Episode 009

The Battle of Bunker Hill – Part II

Colonial Generals Israel Putnam and William Prescott clash forces with British Generals Howe and Pigot, culminating in an almost pyrrhic British victory.



We ended last week’s discussion on the Battle of Bunker Hill with Colonial General Prescott watching the advance of the British forces across the waterway between Boston and Charlestown, we’ll now pick up with those same troops landing near Charlestown…

Sir William Howe landed his forces near Moulton’s Point right around 1:00 PM. As his troops were deploying in the standard British three-line formation he studied both the terrain and his enemy. He was keenly aware that the Colonial position had greatly improved throughout the course of the day. The redoubt had breastworks extending to the east, cutting down his room to maneuver, but he felt he still had enough room for an envelopment, but he could also see men on Breed’s Hill as well as Bunker. Howe assumed it to be a reserve force, but unknown to Howe, but known to us, this is the force that Israel Putnam had requested from Prescott to establish fortifications on Bunker Hill. As Howe watched, this column of men began coming down the forward slope of Bunker Hill and traveling towards the men already assembled on the top of Breed’s Hill. Howe was faced with a choice, if he attacked now with the forces he had, he ran the risk of getting caught between the two hills and flanked. He decided on waiting and reinforcing, he sent message back to Boston that he would need his reserve units waiting on the battery. He also gave orders to push forward two covering forces from his present position, four light infantry units held the low ground in front of his main force and General Robert Pigot moved to the left (west) with the battalion companies of the 38th and 43rd regiments (sixteen companies total) to an area below the southern end of Breed’s Hill. Howe’s orders were to let the men get in position and break out rations for the noon meal.

In his redoubt, Prescott watched the British infantry companies land and form into massed lines and by 1:30 he saw the threat to his North flank just as Howe had. Between the end of his hastily constructed breastworks and the edge of the Mystic River there was a gap. As he watched Howe deploy his men, specifically the four infantry companies deployed to the low ground, he at once ordered Captain Knowlton to take his Connecticut company along with Captain Callender’s two field pieces and hold that position.

Knowlton had been a fighter since he was fifteen. He entered into the French and Indian war and was made lieutenant at seventeen with a reputation for courage and leadership. Now at thirty-five he was tough and lean. Having watched the British deployments with Prescott, he debated his options as he marched his men. He found a rail fence about 300 yards behind the current breastwork running all the way to the Mystic River. He ordered his men to stack arms and gather boards from other nearby fences to reinforce this one. It was sturdy and had posts set with stone bases. They then filled in the gaps with hay to give it an appearance of a solid breastwork. It was enough to convince Howe, he later described it as a breastwork that “effectively secured those behind it from Musketry”. While Knowlton was setting his defenses and men, his artillery quietly slipped off and left him for the relative security of Bunker Hill. As Captain Callender traveled towards Bunker Hill, he encountered Israel Putnam, who while trying hard, hadn’t been able to get much done that day. Putnam asked Callendar why he was retreating, Callendar mumbled something about being low on ammunition. Putnam checked his stores, seeing them nearly full. Putnam ordered Callendar to return back to Breed’s Hill, Callendar in turn refused, until he got a close look at the muzzle of Putnam’s pistol, as it was pointed directly at his head with the next issuance of the order to return to Breed’s Hill. Callendar quickly decided that deploying on Breed’s Hill was a better alternative and turned around.

In Cambridge, the news of the British landing had convinced Ward to muster all the forces he could. Nine Massachusetts regiments were all trying to assemble and travel down the road on the Neck. Colonel Stark, who had been previously ordered to take 200 men to the front broke through the confusion as he and his men marched down the road, his Major Andrew McClary took great pleasure in saying “If Massachusetts did not’ need to use the road, could it please just step aside and let New Hampshire through?”

