Misnomered Bunker Hill and what might he have become?

Published 9:50 am Sunday, June 17, 2018

By Bob Leith

This Sunday, June 17, 2018, marks the 243rd year of commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill.

All of New England will pause to remember the bravery and heroic deeds of the Minutemen who stood tall against one of the world’s finest armies.

Many say this battle was a moral victory for the farmers who lost the hill, but convinced the British they would not run at the sight of Redcoats. Countless schoolchildren were instructed to memorize the author of and meaning of Israel Putnam’s stern admonition uttered in the late afternoon of June 17, 1775; “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”

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The Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775, and a few weeks later, Thomas Gage called for British reinforcements. More Redcoats came to Boston, giving Gage 10,000 of the world’s finest troops. The Minutemen, or Patriots, were aligned in a semicircle stretching from Roxbury, Massachusetts, past Cambridge. Gage made a decision to fortify the Charlestown Peninsula on June 18, but by June 14, the colonial leaders learned of his plan and decided to fortify the 110-foot high Bunker Hill so they could bombard the British in Boston.

The Charlestown Peninsula lies one mile northwest of Boston. There were three hills on the peninsula: Bunker Hill near the neck of the peninsula to the north, Breed’s Hill in the corner of the peninsula, and Morton’s Hill in the very southeast.

Mr. Bunker and Mr. Breed had gazed their cattle on these hills. In the extreme southwest of the peninsula was the Village of Charlestown, comprised of nearly 500 buildings. To this day, no one knows why the American forces marched over Bunker Hill and built fortifications on the 75-foot elevation of Breed’s Hill.

On the night of June 16, 1775, a force of 1,200 American militiamen, under Colonel William Prescott, marched through the darkness and began building a redoubt, parapet and ditch over the summit of Breed’s Hill. There was no battle on Bunker Hill. The British artillery in the Charles River began firing at the fortifications at 5:30 a.m. and did not cease until 3 p.m. on June 17. Additional militia reinforced Prescott, swelling the American total to 1,600 men and boys.

Some Americans were against fortifying the hill because ammunition was in short supply and there were only 11 barrels of powder in the American camp. There was a fear that the British could land a force at Charlestown’s neck and cut off the American Retract to the west. During the artillery barrage, a British cannon ball tore off the head of a happy, young American soldier. Asa Pollard had been walking along the parapet when the lucky shot struck him.

Three new British generals came to Boston and one of them, William Howe, was chosen to lead the frontal assaults on the American lines. British pride and contempt for American fighting prowess kept the British from landing on Charlestown’s neck. The six British men-of-war were already in place, and the lady friends and wives of British officers were given special seating on a safely placed floating barge. Spectators climbed other hills, rooftops, steeples and the masts of ships in the harbor to witness the oncoming battle.

Howe would land the Redcoats on the southeastern corner of the peninsula and march around the Mystic riverside of the redoubt to get in the American rear. The Americans were completing a breastwork from the redoubt to the Mystic River.

At 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 17, 1775, 28 barges carrying 2,500 British regulars came toward Morton’s Hill. The effective range of the militia’s “Brown Bess” muskets was 80 yards, but due to the lack of powder, the Americans were told to wait until the enemy was 45 yards away.

Instructions were given to “fire low-take aim at the [British] waistbands…” The British would move toward the redoubt these times. Their bright red coats made good targets, it was hot, they were carrying 125 pounds of equipment, and had to walk through knee-deep grass. There were American snipers in Charlestown Village, so the British ships bombarded the village with red-hot cannonballs, and all of its buildings went up in flames.

The British were repulsed their first two assaults. Howe allowed them to take their equipment off on the third attempt. Only 150 Americans remained in the redoubt itself with Prescott. Most of the Americans had begun the fight with only 15 cartridges each. In their last volleys before retreat, the Americans would fire horseshoe nails and scraps of metal. As the British came closer, they fixed bayonets and entered the redoubt. The Americans used their fists, put their muskets into use as clubs, and threw rocks at the Redcoats. Colonel Prescott gave the order to retreat, and the fortunate ones ran over Bunker Hill toward Cambridge.

There was no battle of Bunker Hill. The fight and loss came on Breed’s Hill, but history will forever call it the “Battle of Bunker Hill.” British casualties were staggering. Of 2,500 soldiers, 1,054 had been shot and 226 died. American casualties numbered 453 with 140 killed. Bunker Hill would become sacred ground for Americans. For the British, Bunker Hill was the costliest battle of the Revolutionary War.

Near the redoubt exit was the body of a well-dressed American. His bloodstained, ruffled shirt told the British he was a man of means. Dr. Joseph Warren, 34, was dead. He was the first American general whose life was sacrificed in the name of liberty. Dr. Warren had been named a major general three days before the battle. He turned his medical practice over to an associate and came to Breed’s Hill to fight. Colonel Prescott was willing to defer command to  Warren, but Warren said he came as a volunteer only.

Joseph Warren had been a leading Massachusetts statesman in the years before the Revolutionary War. He was chosen to speak in Boston on the commemoration of the “Boston Massacre.” He formulated the “Suffolk County Resolves” in 1774, stating the grievances against Britain and calling for the colonies to raise troops. In 1775, Warren was chosen President of the Massachusetts Provincial Assembly. He would send Paul Revere and Billy Dawes Jr. on their famous rides. As he covered the American retreat, he was shot in the face between his left nostril and left eye, and died instantly.

After his death, scavengers took his white satin knee britches and blue silk waistcoat. The Boston populous mourned his loss. Two boys rowed the peninsula to retrieve his body. It was night and they found his body, but rigor mortis had set in. They could not lift his body, and were afraid of rats nibbling upon the dead. The British threw his body in a common grave.

Months later, his two brothers and Paul Revere identified Dr. Warren by a false tooth Revere had made for him.

Persons who knew Joseph Warren claimed that had he lived, George Washington would have been a “secondary figure.” Would he have been a president, senator, congressman or cabinet member? It seemed only Sam Adams gained more attention in the Boston area. The British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America.” In New England, every state has a town named for Dr. Joseph Warren.