An Analysis of the Battle of Bunker Hill

1 January 2017

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British troops, who have been stationed in Boston since 1768 in response to ever-growing civic unrest and public protests (previously culminating in such focal junctures as the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773), served as the city’s garrison, martial police force, and bodyguard to the royal officials. The newly appointed governor of Boston, General Thomas Gage, was at the time also the incumbent commander-in-chief of British forces in all of North America and oversaw a force of 4,000 regulars garrisoned within the city .

The commencing actions of this rudimentary corps under his command defined the early onset of the Revolutionary War, highlighted in particular by the Battle of Bunker Hill – the significance and impact of which on the greater war itself is the answer I aim to provide in response to the research question. The backdrop to the battle was comprised by several important moves, developments, and confrontations, marking the official beginning of the conflict which would ultimately continue over the next eight years.

On September 1st, 1774, General Gage ordered the seizure and removal of a provincial gunpowder magazine and the confiscation of two 12-iber field artillery pieces located near Winter Hill, a small elevation just West of Charlestown. The incident, which would later become known as the Powder Alarm, prompted the Continental troops to spend the following several months assembling their militia regiments, securing supplies and armaments, and establishing a strong presence in the territory surrounding Boston in preparation for armed confrontation with the British crown .

The ominous, months-long anticipation finally materialized on April 19, 1775, into the nascent engagements of the Revolutionary War, with first shots fired in Lexington, and later that day in Concord – where around 500 minutemen outgunned a company of British regulars, deployed by Gage under orders to capture and destroy rebel arms stockpiles. The retreating British troops proceeded to suffer heavy casualties on a 21-hour, 40 mile long retreat from Concord to Boston, pursued and repeatedly ambushed by hundreds of militiamen.

After finally reaching safety on high ground in Charlestown and getting screened by the long-range cannons of the British gunship, HMS Somerset, anchored at the crossing of Charles River, the British forces were besieged inside Boston . During the subsequent two months leading up to the battle, British re-enforcements were sent at the request of General Gage. On May 25th, a British vessel arrived in Boston with the highly distinguished General-Viscount William Howe, and General-Colonel Henry Clinton; along with the less critically-acclaimed, General John Burgoyne, to assist Gage in planning and executing the efforts of liberating Boston.

Strengthened by the re-enforcements and the strategic expertise of three highly decorated generals, Gage formulated a tactical plan to raise the Colonial siege by occupying the hilltops surrounding the city . Boston was situated on a peninsula connected to the Charlestown peninsula in the north, by the isthmus called Charlestown Neck. In the rear of the village of Charlestown, rose Breed’s Hill, while farther back was situated a higher elevation known as Bunker Hill .

The Continental Army, commanded by General Artemas Ward, was headquartered at Cambridge and stretched halfway around Boston in a rough semi-circle, while the Boston harbor comprised the rest of the city radius and was controlled by the British navy. After hearing intelligence reports of Gage’s impending push to take control of the hills overlooking Charlestown, General Ward deployed General Putnam, who ordered 1,200 men to occupy and fortify Bunker Hill, in order to gain a higher-elevated ground position on the British from which artillery batteries could be installed to shell Boston’s garrison and incoming naval vessels .

Colonel William Prescott, leading the company at around midnight to the position, marched past Bunker Hill to Breed’s Hill, despite his orders. Prescott and his officer staff proceeded to order the construction of earthen walls, ditches, and embankments on Breed’s Hill, on advice from his engineer, claiming Breed’s Hill is more easily defensible . At day-break on the 17th of June, the citizens of Boston awakened to broadside cannon-fire by the crew of the 20-gun post-ship, HMS Lively, firing at the daylight-revealed fortifications building project on Breed’s Hill.

While the anchored war ships continued pounded the Continental’s construction efforts with heavy cannon fire; Generals Gage, Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne quickly improvised an assault strategy based on Gage’s preference for a full frontal attack against the militia on Breed’s Hill (Gen. Clinton endorsed an idea of an early attack on the Charlestown Neck, but was outvoted 3 to 1).

After six long hours of assembling the major infantry assault force to be led by General Howe, British transport units taxied the 1,500 infantry across the river and disembarked on Charlestown peninsula, only to realize that the number of Continental troops working construction on the hill was underestimated . General Howe sent word to Gage, requesting re-enforcements but simultaneously allowing time for about 200 Continental troops from the 1st and 3rd New Hampshire regiments under Colonels John Stark and James Reed to likewise re-enforce Prescott’s positions.

Within a couple of hours, Howe’s requested backup arrived across the river, and the British began a very characteristically-European, disciplined, systematic, and fearless advance onto Breed’s Hill. Brigadier General Robert Pigot, commanding the direct assault formation took heavy fire from snipers and Stark’s 200 newly arrived New Hampshire militiamen. Likewise, General Howe’s left flank regiment absorbed devastating volleys from the elevated positions of Prescott’s Colonial militia, causing both flanks of the British advance to withdraw due to heavy casualties .

Determined that the effectiveness and quality of his regulars would nonetheless prevail against the comparatively untrained, ill-equipped, and undisciplined Continentals, Howe and Pigot regrouped with Major Pitcairn – commander of the rear reserve guard – and marched once again onto the American positions, once again to devastating casualties being inflicted on their light infantry and grenadier companies, sending British bodies rolling to the bottom of the hill in great numbers.

Wounded British infantrymen crowded the riverbank, some mobile enough to be ferried back across the river into Boston and others too seriously wounded to do much else but bleed to death on the riverbank. Howe, determined to rally a third wave against the American positions (who themselves were in mild disarray at moments due to an inexperienced officer corp. and amateur soldiers), was joined by General Clinton and around 600 infantrymen, a portion of whom were the rallied wounded whose injuries were manageable. Though taking heavy asualties yet again (even Major Pitcairn, a high-ranking officer, was struck dead by musket fire from a volley), the third push by Howe and Clinton was successful and final, culminating in hand-to-hand, bayonet-equipped, combat in which the British regulars had a clear edge over the Continental militiamen, most of whom lacked melee weapons and turned back . Surprisingly, the American officer orchestration of the retreat was executed very well, considering the lack of experience, coordination, and cohesion that was displayed during various points of the actual battle itself.

The coordinated and gradual withdraw, directed in large part by John Stark and Colonel Prescott, ensured that Breeds Hill was at no point ever surrounded by Howe’s infantry, and allowed for most of the American wounded to be escorted off Breed’s Hill. Despite the nominal outcome of the battle being a defeat for the Continental militia, both the immediate and grand-scheme effects of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill, was of great benefit to the American independence efforts.

Generals Ward and Putnam retreated from their constructed strongholds, compromising the siege attempt of Boston. British casualties, however (1054 total, 226 dead), more than doubled that of the Americans (about 450, 140 dead; and only one out of the six cannons brought to the peninsula could be returned) and Gage lost a devastatingly high number of his commissioned officers.

Even more significant, the Battle of Bunker Hill proved to be a major boost for the recently assembled Continental army and their leaders. The high casualty count of the British regulars during this Pyrrhic victory, convinced many Americans that it was indeed possible to compete against the British Empire on the battlefield , and encouraged the young nation-in-the-making to pursue their independence. Works Cited 1. Frothingham, Richard.

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