Recently commissioned General Israel Putnam held command over the Connecticut troops in the vicinity of Cambridge. He was a veteran of the French and Indian War, and was an experienced soldier whose career had been sprinkled with more than a few bold adventures. He certainly wasn't backwards about making known what he felt should be done at Boston now. On the 15th of June news of a possible British move against the Dorchester Heights and the Charlestown Peninsula had come to the American camp. The British plan was to seize both points three days later. Their possession of the two sites would safeguard the British in Boston, and from those two sites they could launch an offensive that would crush the rebellious colonials between them. It was Israel Putnam who made the suggestion to General Artemus Ward that the Charlestown Penninsula should be fortified. The action would draw the British into attacking the provincial troops, but the engagement would be on the Americans' terms. Two high points, Breed's and Bunker Hills, if fortified by the Americans, would give them an advantageous position. The plan suggested by Putnam was not readily embraced by General Ward and the rest of the Patriot commanders. General John Thomas, whose troops were encamped in the vicinity of Roxbury refused to spare any of his men. The Committee of Safety met on the 15th and at the urging of General Putnam and Colonel William Prescott, they agreed to order the immediate occupation of the Charlestown Peninsula.
It appeared that it would be up to General Putnam's Connecticut militia to carry out the plan. An order was issued for a detachment of 1,200 men to assemble at Cambridge Common at six o'clock on the evening of 16 June, 1775. On the evening of the 16th of June the detachment, most of them from the Massachusetts militias, had been assembled at the campsite at Cambridge. According to Amos Fransworth, a corporal in the Massachusetts militia:
"Nothing done in the forenoon; in the afternoon we had orders to be redy to march. At ナx agreable to orders our regiment preadid and about ブn テt we was drawn up and herd prayers; and about duヌ marched for Bunkers Hill under command of our own Col. Preツott."
The entire plan was not divulged to the men at first. Peter Brown, a militiaman, wrote to his mother that:
"Frydy the 16th of June we were ordered to parade at 6 o'clock with one day's proviナons and blankets ready for a march バmewhere, but we did not know where. So we readyly and cheerfully obeyed, the whole that was called for, which was theテ three, Col. Preツotts, Frys and Nickバns regiments..."
The troops were marched to Charlestown Neck and at that point were told of the project they would take part in. A small group was sent into the village of Charles Town on the southern tip of the penninsula to keep watch for the British and to guard the town. The rest moved onto the rise known as Bunker Hill.
There were four hills on the Charlestown Peninsula: Bunker, Breed's, Moulton's and School. Bunker Hill was located at the west end of the peninsula, near the Charlestown Neck and measured one hundred and ten feet to the summit. Breed's Hill stood seventy-five feet in height in the center of the peninsula and was connected to Bunker Hill by a ridge. Moulton's Hill stood thirty-five feet high at the northeast corner of the peninsula. And finally, School Hill rose to the west of the town which occupied the southeast corner of the peninsula. Bunker Hill, by virtue of being the largest of the raised points on the peninsula, would therefore give the eventual battle its name.
Once the militia had reached the agreed upon point on Bunker Hill, they changed their plans slightly. General Putnam felt that Breed's Hill, though lower in elevation than Bunker Hill, would the more advantageous point to fortify because it was closer to the shore. A fortification located upon Bunker Hill might not attract the notice of the British, let alone goad them into attacking it. Breed's Hill, he reckoned, would be the ideal location for the fortification because it not only was closer to the shore, but it overlooked the town and could afford some protection to it. Historians have noted that Breed's Hill might have been the best spot from which to lure the British, but it certainly was not the best for defensive purposes. Through his forcefullness and persuasive arguments, General Putnam once more had his way and lines for the fortification were quickly drawn out on the summit of Breed's Hill by engineer Richard Gridley in Captain Samuel Gridley's artillery company.
The digging of the entrenchments for a redoubt was started about twelve o'clock midnight. The men were cautioned to try to make as little noise as possible so that the fortification might be completed before the British became aware of it. Colonel Prescott was concerned about the sound the workers were making, so he crept down the southern slope of the hill. The sound of the town crier at Boston calling out the hour and announcing that all was well satisfied him that the British were not yet aware of the Patriots' activity. At least that is what Colonel Prescott believed. Some of the British sentries had, in fact, heard the sounds coming from across the Charles River, but failed to report it. It was only mentioned by the sentries in their casual conversations the next morning.
