When I was a child, I remember one of the picture books my father shared with me told the Battle of Bunker Hill. It was an inspirational story of courage and heroism. Reading it, I felt moved by the tales of bravery, self-sacrifice, and standing against impossible odds. This week, I decided to revisit that tale. It is a story I cannot wait to tell to my own children someday when I start a family.
The Battle of Bunker Hill was one of the earliest battles of the American Revolutionary War, preceded by the Battles of Lexington and Concord. It is often considered it to be the first major battle of the war where significant numbers of troops faced off over contested territory, as the preceding battles were considered smaller skirmishes. The Battle of Bunker Hill was part of the larger event known as the Siege of Boston.
The Battle of Bunker Hill occurred on June 17, 1775. About two months after the war began, approximately 15,000 colonist volunteers had amassed around Boston. They were intent on preventing the 5,000 or so British regulars stationed there from advancing further, although they were poorly trained, ill-equipped, and low on ammunition. The British troops stationed in Boston were under the command of General Thomas Gage, and the Continental troops besieging the area were led by General Artemas Ward.
The British troops in Boston believed if they could take control of the hills in the area, they could break the siege and advance further into the region. The rebel colonists reportedly discovered this plan from an unknown civilian who learned of the impending troop movement in a conversation with a British officer in New Hampshire and reported it. The American revolutionaries were in fact colonists from the British Empire at the time, attempting to break off and declare independence from a monarchy which had refused to redress their grievances, and the British officer who gave away the plans may have thought nothing of it at the time.
When the rebel colonists learned of General Gage’s plans to take the hills, they moved to fortify them in preparation to halt the impending advance. The Massachusetts Committee of Public Safety had recommended fortifying Bunker Hill earlier, though nothing was done on the matter. That was until they learned of the impending troop movement, at which point the Continental troops sprung into action. Colonel William Prescott was sent with a detachment of about 1,000 colonists to fortify the hills. With him were General Joseph Warren, General Israel Putnam, and General Henry Burbeck. They built a redoubt on Breed’s Hill, which is a makeshift fort of dirt and other earthen fortifications such as breastworks to shield troops from incoming fire. The rebel colonists dug in for a tough fight and prepared to stand their ground. It is said they were discovered while building the fort and fired upon by British warships, yet they managed to finish building their fortifications without casualties.
Upon learning of the fortifications, General Gage sent a detachment of approximately 2,300 troops under the command of Major General William Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot to capture or displace the rebel colonists. They split into two groups, one under Howe and the other under Pigot. With cover from artillery fire, they approached the fortifications on Breed Hill. Howe’s group was meant to flank the colonists from behind by going around their fortifications while Pigot’s group approached more directly.
The main battle consisted of three waves. Knowing they were low on ammo, it is said that Prescott gave the famous order: “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.” The British troops approached the Continental fortifications a first time, and when they were close the earthworks, they were repelled by a volley of fire. The British troops retreated and regrouped before advancing on the fortifications again. However, the Continental forces had time to reload their weapons. A second time, the British troops were repelled and forced to retreat. However, on the third approach, most of the rebel colonists were without ammo or bayonets.
It was then the British forces managed to storm the fortifications and engage the rebels in close-quarters. The colonists fought valiantly, inflicting heavy causalities on Howe’s forces. In the end, however, they were forced to retreat, and some were captured by the British. Nevertheless, the victory was incredibly costly to the British Empire and did not affect the war favorably in their view. Gage was scapegoated by his superiors for his perceived failure of leadership due to unacceptable casualties. It caused dissatisfaction among the British leadership and had the opposite effect among the rebel colonists
The newly-recognized and emboldened Continental Army, now under the command of General George Washington, were aware of the heavy disparity in casualties between themselves and the British Empire. The large group of colonists who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill were poorly equipped volunteers who had just faced down the largest and most powerful military force in the world at the time. They did so with courage, honor, and bravery. They stood their ground for as long as they could and dealt a blow to the Empire that was harder than even they knew they could deliver.
Some have theorized that had the Battle of Bunker Hill been a more decisive victory for the British Empire, the colonists would have lost the will to fight and the war would have ended swiftly. However, the pyrrhic victory for the British showed that any war with the colonists would be long and costly. It shifted the expectations for the conflict on both sides and gave the American people the resolve they needed to continue the fight and eventually win their independence.
This is why I found the story so inspiring as a child. Even though the rebels lost that fight against the Empire, they did not lose their will to fight. They kept their spirits high and carried on. The courage and bravery of those who stood strong on the battlefield inspired others to take up the fight and continue on to victory in the end. They were not hardened warriors, and they were not well-equipped. They were a group of volunteers with little training and even less ammo. Still, they set an example to all who would follow in their footsteps of standing against authoritarian threats no matter the odds against them. That, to me, is inspiring.
What do you think about the Battel of Bunker Hill? Is this a story you were familiar with? What does it mean to you? Feel free to share this post as well as your thoughts!
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