One of Stark’s captains, Henry Dearborn suggested to Stark that he quicken the pace of the men, According to Dearborn, Star’s response:

“He fixed his eyes upon me, and observed with great composure: ‘Dearborn, one fresh man in action is worth ten fatigued ones’ and he continued to advance in the same cool and collected manner”

Upon arrival at Bunker Hill he was met by an order from Putnam to detach enough men to help finish entrenching the hill. Stark ignored him, surveyed the area, and upon noticing the Knowlton’s fence line was severely undermanned, led them on to the rail fence.

Stark assumed command of the fence line, assigning several of his officers tasks required to further bolster the position. As he surveyed the end of the fence line near the bank of the Mystic he noticed a flaw. Down the eight foot sloped bank, he saw a beach that was made narrow by the tide, but he understood that as the tide went out, that beach would get wider, wide enough to support a column of British infantry. He set a detail to haul stones from the riverbank and nearby fences to build another waist high breastwork to extend the rail fence breastwork all the way to the water’s edge.

Stark’s last orders were based upon his experience with Roger’s Rangers and the battles of the French and Indian War. (A quick note here, we’re going to talk about Roger’s Rangers in an upcoming episode on the history of the Army’s Rangers). Stark knew that the British were so well trained and drilled that they could take the brunt of an initial volley and close with bayonets before the defender could reload, typically around 15 to 30 seconds. Stark reordered the whole of his command into three ranks with strict orders that each rank would only fire on order, then step back to reload. This would leave the enemy with no rest between volleys. Stark knew that as it went it, it would break down into individuals firing, but he was counting on pouring enough fire into the leading ranks to decimate them before that occurred. To make his point clear me paced out fifty yards from his front line, drove a stake in the ground and gave orders that no man was to fire until the British front rank reached that stake. Stark was ready.

Prescott had been worried about his left flank, which is why he had dispatched Knowlton to begin work on the fence line. But he was equally worried about his right, towards Charlestown itself. As he watched a column leave the British landing area and begin to move to Charlestown, he ordered Lieutenant Colonel John Robinson to take 150 men to strengthen the defense of Charlestown and to secure the right flank of the redoubt (it’s west side). With Robinson leaving, Prescott had only 150 men left in his redoubt and (count Stark’s men) around 300-500 manning the breastworks.

Prescott also had noticed that the tracer shells the British artillery had been using to adjust their trajectories had a negative side effect. These shells were filled with combustibles and pierced with holes, as they landed in and near Charlestown they succeeded in setting the town on fire. Prescott was worried for his men in the doomed town, but knew that his men could fall back to stone walls or barns and delay flanking attacks. To his left (the fence line), to add to the fortifications already there, three small fleches had been set up. Fleches were nothing more than V shaped hastily made breastworks, with the tip of the V pointing towards the enemy, giving them the appearance of arrows or fleches in French.

By 3:00 PM, there was almost a pre-battle calm, or ignorance of the situation, but not in a bad way. Prescott saw that his fence line and breastworks were armed, with the fresher men at position and the men who had been up all night with him taking a rest in the grasses behind the fence and the militiamen nearest to Prescott were enjoying the summer afternoon by counting ammunition and powder charges into their hats and taking wagers on how long their charges would last. It was almost a serene moment.

The moment was broken when Prescott saw British movement on his left. The light infantry north of Moulton’s Hill was reforming into a single long column and marching off towards the Mystic River. Other columns were marching from Moulton’s Hill and deploying into line on the slopes cleared by the light infantry. In front of Prescott, obviously forming for an attack on his position battalion columns had moved up and formed into three-deep lines. An assault force. The British battery of six-pound guns opened up, apparently towards the rail fence and fleches with so far no discernable effect.

The men in the redoubt grew silent, watching the troops move in synchrony across the fields in front of them. Closing in on them. If Prescott was worried he didn’t show it because like Stark he & his men were ready.

