Battle of Bunker's Hill Preliminary Study
Subject Matter Experts
Vince Kordack, or any of the other rangers, who may be contacted at National Park Service, Boston
American Antiquarian Society
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The publications listed below provide a comprehensive starting point for preliminary studies of the Battle of Bunker's Hill. The following titles in were of particular utility for the writing of the WPI Staff Ride to Bunker's Hill.
Boatner, COL Mark M. III;
"Encyclopedia of the American Revolution;" David McKay Co., New York, 1966.
"Bunker Hill: A Dear Bought Victory;" by William M. Marsh; Issue 32, JAN-FEB1995; pp 12 - 26. A brief yet thorough examination of the battle, providing sidebars detailing troop characteristics and biographies of principle commanders.
Elting, John R.;
"The Battle of Bunker's Hill;" Phillip Freneau Press, Monmouth Beach, N.J.; 1975. Elting, a colonel in the U S Army, and a historian, has the training to evaluate the battle from both an historic and a military perpective, shedding new light on the complexities of the engagement. His short (56 page) work is a must read for the study of Bunker's Hill.
Fleming, Thomas J.
"Now We are Enemies;" St. Martin's Press; New York, New York; 1960. Fleming, who is an historian, uses many first hand accounts and hand written letters from participants to recount the events of the day from both sides, very detailed. All participants are mentioned; and includes an exhaustive nine page bibliography for further research.
"Battle of Bunker Hill;" C.C. Little and J. Brown, Boston, 1849.
The following references were also of use to the project:
Alden, John Richard;
"General Gage in America;" Louisiana Sate University Press, Baton Rouge, 1948.
Anderson, Troyer Steele;
"The Command of the Howe Brothers During the American Revolution;" Oxford University Press, New York and London, 1936.
"A Particular Account of the Battle of Bunker, or Breed's Hill, on the 17th of June, 1775;" by a citzen of Boston, Cummings, Hilliard & Co., Boston, 1825.
Clarke, John, Lieutenant of Marines;
"Bunker Hill, an Impartial and Authentic Narrative of the Battle," Printed for the author and sold by J. Millan, London, 1775.
Coffin, Charles, compiler;
"The lives and Sevices of Maj. Gen. John Thomas, Col. Thomas Knowlton, Col. Alexander Scammel, Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn;" Egbert Harvey and King, New York, 1845.
Cuneo, John R.;
"Robert Rogers of the Rangers;" Oxford University Press, New York, 1959.
"The Life of Israel Putnam;" George F. Cooledge, New York, 1850.
Drake, Samuel Adams;
"General Israel Putnam, the Commander at Bunker Hill;" Nichols and Hall, Boston, 1875.
"Life and Times of Joseph Warren;" Little, Brown, and Co., Boston, 1865.
"U. S. Muskets, Rifles and Carbines;" Otto L. Ulbrich Co., Buffalo, 1948.
Green, Samuel A.;
"Col. William Prescott and Groton Soldiers in the Battle of Bunker Hill;" Cambridge, 1909.
Hudleston, Francis Josiah;
"Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne;" Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1927.
Humphreys, Colonel David;
"The Life and Heroic Exploits of Israel Putnam;" Silas Andius and Son, Hartford, 1833.
Livingston, William Farrand;
"Israel Putnam;" C. P. Putnam, New York and London, 1901.
"The Life of Artemas Ward, First Commander-In-Chief of the American Revolution;" New York, 1921.
Suggested Study Format
- Biographies of Key Individuals with Bibliography
- Key Events:
- Mounting hostilities between the Americans and the British.
- British lack of terrain analysis of Charlestown Peninsula.
- Rapid construction of redoubt on wrong hill.
- Effective use of sustained fire at stone wall prevented British charge and encirclement.
- Time frame for study:
Two months from scheduled date of depature for cadet study, 2 - 3 weeks for Cadre advance reconnoiter, 1 - 2 weeks for in-progress study.
Battle Analysis Summary
The Charlestown Peninsula offered a commanding view of Boston and its Bay. The British knew that control of the high ground on Charlestown would give them control of the area. The Americans were warned of the British plans to occupy Charlestown and moved to prevent them. The tough sea port of Boston was ideally situated for defense. Isolated from the mainland by a narrow causeway, it was protected from the sea by shallow mud flats and salt marshes with narrow channels for the passage of ships. The difficult yet defensible harbor was seen as one of the best in America by the British.
- Comparison of Troops
- Training Levels: Americans were farmers and craftsmen led by commanders who had experience in the British Army during the French and Indian War. British soldiers were considered the finest in the world.
- Leadership: British Infantry Units were led by rigidly stuctured chains of command. The individuals all knew their place in the structure and adhered to the commands of their superiors. The American defenders, by contrast, were in loose company sized groups, often changing units on a whim. Also, command and control suffered in the colonist militias, as the men from a particular colony were often reluctant to follow commands given by a leader from a different colony.
- Equipment: Americans and British were using Muskets. The British also carried heavy field packs, containing, among other things, three days of rations. Their rucks limited their mobility in combat.
