troops from the British side to the adjacent hill, called Bunker Hill. The British Commander, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, Major General William Howe. William Howe was the commander in chief of the British army at the Battle of Bunker Hill. After the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, more troops were sent to Boston, along with Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne.Boston was surrounded and the generals planned to break out of the city by attacking several points, including Bunker Hill on the nearby Charlestown Peninsula. General Howe and General Washington’s troops met again in the Battle of Long Island. Though British commander William Howe was left in possession of the battleground, some small hills above the village of Charlestown near Boston, Massachusetts, the cost in British killed and wounded was greater than that in any other engagement of the Rebellion. The Siege of Boston began after the Shot Heard Round the World took place in April of 1775 and the British retreated back to Boston where they were trapped inside the city by the rebels.. Prescott was chosen to lead 1,200 men onto Bunker hill to build a redoubt that they could fend off the British from. The Battle of Bunker Hill occurred on the Charlestown peninsula, and that fact was the reason the British could reform for another attack. “Tensions boiled over in February 1774 when the crown and parliament declared that the Massachusetts colony would be an open rebellion, precipitated by the dumping of the tea in Boston Harbor,” Cummins said. They brought reinforcements for General Thomas Gage. Gen. Robert Pigot. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775. The battle of Bunker Hill occurred on June 17, 1775, after the American Revolutionary War. Thousands of American militia besieged Boston and the British were trying their best to control the city and its valuable sea ports. They also aimed at taking over the harbor in Boston, to keep it open to bring in their troops and supplies. The Americans also suffered heavy casualties with 115 killed and 305 wounded. This battle took place in Charlestown on the north side of the Boston Harbor. General William Prescott - Battle Of Bunker Hill. Prescott instead chose the neighboring Breed's Hill to the southeast, but the engagement that ensued has become known as the battle of Bunker Hill. In the aftermath of Lexington and Concord, the British forces under Thomas Gage became pinned down in Boston, then still restricted to an peninsular in the middle of Boston Harbour. Major General William Howe, leading the British forces, could have easily surrounded the Americans with his ships at sea, but instead chose to march his troops uphill. General William Howe arrived in the middle of the Siege of Boston with Generals Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne on May 25, 1775. Because of how many dead and wounded the Redcoats paid to take the hill compared to how many Americans it cost, defending it. Battle of Bunker Hill, 17 June 1775. The colonial army sent its 1,500 men to strengthen the area in order to stop British threats. Bunker Hill is a fantastic set-piece battle and could be an awesome centrepiece for any collection. After the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775), General George Washington assumed command of American forces, while, in October of that year, General William Howe succeeded Gage as British commander. This escape room has students decode interesting facts about the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Revolutionary War, Redcoats, Minutemen, General William Howe and General Prescott. The British were trying to keep control of the city and control its valuable seaport. British Gen. William Howe relied heavily on Loyalist units to fight this ugly petite guerre, particularly upon the men of Brig. June 17: Battle of Bunker Hill. He was thus in command at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. Bunker Hill. With all that in mind, let’s turn back the clock a little to June 17, 1775 and place ourselves in Charlestown, Massachusetts at the Battle of Bunker Hill. June 17, 1775 / John Trumbull delt. Page further … British grenadiers at the … Upon this discovery, British General William Howe launched a full frontal assault of 2,400 men to wipe out the defenders. Confusion about the name of the hill where the battle occurred goes back to the battle itself. The Battle of Bunker Hill (which actually took place on Breed's Hill) is a battle fought near Boston, Massachusetts, on June 17th, 1775 between the Americans, led by Colonels Putnam and Prescott, and the British led by Generals Howe and Clinton. William Howe was the commander in chief of the British army at the Battle of Bunker Hill. subordinates, William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne. a small hill (62 feet) located on the southern end of the Charlestown Peninsula a lot of the Bunker Hill battle took place here. The outnumbered Americans finally retreated, allowing the British to win the battle. The Battle of Bunker Hill was a very important battle, though the battle was won by the british it helped the colonists realized they could fight the British. One of the victorious battles was The Battle of Bunker Hill. The British army in Boston found itself under siege by thousands of colonial militia. In Charlestown Peninsula, North side of Boston Harbor, this battle was the bloodest of the Revoltionary in America. Bunker Hill Howe planned to crush the American's position by massive assault. The first important battle of the American War of Independence. He constructed the battle plans at headquarters, where he remained. The British offensive, known to posterity at the Battle of Bunker Hill, was successful, but at a tremendous cost, and much criticism of