Dawn broke over the horizon around four o'clock and soon thereafter His Majesty's Ship, Lively opened fire. The events of the night to that point were recounted by Peter Brown in his letter as follows:
"About 9 o'clock at night we marched down on to Charleフown Hill againフ Cox Hill in Boフon where we entrenched, and made a fort of about ten rod long and eight wide, with a breaフ work of about 8 more. We worked there undiツovered till about 5 in the morn and then we ヂw our danger, being againフ 8 ドips of the line and all Boフon fortified againフ us.
There were five British ships in the Charles River that morning: the Cerberus, the Falcon, the Glasgow, the Lively, and the Somerset. As soon as the Lively began firing on the fortification she was joined by the guns mounted in the battery on Copp's Hill, which was located on the northernmost point of the peninsula occupied by the city of Boston. The battery aimed directly toward the Charlestown Peninsula. The cannonade woke up most of the residents of Boston and the British soldiers quartered there. It also aroused General Thomas Gage. Admiral Samuel Graves, like General Gage, was asleep in Boston when the bombardment commenced. Initially, both Admiral Graves and General Gage discounted the truth to the reports that a fortification had been spotted on the summit of Breed's Hill. Graves immediately dispatched orders for the Lively to cease her fire. But soon thereafter he saw the redoubt for himself and realized that the reports had been true. At that point he sent out orders for all of the warships to follow the Lively's lead. They began the general bombardment of the newly revealed fortification a short time after four o'clock and continued into the afternoon. The bombardment inflicted only a slight amount of damage on the earthen redoubt, but it unnerved the militiamen. During that initial cannonading by the British warships there was only a single casualty. A cannonball struck one private, Asa Pollard, on the head and instantly decapitated him. Colonel Prescott later noted that:
"He was バ near me that my clothes were beノeared with his blood and brains, which I wiped off, in バme degree, with a handful of freド earth. The ナght was バ ドocking to many of the men that they left their poフs and ran to view him."
The savage nature of the incident stunned the men sufficiently to cause many of them to quit at their assigned tasks. Instead they dropped their digging tools and gathered around the gruesome corpse. A preacher prayed over the body while the others stared in disbelief and dismay. In Peter Brown's words:
"The danger we were in made us think there was treachery, and that we were brot there to be all ネain, and I muフ and will venture to ヂy that there was treachery, overナght or preブmption in the conduct of our officers. And about half after 5 in the morn, we not having above half the fort done, they began to fire, I ブppoテ as バon as they had orders, pretty briヌly a few minutes, and then フopt, and then again to the number of about 20 or more. They killed one of us, and then they ceaテd till about 11 o'clock and then they began pretty briヌ again; and that cauテd バme of our young country people to deテrt, apprehending the danger in a clearer manner than the reフ, who were more diligent in digging and fortifying ourテlves againフ them. We began to be almoフ beat out, being tired by our labour and having no ネeep the night before, but little victuals, no drink but rum..."
Where before the bombardment of the fortification was an annoyance, it now took on the aspect of tangible danger. Colonel Prescott, sensing that he might lose all control over them if they succumbed to fear, jumped up onto the redoubt's parapet and strode back and forth in defiance of the shots which continued to be fired from the British ships. His plan succeeded in calming many of the soldiers and work resumed on the breastworks of the redoubt.
From his vantage point atop the parapet, Colonel Prescott could see that additional work needed to be done to the redoubt. The fortification was roughly rectangular shaped. A breastwork was begun which extended about one hundred yards at a right angle to the northeast face of the original redoubt. The redoubt and breastwork formed a continuous wall that stretched along the ridge of the east slope of Breed's Hill. A rail fence stood about three hundred yards to the north and west of the fortification. It extended down the north slope of the ridge that connected Breed's and Bunker Hill and reached almost to the Mystic River. The spaces between the rails was filled with brush and grass and stones to form a wall behind which three hundred Connecticut men under Captain Thomas Knowlton and the New Hampshire regiment of Colonel John Stark would later be positioned. Three arrow-shaped earthworks, known as fleches, were constructed along the north side of the saddle of land connecting Bunker and Breed's Hills. They faced toward the Mystic River and served to form a connecting defensive wall between the redoubt and the rail/stone wall.