- Initial Schemes of Maneuver
Between June 13 - 15, the British planned to launch a coordinated attack on June 18 to secure Dorchester Heights. These seized and fortified, the British would pinch out Roxbury by converging attacks across the Dorchester and Boston necks. After establishing a fortified outpost there, they would make an amphibious landing on the Charlestown Peninsula and then drive the Americans from Cambridge. Executed with surprise, speed and determination, this plan easily could have been successful. Discovery of the redoubt on Breed's Hill changed the British priorities. They viewed the new fortification as both a threat and an opportunity. If allowed to consolidate their position on the Charlestown Peninsula and emplace heavy guns there, they could probably make Boston untenable for the British. However, these Americans on Breed's Hill appeared to be isolated, their defenses incomplete: A prompt counterattack should round up the lot of them, and might open up a chance of breaking up the Yankee Army.
- Disposition of Forces Prior to the Battle
The following tables are taken from Elting's "The Battle of Bunker's Hill."
|Massachusetts Army, 17JUN1775|
|Gridley, R||ART||18JUN||Cambridge & Roxbury||370|
|New Hampshire Army, 17JUN1775|
|Poor, E||2||New Hampshire||486|
|Reed, J||3||West of Charlestown Neck||220|
|Sargent, P||Lechmere's Point|
|Connecticut Army, 17JUN1775|
|Wooster, D||1||New York area|
|Waterbury, D||5||New York area|
|Parsons, S||6||New London/Camb||200|
|Rhode Island Army, 17JUN1775|
|Approximate Combat Strength of a Typical Regiment|
|Massachusetts||Regiment of 10 companies, each of 3 officers
and 56 enlisted men per company
|New Hampshire||Similar to Massachusetts|
|Connecticut||Regiment of 10 companies of 100 men each|
|Rhode Island||1500 man brigade of three regiments of eight companies each.|
|British Forces in Boston|
|4th Foot||290||Flank Companies|
|5th Foot||300||Entire Regiment|
|10th Foot||360||Flank Companies|
|23rd Foot||280||Flank Companies|
|35th Foot||450||Flank Companies|
|38th Foot||300||Entire Regiment|
|43rd Foot||300||Entire Regiment|
|47th Foot||280||Entire Regiment|
|49th Foot||450||Not Engaged|
|52nd Foot||300||Entire Regiment|
|59th Foot||230||Flank Companies|
|63rd Foot||450||Flank Companies|
|64th Foot||420||Not Engaged|
|"Incorporated Companies"||270||Flank Companies|
|17th Light Dragoons||196||Not Engaged|
|4 Companies Artillery||144||Elements|
|Approximate Combat Strength of a Typical Regiment|
|Sick, Confined, Furlough or Detached||49||293|
|Detached Flank Companies, Officers and Men||90||203|
|Pioneers, assigned to Artillery Company||3||200|
|Camp Guard Left in Boston||24||176|
|LTC, MAJ, Adjutant||3||173|
|Officers and men in 8 battalion companies||173|
|Naval Forces Under Command of ADM Graves, as of 01JAN1775|
|20||Mercury, GLASGOW, Rose, Fowey, LIVELY, Scarborough (6 lbs)|
|18||SYMMETRY 9 lbs (Army)|
|16||Swan, Kingfisher, Tamer|
|14||FALCON 6 lbs|
|08||Canceaux, Savage, Cruizer|
|06||Diana, Hope, Magdalan, St. John, Gaspee, Halifax, Diligent, SPITFIRE(3 lbs, not commissioned)|
|02||2 gondolas with 2-12 lbs. (Army)|
Capitalized names are of ships in Boston harbor at the time of the seige. An asterix denotes the named ship was not actively engaged in the siege. A 20-gun ship was normally armed with 9-pounders, smaller ships with 6-pounders, and the larger vessels with 18- or 24-pounders. The effective range of an 18- or 24-pounder was over 1200 yards. Gunnery was so inaccurate, however, that these weapons posed little threat to an entrenched infantry several hundred yards inland.
- Starting Locations of Forces
For reasons unknown, the rebels costructed their redoubt on Breed's Hill and not on Bunker's Hill, as originally planned. Breed's Hill measured only 60 feet in height, as compared to Bunker's 110 feet, and was closer to the eastern and southern shorelines, making it a target for artillery both offshore and in Boston. Breed's proximity to Boston also posed a more substantive threat to the British encamped in the town, ensuring their immediate retaliation.
After construction of the redoubt, COL Prescot extended the defenses to the north by almost three hundred feet with the construction of breastworks. Colonels Knowlton and Stark were given the task of securing the American left flank, along the Mystic River. Knowlton added to a pre-existing stone wall which ran north to the beach. Stark extended the wall with wooden rails to the edge of the water. As the edges of the breastworks and stone wall did not meet, other men built fleches to plug the gap. With the addition of snipers in abandoned buildings in Charlestown, the Americans had created a line of defenders from 2500 - 4000 strong, depending on accounts.
The British started in Boston, delayed in their attack by both the tide and a shortage of boats. General Gage's senior officer, General Howe, planned to move westward from Moulton's point, flank the redoubt on Breed's Hill, capture Bunker Hill and Charlestown Neck, and encircle the colonials.
