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Colonel Prescott Prepares for the Battle of Bunker Hill: June 16, 1775

This text comes from our book, From Sea to Shining Sea.

The members of the Massachusetts assembly rejoiced when they heard the news of Arnold and Allen’s victories on Lake Champlain. The same could not be said of the men who had gathered to form the Second Continental Congress. These men, who were representatives from each of the thirteen colonies, had come to Philadelphia to decide what the colonies should do about the siege of Boston. They included some of the most famous and talented men in British America: from Boston, John Adams, and from Virginia, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and George Washington. The congress members approved of what the colonists had done at Lexington and Concord. After all, the men of Massachusetts were merely defending themselves against a British attack. But taking Fort Ticonderoga and other holdings on Lake Champlain was different; that was not self-defense, but an attack on the authority of King George III.

They debated what to do. Should Fort Ticonderoga be abandoned? Most of the members of congress were not ready for war on England. But if war came, the colonies would need guns and ammunition if they were to defend themselves against the army of Great Britain. Fort Ticonderoga had plenty of both guns and ammunition. Further, if the British were going to invade the colonies, they would come down Lake Champlain and, from there, cross to the Hudson River. If the British made it to the Hudson, it would be clear sailing to New York City, and the New Yorkers did not like the idea of their largest city falling to the British. So the congress members decided not to abandon Fort Ticonderoga.

Fort Ticonderoga
Fort Ticonderoga

The congress also decided to make George Washington commander in chief of the so-called army of the United Colonies. They sent Benedict Arnold to Maine to organize an army for military action in Canada. The congress hoped that the French in Canada would join the colonies in their struggle against Great Britain.

It was only after he had left Philadelphia on June 23, 1775, to take up his command that George Washington learned his army, called the Continental army, had fought another battle with the British outside of Boston. The British had sent General George Howe to Boston to replace General Gage as the commander of the British forces there. General Howe was bound and determined to destroy the motley rebel forces outside of Boston. He planned an attack on the town of Cambridge and the Dorchester Heights, which lay just outside of the port town. But unfortunately for Howe, the colonials got wind of his plans and were prepared to meet his attack.

On June 16, 1775, the officer in charge, Colonel William Prescott, decided he would meet the British attack by placing men and artillery on Bunker Hill, just outside of Boston. From there the colonials could lob bombs onto the British forces in Boston. But the artillery, which was brought from Lake Champlain, did not arrive in time, and Prescott’s men made a mistake. They occupied Breeds Hill instead of Bunker Hill. Still, when the sun rose the next morning, the British were surprised to see a stockade atop Breeds Hill and trenches dug along its base. Colonial militia, their gun barrels and bayonets glistening in the sunlight, awaited the British.

Statue of Colonel William Prescott at Bunker Hill
Statue of Colonel William Prescott at Bunker Hill

But General Howe was not daunted by the colonists. Why should he be? There were very few of them, they had little ammunition, and their artillery had not arrived. Surely the mighty British army with its powerful guns and smart military discipline could drive off that ragged band of farmers and craftsmen! With cool confidence, Howe ordered the British ships in Boston harbor to open fire on Breeds Hill. He then ordered British grenadiers and light infantry to drive off the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire men lined behind a stone wall and rail fence they had hastily built behind Breeds Hill and at the foot of Bunker Hill.

The colonials watched with fear and dread as the ranks of redcoated soldiers slowly advanced toward them. The whistling of cannonballs, shot from British warships and from an artillery battery on Copps Hill in Boston, filled the air. In the distance, on the other side of Breeds Hill, the town of Charlestown had been struck many times by these missiles, setting many buildings blazing. Great tongues of fire licked the sky. Great billows of smoke rose above Breeds Hill.

As the British drew nearer, the artillery fire ceased. The colonials heard only the beating of British drums and the thud-thud-thud of British feet. “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Prescott shouted, and the men held their fire. The British were 200 feet away—then 100—then 75. Still, the colonials held their fire. When the British were only 50 feet away, the colonials could see the whites of their eyes. “Fire!” cried Prescott. And the colonials fired a blazing volley, wrapping themselves in black gun smoke.

This colonial volley tore into the advancing British, and many a red-coated soldier fell to the ground, dead or wounded. The British still advanced, and the colonials continued their point-blank fire. More British fell. Then came a force of grenadiers led by General Howe himself. They, too, were riddled by colonial fire, and fell. Finally, panic filled the remaining British, and they fled.

Battle of Bunker Hill
Battle of Bunker Hill

But Howe was not beaten. He reorganized his troops and, this time, British grenadiers and marines advanced directly against Breeds Hill. From the stockade and from the trenches the colonials again opened fire. The British fell in great numbers. But the colonials were running out of ammunition. Howe’s third assault against Breeds Hill was able to drive the colonials from their positions, and they fled before the victorious British.

Yet, the British were not so victorious. Of the 2,200 British who fought that day, 1,054 had been killed and wounded. The colonists lost only 444 men out of 3,200. The Battle of Bunker Hill (which was actually fought on Breeds Hill) gave the colonists confidence that they could stand up to the British. The battle, too, taught the British that the colonials were tougher than they had thought; it was a dearly bought victory. “Another such,” said a British general, “would have ruined us.”

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