Between nine and ten o'clock in the morning Major John Brooks was sent by Colonel Prescott to Cambridge to request some reinforcements. Although Prescott hesitated at first to request any reinforcements, his officers prevailed upon him. The men had spent the entire night without much rest and food and were dead tired. When Brooks arrived at Cambridge he discovered that the request had already been made. General Putnam had been at Cambridge pleading with General Ward for more men during the morning of the 17th. General Putnam arrived at the redoubt in the afternoon with only a portion of Colonel John Stark's New Hampshire regiment as reinforcements. General Ward believed that Cambridge would be the object of any British attack, and did not want to release too many men from that location. It should be noted, though, that later, when he had received more intelligence on the situation, General Ward ordered the remainder of Stark's regiment and the entire of James Reed's New Hampshire regiment to the Charlestown Peninsula.
Peter Brown noted the incessant bombardment that the British warships maintained through the morning hours.
"They fired very earm warm from Boフon and from on board till about 2 o'clock, when they began to fire from the ドips in ferry way, and from the ドip that lay in the river againフ the Neck to フop our reinforcements, which they did in バme meaブre. One cannon cut off 3 men in two on the neck of land. Our officers テnt time after time after the cannons from Cambridge in the morning and could get but four, the captain of which fired but a few times and then ヘang his hat round three times to the enemy, then ceaテd to fire. It being about 3 o'clock, there was a little ceピation of the cannons roaring."
The British did not sit idly by after they were awakened by the Lovely's initial outburst. In the morning, while the American Patriots hurried to complete their defenses, General Gage sat down with his fellow British generals and had a council of war. Not one of them disagreed that the rebels had to be attacked and taught a lesson right then and there. The only real question was where and how the attack should take place. General Clinton felt that a two pronged attack should be made. An attack on the new fortification on Breed's Hill should be made in concert with sending troops to Charlestown Neck to cut off the only escape route. General William Howe more effectively argued that a single, direct frontal assault on the fortification would be all that would be necessary to end the whole affair. Howe suggested that his Light Infantry would take on the Americans holding the breastwork that extended from the redoubt toward the Mystic River; General Robert Pigot's regiment would assault the redoubt itself. Howe's plan was eventually agreed upon, and he was therefore placed in command of an expeditionary force to assail the rebel redoubt. With that decision made, the British high command sat down to their morning meal. There was no need for them to hurry. The American rebels had dug in and apparently were not planning on moving from their new fort, and so the British could attack when they pleased and when the tides permitted.
Throughout Boston people began to climb up onto rooftops and any other high vantage point in order to get a look at the rebel fort. Generals John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton joined the ever increasing number of spectators who had gathered on Copp's Hill near the British battery. The four cannon which had been procured from Cambridge were aimed toward the battery at Copp's Hill, but General Burgoyne noted that the few cannon balls which were fired in their direction "went a hundred yards over our heads."
General Howe paraded his troops on the Boston Common around nine o'clock. They included the Fifth, Thirty-Eighth, Forty-Third and Fifty-Second Battalions of infantry along with two companies of grenadiers and two of light-infantry. Barges were obtained and the British troops began to board them around noon. It would be nearly one o'clock till the entire corps were on their way across the Charles River. While the cannon on Copp's Hill increased their firing to cover the passage, the forty or so barges made their way northward and within a quarter of an hour had landed on the beach called Moulton's Point. Peter Brown described the arrival of the British to his mother:
"Come to look, there was a matter of 40 barges full of Regulars coming over to us: it is ブppoテd there were about 3000 of them and about 700 of us left not deテrted, beナdes 500 reinforcements that could not get so night nigh to us as to do any good hardly till the[y] ヂw that we muフ all be cut off, or バme of them, and then they advanced. When our officers ヂw that the Regulars would land, they ordered the artillery to go out of the fort and prevent their landing if poピible, from which the artillery captain took his pieces and went right off home to Cambridge faフ as he could, for which he is now confined and we expect will be ドot for it."
Following a reconnoiter of the Americans' breastworks, General Howe sent a messenger back to Boston to request more troops. While he and General Pigot made their observations of the earthworks that sat on the slope of the hill before them, General Howe watched as a column of Americans marched down the slope of Bunker Hill. They were 1,200 of Stark's and Reed's men who had just arrived from Cambridge. As Howe and Pigot watched, they moved to the rail/stone wall to join Captain Knowlton's men. The British had not expected the American reinforcement, and Howe quickly decided to delay the assault on the redoubt until he himself would have additional troops. That reinforcement, consisting of the Forty-Seventh battalion of infantry, a single battalion of marines and some additional genadiers arrived at Moulton's Point between two and three o'clock..