Gage followed. Often this is seen as a response to the massive casualties taken at Bunker Hill. The Battle of Bunker Hill is so famous that the most historically illiterate Americans—and there are a lot of them—have at least heard of it and can probably figure out that it was fought during the Revolutionary War.Many may recall from High School or an old Peabody and Sherman cartoon that an order was issued—“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.” The British right was led by the battlefield commander, Maj. Gen. William Howe, while the British left was conducted by Brig. A running battle ensued, and the British detachment suffered heavily before reaching Charlestown. . The Battle of Bunker Hill The Battle of Bunker Hill was one of the critical turning points in the Revolutionary War. Howe refused to allow the boats to transport his defeated troops back to Boston. C. American morale was boosted by their victory. On June 17, 1775, the Battle of Bunker Hill took place after the engagements at Lexington and Concord, and the colonial rebels wanted to keep the British troops contained in Boston, Massachusetts, per American Battlefield Trust.Colonel William Prescott was ordered to take his colonial fighters and occupy Bunker Hill, but Prescott and others decided to reroute the troops to Breed's Hill … The Events Leading Up To Bunker Hill. Battles of Lexington and Concord: The Battles of Lexington and Concord had left Thomas Gage and his British Army pinned down inside Boston. The British had underestimated the army that was created under their nose and the ability of the men who fought. The top commander of the Continental Army was Israel Putnam. Boston, situated on a peninsula, was largely protected from close approach by the expanses of water surrounding it, which were dominated by British warships. William Howe's army was very large. However, General William Howe’s British Troops moved south. On June 17th, more than 3000 British Red Coats faced off against 2400 American patriots. In fact, the Bunker Hill redoubt was also intended to be taken by a flanking maneuver, the first and last of Howe’s to go awry. Gage ordered William Howe to attack a newly occupied and highly threatening American position on Breed’s Hill outside of Boston on June 17. The British Prepare for the Battle of Bunker Hill. 10. Next day Major-General William Howe, commanding the 2,200-strong British force, counter-attacked. After the Boston Tea Party, British and American soldiers and Massachusetts residents have maneuvered around each other until April 19th, when violence erupts at Lexington and Concord. Howe was publicly sympathetic to the American cause and did not believe the British force could overcome the Americans. Howe saw that the situation had become untenable and made the decision to abandon the … Camp upon the Heights of Charlestown, June 2z and 24. , . The first important battle of the American War of Independence.
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Sir William Howe: The Man Who Could Not Quell a Rebellion
By all accounts, William Howe seemed to be the perfect choice to lead the British Army in its quest to put down the rebellion in British North America following the events outside of Boston in April 1775. Coming from a military family and rising within the officer ranks due to his experience in the field, Howe had distinguished himself as a capable general. As he sought to replace Gen. Thomas Gage in Massachusetts, Howe’s objectives were invariably clear: overwhelm the rebels and wait for them to relent their hostilities. In the first year of his command, he certainly seemed to have the upper hand against the Continental Army. However, several factors would come into play that ultimately cost William Howe his chance of being a British war hero: the man who destroyed the United States before it gained its birthright.
British General William Howe.
Young William was born in 1729 into the family of Emanuel Howe and Sophia Charlotte von Kielmansegg. Sophia was the recognized illegitimate half-sister to King George I, providing the family with a royal prestige that helped carry the Howe name far in British politics. Emanuel inherited a baronetcy claim in 1730, giving him the title of “2 nd Viscount Howe,” and served as Governor of Barbados until his death in 1735. William’s two older brothers, George and Richard, grew up in the military tradition, with George rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the British army in the 1750s and Richard becoming an admiral in the Royal navy. George was killed during the British attempt to take Fort Ticonderoga in 1758 during the Seven Years War with France. Highly-respected, George was given honors within North America and Massachusetts helped fund a memorial in his name, something the remaining Howe brothers never forgot.
It seems William Howe won his appointment to succeed Thomas Gage because of a combination of his experience, his family name within the Court of King George III, and because of his attachment to his brother’s legacy – something the Crown hoped to leverage on susceptible colonists. All of these played into his nomination as commander in chief in 1775. His brother, Admiral Lord Richard “Black Dick” Howe, would eventually accompany him to North America, in charge of the British naval fleet. The brothers were given strict instructions from the North ministry and from Secretary of State for North American George Germain. They could issue pardons to rebels who renounced their war against the Crown, but they were forbidden to hold any sort of peace negotiations. The reason for this latter arrangement was the British government did not want to recognize the Continental Congress and Continental army as legitimate entities. Keeping their status as illegal kept the ball in the court of the Crown.
