Historical content on this blog has been scarce lately.
It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with history, it’s just that I’ve been waiting for inspiration to strike.
And strike it did.
My recent trip to the United States provided me with some excellent opportunities to explore sites and learn about history that I was not previously familiar with – not in any real sense, anyway.
There is something to be said for standing in a historically significant location and imagining the events of centuries past. Previously, Old World locations like Rome, Athens, Pergamon and Volubilis were the settings for such bouts of introspection.
The Bunker Hill Monument (at Breed’s Hill). (c) Ethan Reilly, 2014.
This time though, it was Boston.
The capital of Massachusetts proved to be one of my favourite cities, and a large part of that was thanks to the wealth of history on show.
On one of the days that we were there, my girlfriend and I took a Freedom Trail walking tour that covered many locations significant to the American Revolution, including the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, and at the very end, the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Fought in 1775AD during the earliest stages of the American Revolution, the battle was just one engagement in the almost year-long Siege of Boston, when the Colonial forces sought to force the withdrawal of the British garrison from the (then) peninsula town.
The actual battle took place across the narrow waters separating Boston from Charlestown though, and, in one of those surprisingly common historical misconceptions, had little to do with Bunker Hill in the end, since the majority of the action took place on the adjacent Breed’s Hill.
“Array of American Forces on the Field at the Battle of Breeds Hill” (c) Charles E. Frye. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Things got under way on June 13, when the Colonials surrounding Boston learnt that the British were planning to occupy the heights above Charlestown, thus giving them effective control of Boston Harbour and further nullifying their attempts at sieging the British out.
Determined that the no-man’s land on the Charlestown peninsula should be under their control instead, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress despatched General Israel Putnam, Colonel William Prescott and Engineer-Captain Richard Gridley, with approximately 1200 men, to capture and fortify Bunker Hill, the highest point on the peninsula. Once there though, the Colonials disagreed over whether they should obey their orders to the letter or instead fortify the heights of Breed’s Hill, which was closer to Boston and more easily defensible.
In the end, they chose (if the confusion and anarchy that the Colonial forces exhibited thereafter can be called a ‘choice’) Breed’s Hill, and began digging trenches and building fortifications.
When the British learned of what was happening, they responded (albeit somewhat sluggishly). Artillery began to bombard the Colonial positions and later, after the Revolutionaries had had over six hours to prepare their fortifications, a force of 1500 men under General William Howe travelled across in longboats and landed on the peninsula at Moulton’s Point.
Statue of Colonel William Prescott at the Bunker Hill Monument. (c) Ethan Reilly, 2014.
The planned assault of the hill was further delayed when Howe decided to call for reinforcements. This meant that Prescott was also able to call for additional troops, amongst whom were popular patriots Joseph Warren and Seth Pomeray.
By the time the assault was ready to get under way at 3PM on June 17, approximately 1500 Colonials occupied the heights of Breed’s Hill (with some holding back at Bunker Hill itself), with more than 2400 British infantry advancing up the slope to meet them.
The first assault was repulsed with heavy losses. The second assault fared no better, as the Colonials, despite not having the advantage in training and discipline, used volley fire and the cover they had constructed to best effect.
It was during one of these two assaults that someone – no-one knows who for certain – on the Colonial side is said to have uttered the immortal line, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Less a bravado-filled rallying call, and more an appeal to conserve ammunition until it could be used most effectively, this saying has become synonymous with the battle, although it echoes many earlier sentiments in military history.
“Battle of Bunker Hill” by Howard Pyle (1853 – 1911). This work is in the public domain.
With mounting casualties, the British called for another contingent of reinforcements before attempting the assault for the third time.
This time they were successful, overrunning the Colonial positions, thanks no doubt in part to the fact that the defenders were almost entirely out of ammunition at this point.
With unit cohesion quickly breaking down, Colonel Prescott led the Colonials in a fighting withdrawal. It was at this stage that Joseph Warren was killed.
“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775″ by John Trumbull (1756 – 1843). This work is in the public domain.
The Colonial troops abandoned Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill too, and withdrew across the Charlestown Neck, effectively ceding the peninsula to the British.
It was a costly victory for His Majesty’s troops though. While the Colonials lost some 115 men, with another 300 wounded, the British lost 207 “Regulars” and 19 experienced officers, with another 800 or so wounded.
It was a Pyrrhic victory at best.
View towards the Charles River and Boston from the base of Breed’s Hill. (c) Ethan Reiily, 2014.
There were also political consequences; the outcome served to strengthen resolve for armed conflict on both sides of the Atlantic, while the unexpected resilience of the Colonial forces gave hope to many – including the newly appointed Commander of the Continental Army, George Washington – that the Revolutionaries could eventually prevail.
Visiting the site in person, now a quiet residential neighbourhood, it is still easy to see why it was chosen by the Colonial forces. Although the geography of Boston has changed dramatically in the years since that fateful day in 1775, the heights of Breed’s Hill still command a strong position overlooking the waters of the Charles River and the city itself.
A fine place then, to make a stand.