When 17 June, 1775
Strength British – 2,400 Americans 1,500
After the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, the British army were besieged in Boston by over 15,000 militia occupying the hills to the west of the city. Although stuck in the city and unable to leave, the British still controlled the harbor allowing them to be resupplied by the Royal Navy. This meant that they could stay in Boston indefinitely. To support their defenses, the General Thomas Gage sought to place a force on the Charlestown peninsula across Boston Harbor to the north, which was unoccupied by colonial militia.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress learned that the British were planning to send troops to occupy the Charlestown peninsula. In response, General Israel Putnam, ordered 1,200 colonial troops, under the command of Colonel William Prescott, to occupy Bunker Hill on the north end of the peninsula and Breed's Hill closer to Boston. The militia began to build a defensive structure known as a redoubt on Breed’s Hill. Additional defensive structures were built east of the redoubt down to the seashore.
The British hurried to attack the Americans and drive them from their position. Major General Howe, one of three generals sent to assist General Gage, was given command of the attacking force. Howe and his men landed on the southern shore of the peninsular and his light infantry immediately attacked the line of American defenses at the sea shore. The British did not believe the militia could resist a head on attack and the light infantry was knocked-back after suffering heavy casualties.
Howe then ordered the main body of his force to launch a frontal assault on the American redoubt. Redcoats moved up Breeds Hill in perfect battle formations. One of the American commanders, William Prescott, allegedly urged his men to “not fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” This attack was driven back with heavy losses, despite the Americans suffering a shortage of ammunition. During the attack, British soldiers to the left came under heavy fire from Americans in the town of Charlestown and the town was set on fire.
A second British attack was then launched along the length of the American entrenchments and was again driven back with yet more heavy losses.
A final attack was made, concentrating on the redoubt and the center of the American position. The colonial ammunition was all but gone and the British were finally able to capture the redoubt as Patriots retreated from the peninsula.
The battle was the first action for the American Continental army and showed how much work there was to be done to turn it into an effective fighting force. While most of the soldiers in the entrenched works fought tenaciously, those on Bunker Hill refused to move forward to support their comrades. In addition, there was confusion between the American officers as to seniority and who could give orders to whom.
The battle had several lessons for the British. The senior officers had little idea how to conduct a battle with any degree of sophistication. Howe learnt his mistake in making a frontal assault. At every subsequent battle, where possible, he carried out flanking assaults.
British – 226 killed / 828 wounded Americans – 115 killed / 305 wounded / 30 missing or captured
Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull, 1786.