General Howe, along with generals Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne, arrived in Boston at the end of May 1775 with an additional 4,200 British soldiers to reinforce the estimated 5,000 under Gage’s command. Having learned of Lexington and Concord, Howe set about trying to isolate the rebels by taking the high ground in and around Boston. This would prevent any Americans from gaining a tactical advantage as they occupied the town. American spies learned of their plan and quickly set to building breastworks along Breed’s Hill, a steep mount above the village of Charlestown on the peninsula north of Boston Harbor. Overly confident that the superiority of the training and size of the British troops would scare off the rebels, Gage commanded Howe to proceed with a battle plan to land several launch craft on the eastern bank of the peninsula and march columns of soldiers to take the breastworks. On June 17, as they did, the Americans, holding the high ground, held off two British attempts. With a third British assault – one that saw Howe dividing his forces into two columns to encircle the top of the mount - the Americans fell back to Bunker’s Hill and over the slender neck of land that connected the peninsula to Massachusetts. The British had successfully taken the hill but lost over 1,000 soldiers in the process. The victory was severely costly to British morale, particularly on Howe, whose judgment and confidence some historians have suggested was affected for the remainder of the war. Sir Henry Clinton, one of Howe’s subordinates, was also quite critical of Howe’s planning. Clinton had wanted to secure the neck behind the American position to cut off their ability to retreat however, this suggestion was dismissed, and became one of the many disagreements between the British commanders that inflated their suspicions of one another in the coming years.
A nineteenth-century depiction of the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775.
At the same time, Massachusetts was the ground for posturing among the warring sides, Canada had become another priority for either side. The British wanted to take command of the Hudson River, hoping its closing to American navigation would effectively cut off New England from the remainder of the continent, essentially containing the rebellion. The Continental Congress had the aspirations of assuming the Canadian colonists were equally resentful of their British authorities and would readily fight to join in the cause of the colonies. American efforts proved futile, and the assumptions made by members of Congress were highly audacious, to be frank. But some success did occur in upstate New York. Gen. George Washington arrived in Cambridge on July 2, 1775, to officially take command of the new Continental forces. As he struggled to access and build a functioning army, he also had to contend with a lack of artillery among the Americans. Henry Knox, a book store owner in Boston, was given the task of retrieving the heavy munitions from Fort Ticonderoga. Knox’s successful journey – hauling thousands of tons of cannon by oxen through winter conditions from upstate New York to Boston – was nothing short of remarkable. The Americans finally had cannon to strike the British, but what to do with them?
As this was happening, Howe had assumed command of British forces from Thomas Gage. Plans were being made to move operations further south to New York in the spring of 1776. While keeping his time in Boston over the winter months, it seems Howe became enchanted with the wife of a loyalist, and other endeavors to pass the time may have taken his focus away from plotting how to rid himself of Washington. By March, Howe had reports of the American positions adjacent to Boston. Plans were being made to send two amphibious assaults on their position. At the same time, on the night of March 4, Washington directed his men to build fortifications on Dorchester Heights, the highest point in Boston harbor. Using makeshift sleds, they were able to overcome the late-winter conditions and establish an impregnable foothold that would allow them to fire the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga unopposed on the British in Boston or the Royal navy moored in the harbor. The next day, seeing what had been built overnight, Howe famously declared, “The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”
The British, very wary of another hill-assault following Breed’s Hill, decided against an attack after a winter storm further delayed their plans. Howe capitulated and abandoned Boston at the promise from Washington that his cannon would not reign down on the British soldiers filling the naval ships. The Siege of Boston was over with an American victory. While the news was welcomed and celebrated in Massachusetts, both commanding generals knew this was just the beginning.
Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis
New York City was the obvious target, and both sides knew the next battle would likely be different than what had occurred in Boston. Washington quickly assembled his army and moved them down into Manhattan and Long Island to fortify the high ground at Brooklyn Heights. Once again, he was relying on the topography to aid whatever his soldiers lacked in battle experience. The British had waited offshore to allow for the reinforcements to arrive, giving Washington precious time to build his fortifications. But what Washington and the rest of the Americans had not counted on was the arrival of the bulk of the British forces sent to reinforce the 8,000 or so troops under Howe’s command. These forces, numbering about 22,000, also saw the arrival of Howe’s brother, Lord Richard Howe to command the Royal navy. As the fleet crept towards the Narrows between Staten Island and Long Island, many Americans commented that it looked like the entire city of London was afloat. The British landed on Staten Island to establish their beachhead. On August 27, the British crossed the mouth of the Hudson River and landed on the southwest corner of Long Island. From there, Howe, along with Clinton, moved a large portion of their army around the left flank of the American positions. As the Continental forces concentrated their efforts on the British columns in front of them, Howe’s army went undetected until it was too late. Confusion and inexperience won the day for the Americans (not the last time this would happen facing Howe), and the army was pushed back behind the fortifications at Brooklyn Heights. Thinking he had the Americans beaten, Howe called off any further advances for the day, despite protests from Clinton and Maj. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis. In a stroke of bad luck for the British, the American army silently evacuated the west bank of Long Island in the early morning hours of September 28. When the British awoke and advanced, they found an empty shoreline. In the coming weeks, Howe would successfully drive the Americans from Manhattan Island and the northern outskirts of the area. It was a complete reversal from Boston for William Howe, who would soon become Sir William Howe for his victories in New York, the new command center of British operations for the war.
Washington escaped across New Jersey and settled on the western banks of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. He started the New York campaign with a force of 12,000 men. By December, his forces were below 3,000. Who hadn’t been taken prisoner or died from battle or disease had deserted. And unless something was done, the remainder of his men were likely to walk away at year’s end when their enlistments were up. It was the darkest hour for the American cause. For the British, the rebellion seemed to be happily coming to end for his Majesty. Howe extended a series of garrisons throughout central New Jersey a string of detachments running from New Brunswick west to Princeton, Trenton, and then south to Bordentown. He placed these garrisons in the hands of Hessian and Scots troopers soldiers of fortune hired by the British government to help them win the war. Howe remained confident the 3,000 or so soldiers could manage any skirmishes that broke out over the winter months. But despite some clear indication that Washington was planning an attack, no one within the British chain of command took it as a serious threat. The events that would unfold between December 21, 1776, through January 3, 1777, would change the course of the war and history forever. With two victories, Washington was able to save the war for American independence, and subsequently give the British command a serious black eye.
In the spring of 1777, British forces were brought into New Jersey to try and draw Washington out of his hiding place in the northern foothills of the state into a major engagement. Both armies were low on supplies, and a war of foraging enraptured much of the territory with minor skirmishes erupting here and there until June. On the 26 th , after weeks of Howe failing to bait him down, Washington moved into the valley as the British evacuated to Staten Island. Sensing his chance, Howe swung the entire army around and marched on the Americans near Metuchen, New Jersey. The Battle of Short Hills was short-lived, much to the frustration of Howe and Cornwallis, as Washington quickly retreated into the mountains before the main British forces arrived. Fed up, Howe quit New Jersey and moved off to Staten Island and eventually New York to regroup. But once again, it was no secret what his intentions were.
Howe’s strategy during the time he was commander in chief has been ridiculed and highly debated among historians. While it is clear he was a capable leader, its also clear that he gave Washington, whether through faults of his own or indeliberate, too many chances to retreat or regroup at precious moments where a more aggressive British response could have produced a drastically different outcome. Whether this is legitimately fair to Howe remains up for debate the British commander was fighting a war on how eighteenth-century military training dictated it. He also was unprepared, as was nearly the entire British command and a governmental body, to fight an insurgency and guerilla war on a continent that would be nearly impossible to contain at any given time. The Americans knew this or came to realize it during the war. The British, for all their confidence, training, and history with the colonies, did not until it was too late.
