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The Battle of Bunker Hill: Definition, Summary & Facts

Instructor: Mark Pearcy
By 1775, the American Revolution from Great Britain was beginning to accelerate. At a hill north of Boston, in June 1775, the Revolution became all but inevitable.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

There comes a point in just about any dispute that we might call 'put up or shut up time'--a point at which all the things you've been saying about doing something must either be carried out, or you'll just have to stop saying them. It's that moment that distinguishes memorable events from the ones that don't make the history books (or websites). One such moment came on June 17, 1775, on a hill outside Boston, Massachusetts. It is stunningly ironic, then, that given the importance of this day, and what happened on this particular hill, that most of us have been calling it the wrong name for over two hundred years. But the Battle of Bunker Hill, whatever we choose to call it, it still one of those moments when American patriots--despite having many chances to walk away--decided to 'put up.'

Background

By June 1775, the tensions between the American colonies and Great Britain had reached the proverbial boiling point. It started after the French and Indian War (called, in Europe, the Seven Years' War) was concluded. The war, fought between France and Great Britain, left the latter victorious, but with two problems they didn't anticipate in victory--a great deal more territory (primarily in North America) that needed to be administered and guarded, and an enormous debt. Their solution to that last problem was increased taxation, especially on the colonies--and that started over a decade of anger, recrimination, and fractiousness.

In 1773, the Boston Tea Party, a violent reaction to the continued British tea tax, seemed like the final straw. The British government passed a series of laws, called the Coercive Acts (known in America as the Intolerable Acts), designed to force the colonies into compliance. In response, colonists began to arm themselves, spurred on and supported by a group of Americans who had determined that independence from Great Britain was now inevitable. This group, known as the Sons of Liberty, were seen by the British government as public enemy number one.

In April 1775, British authorities in Boston thought they had information on two of the most prominent Sons of Liberty--Samuel Adams and John Hancock. In an attempt to arrest both men and to seize ammunition the American group had been placing in the towns around Boston, a regiment of British soldiers embarked on April 19. By the end of the day, the British had fought with Americans around the towns of Lexington and Concord, dozens were dead or injured, and the war--whether or not anyone knew it--seemed to be on.

The Geography of Boston

Shortly after Lexington and Concord, thousands of armed Americans showed up, more or less on their own, outside Boston. Colonies sent more men and supplies, and the Second Continental Congress effectively adopted this group and named them the Continental Army. Almost without planning, the new army, around 15,000 strong, had established itself in a siege position outside Boston.

The city of Boston sits on a peninsula in the middle of Boston Harbor; the only approach from the South was a thin strip of land known as Boston Neck. British authorities in the city were unconcerned about an attack from that direction. From the North, however, was a different matter. Across the harbor from the city was the town of Charlestown, set on a series of low hills. From this location, American troops could fire down into the city itself, and if they had artillery (which they did), they could effectively destroy Boston.

Shortly after Lexington and Concord, American troops led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold (this is well before he became American history's most famous traitor), seized cannons from the British Fort Ticonderoga, and shipped them south. Now, equipped with heavy artillery that was being set up in the hills of Charlestown, the British general in charge, Thomas Gage, saw that those troops would have to be dislodged.

The Battle

1200 American troops, led (more or less) by General Israel Putnam ('Old Put', to his men), had dug in on one of the hills on the Charlestown peninsula. Because of mislabeling on a British map of the area, one of history's most famous geographic mistakes had just occurred. Most of the American troops were situated on Breed's Hill, to the southeast of Bunker Hill. There were some troops and fortifications on Bunker Hill, and during the fight many wounded men were taken there. For the most part, however, the Battle of Bunker Hill was really someplace else.

General Israel Putnam, commander of American troops at Bunker Hill
Putnam

On June 17, British troops ferried across the harbor to the banks of the Charlestown peninsula. By 3 PM, they were prepared to assault up the hill.

View of Charlestown Peninsula prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 1775
battleground

The expectation among the British was that the Americans would either fight fitfully or not at all. This was not an unfair prediction to anyone watching the colonials on the heights; the soldiers seemed woefully disorganized, as Putnam had issued orders to some and not to others, and as more troops arrived on the scene without direction, there was a tendency to mill around, which made the American lines look fairly undefended.

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