The Battle of Bunker Hill, From Both The Land and The Sea

This account is from The Linzee Family, by John W. Linzee. It is particularly good in laying out the placement and respective roles of the British naval vessels involved.

The best few lines describe an exchange between General Gage and his subordinate, Willard:

Gage:“Who is in command of the Americans,” [and] “will he fight?”

Willard: “Yes, sir… he is an old soldier and will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins.”

Gage: “The works must be carried.”

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THE BATTLE OF BUNKER HILL

On the outbreak of the revolutionary conflict, Colonel William Prescott, a farmer of Pepperell, Mass., and a veteran of the Louisburgh expedition of 1746, also later with Winslow in the conquest of Nova Scotia, and known as a leader of dash and daring, attended on the 16th of June 1775 the secret call to arms on Cambridge common.

Already the Committee of Safety, in answer to their appeal, had collected from the New England towns about fifteen thousand men. Two regiments from New Hampshire were commanded by Colonel Stark and James Reed; three Rhode Island regiments under Colonels Varnum, Hitchcock and Church were on hand with General Green at their head; and three Connecticut regiments were led by Generals Israel Putnam, Joseph Spencer and Colonel Samuel H. Parsons. General Artemas Ward, the commander in chief of Massachusetts, was generally, though not officially, recognized as leader of the combined military forces.

The recommendation of the Committee of Safety to occupy Bunker Hill, was approved on the 16th of June. No time could be lost, as Generals Howe, Burgoyne and Clinton had reached Boston with reinforcements from England, and General Gage had determined to occupy Bunker Hill in Charlestown, which controlled Boston on the north, and Dorchester Heights which commanded Boston on the south, on or about the 18th of June.

A band of raw recruits, consisting of Prescott’s, Fry’s and Bridge’s regiments, about two hundred Connecticut troopers under Capt. Thomas Knowlton, and Capt. Samuel Gridley’s artillery company, were ordered by General Ward to proceed about nine at night, under the leadership of Colonel William Prescott, and to entrench themselves on Bunker’s Hill. The night was clear, a prayer for their safety by the Rev. Dr. Langdon, president of Harvard College, started them on their eventful march. They arrived at their destination in two hours, poorly armed and inadequately provisioned; the total force was a trifle over twelve hundred men, augmented when crossing Charlestown Neck by a few hundred reinforcements and General Putnam and Major Brooks.

Both Colonels Prescott and Gridley, upon viewing the topography of the land, decided that Breed’s Hill, a lower site than Bunker Hill, was the proper position on which to construct the redoubt, in order to prevent the British from using it as a protection to their formations after landing. Colonel Gridley, the engineer, at once laid out a redoubt of about one hundred and forty feet square, with orders to raise it to a height of seven feet, with breastworks about four hundred feet long towards the Mystic River, and nine hundred feet long towards the west slope of the hill on the Charles River side. These fortifications were not completed until the next morning at eleven, when the tools were sent back to Putnam for the purpose of fortifying Bunker’s Hill. The redoubt was therefore near the water front and in close proximity to the heavy ordnance of the armed ships of the British navy.

The Falcon, of twenty guns and one hundred and thirty men, lay off Moulton’s Point, near the present bridge to Chelsea. She was the ship nearest to the Mystic side of the peninsula, and was commanded by Captain John Linzee.

The Somerset, of sixty‑eight guns and five hundred and twenty men, Captain Edward Le Cras, was stationed off Charlestown Square near the present Warren Bridge.

The Lively, of twenty guns and one hundred and thirty men, Captain Thomas Bishop, was at anchor off the present Navy Yard, but during the action took a position between the Falcon and the Somerset.

The Glasgow, of twenty‑four guns and one hundred and thirty men, Captain William Maltby, was moored at where Craigie’s Bridge was, but now known as the new dam.

The Cerberus, of thirty‑six guns, Captain Chads, and probably the transport Symmetry of twenty guns, with two large floating batteries, stood higher up on the Charles River, commanding Charlestown Neck, and prevented reinforcements from reaching Bunker’s Hill and the redoubt.

Three times during the night, Prescott visited the water’s edge, where the “all’s well” of the night watches of the ships of war could be clearly heard. And it was not until four in the morning that the redoubt, now fully visible, and the American forces, were discovered by the Falcon and the Lively, who immediately fired on the works, thereby warning the British generals in Boston of what had happened during the night.

Those who built the redoubt wished to retire and leave the work of defence to a relief party from Cambridge; but Prescott said, “No, we have made the redoubt and will remain to defend it while life lasts.” Then mounting its walls, he walked around it to encourage his men in full view of the British army and navy.

General Gage asked his counselor Willard, “Who is in command of the Americans,” and “will he fight?” “Yes, sir,” replied Willard, “he is an old soldier and will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins,” also mentioning that it was his own brother-in‑law, William Prescott. “The works must be carried,” was Gage’s reply.

Admiral Graves ordered the fleet to cease their fire, but a battery of six guns and howitzers on Copp’s Hill soon joined in the attack, which, however, did little damage, except to deter reinforcements from reaching Prescott in the redoubt. Cannon balls were heated red‑hot and a hail of these fell on Charlestown and set it on fire.