The British force that assembled on Moulton's Point now numbered nearly four thousand. Some of the finest officers of the British Army in America were there to lead the trained and disciplined soldiers. They included, besides Generals Howe and Pigot, Colonels Abercrombie, Clark and Nesbit, and Majors Bruce, Butler, Mitchell, Pitcairn, Lord Rawdon, Short, Small, Spendlove, Smelt and Williams. The British were very confident that they would make a swift end to the rebel charade.
The American troops were apparently not so confident in their ability to repulse the redcoats. Of the troops which had been sent by General Ward, some companies did not venture so far as the redoubt and breastworks. Instead, they formed lines far to the west on Bunker Hill, where they would be of no use whatsoever when the British charge actually came. Some of the companies simply turned and headed back across the Neck and to the safety of Cambridge. Colonel Gridley, whose son's artillery company abandoned the fort when the cannon fire from the British ships became too intense (and who was described by Peter Brown above), claimed that he was sick and had to leave the redoubt. General Putnam was infuriated by the shameful actions of some of the Patriots. He rode through their ranks and shouted orders for them to take their places at the breastworks. It was said that he even struck a few of them with the flat of his sword to goad them into formation, but many of them refused.
There were many Patriots, though, who pushed their way through the retreating crowd to the redoubt on Breed's Hill. Two of them exhibited true patriotism. One was seventy year old Seth Pomeroy who had fought in the Siege of Louisbourg and at Fort William Henry. The other was Dr. Joseph Warren, the president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Warren had, only four days before, been given the commission of major general. The Provincial Congress was meeting at Watertown, about seven miles from the Charlestown Neck, when news of the situation arrived. Dr. Warren immediately headed for Breed's Hill. Both men refused positions of command, simply insisting on serving as volunteers. There were, by three o'clock, about fifteen or sixteen hundred Patriots stationed along the breastworks.
There would be no more time for the militiamen to work on the breastworks; the real battle was about to begin. As the British troops were pulled into formation, the Americans settled into their own positions. Knowlton's, Stark's and Reed's units were positioned behind the rail/stone wall which, with additional construction by Stark's men, stretched clear to the edge of the Mystic River. Colonel Prescott and most of the original troops who had constructed the defenses took positions within the redoubt and behind the adjacent breastwork. Three companies were stationed in the village of Charles Town at the foot of Breed's Hill. What remained of the artillery companies of Gridley and Callender were positioned along the fleches. Various other companies continued to move about on the summit of Bunker Hill.
The British plan of attack was for eleven companies of light infantry to move toward the rail/stone wall where it reached the edge of the Mystic River. That flank was led by the Twenty-Third Royal Welsh Fusiliers, followed by the Fourth King's Own Regiment and the remaining nine companies. After overrunning Stark's New Hampshire men on the Mystic River's bank, those companies would double around and strike Knowlton's men from the rear. As that action was occuring, Howe would himself lead a contingent formed from the Fifth and Fifty-Second Regiments headlong toward Knowlton's position. To the south, General Pigot would lead the Thirty-Eighth and Forty-Third Regiments up the eastern slope of Breed's Hill and assault the redoubt. Major Pitcairn would position the Forty-Seventh Regiment and the marines between the village and Pigot's lines to safeguard them from any sniping fire from the village. The plan, if it worked properly, would see Howe's and Pigot's troops united to the west of the breastworks, effectively trapping any surviving Americans.
The British soldiers fixed their bayonets onto their muskets and while their fifes and drums played a flourish, they anxiously waited to begin the assault.
Peter Brown gave his mother a brief description of the first British attack:
"But the enemy landed and fronted before us and formed themテlves in an oblong ヒuare, バ as to ブrround us, which they did in part, and after they were well formed they advanced towards us in order to ヘallow us up, but they found a choaky mouthful of us, tho' we could do nothing with our ノall arms as yet for diフance, and had but two cannon and nary gunner. And they from Boフon and from the ドips a-firing and throwing bombs keeping us down till they got almoフ round us."
