Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.
The attack began, and the British regulars made their way up the sloping hill towards the militia. Contrary to appearances, the Americans maintained their discipline and fired only (discounting a few premature shots) when the line of redcoats were within range. The Battle of Bunker Hill is famous for many things, but probably most famous for the phrase 'don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes,' a command given to American troops to hold their fire until the last possible moment. Whether or not this really happened is unsure; it was a common refrain for military commanders in the 18th century, and has been falsely attributed to several figures on the field that day (including Putnam). Whoever said it--if anyone did--the musket fire was effective, and the British retreated down the hill.
After a short interval, they reformed their ranks and proceeded again with a second, similar assault--again, the results were the same, as the colonial troops, firing from good cover (in the center of the line, from behind a wooden fence), tore through the British body of men. Finally, a third assault up the hill was successful--not because of the individual bravery on the British side, or any lack of it on the American side. Instead, it was a question of supply. By this point in the battle, most of the colonial troops were out of ammunition, and were forced to retire.
The battle was reported throughout the colonies as an American loss, but was quickly appropriated for propaganda purposes by groups like the Sons of Liberty, who hailed American courage in the face of overwhelming odds. For the British, it was at a minimum a strategic victory--the threat of colonial fire from the hills to the north had been removed--but at a huge cost; over a thousand casualties, including over 200 dead, many of them officers (who had led the charges up Breed's Hill). For his part, General Gage was removed from command after news of the battle reached England, and the resolve of the British government to crush the rebellion hardened.
The Battle of Bunker Hill helped accelerate the movement towards separation. The British prediction that American resolve would falter in the face of actual combat had proven false. The Americans had successfully 'put up', and in July 1776, meeting in Philadelphia, delegates from the thirteen colonies would formally declare the independence for which they had actually been fighting for over a year.
The Battle of Bunker Hill (actually fought on a nearby hill, Breed's Hill) was fought over possession of high ground on the peninsula north of Boston, a few months after the fighting at Lexington and Concord. The American defense of the hills, though ultimately futile, highlighted the commitment to independence among colonial troops and showed the British authorities that the war ahead would not be a short one.
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