On 13 June 1775, Rebel spies learned of a British plan to sortie out of Boston and break the American siege. Newly named Continental Brigadier General William Prescott devised a plan to fortify the Charlestown peninsula, the only logical place that the British could land.
On the night 16 June, Prescott, and another newly minted brigadier general, Israel Putnam, along with Colonel John Stark, and Dr. Joseph Warren (who should have had command but fought as a private out of respect for the Continental Congress’ 14 June decision) led 1400 men to fortify Bunker Hill, just past the Charlestown Neck. Whether by design or error, the Patriots fortified Breed’s Hill further down the peninsula, and then did not inform anyone at the Cambridge camp of the change. The decision would have grave consequences on the future battle.
The British were surprised (and would continue to be throughout the war) at the American ability to heavily fortify a position overnight, but it didn’t matter. With the Americans on Breed’s Hill, all the British had to do was land near Bunker Hill to win the battle. If the British occupied Bunker Hill, they would cut off Prescott’s force from the American siege lines, and then all they had to do was wait for them to run out of food and water and the Americans would surrender. British Major general Henry Clinton, actually proposed this course of action but was overruled by his peers. Major general William Howe, the new British commander who had just recently replaced General Gage, wanted nothing to do with an American surrender: He wanted to use the might of the British Empire of the to crush the rebels. He didn’t just want to defeat the Americans, he wanted to send a message about the futility of resistance. Fear was to keep the rebels in line – fear of the British Army and Royal Navy.
On the morning of 17 June 1775, Howe landed 3,000 men on the peninsula while the Royal Navy bombarded the Americans. The British initially didn’t attack, they sat on the beach and drank tea waiting for reinforcements. This gave time for Prescott to notice another flaw in his defense, Breed’s Hill could be outflanked to the north, and the entire Rebel position turned. Fortunately, Howe’s dithering allowed John Stark and New Hampshiremen to quickly scrape out a trench along a rail fence which blocked any movement north of Breed’s Hill. When Howe finally did attack, he sent a feint against Breed’s Hill and his main effort slammed into Stark, and was promptly defeated. Howe’s attack would have been successful had it occurred an hour earlier during morning tea time. In any case, when the British advanced up the hill Israel Putnam gave the famous order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, a common order in the age of the musket, while John Stark used a more practical series of painted stakes in the ground 100 paces out.
The American’s inflicted heavy casualties on the initial British attack and they retreated back to landing area, much to the jubilation of the defending American militiamen. Howe tried again, this time reversing the attacks, with the main attack on Breed’s Hill and the feint against Stark, but with the same result. The defeated British streamed back to the landing area, leaving their dead and screaming wounded littering the hill. After the second attack, the Battle of Breed’s Hill was a resounding American victory. Had the battle not occurred on the Charlestown peninsula, the names “John Prescott”, “Israel Putnam” and “John Stark” would be household names in America.
The Battle of Bunker Hill occurred on the Charlestown peninsula, and that fact was the reason the British could reform for another attack. Howe refused to allow the boats to transport his defeated troops back to Boston. Stuck on the beach with nowhere to go, Howe and his staff and subordinate general officers rallied the British troops. They reorganized the formations, their staffs filled in for the fallen officer the Americans deliberately targeted, and Howe personally led the third attack.
As the situation stood the Americans couldn’t defeat a third attack. They impotently watched the British reform on the beach. Prescott couldn’t attack due to the untrained nature of his militia, but more importantly the American were running out of ammunition. The main army at Cambridge was continuously feeding troops and supplies onto the Charlestown peninsula, but the situation to the west of Breed’s Hill was chaotic, to say the least. Many American troops and most of the powder and shot stayed on Bunker Hill, and never made it to Prescott. When He departed the night before, Prescott said he was going to defend bunker Hill, so that’s where his supplies and reinforcements stayed. Few American officers marched their men to the sound of the guns, and only went where they were told. Furthermore, Prescott left no one on Bunker Hill to coordinate the reinforcements and desperately needed supplies. Finally, the Royal Navy was shelling the Charlestown Neck and Bunker Hill to isolate Breed’s Hill. Many American militiamen got their first taste of cannon fire there, and wanted no more of it. Hundreds turned around and went home.
The Americans had few casualties so far in the battle and if Prescott had the men, powder, and shot sitting on Bunker Hill, he could have defeated Howe’s third attack. But he didn’t, the Howe’s third assault carried the earthworks at bayonet point. The Americans just couldn’t stand against the British bayonet (…yet). They retreated off the peninsula. The retreat was disorganized, but several units surprised the British with their dogged and orderly fighting withdrawal, especially John Stark’s New Hampshire regiments. Many British officers were impressed with the fighting quality of the Americans when they were obviously properly trained. Nonetheless, most of the American casualties were during the retreat, including both William Prescott and Dr. Warren, whose deaths were a grievous blow to the American cause.
All was not lost though. Howe refused to follow up his victory, and continue the attack into the disorganized and defeated Americans. The newly coined Continental Army was shaken by the losses at Bunker Hill and its defeated defenders streaming back into camp. In any case, it did not have the powder for another battle. The vast majority of the Continental Army’s powder was used up or lost at the Battle for Bunker Hill. Had Howe pushed, the entire Continental Army may have broken up.
Fortunately for the Americans, Howe didn’t, and he settled the Pyrrhic victory at Breed’s and Bunker Hills. Howe had defeated the Americans, but he had so many casualties, Howe would not be able to lift the siege anytime soon. Clinton remarked in his diary, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” The Battle of Bunker Hill was a propaganda victory for the Americans. The amateur Americans had stood up to the mightiest army in the world and threw it back twice with horrendous casualties. The British recognized that Americans were serious, and capable. The defeat at Bunker Hill had far reaching repercussions on American operations. For the next three years, American planning would be dominated by “Trying to create another Bunker Hill.”