With the British troops in place, General William Howe had a blue flag raised as a signal. Almost immediately, a massive barrage of cannon fire rained down onto the redoubt and breastworks. Howe's six-pounders on Moulton's Hill had been directed to fire all along the breastworks to cover the initial advance of the infantry. The battery on Copp's Hill sent a torrent of cannonballs across the Charles River and into the earthworks. Simultaneously, the warships in the river, accompanied by floating batteries, fired onto the fortification. If the spectators in Boston wanted to see a grand spectacle, they indeed got one. The blue flag also signaled a cannonade to open on General John Thomas' camp at Roxbury to prevent reinforcements from being sent to the Charlestown Peninsula.
While the cannons thundered, and just before General Howe gave the gesture for the main body of his troops to begin their ascent of the hill, he signaled for the eleven companies of light infantry to make their advance along the Mystic River to strike at the rail/stone wall. Without any obstacles to impede their progress, they marched four abreast down the strand of beach almost at a trot. A stake had been placed in the sand about forty yards in front of the wall. Colonel Stark had ordered his men not to fire until the first rank of redcoats had passed the stake.
The Twenty-Third Royal Welsh Fusiliers rushed past the stake and Colonel Stark stood up and shouted "Fire!". The line of nearly two hundred New Hampshire Patriots rose up in unison and a blaze of musket fire blasted from the front rank. The Twenty-Third was almost completely destroyed with that initial eruption. The men of the Fourth King's Own Regiment hardly lost a beat in their rush forward. They were met with a volley that ripped them apart like their fellow soldiers of the Twenty-Third. Unit after unit of redcoated soldiers met the same fate as they came to the stake, with none able to pass it alive. Within only a few minutes there were ninety-six Englishmen lying dead on the beach in front of the hastily erected barricade. The rest turned and fled back to Moulton's Hill. Howe's plan to break through the American line with a flanking movement had come to an abrupt end.
Despite the anxiety created by the bombardment, the uneasiness induced by the sound of the battle that had suddenly raged on the beach of the Mystic River, and the sheer excitement of the moment, Colonel Prescott ordered his troops to remain quiet and hidden behind the breastworks. The supply of ammunition was low and could not be wasted. In order to get the most effect from the ammunition they had, Prescott ordered the militiamen not to fire upon the British until they had reached a close enough distance where the whites of their eyes could be seen. Colonel Prescott told the men to
"Then aim at their waiフbands; and be ブre to pick off the commanders, known by their handバme coats!"
Although the American commanders gave orders that they should remain hidden, a few of the men gave in to their anxiety and raised their muskets up to fire on the advancing red lines. General Putnam hurried to where those men were and threatened to shoot the first man to again disobey the orders.
The British lines did not stream up the hillside without effort as one might be led to believe from the perfect lines depicted in the famous picture by Howard Pyle. There were many obstacles, such as fences, which had to be crossed. They would regroup and form into lines after a delay in the march and so made their way slowly up the hillside. The men were laden down with knapsacks on their backs, and that added weight, combined with the hot summer sun which blazed in the clear Massachusetts sky that afternoon, must have made the ascent of the hill very difficult.
To make the advance of the redcoats more difficult, Captain Walker took fifty men and headed down the hill to the village of Charles Town, There, from the windows of the houses, and from behind fences, they sniped at the troops under Major Pitcairn and General Pigot. Pitcairn's marines were literally staggered by the rain of bullets that showered down on them from the direction of the town. They had to move away from the vicinity of the village in order to reform their ranks. In so doing they began the ascent of the hill at about the exact instant that General Howe's lines were just reaching the breastworks. One might speculate that, had Pigot's troops been able to advance evenly with Howe's, the battle might have taken a different course.
When Howe's troops finally had arrived close enough to the breastworks, Colonel Prescott waved a sword over his head and shouted "Fire!" On that order, the entire line of militiamen rose up and fired a deadly volley into the British lines. Entire companies of the redcoats were mowed down. The rest turned and fled back down the slope. A few of the Patriots leapt onto the breastworks and were going to chase after the retreating British troops, but the officers ordered them to get back to their positions behind the earthworks. As the survivors of the Fifth and Fifty-Second Regiments fled from the scene of the carnage, Pigot's troops rushed headlong into a second eruption of musketfire from the breastworks. Howe, in the safety of the valley below the hill, rallied his men and organized them into a proper formation for a second assault.
