The Importance of the Battle of Bunker Hill

The beginning of the American Revolution featured several key battles between the American colonists and British regulars. Among them, the Battle of Bunker Hill is one of utmost importance.

Following the events at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the American colonial militias followed the British back to Boston and began a nearly eleven-month-long siege.

The siege limited British troop movements and prevented them from resupplying anywhere else but at sea. At the time Boston was a peninsula, and the lack of a colonial navy gave British warships free reign of the spacious harbor.

After nearly a month of siege, the British began devising a strategy to break free. The proposed solution was to first capture the area to the south known as Dorchester Heights, then take Charlestown peninsula to the north.

The dual actions would allow the British to break the siege and deal with the colonists on open ground.

Upon learning of British plans, the colonists moved to fortify the Charlestown peninsula, specifically on the heights of Bunker Hill to the north of the town. This action alarmed the British.

With artillery on the heights of Bunker Hill, the colonists could fire upon British warships and supply ships in British harbor, thus endangering their only source of supplies.

When the British spotted the colonists building fortifications on the hills, they were forced to engage the colonists in battle. The subsequent Battle of Bunker Hill would be of great importance to the colonial cause and have major ramifications through the remainder of the American Revolution.

When was the Battle of Bunker Hill?

The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on the afternoon of June 17, 1775. This battle was nearly two months after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the colonists’ siege of Boston.

During the previous night, troops under the command of William Prescott moved to fortify Charlestown peninsula just north of Boston. Prescott’s orders expressly directed him to build a redoubt (fort) on Bunker Hill which was the largest hill on the peninsula and closest to the narrow neck allowing them a quick pathway to escape.

A map of the Charlestown peninsula showing the colonists fortifying Breed’s Hill instead of Bunker Hill via Wikimedia

For an unknown reason and most likely due to an error or mistake, Prescott instead fortified Breed’s Hill which was shorter in height, further away from the neck and closer to Boston.1

Contemporary military strategists have argued that Bunker Hill was a much more indefensible position than Breed’s Hill, which is why Prescott made the change. Given its relative position on the island, British frigates could have flanked the colonists and raked them with naval fire when they inevitably left the heights.2

Regardless of how or why Prescott’s men ended up on Breed’s Hill, it was here that fortifications were built and preparations were made for battle.

It is thus an interesting historical fact that the famous Battle of Bunker Hill was not actually fought on Bunker Hill, but rather on Breed’s Hill.

British sentries from nearby Boston had spotted the colonists on Breed’s Hill during the night, though they did not find the activity cause for alarm. By daybreak, the British could see the American redoubt in plain sight and cannons placed atop Breed’s Hill.

Commander Thomas Gage realized the predicament and quickly began preparations for an assault on the colonists’ position that afternoon.

Battle of Bunker Hill Summary

British General William Howe was given command of the operation to drive the colonists off Charlestown peninsula, and by 2 pm his primary troops had landed to the east of Breed’s Hill.

During the crossing he noticed additional colonial troops located on Bunker Hill and called for further reinforcements from Boston to match.

While waiting for these reinforcements to arrive, Howe ordered the small town of Charlestown to the south to be put to the torch to help clear out colonial snipers that were hiding among the buildings. The billowing smoke clouds would form a surreal backdrop to the fighting that day.

A painting displaying British troops marching up Breed’s Hill via Wikimedia

By 3 pm British reinforcements had landed and it was time for battle. The British plan was simple: attack the colonial left flank and swoop around to encircle and trap the colonists located in the redoubt on Breed’s Hill.

Despite a planned frontal assault on entrenched colonial troops, British leaders figured the ragtag group of colonial militia was no match for the well-trained British regulars.

The group of New England militia called for further reinforcements and prepared for battle behind their defensive structures. Though it is doubtful that any colonial commander uttered the famous words “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” the militia was certainly instructed to conserve their limited ammunition by waiting to fire until the British were in range.

Twice the British attempted to break the colonial lines by direct frontal assault and were repulsed. The tightly-packed British troops marching and standing in the wide open fields proved easy targets for the militia that had fence posts to help steady their musket fire.

When Howe organized a third assault, the British troops finally broke through, sending the militia fleeing. By this time the militia was low on ammunition turning the battle into hand-to-hand combat where the British had the advantage with their bayonets.

