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This Day in History: Battle of Bunker Hill (pt. 1)

On this day in 1775, roughly 1,000 American provincial soldiers gather at Cambridge. They received a blessing from the Reverend Samuel Langdon, then departed with a wagon full of tools. The infamous Battle of Bunker Hill would follow the next day.

Oddly, that battle wasn’t fought on Bunker Hill. Instead, the conflict occurred nearby, on Breed’s Hill. Why the confusion? The answer can be found in a decision made by Colonel William Prescott on the evening of June 16.

Or maybe it wasn’t Prescott. Perhaps it was General Israel Putnam. No one is quite sure.

At that point in 1775, of course, Americans were holding the British under siege in Boston. The British had been there ever since the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington Green. Naturally, the British had no intention of letting the matter end there. Colonial leaders soon received intelligence that the British had a plan to break out of Boston. They would take Dorchester Neck, then move to Charlestown.

The colonists decided to take preemptive action. Fortifying Bunker Hill, near Charlestown, would give them the extra defenses that they needed to keep the siege against the British firmly in place.

Prescott was sent to fortify the hill. He was joined by about 200 more soldiers led by Captain Thomas Knowlton and General Israel Putnam. An engineer also accompanied the expedition: Lt. Colonel Richard Gridley.

The Americans began their trek toward Bunker Hill shortly after 6 p.m. on June 16, arriving a few hours later. One would think that the most logical thing to do would be to get to work immediately, building fortifications before the sun rose and revealed their work to the British. Actually, Bunker Hill already had partially constructed fortifications. Using them would have made perfect sense.

Except the Americans didn’t stop at Bunker Hill. They continued another half mile to Breed’s Hill.

Why? No one is quite sure. Only one account exists of the deliberations that occurred that evening. It states that Gridley and two officers reconnoitered the hill and discussed what to do. Gridley and one officer wanted to stay at Bunker’s Hill, but “on the pressing importunity of the other general officer,” they decided to move on to Breed’s Hill. This third individual could have been either Putnam or Prescott.

Did they misunderstand their instructions? Were they confused about which hill? Did they simply opt to do something more daring? There is no way to know.

Regardless, the decision had consequences. Prescott’s group arrived at Breed’s Hill late, with only four hours to work before the sun rose. Maybe worse, Breed’s Hill was closer to Boston. Fortifying Bunker Hill could have been viewed as a defensive posture. But fortifying Breed’s Hill was “an unmistakable act of defiance” that “invited a forceful response from the British army,” as historian Nathaniel Philbrick notes.

Unsurprisingly, Americans did not complete their fortifications before the sun rose. At daybreak, they realized that they had a serious problem on their hands.

What happened at the (inappropriately named) Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17th? Yep. You guessed it. The story continues tomorrow.

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