Battle of Germantown - October 4, 1777
His eye was on Philadelphia, the rebel capital. Washington knew this too. One of the reasons the Americans remained encamped within earshot of the British in New Jersey through the spring of 1777 was to make any march on Philadelphia miserable for Howe’s army. Sensing this, the British commander opted to take Philadelphia by another direction. In July, he set sail for the Chesapeake Bay and planned to march from the south to attack Pennsylvania. Once again, Howe gave Washington time to plan his defenses. The British landed at Head of Elk, Maryland in late August, and marched northward. Howe’s army approached Chadds Ford from the southwest on September 10. The Continentals under Washington had positioned themselves on the eastern bank of the Brandywine Creek. On September 11, the battle commenced that saw the largest number of participants in the entire war. And once again, Sir William Howe deceived the American commander. Washington had sent scouts along the creek prior to the British arriving to note access points where they might try to cross and flank them. Apparently, some of the scouts missed a forge north of the American position, one that Gen. Howe exploited brilliantly during the battle. Much like what happened in Brooklyn, while one portion of the British army engaged the Americans head on, Howe swung wide right around the American lines and flanked them from the north with a large detachment of troops. It took the Continentals by complete surprise and quickly altered Washington’s plans. Seeing the battle as lost, Washington ordered the retreat and the main American forces fell back as other detachments fended off Howe’s advance. What promised to be a major battle turned into a huge rout and victory for the British. Howe had beaten Washington with the same maneuver, again. In the coming weeks, the Americans would try and entice another major engagement. Torrential rains and a misjudged mission that led to American Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne’s forces being annihilated at Paoli led to an unceremonious taking of Philadelphia by the British on September 26. Washington tried one more time to draw Howe into a major fight, but the efforts on October 4, 1777, at Germantown unraveled before the American commander’s eyes, and he was forced to retreat. As the winter months approached, the Americans slunk into their winter encampments west of the city at Valley Forge while Howe and the British enjoyed the comforts of Philadelphia.
All was not well, however. Further north, a British army of 8,000 troops under the command of Gen. John Burgoyne had just been badly beaten and forced into a humiliating surrender at the hands of American Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates. Burgoyne’s army had been in desperate need of supplies and reinforcements, and after being unable to navigate the hostile countryside, they positioned themselves to defend against an increasingly overwhelming American presence. The ripple effects of this British defeat were immediately felt in Paris, where American diplomats had been courting the French government for military support and sovereign recognition. With Saratoga, King Louis XVI formally declared his support to the United States, making the rebellion no longer a British insurrection, but a potential world war. Howe had been instructed to reinforce Burgoyne in the spring of 1777, but the British commander proposed a plan to take Philadelphia in the hopes of forcing the rebel government to capitulate. Burgoyne and the British government were under the initial impression that Howe intended to move on Philadelphia in the spring, whereas he could then send reinforcements north to Burgoyne. When it was clear he would not be attacking until the fall, Howe was sent mixed messages from secretary Germain and the North ministry. Coupled with these messages, it’s clear Howe did not have much respect for Burgoyne’s army, and his own inclination to take Philadelphia as a prize he could use to bolster his reputation slowed any urgency he might have had to assist his fellow British commander. It seems when Howe learned of Burgoyne’s defeat in October 1777, it was enough for him to tender his resignation as commander in chief. He, along with the British, would remain in Philadelphia until late May. On May 18, 1778, a huge festive party was thrown in his honor, known as the Mischianza. Howe departed for London on May 24, and his subordinate, Sir Henry Clinton, commander of New York, took over as commander in chief of the British Army in North America.
Along with his brother Richard, who also resigned, they faced censor and court-martial upon their returns to England. However, nothing was ever proven, and Howe spent years defending his leadership in the British press. He would regain his stature within the British army and serve during the French Revolutionary Wars before retiring and dying childless to his wife Frances, in 1814. Despite how his tenure ended, and as we view the several commanding generals of the American Revolution, it must be said that Sir William Howe did most things correct, given his knowledge and military training. What is inexcusable perhaps is his inability to view the war in terms beyond his own personal doings. Certainly, he was not alone in this manner, which helps us explain how separate commands and conflicting messages from a distant government played against British objectives to win the war. Had he been more aggressive, and less sympathetic and indifferent – and understood who and what he was fighting – it is plausible Sir William Howe would be remembered as the British general who put down the American rebellion rather than one of the generals who lost England her American colonies.
The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill
The last stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail is a shrine to the fog of war.
From This Story
Colonial forces bypassed Bunker Hill for Breed’s Hill, a smaller rise closer to Boston and more threatening to the British. (Gilbert Gates) John Trumball's The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, 17 June, 1775. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution is available for pre-order now and in stores on April 30, 2013. (Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency, Inc.)
“Breed’s Hill,” a plaque reads. “Site of the Battle of Bunker Hill.” Another plaque bears the famous order given American troops as the British charged up not-Bunker Hill. “Don’t fire ’til you see the whites of their eyes.” Except, park rangers will quickly tell you, these words weren’t spoken here. The patriotic obelisk atop the hill also confuses visitors. Most don’t realize it’s the rare American monument to an American defeat.