Howe, now fully reinforced, had developed his plan and it was nothing like the simple frontal assault that most people picture when talking about Bunker Hill. It was instead a two-pronged attack. Pigot would pin down Prescott’s men in the redoubt and serve to distract them from his main attack. Howe would personally lead the other wing to envelop and encircle the American left. He would attack the fence line with grenadier companies in the first line, followed by battalion companies of the 5th and 52nd regiments in the second line. But the key to his attack lay in the eleven light infantry companies that Prescott saw moving towards the Mystic River. They would form an assault column and move rapidly down the beach that Stark had seen earlier with a goal of enveloping the forces at the fence and then in conjunction with his forces move to outflank Prescott at the top of Breed’s Hill. He would soften up the forces with his six pound guns and artillery from the ships in the water around Charlestown.

His plan shows the tactical skill that he would use time and time again to defeat Washington on the battlefield. But, he was not yet aware that the Americans in the redoubt and rail fence (he and his officers could not see Stark’s men on the beach) were backed up by a few key American officers with combat experience who knew how to make every bullet count, even when fired from the weapon of the greenest militiaman.

John Stark had watched and heard the British battery open up, and a few round shot had whizzed overhead but after a few rounds they became curiously silent. Unknown to Stark, the British had been supplied with twelve pound balls for their six pound guns, so they had very little six pound balls. Once they ran out, they stopped. He moved down to the beach to take his position behind his three ranked line. The Americans with their muskets primed and half-cocked waited for the redcoats to appear.

As the sound of the marching drums came down the beach, the Americans heard the British before they saw them, suddenly they were there coming around the curve of the beach with officers in the lead and others alongside the column. Stark could make out their short leather caps and realized that they were light infantry.

Stark had given his men the order to “fire at the top of their gaiters or the waistcoat” and he could see that it was being obeyed as his first rank shifted their aim down. (Stark was trying to compensate for inaccuracies in the rifle by having his men fire in the middle of a vertical target, if the shot went high, it would hit them in the chest, if it went low it could hit them in the leg. He was simply trying to better his odds of every shot taking an enemy out of the action) As the British officers shouted commands the column fanned out to deploy into line. The command came and the British soldier rushed forward muskets leveled at the charge bayonet position. To the credit of the Americans, they held their composure, watching a surge of men rushing at them with bayonets pointed at and intended to, kill them.

Stark watched as the men came closer and closer, when they reached his stake on the ground he shouted “FIRE”. Every trigger in his front line pulled at almost the same instant, in the drifting hazy white smoke Stark could see that whole ranks of infantry had been leveled as though a giant hand had knocked them down to the sand. British discipline held and a second company came thrusting it’s way through the remains of the first, officers shouting, encouraging them to get to the American line before they had time to reload.

Stark had other plans, and as the second British company came over the dead and wounded he gave his command for the second line to fire. The second company faired no better than the first. As the third company burst through, they too met the same fate. As few as one man in ten survived each volley and after the third the British officers made no attempt to rally platoons or companies; nowhere were there enough men standing to form one solid line.

Stark’s men were now firing at will, picking off soldiers as best they could. The British began to rapidly withdrawal and as Stark got his men in check and back into ranks, he counted the dead – ninety-six men dead and many more wounded.

Above the beach, at the fence line, another British attack was developing. There were 1,500 Colonial soldiers lined along the fence and breastworks from Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, they had heard the attack to their flank on the beach, but now they saw British soldiers marching towards them and knew that it was there turn.

The attack came as a long red line of British infantry. The men were struggling with the weight of their musket, sixty rounds of cartridges, three days rations, and a rolled blanket..all told 50 pounds of supplies. Couple that with the tight wool uniforms they were wearing in the summer sun and the British were already quite exhausted before they even got started. The Colonial militia thought that the British were marching towards them slowly, but it wasn’t intentional, they were being forced to climb over or knock down fences and wade through tall grasses as they made their way towards the Colonial’s position.