Among other things General Howe was concerned about the sniper fire that continued to come from Charles Town. He sent a message to General Burgoyne to set fire to it by shelling it from the Copp's Hill battery. Burgoyne complied with the request by firing a carcass into the town, setting it ablaze. A carcass was a hollow shell constructed of iron with holes in it. The shell would be filled with a combustible material and then wrapped in cloth. The carcass quickly set the wooden houses on fire and within a very short time nearly two hundred buildings were sending flames and thick billowing smoke into the air. It drifted up and over the summit of Breed's Hill like a cover of fog. Howe saw his opportunity to advance through that screen and hoped to be able to swarm over the breastworks before the rebels could respond. General John Burgoyne, watching from the battery on Copp's Hill, later wrote to Lord Stanley and gave this description of the day:
"...It was abバlutely neceピary we ドould make ourテlves maフers of theテ heights, and we propoテd to begin with Dorcheフer, becauテ, from the particular ナtuation of batteries and ドipping... it would evidently be effected without any conナderable loピ. Every thing was accordingly diパoテd; my two colleagues and myテlf (who, by the by, have never differed one jot of military テntiment had, in concert with General Gage, formed the plan. Howe was to land the tranパorts on the Point; Clinton in the centre; and I was to cannonade from the cauテway or the Neck: each to take advantage of circumフances. The operations muフ have been very eaペ; this was to have been executed on the 18th.
"On the 17th, at dawn of day, we found the enemy had puドed intrenchments with great diligence during the night, on the heights of Charleフown, and we evidently ヂw that every hour gave them freド フrength; it therefore became neceピary to alter our plan and attack on that ナde. Howe, as テcond in command, was detached with about two thouヂnd men, and landed on the outward ナde of the peninブla, covered with ドipping, without oppoナtion; he was to advance from thence up the hill which was over Charleフown, where the フrength of the enemy lay; he had under him Brigadier- General Pigot. Clinton and myテlf took our フand (for we had not any fixed poフ) in a large battery directly oppoナte to Charleフown, and commanded it, and alバ reaching the heights above it, and thereby facilitating Howe's attack.
"Howe's diパoナtion was exceedingly バldierlike; in my opinion it was perfect. As his firフ arm advanced up the hill they met with a thouヂnd impediments from フrong fences, and were much expoテd. They were alバ exceedingly hurt by muヌetry from Charleフown, though Clinton and I did not perceive it until Howe テnt us word by a boat and deナred us to テt fire to the town, which was immediately done; we threw a parcel of ドells, and the whole was inフantly in flames; our battery afterwards kept an inceピant fire on the heights; it was テconded by a number of frigates, floating batteries and one ドip-of-the-line.
"And now enブed one of the greateフ ツenes of war that can be conceived: if we look to the height, Howe's corps, aツending the hill in the face of intrenchments, and in a very diヂdvantageous ground, was much engaged; to the left the enemy pouring in freド troops by thouヂnds, over the land; and in the arm of the テa our ドips and floating batteries cannonading them; フraight before us a large and noble town in one great blaze-the church-フeeples, being timber, were great pyramids of fire above the reフ; behind us, the church-フeeples and heights of our own camp covered with パectators of the reフ of our army which was engaged; the hills round the country covered with パectators; the enemy all in anxious ブパense; the roar of cannon, mortars and muヌetry; the craド of churches, ドips upon the フocks, and whole フreets falling together, to fill the ear, the フorm of the redoubts, with the objects above deツribed, to fill the eye; and the reflection that, perhaps, a defeat was a final loピ to the Britiド Empire in America, to fill the mind-made the whole picture, and a complication of horrour and importance, beyond any thing that ever came to my lot to be witneピ to.
"I much lament Tom's abテnce; it was a ナght for a young バldier that the longeフ テrvice may not furniド again; and had he been with me he would like wiテ have been out of danger; for, except for two cannon balls that went a hundred yards over our heads, we were not in any part of the direction of the enemy's ドot."