In short, the nation’s memory of Bunker Hill is mostly bunk. Which makes the 1775 battle a natural topic for Nathaniel Philbrick, an author drawn to iconic and misunderstood episodes in American history. He took on the Pilgrim landing in Mayflower and the Little Bighorn in The Last Stand. In his new book, Bunker Hill, he revisits the beginnings of the American Revolution, a subject freighted with more myth, pride and politics than any other in our national narrative.
“Johnny Tremain, Paul Revere’s Ride, today’s Tea Partiers—you have to tune all that out to get at the real story,” Philbrick says. Gazing out from the Bunker Hill Monument—not at charging redcoats but at skyscrapers and clotted traffic—he adds: “You also have to squint a lot and study old maps to imagine your way back into the 18th century.”
Boston in 1775 was much smaller, hillier and more watery than it appears today. The Back Bay was still a bay and the South End was likewise underwater hills were later leveled to fill in almost 1,000 acres. Boston was virtually an island, reachable by land only via a narrow neck. And though founded by Puritans, the city wasn’t puritanical. One rise near Beacon Hill, known for its prostitutes, was marked on maps as “Mount Whoredom.”
Nor was Boston a “cradle of liberty” one in five families, including those of leading patriots, owned slaves. And the city’s inhabitants were viciously divided. At Copp’s Hill, in Boston’s North End, Philbrick visits the grave of Daniel Malcom, an early agitator against the British identified on his headstone as “a true son of Liberty.” British troops used the patriot headstone for target practice. Yet Malcom’s brother, John, was a noted loyalist, so hated by rebels that they tarred and feathered him and paraded him in a cart until his skin peeled off in “steaks.”
Philbrick is a mild-mannered 56-year-old with gentle brown eyes, graying hair and a placid golden retriever in the back of his car. But he’s blunt and impassioned about the brutishness of the 1770s and the need to challenge patriotic stereotypes. “There’s an ugly civil war side to revolutionary Boston that we don’t often talk about,” he says, “and a lot of thuggish, vigilante behavior by groups like the Sons of Liberty.” He doesn’t romanticize the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord, either. The “freedoms” they fought for, he notes, weren’t intended to extend to slaves, Indians, women or Catholics. Their cause was also “profoundly conservative.” Most sought a return to the Crown’s “salutary neglect” of colonists prior to the 1760s, before Britain began imposing taxes and responding to American resistance with coercion and troops. “They wanted the liberties of British subjects, not American independence,” Philbrick says.
That began to change once blood was shed, which is why the Bunker Hill battle is pivotal. The chaotic skirmishing at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 left the British holed up in Boston and hostile colonists occupying the city’s surrounds. But it remained unclear whether the ill-equipped rebels were willing or able to engage the British Army in pitched battle. Leaders on both sides also thought the conflict might yet be settled without full-scale war.
This tense, two-month stalemate broke on the night of June 16, in a confused manner that marks much of the Revolution’s start. Over a thousand colonials marched east from Cambridge with orders to fortify Bunker Hill, a 110-foot rise on the Charlestown peninsula jutting into Boston Harbor. But the Americans bypassed Bunker Hill in the dark and instead began fortifying Breed’s Hill, a smaller rise much closer to Boston and almost in the face of the British.
The reasons for this maneuver are murky. But Philbrick believes it was a “purposeful act, a provocation and not the smartest move militarily.” Short on cannons, and the know-how to fire those they had with accuracy, the rebels couldn’t do much damage from Breed’s Hill. But their threatening position, on high ground just across the water from Boston, forced the British to try to dislodge the Americans before they were reinforced or fully entrenched.
On the morning of June 17, as the rebels frantically threw up breastworks of earth, fence posts and stone, the British bombarded the hill. One cannonball decapitated a man as his comrades worked on, “fatigued by our Labour, having no sleep the night before, very little to eat, no drink but rum,” a private wrote. “The danger we were in made us think there was treachery, and that we were brought there to be all slain.”
Exhausted and exposed, the Americans were also a motley collection of militia from different colonies, with little coordination and no clear chain of command. By contrast, the British, who at midday began disembarking from boats near the American position, were among the best-trained troops in Europe. And they were led by seasoned commanders, one of whom marched confidently at the head of his men accompanied by a servant carrying a bottle of wine. The British also torched Charlestown, at the base of Breed’s Hill, turning church steeples into “great pyramids of fire” and adding ferocious heat to what was already a warm June afternoon.
