On June 17, 1775, the American Revolution began in earnest with the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Since the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in April of that year, a hodge-podge of New England militia had gathered outside of Boston to prevent the British from maneuvering, leaving the Royal Navy the only means of evacuation. The British commander, Thomas Gage, had no intention of leaving Boston, however, and was soon reinforced with more men and officers from Britain.
Meanwhile, the Second Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia, keeping a close eye on events in New England. While many did not yet favor independence, most representatives to the Congress recognized the necessity of defending themselves from British aggression. To that end, on June 14 the Congress voted to merge the militias into a Continental Army. George Washington, a man of military experience and, critically, a southerner, was chosen to lead the Army.
Events moved rapidly, and before Washington could arrive in Boston to take command Gage decided to act. Pressed by his subordinate commanders William Howe, John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton, Gage considered an attack upon Dorchester Heights, south of the city. On June 16, however, the Colonials began fortifying the Charleston Peninsula to the north across the harbor from Boston.
According to historians James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender in their book "A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789," "The New Englanders planned to fortify Bunker Hill, but instead, for some inexplicable reason they threw up their most extended works on Breed's Hill, which was lower than Bunker and closer to the enemy in Boston. Seeing the works early on June 17, the British commanders prepared for action."
Roughly 2,500 redcoats were ferried across the bay and landed on the peninsula. The American commanders William Prescott and Israel Putnam, short of ammunition and only too aware of their army's lack of discipline, commanded roughly the same number. The Colonials waited as the British approached. How would the American mob, armed mostly with hunting muskets without bayonets and with few men experienced in war, fare against the greatest fighting force in the world?
In his book "The American Revolution" historian Bruce Lancaster wrote, “By logic and precedent, the Americans should have loosed one ragged, scattered volley, and then fled. Something inexplicable, the true miracle of June 17, kept them steady. In the redoubt a gray-haired farmer prayed aloud, 'I thank thee, O Lord, for sparing me to fight this day. Blessed be the name of the Lord.' And he and his fellows waited, incredibly patient, fighting back hot terror as the redcoats came on, closer, closer.”
There is some controversy over who uttered the famous phrase, “Don't fire until you see the whites their eyes,” with different eyewitness attributing it to Prescott, Putnam or other commanders. When the colonials finally did let loose their volley, it proved devastating for the British. The first redcoat assault upon Breed's Hill was repulsed, then the second. Only on the third attempt did the British manage to dislodge the colonials from their position.
It was a Pyrrhic victory, however. Though the British took the ground, and thus technically were the victors, their losses were catastrophic. The British lost 1,054 men killed or wounded, more than 40 percent of their fighting force. The Americans lost 411 men, roughly 30 percent of their force. Though the battle was lost, Americans soon took heart that they had permanently dispelled the myth of British military superiority. And the British realized that the pacification of America would not be a cakewalk.
The British General Howe noted that the battle was “a dear bought victory” and that “another such would have ruined us.” Historians Robert W. Coakley and Stetson Conn wrote that the Battle of Bunker Hill “went far to create the American tradition that the citizen-soldier when aroused is more than a match for the trained professional.”
Unfortunately, the dispute didn't end there and the American Revolution continued until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. By that point, the colonies were united in their determination for a free and independent nation.
A bit of speculation: Had the Battle of Bunker Hill gone differently, and Breed's Hill held, what if in its aftermath the British agreed to negotiate for colonial seats in the House of Commons? Perhaps America would have never become its own nation.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the codeveloper of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]