Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain boys took Fort Ticonderoga in May of 1775, while Boston was still under siege by the Continental Army and local militia units. And when we first spoke about the Siege, we spoke of it from the American side. On the British side we see a growing frustration in the British generals in Boston. There were around 6,000 soldiers, which were for all intents and purposes: The King’s finest. Well armed, well trained and ready to take on the collection of farmers and so-called “peasants” outside the city.
The three major generals in Boston consisted of: William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne. The three men had arrived in Boston on May 25, 1775 and learned of Gage’s retreat from Lexington and Concord. In early June the three generals convinced Gage (in his dual role as military commander and governor) to take the initiative away from the rebels and break the siege. The plan centered around seizing and fortifying Dorchester Heights (or Dorchester Flats on some older maps) was located southeast of the city of Boston. It’s position across the water from Boston harbour was valuable to the British to hold their domination of the sea around Boston and it would provide a staging area from which British forces could gather and attack the Continental Army lines from the south.
By June 13th, the Continental Army and subsequently the American Committee of Safety had learned of the plan in detail. This information came from spies and informants in and around Boston, but they got their information from British General John Burgoyne himself. He had big mouth, and constantly had trouble keeping secrets. On June 14-15 the Committee of Safety, which was primary running affairs not related to the military became an adhoc war council as they discussed an appropriate response to the British moving on Dorchester Heights.
It was determined that Bunker Hill in Charlestown (to the north of Boston, across the water) and a hill or hills near Dorchester Heights needed to be securely kept and defended. It was determined impossible to do both, so the focus was put on occupying Bunker Hill as an immediate counter threat to British incursion in the south. Here’s why that makes sense…
If the British occupied Dorchester Heights, they are essentially in the simplest form extending the siege line from the British side towards the east. The Continental Army would somewhat have a flank exposed, but it could maneuver itself to compensate due to distance and the terrain between the two armies. However, by putting forces in Charlestown, they would control high ground over the water around Boston (Bunker Hill stood 110 feet tall) and they would sandwich the city of Boston and its forces from the North and the South. Now Boston would have two fronts to be concerned with and they would have to carefully consider how many troops they moved out of the city to Dorchester Heights. Moving too many would expose them to potential invasion from Charlestown.
Charlestown like Boston was connected to the mainland by a “neck” referred to as the Charlestown Neck and it was one of the two focus areas for Continental forces involved in the siege. The neck was slightly less than a mile and a half long and barely three quarters of a mile wide at its midsection. Charlestown was also bordered by two rivers, the Charles on the west and Mystic on the east. Once across the neck, and onto the main body of the peninsula three hills stood above the city to the south. Bunker Hill being the northernmost, Moulton’s Hill to the east, and Breed’s Hill sandwiched between them. Of the three, Bunker Hill was the highest at around 110 feet.
General Artemas Ward (who at this point, was still in command as Washington had not officially assumed command of the army yet) ordered the occupation of Bunker Hill to begin on the night of June 16. His occupation force consisted of a thousand men from the Massachusetts regiments of Colonels Prescott, Frye, and Bridge. Captain Thomas Knowlton commanded 200 men from Connecticut and there was also an “artillery train” of two four-pounders and forty-nine artillery men commanded by Captain Samuel Gridley. Prescott had overall command of the mission.
Prescott paraded his men on the Cambridge Common and after prayers from Harvard College Reverend Samuel Langdon, the detachment entered column formation and began marching east around 9:00PM. The road they traveled on would connect them to a southeastern road that would run straight across Charlestown Neck and to the base of Bunker Hill.
In typically military fashion, the company commanders and the men themselves had no idea where they were marching to and Prescott had been silent about it and he also enforced heavy noise discipline upon his troops as to not alert potential British loyalists in the area. Upon arriving at Charlestown Neck, he was joined by Brigadier General Israel Putnam who had brought wagons loaded with fascines (bundles of wood bound together) and empty hogsheads to be filled with earth and used to form fort walls or entrenchment barriers. And before you start to get hungry, hogsheads were not, in fact, the recently detached heads of small barnyard animals, they were large barrels that were typically filled with some type of liquid. The term “hogshead” later became a unit of measurement for certain types of alcoholic beverages such as cider, ale, and wine. Essentially, Putnam brought wood and a barrels to build forts and barriers with.
Prescott detached Captain John Nutting from his force and sent him and his men south into Charlestown as a covering force in case the British via the water from Boston to Charlestown. Prescott lead his men to the southeast slope of Bunker Hill and halted, entering into a conference with his command staff. We don’t know much about the meeting between commanders, but we do know that it was a debate that lasted at least 2 hours. The primary question? Should they take Bunker Hill as ordered or push slightly further towards Charlestown and take the middle hill, Breed’s Hill. Breed’s Hill had the benefit of being closer to Boston and therefore the first line of defensive if the British moved north across the water from Boston, and Bunker could be used as a fallback position. This plan was ultimately accepted, but time was not on their side, dawn would be upon them soon. The plan therefore was to completely fortify Breed’s Hill and if possible fortify Bunker as a fallback position.