Reinforcements in the form of four hundred marines under the command of Major Small had just arrived from Boston, and they were placed in the line in time to make the second assault on the redoubt. The lines moved slowly back up the slope of Breed's Hill. That would have been a rather grim experience for the soldiers who had to step over the bodies of their fallen comrades. The second attack was accompanied by more effective artillery fire. During the first assault, the cannon had become stuck in the swampy ground of the valley between Moulton's and Breed's Hill and their range had little effect on the redoubt, but they had, in the meantime, been freed. They were then moved to to a position where their grapeshot could reach the redoubt. For this second advance, Howe decided against any flanking attempts; instead, a simple frontal assault would be made against the redoubt and extending breastwork. As the lines of red coats moved up the slope, the wind shifted and the smoke that had blanketed the redoubt cleared away. The British lines came in full view of the Patriots.
Once more the Americans held their fire until the British troops were within a few feet of the breastworks. For a second time, the New England militiamen fired a devastating volley into the British line, and for a second time, the British line was cut into pieces. General Howe tried to rally his troops, calling the remnants of the light infantry forward. But the attempt was futile. The Patriots' musketballs hit most of their marks and the redcoats fell in heaps. At one point in this second assault, General Howe, who had been surrounded by his aides, suddenly found himself alone because they had all been struck down. It was a miracle for him that he was not also killed in the action. Groups of the British soldiers began to turn back and head down the hillside, and General Howe joined them.
The British officers watching this second repulse from Copp's Hill were appalled. Henry Clinton remarked that, "General Burgoyne and I ヂw appearances on the left of the army engaged which made us ドudder in ドort, it gave way!" 'Gentleman Johnnie' Burgoyne noted in his report to Lord Stanley that Clinton decided to take matters into his own hands at that point.
"A moment of the day was critical: Howe's left were フaggered; two battalions had been テnt to re-enforce them, but we perceived them on the beach テeming in embarraピment what way to march. Clinton then, next for busineピ, took the part without waiting for orders, to throw himテlf into a boat to head them; he arrived in time to be of テrvice;"
The two battalions of fresh British troops, which Henry Clinton delivered to Howe, consisted of about four hundred men of the Sixty-Third Regiment and the Second Battalion of Marines. Some of the officers protested against making another ascent of the hill, but Howe would not listen to such talk. He would not accept defeat, no matter what the cost.
Nearly two hours went by as the redcoats prepared for their third assault. The second assault had taken place between three and four o'clock. It would be five-thirty before the third assault got underway. The Americans began to wonder if the battle was, in fact, over. Figuring that the British would make another attack, they took time to recompose their own lines. It was time also to scavenge for whatever ammunition might still be available. The cartridge packs of the dead were ransacked, but there were only a few rounds for each man.
During the lull in the battle, Robert Steele, a drummer in Ephraim Doolittle's regiment, and another young lad, was sent by an officer to obtain some rum and water to refresh the exhausted militiamen. He noted that when he got to the Charlestown Neck, there was quite a bit of shot raining down from the ships on the Charles and Mystic Rivers. He entered a store on the Cambridge side of the Neck and found the storekeeper and his family in the cellar, frightened by the never ending bombardment. Robert later wrote:
"I テized a brown, two-quart, earthen pitcher and drawed it partly full from a caヌ and found I had got wine. I threw that out and filled my pitcher with rum from another caヌ. Ben took a pail and filled it with water, and we haフened back to the entrenchment on the hill, when we found our people in confuナon and talking about retreating. The Britiド were about advancing upon us a third time. Our rum and water went very quick. It was very hot..."
The British lines moved slowly up the eastern slope of Breed's Hill once more. As the redcoats came toward them a third time, Colonel William Prescott recalled that:
"I was now left with perhaps one hundred and fifty men in the fort. The enemy advanced and fired very hotly... and meeting with a warm reception, there was very ノart firing on both ナdes. After a conナderable time, finding our amunition was almoフ パent, I commanded a ceピation till the enemy advanced within thirty yards, when we gave them ブch a hot fire that they were obliged to retire nearly one hundred and fifty yards before they could rally again and come back to the attack. Our ammunition being nearly exhauフed, could keep up only a ツattering fire. The enemy, being numerous, ブrrounded our little fort, began to mount our lines and enter the fort with their bayonets."
General Howe sent the remainder of light infantry to the rail/stone wall to keep that line occupied while the general assault would be made against the redoubt. The Americans there put up a fight, but soon abandoned that defensive line. The defenders of the earthen breastworks and fleches to the north of the redoubt also abandoned those positions and crowded into the redoubt.