In the front ranks of the British soldiers was a unit of grenadiers or “elite infantry”. And as they marched forward they encountered a fence only yards from the Colonial lines. With muskets pointed at them they began to knock down and disassemble the fence. Israel Putnam, who had ridden down to the fence line figuring he was needed, shouted “FIRE” and the American forces opened up. The British grenadiers were not knocked over one by one but massive holes and gaps were torn in their ranks, and as the second rank came through stepping over and around the wounded and dying they were massed together so tightly that even the greenest militiaman had no trouble hitting his mark. The British mass fell back despite the commands and pleas of it’s officers, In the colonial lines the celebration was brief, the veterans knew that this local victory may only be the beginning of prolonged combat. Putnam believed that as well, so he mounted his horse and rode back to Bunker Hill to hasten reinforcements.

At 3:30 that afternoon, Prescott saw the next attack coming, this time against Breed’s Hill. HIS hill. He recognized battalion companies on the south slope and to his right a mixed force of light infantry and grenadiers. On command the scarlet ranks snapped to halt and came to a firing position. From the British right, platoon volleys cracked out (this is where one platoon fires, then the next, etc..) Most of it passed over the Colonial’s heads. Prescott himself couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The men were seventy to eighty yards aware…why were they firing? He wasn’t given much time to think as some of his nervous militiamen began firing back. Lieutenant Colonel Robinson mounted the parapet of the redoubt and actually kicked the musket barrel of any man he found aiming at the British.

The British resumed their march up the hill and once they were within forty yards Prescott gave his men the order to fire. The scene was similar to what Stark had witnessed on the beach: front ranks being shattered and lots of casualties. The British officers were able to maintain control and conducted an orderly withdrawal.

Prescott ordered his men to stop firing, the enemy was out of range. On that hill he had to wonder, was this attack a feint? a secondary objective? It was too early for him to truly know, but I feel confident in saying that he knew that the attack he had so easily beaten back – would not be the last.

British General Howe had lead the attack against the rail fence and had seen first hand the slaughter from the militia muskets. As he was walking back from the attack, he began receiving reports that his beach attack and his frontal attack had also failed. Within 15 minutes, Howe had given orders for a new attack plan to get underway: The light infantry companies were to withdraw from the beach and assault the rail fence as a secondary objective. The primary objective would be Howe and Pigot attacking the redoubt simultaneously from the east and the south.

Stark walked his rail fence line, encouraging his men who were already slightly renewed by the arrival of two artillery pieces to their position under care of Captain Trevett. In less than half an hour from the original attack, the British returned. Stark noticed that they did not seem to have as much trouble moving through the fields or fences and they also seemed to be marching quicker. He realized that this assault force was light infantry (who did not carry all the equipment of the grenadiers), the same type of infantry he had fought earlier on the beach. The troops had crossed the fence 150 yards away and were moving at a steady pace, Stark’s men waited, his first rank ready to fire, with his second and third ready to take the previous’ place. To Stark’s surprise, the British troops halted and opened fire. Stark couldn’t believe it, a fixed target in easy musket range of 50 some yards. He shouted the command to “FIRE”

For fifteen minutes that must have felt like an eternity to the men involved, the British infantry stood their ground firing and reloading in an attempt to exchange fire with the Colonials. This was not an even exchange though, the British were not able to keep up the rate of fire that the militiamen were able too, and that took a more fearsome toll now than it did on the first wave. When the gunsmoke cleared Stark was shocked with what he saw: There were huge gaps in the British lines, where companies had stood in solid ranks eight or nine were left, in some as few as four or five men.

No infantry unit could withstand this. Trevett’s cannon blasted holes in the ranks and the militia muskets finished them off. Stark had repelled the second attack.

In his redoubt Prescott had been able to observe the disastrous British attack against the fence line, but he had no time to celebrate the victory. It appeared the same battalions as before were marching up the slopes in front of him, but to his right, however, the formations there seemed heavily reinforced. Prescott had been vigilant in making sure that none of his men fired until the British were in range. And his men were listening. Prescott, in his own words waited “till the enemy advanced within thirty yards, when we gave them such a hot fire that they were obliged to retire nearly one hundred and fifty yards before they could rally”. Prescott’s men had littered the hill side with British bodies, but the Colonials did not escape injury. One such injury was a Sergeant Benjamin Prescott, who took a bullet in his shoulder. He was able to hide his would from his father, who was busy commanding the redoubt.