Colonel Richard Gridley marked out a redoubt measuring 132 feet on each side on the top of Breed’s Hill, and around midnight then men were set loose to digging. Soldiers, these men may not be, but farmers and manual laborers they absolutely were. This worked out well for them, as they only had 4-5 hours before first light and their works would be revealed.
Prescott was concerned about the British landing on the southern shores. He dispatched Captain Hugh Maxwell to take a force and join Captain Nutting in Charlestown. They were to patrol the shores of the peninsula to protect them against any undetected landing parties. Prescott himself later rode down and inspected the shore lines himself…twice. Looking out into the harbour, Prescott and his executive officer Major Brooks, could see the British ships at anchor, ships that they knew by shape and name: To their far left (looking towards Boston, so east on a map) was the sloop Falcon with her fourteen guns, then the frigate Lively with twenty guns and off to their right lay the Glasgow with twenty guns, and in the distance the command ship of the harbour: the sixty-four gun Somerset. The ships were close enough to the men that they could hear the routine crys of British sentries across the calm harbor waters. Prescott, finally satisfied, rounded up Captain Maxwell and his men and returned to their hastily constructed redoubt. By then it was almost first light.
Prescott was a veteran of the French and Indian war, he had a natural air of command and he extracted respect without being domineering. He was noted for his courage and coolness under fire in 1745 when taking Louisbourg from the French. So much so he was offered a regular commission in the British army, a rare opportunity for a provincial lieutenant. He declined and retired to his farm in Pepperrell, Massachusetts. In 1775, he had come out of retirement, raised a regiment and marched towards Concord, he arrived too late to fight. Now, in the early morning hours of June 17, this seasoned commander would get his chance to fight…
Just after dawn, the guns of the HMS Lively opened fired on the Colonial redoubt. However they stopped after only a few ranging rounds, which were rounds fired by artillery to accurate set the powder charge and elevation to hit the target, they fell silent. Prescott used the silence to his advantage and ordered his men to begin construction of a breastwork on the vulnerable left flank of the redoubt. He wanted it 100 yards long, extending from the southeast corner down towards a marsh at the foot of the hill.
A breastwork, is somewhat like the name sounds, it is a mound of usually dirt, sometimes debris and brush that comes to about breast (or chest) height and allows the men behind it to fire from a somewhat standing position. If a breastwork were made of stone, it would be very similar (if not identical) to the battlements of a castle.
In Boston, British General Gage had convened a war council which included Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne on the morning of the 17th. The men discussed and debated several sound plans for a response. The final plan to come out of the council, proposed by Howe, was as follows: Cut off the Breed’s Hill redoubt by pinning down its defenders with a frontal attack, while an enveloping force would march up the east shore of the Mystic River and attack the redoubt’s left rear (the same side Prescott has ordered breastworks to be built). Gage approved the plan, stating that it should wait for “High Water at two o’clock in the afternoon”…or high tide.
Howe would lead the expeditionary force, with Brigadier General Sir Robert Pigot as his second in command. They would take their force of 1,500 infantry and twelve guns across by barge, shoving off at noon from Boston. In reserve they would leave 700 infantry of the 47th and 63rd regiments, as well as the major elements of the 1st and 2nd battalions of marines.
Howe’s plan was strategically sound, if he had carried it out at the earliest possible moment he would have had ample time to maneuver and possibly capture both hills. However the delay until high tide gave the Continentals valuable time to extend their fortifications and make additional troop deployments. As we’ll see, this would lead to Howe not having adequate maneuvering room nor the ability to concentrate his force at the right place and time.
When the Lively began firing towards Breed’s Hill. Israel Putnam jumped on his horse and began to ride towards the hill. Putnam rode up to the redoubt by sun-up and conferred with Prescott. He learned that Prescott’s men were laboring, had been laboring, and would continue to labor for hours. The men had only the powder and shot they had brought with them on their night march. They did not have food, water or extra ammunition. Putnam could see that Breed’s Hill must be resupplied and reinforced if the Continental Army was to hold it. By 5:30am, he was on his way back to Cambridge to rally supplies and reinforcements. He arrived in Cambridge and spoke to commanding officer Artemas Ward. Ward had reserves and small amounts of stores, but he refused to put them in position until the situation became clearer to him. Ward has been criticized by many historians for this decision to not immediately resupply the hill. Putnam, disgusted and dejected, left for Bunker Hill.