Howe seemingly missed an opportunity to pursue the disorganized colonists across the Charlestown neck and force a potential decisive engagement.3

Who Won the Battle of Bunker Hill?

Though the Battle of Bunker Hill was won by the British, it ultimately was a Pyrrhic Victory of sorts. The victory would prove costly as the British suffered extremely high casualties.

In fact, the British suffered the most casualties at the Battle of Bunker Hill than in any other battle in the entire American Revolution. A hollow victory for certain.

Casualty figures for the British and colonists vary widely depending on the source. However, Commander Thomas Gage reported 228 killed and 826 wounded for the British, and George Washington would later state that colonial casualties were approximately 138 dead, 36 missing, and 276 wounded.1

The Battle of Bunker Hill Forces and Casualties Importance chart

The massive casualty discrepancy alarmed the British and forced them to adjust their planned military maneuvers.

The fiasco at Bunker Hill likely could have been avoided entirely had Gage taken heed of the plan devised by Henry Clinton to avoid a direct assault entirely and land British forces behind the colonists at the Charleston neck.3

Had this occurred and the British taken the neck, the colonists on Breed’s Hill would have been trapped on the peninsula with no escape given that the British navy controlled the harbor. The British could have minimized casualties by starving the colonists out until they surrendered or were forced to attack the prepared British.

Clinton’s plan, however, was voted down based on conventional military procedures of the time. The plan would have involved placing the British army between two colonial forces (one on the peninsula and one on the mainland) that could have attacked the British from two sides.

This thinking did not account for the effect of the British navy that could have limited the effectiveness of the troops trapped on Charlestown with their naval guns.

Should the British have taken the neck, the Battle of Bunker Hill could have turned out very differently.

The Importance of the Battle of Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill is typically considered one of the most important in the entire war. Though a tactical defeat, the colonial ability to inflict great losses on the British sparked hope that the militia could potentially win the revolution.

Though many things went wrong that day, including losing the battle, the colonists actually completed their primary objective.

The only reason the militia was ordered to defend Bunker Hill in the first place was to help delay British operations to take Charlestown and Dorchester Heights that were due to be launched the following day.3

In this respect the colonial mission was a massive success. The high casualties the British suffered at the Battle of Bunker Hill led Thomas Gage to indefinitely cancel any plans to maneuver out of Boston.

The siege would continue on until March 1776 when Henry Knox infamously arrived with the Noble Train of Artillery causing the British to flee Boston.

The battle was also significant in that the colonists lost a legendary figure in that of General Joseph Warren. Warren was a key figure in the revolution up to that point and had just been named a Major General in the Continental Army on June 14, 1775.

A painting from John Trumbull featuring the death of General Joseph Warren via Wikimedia

Before accepting his commission, Warren volunteered to serve as a private at Bunker Hill. His heroism and bravery helped keep the colonial forces from retreating, though on the third British assault he was gunned down.

The colonists lost an influential figure in Warren and many historians believe that should he have survived, the entire American Revolution could have taken a different turn.4

Another result of the Battle of Bunker Hill was that the colonists’ actions led the King to completely ignore the 1775 Olive Branch Petition that was sent less than a month after the battle.

As the King had received reports of the battle and British casualties, he was loath to believe that colonial attempts at reconciliation were sincere.

Though the Battle of Bunker Hill was an American loss, its importance and impact could be seen throughout the rest of the revolution.

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To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.

Sources

1) Knollenberg, Bernhard. “Bunker Hill Re-Viewed: A Study in the Conflict of Historical Evidence.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. 72, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1957, pp. 84–100, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25080516.

2) Withington, Robert. “A French Comment on the Battle of Bunker Hill.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 2, New England Quarterly, Inc., 1949, pp. 235–40, https://doi.org/10.2307/362033.

3) Adams, Charles Francis. “The Battle of Bunker Hill.” The American Historical Review, vol. 1, no. 3, [Oxford University Press, American Historical Association], 1896, pp. 401–13, https://doi.org/10.2307/1833719.

4) Zabin, Serena R. The New England Quarterly, vol. 87, no. 1, The New England Quarterly, Inc., 2014, pp. 167–70, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43285065.

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