On this day in 1775, the Battle of Bunker Hill is fought. It was technically a British victory—but only technically. Instead, the battle proved to be a morale booster for Americans who discovered that they could hold their own against the renowned British army.
What a feat! It could easily have gone the other way, especially given the events of the day before.
Late on June 16, Colonel William Prescott had been dispatched with about 1,200 men to fortify Bunker Hill, just across the river from Boston. Unfortunately, Prescott ended up fortifying the wrong hill. Breed’s Hill was closer, and it was a more aggressive stance than Bunker Hill would have been.
When the sun rose, American soldiers finally saw just how close they were to the British in Boston. “The danger we were in,” one soldier later wrote, “made us think there was treachery and that we were brought there to be all slain . . . .”
Their fortifications weren’t done, though, and they went back to work.
It must have been quite a scene! The British began bombarding the area with cannon. The fire was mostly ineffective, but one shot found its mark, killing an American. Prescott leapt into action. He jumped on the redoubt and strode forcefully back and forth, encouraging his men to keep working. He’d made himself a target, but he wasn’t about to let his men be intimidated, either.
By early afternoon, the British were setting fire to churches and other buildings in Charlestown, at the base of Breed’s Hill. Soldiers were also being ferried across the river from Boston. Soon, they began marching on the American position.
Remember, many of these Americans had been building fortifications all night. They were about to fight an intense battle on little to no sleep. Yet they still managed to obey their instructions: Don’t fire until the redcoats get very close. At least apocryphally, Americans were told: “Don’t one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”
Most likely that precise phrase was never uttered, although one officer may have told his soldiers to look for the whites of the half-gaiters the British soldiers would be wearing.
Either way, Americans held their fire. Finally, when the British were fairly close, the first barrage of musket fire finally came. It took down many, many British soldiers. The British attempted a second attack on the hill, 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. They had more than 1000 casualties, compared to 400 for the colonists. American General Nathanael Greene would write: “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—and he’d even lost a bottle of wine that was carried into battle alongside him.
A bottle of wine?! Was he too quick to assume that he’d end the day on a happy note?
If 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.
John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (2007)
Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution (2013)
Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston: And of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (4th ed. 1873) (reprint edition HERE)
Richard M Ketchum, Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill (1962) (reprint edition HERE)