This Day in History: The Battle of Bunker Hill

On this day in 1775, the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought. The battle was technically a British victory, but it proved to be a morale booster for Americans who discovered that they could hold their own against the renowned British army.

If the details of this battle have left you a bit puzzled, then you are not alone. That battle was a confused mess, from beginning to end. For starters, it wasn’t really fought on Bunker Hill, but nearby on Breed’s Hill. On June 16, the Americans had set out with the intent of fortifying Bunker Hill, but they ended up fortifying Breed’s Hill instead.

No one really knows why they fortified the wrong hill, but the decision had consequences. Breed’s Hill was closer to Boston. Fortifying that hill was “an unmistakable act of defiance” that “invited a forceful response from the British army,” as historian Nathaniel Philbrick notes. Moreover, Bunker Hill already had partially completed defenses. Breed’s Hill did not.

Unsurprisingly, Americans did not complete their fortifications before the sun rose. At daybreak, they realized that the new redoubt could be outflanked. They began work on a new breastwork to the east, but the British began bombarding them even as they tried to finish their work. Before too long, the British had set fire to churches and other buildings in Charlestown, at the base of Breed’s Hill, and they began marching on the American position. Americans were told not to fire upon the British until they got very close. At least apocryphally, they were told: “Don’t one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”

In all likelihood, no American officer ever said precisely that phrase. One officer may have told his soldiers not to fire until they saw the half-gaiters that the British soldiers would have been wearing 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.”

No, I guess it doesn’t!

Nevertheless, the Americans did hold their fire for quite a while. The British were fairly close to the American position when the first barrage of musket fire finally came. It took down many, many British soldiers. The British attempted a second attack on the hill, but with the same result. The third attack went better for the British, partly because they had reorganized and partly because the Americans were running out of powder.

The British had technically won, but it was a costly defeat. More than 1000 British soldiers were killed or wounded. The American losses were much smaller: about 400 men killed or wounded. American General Nathanael Greene wrote: “I wish [we] could Sell them another Hill at the same Price”! For his part, British General William Howe later said: “The success is too dearly bought.” He’d lost every member of his staff. According to Philbrick, he’d also lost a bottle of wine that was carried into battle alongside him.

A bottle of wine?! Who brings a bottle of wine into battle . . . unless they have no respect for the opposing fighting force?

If the Americans achieved nothing else that day, perhaps they taught the British to have a little more respect for the ragged group of colonists who were fighting for their freedom.