General Gage, contrary to the advice of Generals Clinton, Howe and Burgoyne, determined on a frontal attack; flank attack in the rear of the American forces, he considered too dangerous as it placed the attackers between the fire of the redoubt and the reinforcements near Charlestown Neck. At noon Gage ordered Major General Howe and Brigadier‑General Pigot with four battalions, to cross over to Moulton’s Point in front of Breed’s Hill, where the Falcon and the Lively had cleared the low lands at the shore line.

Four battalions, consisting of two companies of grenadiers, ten of light infantry, and some field artillery, were embarked at Long Wharf and the North Battery in barges armed with cannon at their prows, and landed at Moulton’s Point about one o’clock; they formed, but waited for reinforcements which contained more light infantry, grenadiers and a battalion each of land forces and marines. This whole force was over three thousand men. General Howe went with the right wing to cut off the retreat, and General Pigot with the left wing to storm the redoubt; and at three o’clock the attack began. Generals Burgoyne and Clinton viewed the battle from Copp’s Hill, and the former, after Clinton decided to share in the fight, took his stand in the belfry of the tower of the North Church of Boston, from where the light of inspiration had blazed forth for the midnight ride of Paul Revere.

The English troops attacked in two lines without any cover, and were therefore exposed to the deadly American marksmen, schooled in the art of hunting, and who now obeyed the advice of their leaders, “Wait till you see the whites of their eyes.”  They reserved their fire until the enemy were within two hundred feet, and repulced them in disorderly consternation.

This fusillade, instead of only irregular shots, showed the British officers that the work before them was a genuine battle, instead of a riot; with the usual British pluck, they made a second charge which came within one hundred feet of the American lines, when the slaughter was so terrific that it also was repulsed in about fifteen minutes. But the English troops had got close enough to overhear an incautious call for ammunition, as the supply in the provincial ranks was nearly exhausted.

At this period of the fight, four hundred fresh British marines were hurried over. Charlestown was further set on fire by General Pigot’s division, a brisker cannonade of the Neck was ordered to prevent aid to the redoubt, and the reinforcements which the Americans brought up to the left of Prescott were now fully engaged with no prospect of passing to his assistance. General Clinton also crossed over to the aid of his staggered army.

The British officers were now furious and grim, it was a case of conquer or go home humiliated; their generals determined on a third assault to be delivered with more caution. The troops were ordered to set aside their knapsacks and other impediments, to move forward in column, to reserve their fire and rely on the bayonet, to deliver their attack simultaneously from several tides, and especially to concentrate their main attack on the weak points in the redoubt which were at last discovered, and to advance their cannon to a point where the breastwork could be enfolded.

The fortunes of the day were thus reversed.

The third attack advanced with little opposition to within fifty feet of the redoubt, where it met a feeble fire from Prescott’s men, whose ammunition was exhausted, while they were improperly armed for close quarters. With a cheer the British rushed the short intervening distance and mounted and carried the breastwork. Major Pitcairn, who gave the first order to fire on the provincials at Lexington, was one of the foremost to scale the walls, but immediately fell mortally wounded.

Prescott, seeing that there was no hope of making a stand, ordered a retreat over Charlestown Neck, which movement was executed under the protection of Captain Knowlton and his men at the Mystic River, and it was during this retreat that the Americans suffered most of their casualties. They withdrew orderly to Prospect Hill, followed by the British to Bunker’s Hill, when the two armies entrenched facing each other again. The battle was over before six in the evening.

Major‑General Joseph Warren joined the provincials before the fight to show that the leaders were willing to share the dangers of the men. He refused the command tendered by Prescott, and was shot in the head and killed by a musket ball at the end of the third assault.

The Americans lost one hundred and forty killed and two hundred and seventy‑one wounded, and thirty‑six missing. The British suffered the loss of thirty‑five officers and one hundred and ninety‑five men killed, and one hundred and twenty‑two officers and seven hundred and six men wounded.

Congratulations poured in on Massachusetts from all the other American Colonies. Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend in London, “Americans will fight, England has lost her Colonies for ever”. At last undisciplined farmers had braved the veteran troops of Old England in the protection of their homes, rights and liberties. The courage and determination displayed by the immortal band of patriots under Prescott could be matched by no other similar achievement in history, while the fame of their exploit was far reaching and bore fruit for political, industrial and social justice throughout the world. The great courage of the English was all that remained to sustain their spirit to prosecute the war. The 19th of April 1775 saw the birth of the American nation, the 17th of June following was its baptism.

The great lesson of the Battle of Bunker Hill consisted in demonstrating to three millions of colonists, the absolute necessity of arming and fighting for national independence, and the proof of its final establishment.

Story’s statue of Prescott at Bunker Hill was referred to by Robert C. Winthrop in these terms:

“Prescott stands here clad in the light banyan coat and broad brimmed hat which he is known to have thrown on during. the intense heat of the day in exchange for the more stately but cumbrous uniform in which he marched from Cambridge the night before the battle.”

“He has returned:—not with three fresh regiments only, as he proposed, but with the acclamation of every soldier and citizen.”

“He has retaken Bunker Hill; and with it, the hearts of all who shall be gathered upon it, generation after generation, in all the untold centuries of the future .”

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