Seeing the newly constructed redoubt on Breed's Hill, the British began their advance by landing their infantry on the Charlestown Peninsula. The 5th and 38th Light Infantry proceeded from Long Wharf; in Boston, the 43rd, 57th and 47th Light Infantry moved in from North Battery. During this time, the British Navy supplied artillery fire from gunboats and ships offshore.
GEN Howe landed at Morton's Point, north east of Breed's Hill, and advanced his columns along Mystic River beach, hoping to encircle the fortification and cut it off from reinforcements from the Cambridge area. The British advance was hampered by stone walls, which were difficult to see in the tall grass. Picking their way forward, Howe then saw Stark's newly constructed fence continuing the line of an existing stone wall to the edge of the Mystic River, effectively blocking Howe's proposed route.
Howe also found difficulty moving his artillery through the marshy terrain. In addition to mobility problems, the cannon were found to be supplied with wrong sized shot. These events kept the effectiveness of the superior British artillery to a minimum.
In preparation for the coming battle, Colonel Stark planted a wooden stake in the ground 35 yards from his men's position at the rail fence and stone wall. The defenders were instructed to fire as the advancing British crossed the line of the stake, to aim low, and to aim at British officers. In spite of some premature shots, as Howe's columns advanced to 35 yds from the stone fence, the majority of the rebels opened fire. While serving in the French and Indian War, Stark had learned the tactic of firing in ranks, as opposed to the more common practice of firing in a single unit volley. He used that technique here, decimating whole companies of British Light Infantry. The proximity and the sustained rate of the fire kept the British from mounting a bayonet charge. The Infantry survivors broke and ran, leaving 96 dead.
The Grenadiers, delayed by broken terrain and stone fences hidden in the tall grass, then attacked, suffering the same fate as the Infantry. They fell back in disarray, leaving the beach soaked in blood.
Regrouping quickly, Howe planned his second assault to use the same avenue of approach, turning left at the last moment to attack the fleches constructed north of the redoubt. Coordinated with Howe's attack was Pigot's assault directly on the redoubt.
Howe was again repulsed hard, suffering horrible casualties. Understrength to begin with, regiments of 400 or so men were reduced to less than ten men each.
Meanwhile, Pigot led the 38th and 43rd Light Infantry Regiments up the east side of the redoubt, while elements of the 47th Light Infantry, the Marines and six flank companies assailed the south. The fire from the fortification, similar in execution to the fire at the fence, halted the charge cold and sent the British back in disarray.
Watching the battle from Boston, GEN Clinton, on his own initiative, led the last British reserves to Charlestown Peninsula. Howe then regrouped his shattered formations and planned his next move. He began to regard the rebels as an enemy army, not just a band of rabble.
Having been repulsed twice in the same manner, Howe changed his tactics to counter the colonists' advantage. He ordered his men to drop their heavy packs and use only bayonets in the final charge. Thus, they could close more quickly, and would not waste time firing at the entrenched rebels. Howe was also able to employ his cannon, having been moved into position. The artillery fired grapeshot, to solve the problem of wrong sized shot, to both pin Stark's men at the rail fence to prevent them moving out, and to rake the breastworks of the redoubt.
In the redoubt, many of Prescott's men had panicked and fled by this time. He had only 150 remaining, and was low on powder, shot and water. His men found themselves firing bits of stone and bent nails at the redcoats.
Howe feinted the remnants of the 5th, the 52nd and the grenadiers toward the fence, and wheeled south to the north side of the redoubt. Pigot attacked the east side, and Pitcairn took the Marines and the rest of the 47th against the south.
The Americans fired as the British entered close range, again inflicting withering losses. Their ammunition ran out, however, and the British closed with bayonets. The Americans, not supplied with close fighting weapons, fell back, taking most of their casualties at this time.
Stark's men, retreating from the rail fence, prevented Prescott's men from being encircled. The retreat was carried out in good order preventing a rout.
The Americans were forced to withdraw, but not before inflicting upon the British surprisingly heavy casualties. The revolution became a real war in the minds of Americans and British alike. Never again would the American rebels be treated as a third rate mob.
The colonials had their first real taste of warfare in defense of their freedom. They found that the effectiveness of their fighting ability had been compromised by, among other factors, supply shortages, lack of discipline, and inter-colony rivalries.
- Lessons Learned
Both armies had fought courageously and learned much. For the Redcoats, the lesson was painful. Although they had captured the hill, out of 2200 soldiers engaged, 1034 were casualties. The British attempted no further actions outside Boston for the next nine months. When Howe replaced Gage as military commander in America, the events of that day would continue to haunt him, and he would time and again fail to follow up a victory over the Americans.
The Americans had shown they could stand up to the British in traditional open field combat. But where they had succeeded, it had been through individual gallantry rather than tactical planning or discipline. Some regiments had fought well, others not at all. Of an estimated 2500 to 4000 men engaged, 400 to 600 were casualties. Stronger leadership would be critical to success in further battles.