Monday, November 28, 2011

Battle of Bunker Hill

"The Battle of Bunker hill" by Howard Pyle, circa 1897
The Battle of Bunker Hill, which took place on June 17, 1775 in Charlestown, was one of the most significant battles during the Siege of Boston. The battle started after colonists heard British forces were planning to send troops to occupy the hills surrounding Boston. To prevent this, Colonel William Prescott and his men marched to nearby Breed's Hill, although they originally intended to go to Bunker Hill, on the night of June 16 and hastily built a large earthen fortification.

It is not known exactly why the troops ended up on Breed's hill but some historians speculate that Prescott either got the two hills confused or decided that since Breed's hill was closer to the harbor it gave his troops a better position to attack the British ships from. Despite the fact that the battle took place on Breed's Hill, it still came to be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Colonel Prescott troops consisted of 2,400 men, including General Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, General Israel Putnam and my ancestor, General Henry Burbeck, who helped make ammunition for the battle alongside his father Lieutenant-Colonel William Burbeck.

When the British military saw the fortification on the hill in the early morning light, their ships opened fire on it but did not cause much damage. As British infantry soldiers arrived in Charlestown village, they found themselves under sniper fire from the village. In an attempt to clear out the snipers, British troops set fire to the town and burned it to the ground.

At about 3 p.m., British General Thomas Gage ordered his 3,000 troops to meet at the base of the hill, clad in their bright red coats and carrying heavy equipment and bayonets, and charge towards the colonists through the open fields on the hillside.

As the colonists watched their slow advance, Colonel Prescott, realizing his men were low on ammunition, reportedly gave his famous order “Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.” As the soldiers came into range, the colonists opened fire. They successfully drove the British troops back down the hill twice before they advanced a third time, just as the colonists ran out of ammunition. The battle was then reduced to close combat during which the British finally took control of the hill. Defeated and defenseless, the colonists retreated back up the Charlestown peninsula to Cambridge.

The colonists suffered most of their casualties, including the death of Joseph Warren, not during the battle but during the retreat. The exact whereabouts of Warren after the battle was unknown but when he failed to reappear after the retreat, the colonists assumed he was killed in action. Warren had in fact died from a shot through the head and British soldiers buried him on the hill in a shallow grave with another colonist. His body was later dug up and identified by Paul Revere who recognized Warren's two false teeth that he had installed earlier in the year, according to the book "Decisive Day: The Battle of Bunker Hill."

"The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill" by Trumball, circa 1786
The last colonist to die during the battle was Major Andrew McClary who was hit by cannon fire from a frigate in the harbor while retreating through Charlestown neck, the narrow land bridge connecting the peninsula to the mainland. McClary was thrown a few feet in the air by the cannon fire before landing dead, face down on the ground. Fort McClary in Kittery, Maine was later named after him.

By the end of the three hour battle, 226 British soldiers, including a large number of officers, and 115 colonists lay dead and several hundred more were wounded. About 30 colonists, most of whom were mortally wounded and couldn't physically escape, were captured. Although the British technically won the Battle of Bunker Hill, their heavy losses during the battle bolstered the colonist's confidence and encouraged them to continue fighting.
The Bunker Hill Monument commemorating the battle was erected in 1827

Sources:

"Decisive Day: The Battle of BunkerHill"; Richard M. Ketchum; 1962

"History of the Siege of Boston"; Richard Frothingham; 1849

The Freedom Trail: Bunker Hill
http://www.thefreedomtrail.org/visitor/bunker-hill.html

The Library of Congress: The Battle of Bunker Hill
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/jun17.html

The American Revolution: The Battle of Bunker Hill
http://theamericanrevolution.org/battledetail.aspx?battle=5

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