Prescott’s concern however was ammunition. At most his men were able to fire three to four more shots each. He ordered that cannon catridges be slit open and the powder distributed. It was the closest thing to a resupply the men had received. Nothing had ever been sent from Cambridge, no food, no water, and now most important: no ammunition.

Putnam arrived at Bunker Hill where he had stationed units of Massachusetts militia for the purpose of entrenching or to be prepared to move forward to reinforce Breed’s Hill or the rail fence. The men on top of the hill were doing absolutely nothing. No entrenching, no preparing. Just simply milling about. They were the leftovers and stragglers from other units that had marched forward, and the arrival of these men just served to disorganize the other troops on the hill until the officers had given up any attempts at rallying or reorganizing them.

Putnam raced down to the Charlestown Neck and saw the same disorganization, the same thing that Stark had forced his way through earlier. He rode back and forth on the Neck trying to rally the men to follow him — without success.

He then rode back to Bunker Hill, where he tried once again to rally officers and men so they could march on Breed’s Hill. After finding fat Colonel Gerrish laying on the ground Putnam is described as “cutting loose with tongue and sword” and according to testimony “He entreated them, threatened them, and some of the most cowardly he knocked down with his sword, but all in vain” – All except Gerrish’s adjutant who was able to rally some of the more resolute men. Putnam directed these men to the where he thought most help was needed, but it was only a fraction of the men available on Bunker Hill.

Howe had watched his second attack fail as well. The American fire had been sustained and ferocious and had caused his death toll to climb alarmingly.

Clinton had arrived during the second British attack and had taken it on himself to rally two regiments that had fallen back after the attack on the beach. More welcome to Howe, however, was the arrival of the 63rd regiment and the flank companies of the 2nd Marine Battalion, almost 400 men.

Howe’s senior officers protested his final attack plan, but he continued anyway. He wanted a final all out assault of the redoubt, with only a small token attack on the rail fence, to keep those men occupied there. He would move artillery to fire on the breastworks to keep those men and their fire suppressed while his troops dropped everything but musket, bayonets and ammunition. Light and fast, they were to charge up the hill and drive the Americans from their position, whatever the cost.

Shortly after 4:00pm, Prescott watched as the British forces deployed for a third attack. He saw deployments to his front, and to both of his flanks: the northeast and the southwest. It was evident that the hill was to be the primary target.

Behind the rail fence, Stark watched as light infantry deployed into a light skirmish line at about 200 yards, as well as a British six-pound gun that opened up fire against Prescott’s breastworks. The light infantry advanced another 50 yards and began opening up fire. Stark wanted to play too, so he ordered his best marksmen to begin picking off whatever British they could at long range.

Meanwhile on Breed’s Hill, Prescott assembled his men in such a way that all three walls of the redoubt were manned. His enemy came forward at charge bayonet, and Prescott knew that he would not be able to suppress them with fire…this would be a bayonet assault. He allowed the British to get within 20 yards before he ordered his men to fire. As before the front ranks crumpled under the concentrated fire, and Prescott’s men fired another volley which halted the ranks, but then the game changed when the British six pound guns opened up with grapeshot, which is essentially a shotgun shell for a cannon. The blasts of grapeshot blew men into flying chunks of flesh and the screams of the wounded could be heard above the guns. It was more than the militiamen could endure; some fled to the rear, others took shelter in the redoubt itself.

Prescott saw that he had lost control of the battle, his men were out of ammunition and the British were now fighting to scale the walls of the redoubt. Prescott received a message that the breastworks themselves had fallen. He ordered his men to retreat through an opening in the rear of the redoubt.

As they retreated Prescott took one last look at the walls of his redoubt, British officers, swords in hand, were clambering over the parapet and as he watched a Marine major stood on the south wall, waving his sword at the men behind him. One of the last shots that the militia took, knocked this man back over the wall. The man was Major John Pitcairn, who had led the British against the Minutemen in Lexington.

