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American Revolution: Battle of Bunker Hill (1775)

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The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775, mostly on and around Breed's Hill, during the Siege of Boston early in the American Revolutionary War.

From The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill Smithsonian Magazine

The last stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail is a shrine to the fog of war. “Breed’s Hill,” a plaque reads. “Site of the Battle of Bunker Hill.” Another plaque bears the famous order given American troops as the British charged up not-Bunker Hill. “Don’t fire ’til you see the whites of their eyes.” Except, park rangers will quickly tell you, these words weren’t spoken here. The patriotic obelisk atop the hill also confuses visitors.

Most don’t realize it’s the rare American monument to an American defeat. In short, the nation’s memory of Bunker Hill is mostly bunk.


(Historian Nathaniel) Philbrick is a mild-mannered 56-year-old with gentle brown eyes, graying hair and a placid golden retriever in the back of his car. But he’s blunt and impassioned about the brutishness of the 1770s and the need to challenge patriotic stereotypes.


“There’s an ugly civil war side to revolutionary Boston that we don’t often talk about,” he says, “and a lot of thuggish, vigilante behavior by groups like the Sons of Liberty.”. .. “They wanted the liberties of British subjects, not American independence,” Philbrick says.


That began to change once blood was shed, which is why the Bunker Hill battle is pivotal. The chaotic skirmishing at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 left the British holed up in Boston and hostile colonists occupying the city’s surrounds. But it remained unclear whether the ill-equipped rebels were willing or able to engage the British Army in pitched battle. Leaders on both sides also thought the conflict might yet be settled without full-scale war.

This tense, two-month stalemate broke on the night of June 16, in a confused manner that marks much of the Revolution’s start. Over a thousand colonials marched east from Cambridge with orders to fortify Bunker Hill, a 110-foot rise on the Charlestown peninsula jutting into Boston Harbor. But the Americans bypassed Bunker Hill in the dark and instead began fortifying Breed’s Hill, a smaller rise much closer to Boston and almost in the face of the British.

On the morning of June 17, as the rebels frantically threw up breastworks of earth, fence posts and stone, the British bombarded the hill. One cannonball decapitated a man as his comrades worked on, “fatigued by our Labour, having no sleep the night before, very little to eat, no drink but rum,” a private wrote. “The danger we were in made us think there was treachery, and that we were brought there to be all slain.”

Exhausted and exposed, the Americans were also a motley collection of militia from different colonies, with little coordination and no clear chain of command. By contrast, the British, who at midday began disembarking from boats near the American position, were among the best-trained troops in Europe. And they were led by seasoned commanders, one of whom marched confidently at the head of his men accompanied by a servant carrying a bottle of wine. The British also torched Charlestown, at the base of Breed’s Hill, turning church steeples into “great pyramids of fire” and adding ferocious heat to what was already a warm June afternoon.

All this was clearly visible to the many spectators crowded on hills, rooftops and steeples in and around Boston, including Abigail Adams and her young son, John Quincy, who cried at the flames and the “thunders” of British cannons. Another observer was British Gen. John Burgoyne, who watched from Copp’s Hill. “And now ensued one of the greatest scenes of war that can be conceived,” he wrote of the blazing town, the roaring cannons and the sight of red-coated troops ascending Breed’s Hill.

Aftermath

The British had taken the ground but at a great loss; they had suffered 1,054 casualties (226 dead and 828 wounded), with a disproportionate number of these officers. The casualty count was the highest suffered by the British in any single encounter during the entire war.

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