Shortly before 9:00 AM, Prescott climbed the six-foot redoubt wall for a look around, when the British ships opened up again on his position, but it wasn’t only the ships. Fire came also from the twenty-four pounder battery on Copp’s Hill, which was at the northeast extreme of the Boston Peninsula. Prescott, knowing that his farmer-soldiers were fearful, and fear could lead to panic, mounted the parapet of his redoubt and calmly walked along its top until the men picked up their tools and went back to work fortifying their position.
Just before 10:00, Prescott’s senior officers demanded some type of relief. The men had been digging for 10 hours and had been under bombardment for the last hour. A cannonball had smashed their last water cask and there was no food. To make matters worse, news was coming in that the British troops were assembling around the waterfront, certainly to cross the harbor. Wasn’t it time to be relieved with fresh troops?
Prescott looked at his men, and with refusal to their request spoke “The men who raised these works were the ones best able to defined them; their honor required it”
Prescott did dispatch Major Brooks to Cambridge to ask for supplies, but Brooks was unable to appropriate a horse, so he was forced to take the four mile long trip to Cambridge on foot.
Putnam arrived back at Breed’s Hill, without the men he promised Prescott, and now asking for some of Prescott’s men to take to Bunker Hill to begin fortifications. Prescott protested claiming that the men that left would not return. Putnam assured him that every last man would return to Prescott. No one did. Prescott now had only 500 men to man the redoubt and breastworks.
Putnam got work underway for fortifications on Bunker Hill and rode back to Cambridge to renew his pleas for supplies and reinforcements for Prescott and his men. Finally, to Ward’s chagrin, he was able to procure 200 men from Colonel Stark at Medford. These men were New Hampshire boys under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Wyman. Stark also put the remainder of his oversized regiment on alert and alerted other New Hampshire regiments that were under his command or influence. New Hampshire at the time was a frontier province, the men there were used to Indian fighting and hunting since they were boys, but being a frontier province supplies were usually always in demand. This time, Stark’s chief concern was ammunition. Cambridge supplied some powder and lead from the back strappings of the organ at Cambridge Episcopal Church. Stark set his men to pounding the lead back strappings into crude bullets. There were no bullet moulds available, so they had to do it the hard way… At 1:30 PM Stark lead his regiment out and to the Neck.
During the noon hour Prescott’s men were making the final touches to his redoubt and breastworks. His fortification was ready for battle but his men, were not. Peter Brown a company clerk in Prescott’s regiment said:
“We began to be almost beat out, being fatigued by our Labour, having no Sleep the night before, very little to eat, no drink but rum, but what we hazarded our lives to get, we grew faint, Thirsty, hungry, weary.”
It wasn’t just hunger that Prescott was concerned about, his men’s mental state was fading as well. The British cannon had been giving them intermittent harassing fire for almost 3 hours and one of the men working outside the walls of the redoubt had his head removed by a cannonball. This, of course, freaked out his comrades. As most of these men were farmers, death was no stranger to them, but they were more used to livestock deaths. Not watching someone beside them take a cannonball to the face. It shook them and they keep asking Prescott what they should do. Prescott responded with “Bury Him”.
His own artillery was also a concern, he did not have any solid firing platforms and no embrasures made in the redoubt walls. Embrasures were simply locations in the wall where cannon could be placed and fired from. Prescott ordered Captain Gridley, the son of Colonel Gridley (and a Captain only because his father was a Colonel) to move two guns out near the breastwork. Gridley, upon placing the cannon, “swang his hat three times at the enemy”. Shortly after giving away his position, Gridley was forced to displace his battery back to Bunker Hill.
Shortly after 12:00, the somewhat sporadic British shelling turned into a full on bombardment, reaching its highest intensity of the day. The Falcon and Lively attacked Moulton’s Point and east of Charlestown. The Somersets sixty four gun broadsides were joined by two floating batteries and the twenty four pounders on Copp’s Hill, while Glasgow, Symmetry and two gunboats kept fire sweeping across the Neck. The colonials were fearful, did this mean the British were about to launch an amphibious landing?
The cannon stopped. The thousands of citizens who had gathered on Boston rooftops and on the hills above the Charles and Mystic Rivers and the weary militiamen watched, as rounding the north end of Boston, heading for Moulton’s Point came the British.
In their rigid, disciplined splendor they came, in a double column of landing barges. Fourteen in each column, Twenty eight total barges. Each barge full with men in bright scarlet their muskets and bayonets shining in the sunlight, almost sparkling on the waters on the harbour.
Prescott, in his hastily built redoubt, with his exhausted militiamen saw them coming, he knew what was coming, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 men and several artillery field pieces in the lead barges. As Paul Revere and William Dawes had said a few short months ago…”The British are coming…”