British troops were now dropping into the redoubt from all three sides as Prescott and his men, fighting like devils with musket butts, rocks, and even their hands to try and get out of the redoubt. Thirty men died under British bayonet, among them Major General Joseph Warren of the Continental Congress who had came to fight as a volunteer. And also the previously wounded son of Prescott, Benjamin Prescott. A cannon shot had all but cut him in two.

Prescott was one of the last through the opening in the rear of the redoubt, parrying British bayonet thrusts with his sword, he later found that his coat had been pierced in more than half a dozen places.

As the colonials exited the redoubt they were provided with a stroke of luck, the British that had enfolded their position were lined up and facing each other…so they could not fire at the fleeing Colonials without risking hitting their own men. However once they were all out of the redoubt, the British closed ranks and fired on the men from behind as they ran down the slope of Breed’s Hill. This action alone caused more casualties than the men suffered in defending the redoubt. There was nothing Prescott could do, other than make his way to Bunker Hill.

On the fence line Stark lasted until the very end. When he could see that Breed’s Hill had fallen he knew that his position was precarious. The British could easily collapse down and outflank him on the right. He ordered his men to fall back, but to fall back fence by fence, pausing to shoot, harass, and most importantly delay the advancing British troops. Later, even British General Burgoyne stated about Stark that his “retreat was no flight; it was covered with bravery and military skill”

On Bunker Hill, panicked men flowed past Israel Putnam and despite his cursing and rallying cries, he knew that he could rally none of them. The only fighting units he had left, (and that was very little) he had sent to cover the retreat, with tactics similar to Stark’s. When those men finally came past Putnam, even he had given up.

It’s said that Prescott and Putnam came face to face near the Neck, Prescott’s first words were supposedly asking Putnam why he had not gotten reinforcements to Breed’s Hill. Putnam replied with “I could not drive the dogs” to which Prescott is rumored to have said “If you could not drive them up, you might have led them up”

“If you could not drive them up, you might have led them up”

Prescott immediately went to Cambridge to confront Artemas Ward where he allegedly demanded permission to “re-take the Heights that night or perish in the attempt, if the Commander-in-Chief would give him three regiments with bayonets and sufficient ammunition.” It’s not surprising that Ward refused.

Putnam had better luck, and made his way to Winter Hill, northwest of the Charlestown Neck and rallied enough units to build a hundred foot square entrenchment. The British however, halted their advance between five and six o’clock on Bunker Hill, as Howe was convinced that he lacked enough fresh troops to push any further after his costly victory.

By the numbers, it was a costly battle on both sides… The total of Colonial forces on the Charlestown Neck is estimated to be around 3,000 men, but most historians concur that only half that number ever engaged in combat: roughly 1,500 men. Of that 1,500 – 140 were killed, 271 wounded and 30 captured for a total of 441. Or 30% losses.

The British losses were staggering: Out of Howe’s 2,500 men the casualties totaled 1,150 or roughly 45%. Officer casualties were particularly high and the losses within many grenadier or light infantry companies ran as high as 80%. The fact that these units could take such loses and return to combat does say something for their courage and discipline.

While Stark, Putnam and Prescott were solid and confident veteran leaders who had all earned their experience in the French and Indian War, they all fought a separate battle that day. There was no higher command chain organizing the troops and the overall strategy. This was a fact of life at the time, a fact that would change with George Washington…

That will conclude part II of the Battle of Bunker Hill, sorry this was such a long episode, but there was alot of information to share and I wanted to make sure you’d got it all! Remember if you’d like to see any pictures of the content discussed here, make sure to check my website: americanmilitaryhistorypodcast.com. If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released you can subscribe through iTunes, Facebook, or Twitter. The links to all of those are on the website. If you’d like to support this podcast, visit the Donate page of the website.

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  • Mark Burdick

    The Bunker Hill episodes were terrific! You painted a great picture for the listener. I could almost see the troop movements and action happening in front of me. Nice job!

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