The British troops, like the Americans, were tired of the battle by this time, but they had endured so much slaughter that they now fought with greater purpose. Above the noise of the melee and the cries of the wounded and dying shouts of "Push on! Push on!" could be heard by the Patriots behind the defensive wall. As the last of the Patriots' ammunition was used up, the Forty-Seventh Regiment scrambled onto the parapet and into the midst of the New England militiamen, some of whom had already broken their gun stocks to be used as their own makeshift bayonets. Peter Brown was one of those militiamen who were in the redoubt when it was finally stormed by the British. He ended his letter to his mother by saying:
"...But God in mercy to us fought our battle for us and altho' we were but few and バ were ブffered to be defeated by them, we were preテrved in a moフ wonderful manner far beyond expectation, to admiration, for out of our regiment there was about 37 killed, 4 or 5 taken captive, and about 47 wounded.... If we ドould be called into action again I hope to have courage and フrength to act my part valiantly in defence of our liberties and our country, truフing in him who hath yet kept me and hath covered my head in the day of battle, and tho' we have loフ 4 of our company and our Lieutenant's thigh broke and he taken captive by the cruel enemies of America, I was not ブffered to be toutched altho' I was in the fort till the Regulars came in and I jumped over the walls, and ran for about half a mile where balls flew like hail フones and cannons roared like thunder."
Colonel Prescott, at length, realized that nothing could be gained by continuing the hand-to-hand fighting within the redoubt. He ordered a retreat of the American militiamen. Dr. Warren and a few others formed a rearguard to cover the retreat of the rest. Just as he turned to leave the redoubt, a bullet found its mark at the base of Joseph Warren's skull. The Patriot was killed instantly and America lost a true hero.
Late in the afternoon General Artemus Ward had directed his own regiment, along with Generals Patterson's and Gardner's, to the Charlestown Peninsula as reinforcements. General Gardner led the three hundred militiamen onto Bunker Hill, where General Putnam directed them to go on to the breastworks on Breed's Hill. They arrived just after the British had burst into the redoubt. Lieutenant Samuel Webb served in Captain John Chester's Company from Connecticut. Chester's company, as it came over the summit of Bunker Hill, saw that it was too late to help defend the redoubt, so it took a position to the side, along a low stone fence. There was no regularity to the firing at that point. Every man loaded and fired as quickly as he could. Samuel Webb noted:
"We covered their retreat till they came up with us by a briヌ fire from our ノall arms. The dead and wounded lay on every ナde of me. Their groans were piercing indeed, though long before this time I believe the fear of death had quitted almoフ every breaフ. They now had poピeピion of our fort and four fieldpieces, and by much the advantage of the ground; and to tell you the truth, our reinforcements belonging to this province, very few of them came into the field, but lay ヌulking the oppoナte ナde of the hill. Our orders then came to make the beフ retreat we could. We テt off almoフ gone with fatigue and ran very faフ up Bunker Hill , leaving バme of our dead and wounded in the field."
The Americans moved westward to the Neck and on into the hills surrounding Cambridge. Lord Rawdon was one of the British who chased the Americans across the summit of Bunker Hill and through the gauntlet of shot which was still being fired into the Charlestown Neck by the warships on the river. He noted that the Americans did not simply retreat but carried on a running fight until they had reached the far side of the Neck.
The American militiamen were rallied by General Putnam about a mile west of the Neck and they established a fort on Winter Hill. General Howe's redcoats remained on the Peninsula and pitched tents to spend the night. General Clinton urged Howe to continue on and attack Cambridge, but Howe knew that his troops were too exhausted to continue the fight.
The British claimed the victory for this battle because the Americans had been driven off the field, but in terms of casualties, the British were the greatest losers. The statistics show that of approximately 2,250 British troops who had been engaged in the fighting, 1,054 (including 92 officers) had been hit by the Patriot musketfire. Of those, 226 died of their wounds; 89 officers were included in the number killed. All twelve of General Howe's staff officers had been struck. Of approximately 1,800 Americans who were actively engaged in the battle, only 449 had been struck by British fire, and of those, only 145 were killed. The majority of the Patriots who went to be with the Lord on that June day in 1775 were struck down in the running fight from Breed's Hill to the Charlestown Neck.
The tip of land known as the Dorchester Heights was not occupied by either the British or the Patriots until a fort was constructed there in March of 1776 by the newly appointed Commander-In-Chief of the American forces, General George Washington.