Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Battle of Bunker Hill: The British Could Not Afford Any More Victories Like It

The Battle of Bunker Hill: 
The British Could Not Afford Any More Victories Like It

King George III
King George III of England was a firm believer in the divine right of kings, and subjected the American colonists to tyrannical rule. When the colonists petitioned for a fair settlement of grievances, George III declared that a state of rebellion existed, thus dooming any hope for a peaceful resolution. The king may have done this so that all the property held by the “traitors” would revert back to the Crown, thus enriching his own coffers. 

The Battle of Bunker Hill was the first pitched battle between the British Army and the American Continental Army. The Americans had only 1,500 inexperienced troops who faced off against much more experienced British forces. 

George Germain was the Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs and ran the war for the British. Germain was a favorite of the King, but he commanded little or no respect from his officers after having been convicted of cowardice in the French and Indian War (at Minden). Thomas Gage was commander-in-chief of the British forces. General William Howe was second in command under Gage, and was field commander at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The top commander of the Continental Army was Israel Putnam. He constructed the battle plans at headquarters, where he remained. George Washington was not present at Bunker Hill because he was en route to Boston after having been elected General in Chief by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

The events leading up to the Battle of Bunker Hill began in April 1775, when the British retreated back to Boston after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. On June 13, 1775, the British senior officers suddenly realized they needed to fortify the hills surrounding Boston. If the Americans could gain the higher ground, enemy cannons could fire down upon the British, either pulverizing them into submission or forcing them to flee the city.

American spies had infiltrated the British forces, so the Continental Army commanders were made aware of their plans to take the hills. The Colonists acted swiftly to pre-empt the British. The Americans immediately sent militias from four New England colonies (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island) to take the hills. These were the same farmers, merchants and artisans who only a few months before had driven the Redcoats back to Boston. The mostly raw, unregulated, and undisciplined troops were still learning how to be soldiers, but they were brave. The more experienced British had a distinct advantage, as they were accustomed to the horrors of the battlefield. 

On June 16, 1775, a contingent of about 1,500 American troops was sent under the command of Colonel William Prescott to fortify Bunker Hill, one of the hills outside of Boston. Prescott disobeyed his orders, choosing instead to fortify Breed’s Hill, which was closer to the British lines. This breakdown in the chain of command caused the tactical plans made back at headquarters to no longer be aligned with what the troops had achieved in the field. Breed’s Hill would prove more difficult to reinforce because of its close proximity to the British. In addition, there was no line of retreat from Breed’s Hill, as opposed to Bunker Hill, which led to the Americans suffering more casualties than otherwise would have been necessary. Fortunately, the British failed to fortify a narrow neck of land right above Bunker Hill, which they could have used to trap the Americans and starve them out.

The British were peeved at the patriots for being first on the scene and were eager to prove their superiority by driving the Americans out tout de suite. They sent cannon over intending to blast the Continental Army’s trenches and redoubts to smithereens, but they could not because their quartermaster had sent the wrong size cannon balls. 12 lb cannon balls had been sent that did not fit the barrels of the 6 lb cannons. This mistake was perhaps due to the fact that an infantry regiment had been in charge of cannons rather than the Royal Artillery. 

The British could have waited for one of their many transport ships to bring the right size cannon balls, but they did not want to delay the attack. They worried about losing face because of such a careless mistake. There were thousands of Bostonians up in the surrounding hills watching every move the British made. Howe wanted to prove to the American civilians that resistance to the king’s rule was futile. 

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As the day of the battle dawned on June 17, the sailors on a nearby British warship, “The Lively,” spotted the Americans digging fortifications. The crew began bombarding the patriots, but Admiral Samuel Graves, who was irritated about being awakened by gunfire, ordered them to stand down. The British Army high command had failed to alert the British Navy about their plans to attack Bunker Hill, so there was no coordinated action. The British could conceivably have put the rebellion down here once and for all, but they lost their chance due to a simple failure to communicate.

Rather than attacking at dawn, General Howe waited until mid-afternoon. This gave the colonists time to fill in the gaps in their lines and complete their fortifications. If the British had charged at daybreak, they would have caught the patriots before their trenches, which were topped off with log barricades, were ready. 

Luckily for the American cause for freedom, the British did not look to the great general, Hannibal, for inspiration on battle strategy. During the Battle of Rhone Crossing (218 BC), Hannibal was faced with crossing a bridge that was heavily defended by the Gauls (allied with the Romans). He split his army, ordering one half to cross the river at another point and then sneak up behind the enemy lines. Upon his command (he used smoke signals), his forces ambushed the Gauls in a devastating suprise attack, routing the Gallic army. Howe, rather than having some of his troops sneak up behind the American lines, chose instead to send his men charging straight up the hill four lines deep and a hundred men wide. He was sure that the Americans would flee when they were faced by British soldiers with sharp bayonets slashing and stabbing at them. 

As the Redcoats slowly advanced up the hill in exact formation, Colonel Prescott commanded his soldiers: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!“ When the British reached the Americans’ trenches, the patriots let loose a withering fire that rained down upon them, chopping them down like harvesting a field of grain. Most British were hit below the waist, which did not kill them outright. Many suffered excruciating pain, and even some of the American soldiers were moved to tears by their pitiful cries of agony. 

The British Army advancing up Breed's Hill

The soldiers to the rear of the British ranks, seeing their comrades being cut down, retreated to the bottom of the hill. The British commanders sent them straight back up the hill again, marching in formation, to be cut down just as was the first wave. 

With the third wave, however, the British changed tactics. They ordered their men to not stop, fire and reload their muskets because it left them too vulnerable to being shot. Instead, they were to climb the hill as quickly as possible, with muskets unloaded, leap over the parapets, and stab the Americans with their bayonets. The patriots did not have bayonets mounted on their muskets, so once they ran out of ammunition, they were defenseless. They stood their ground in the face of the advancing wave of Redcoats for as long as the gunpowder lasted. The British were so enraged, they massacred every American soldier who could not escape, even the wounded and those trying to surrender.

Although the British carried the day, they were dumbfounded at the magnitude of the tragedy that had befallen them. Their casualties were sky high. Of all the battles fought in the Revolutionary War, this was their costliest in terms of killed and wounded in action. One high ranking British officer lamented, “We cannot afford any more victories like this.”

King George was incensed by the debacle at Bunker Hill. He blamed Gage, and fired him. This was a mistake for the British, because Gage was the only leading British official who had lived  in America (20 years). He even had an American wife. He knew the topography of America and understood the mentality of the Americans. In losing Gage, the British lost the advantage of his knowledge and insight. 

As a result of Bunker Hill, the British were later reluctant to charge Americans lying in wait behind fortified positions. So, of course, the Americans adopted this strategy, which helped them to eventually defeat the British and win their freedom. For example, at the Battle of Long Island, Howe had backed the Americans up against the East River, but he refused to order his men to make a frontal assault on them. This allowed the Americans to escape across the river and live to fight another day. 

On March 17, 1776 the British evacuated Boston never to return. The citizens of Boston commemorated that day as Patriots Day.  


James P. Hodges, Ph.D.

Winner of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge Medal of Honor
Member: National Speakers Association, American Society for Training and Development


  1. couldn't the americans pick up the dropped rifles w/bayonet and used them ?....but of course they did not know the tactics about to be used against them

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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