All this was clearly visible to the many spectators crowded on hills, rooftops and steeples in and around Boston, including Abigail Adams and her young son, John Quincy, who cried at the flames and the “thunders” of British cannons. Another observer was British Gen. John Burgoyne, who watched from Copp’s Hill. “And now ensued one of the greatest scenes of war that can be conceived,” he wrote of the blazing town, the roaring cannons and the sight of red-coated troops ascending Breed’s Hill.
However, the seemingly open pasture proved to be an obstacle course. The high, unmown hay obscured rocks, holes and other hazards. Fences and stone walls also slowed the British. The Americans, meanwhile, were ordered to hold their fire until the attackers closed to 50 yards or less. The wave of British “advanced towards us in order to swallow us up,” wrote Pvt. Peter Brown, “but they found a Choaky mouthful of us.”
When the rebels opened fire, the close-packed British fell in clumps. In some spots, the British lines became jumbled, making them even easier targets. The Americans added to the chaos by aiming at officers, distinguished by their fine uniforms. The attackers, repulsed at every point, were forced to withdraw. “The dead lay as thick as sheep in a fold,” wrote an American officer.
The disciplined British quickly re-formed their ranks and advanced again, with much the same result. One British officer was moved to quote Falstaff: “They make us here but food for gunpowder.” But the American powder was running very low. And the British, having failed twice, devised a new plan. They repositioned their artillery and raked the rebel defenses with grapeshot. And when the infantrymen marched forward, a third time, they came in well-spaced columns rather than a broad line.
As the Americans’ ammunition expired, their firing sputtered and “went out like an old candle,” wrote William Prescott, who commanded the hilltop redoubt. His men resorted to throwing rocks, then swung their muskets at the bayonet-wielding British pouring over the rampart. “Nothing could be more shocking than the carnage that followed the storming [of] this work,” wrote a royal marine. “We tumbled over the dead to get at the living,” with “soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the brains of others.” The surviving defenders fled, bringing the battle to an end.
In just two hours of fighting, 1,054 British soldiers—almost half of all those engaged—had been killed or wounded, including many officers. American losses totaled over 400. The first true battle of the Revolutionary War was to prove the bloodiest of the entire conflict. Though the British had achieved their aim in capturing the hill, it was a truly Pyrrhic victory. “The success is too dearly bought,” wrote Gen. William Howe, who lost every member of his staff (as well as the bottle of wine his servant carried into battle).
Badly depleted, the besieged British abandoned plans to seize another high point near the city and ultimately evacuated Boston. The battle also demonstrated American resolve and dispelled hopes that the rebels might relent without a protracted conflict. “Our three generals,” a British officer wrote of his commanders in Boston, had “expected rather to punish a mob than fight with troops that would look them in the face.”
The intimate ferocity of this face-to-face combat is even more striking today, in an era of drones, tanks and long-range missiles. At the Bunker Hill Museum, Philbrick studies a diorama of the battle alongside Patrick Jennings, a park ranger who served as an infantryman and combat historian for the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This was almost a pool-table battlefield,” Jennings observes of the miniature soldiers crowded on a verdant field. “The British were boxed in by the terrain and the Americans didn’t have much maneuverability, either. It’s a close-range brawl.”
However, there’s no evidence that Col. Israel Putnam told his men to hold their fire until they saw “the whites” of the enemies’ eyes. The writer Parson Weems invented this incident decades later, along with other fictions such as George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. In reality, the Americans opened fire at about 50 yards, much too distant to see anyone’s eyes. One colonel did tell his men to wait until they could see the splash guards—called half-gaiters—that British soldiers wore around their calves. But as Philbrick notes, “‘Don’t fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters’ just doesn’t have the same ring.” So the Weems version endured, making it into textbooks and even into the video game Assassin’s Creed.
The Bunker Hill Monument also has an odd history. The cornerstone was laid in 1825, with Daniel Webster addressing a crowd of 100,000. Backers built one of the first railways in the nation to tote eight-ton granite blocks from a quarry south of Boston. But money ran out. So Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor and author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” rescued the project by organizing a “Ladies’ Fair” that raised $30,000. The monument was finally dedicated in 1843, with the now-aged Daniel Webster returning to speak again.
Over time, Brahmin Charlestown turned Irish and working class, and the monument featured in gritty crime movies like The Town, directed by Ben Affleck (who has also acquired the movie rights to Philbrick’s book). But today the obelisk stands amid renovated townhouses, and the small park surrounding it is popular with exercise classes and leisure-seekers. “You’ll be talking to visitors about the horrible battle that took place here,” says park ranger Merrill Kohlhofer, “and all around you are sunbathers and Frisbee players and people walking their dogs.” Firemen also visit, to train for climbing tall buildings by scaling the 221-foot monument.
Philbrick is drawn to a different feature of the park: a statue of what he calls the “wild man” and neglected hero of revolutionary Boston, Dr. Joseph Warren. The physician led the rebel underground and became major general of the colonial army in the lead-up to Bunker Hill. A flamboyant man, he addressed 5,000 Bostonians clad in a toga and went into the Bunker Hill battle wearing a silk-fringed waistcoat and silver buttons, “like Lord Falkland, in his wedding suit.” But he refused to assume command, fighting as an ordinary soldier and dying from a bullet in the face during the final assault. Warren’s stripped body was later identified on the basis of his false teeth, which had been crafted by Paul Revere. He left behind a fiancée (one of his patients) and a mistress he’d recently impregnated.
“Warren was young, charismatic, a risk-taker—a man made for revolution,” Philbrick says. “Things were changing by the day and he embraced that.” In death, Warren became the Revolution’s first martyr, though he’s little remembered by most Americans today.
Before leaving Charlestown, Philbrick seeks out one other site. In 1775, when Americans marched past Bunker Hill and fortified Breed’s instead, a British map compounded the confusion by mixing up the two hills as well. Over time, the name Breed’s melted away and the battle became indelibly linked to Bunker. But what of the hill that originally bore that name?
It’s visible from the Bunker Hill Monument: a taller, steeper hill 600 yards away. But Charlestown’s narrow, one-way streets keep carrying Philbrick in the wrong direction. After 15 minutes of circling his destination he finally finds a way up. “It’s a pity the Americans didn’t fortify this hill,” he quips, “the British would never have found it.”
It’s now crowned by a church, on Bunker Hill Street, and a sign says the church was established in 1859, “On the Top of Bunker Hill.” The church’s business manager, Joan Rae, says the same. “This is Bunker Hill. That other hill’s not. It’s Breed’s.” To locals like Rae, perhaps, but not to visitors or even to Google Maps. Tap in “Bunker Hill Charlestown” and you’ll be directed to. that other hill. To Philbrick, this enduring confusion is emblematic of the Bunker Hill story. “The whole thing’s a screw-up,” he says. “The Americans fortify the wrong hill, this forces a fight no one planned, the battle itself is an ugly and confused mess. And it ends with a British victory that’s also a defeat.”
Retreating to Boston for lunch at “ye olde” Union Oyster House, Philbrick reflects more personally on his historic exploration of the city where he was born. Though he was mostly raised in Pittsburgh, his forebears were among the first English settlers of the Boston area in the 1630s. One Philbrick served in the Revolution. As a championship sailor, Philbrick competed on the Charles River in college and later moved to Boston. He still has an apartment there, but mostly lives on the echt-Yankee island of Nantucket, the setting for his book about whaling, In the Heart of the Sea.
Philbrick, however, considers himself a “deracinated WASP” and doesn’t believe genealogy or flag-waving should cloud our view of history. “I don’t subscribe to the idea that the founders or anyone else were somehow better than us and that we have to live up to their example.” He also feels the hated British troops in Boston deserve reappraisal. “They’re an occupying army, locals despise them, and they don’t want to be there,” he says. “As Americans we’ve now been in that position in Iraq and can appreciate the British dilemma in a way that wasn’t easy before.”
But Philbrick also came away from his research with a powerful sense of the Revolution’s significance. While visiting archives in England, he called on Lord Gage, a direct descendant of Gen. Thomas Gage, overall commander of the British military at the Bunker Hill battle. The Gage family’s Tudor-era estate has 300 acres of private gardens and a chateau-style manor filled with suits of armor and paintings by Gainsborough, Raphael and Van Dyck.
“We had sherry and he could not have been more courteous,” Philbrick says of Lord Gage. “But it was a reminder of the British class system and how much the Revolution changed our history. As countries, we’ve gone on different paths since his ancestor sent redcoats up that hill.”
Read an excerpt from Philbrick's Bunker Hill, detailing the tarring and feathering of loyalist John Malcom on the eve of the Revolutionary War, here.
About Tony Horwitz
Tony Horwitz was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who worked as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and wrote for the New Yorker. He is the author of Baghdad without a Map, Midnight Rising and the digital best seller BOOM. His most recent work, Spying on the South, was released in May 2019. Tony Horwitz died in May 2019 at the age of 60.