At about the middle of June, 1775 the British officers in Boston waked to the consciousness that "rebel" batteries at Dorchester Heights on the south, or on Charlestown Heights-Bunker's or Breed's Hills-on the north, might make the situation of the troops in the town not only disagreeable but perilous. They resolved to sally out and fortify these heights themselves, Dorchester on the 18th of June, and Bunker's Hill a few days later. Rumors of this intention reached the Committee of Safety, to whom the Provincial Congress had delegated all discretionary powers to regulate the movements of troops, and they proposed the immediate fortification of Bunker's Hill before their enemy should come out.
On the 16th of June, an order was issued for the regiments of Colonels Frye, Bridges and Prescott, Samuel Gridley's company of artillery, and a fatigue party of Connecticut troops, under Captain Thomas Knowlton, of Putnam's regiment, to parade in the camp at Cambridge at six o'clock in the evening, with intrenching tools. The whole were placed under the command of Colonel William Prescott of Pepperell, who received written order from General Ward to proceed to and fortify Bunker's Hill on the Charlestown peninsula. At nine o'clock in the evening, after a prayer by Dr. Langdon, President of Harvard College, a larger portion of these regiments, accompanied by General Putnam, marched over Charlestown Neck and along the road to Bunker's Hill. The whole force numbered about thirteen hundred men. They proceeded silently in the darkness. A council was held in the gloom, when it was decided that Breed's Hill, nearer Boston, would be the most effective point for a fortification. They accordingly proceeded to that eminence overlooking Charlestown on the edge of the water, and there, in the star-light, a thousand men began the work with pick and spade. The waning moon rose at midnight, and in its pale light they worked in such silence until dawn, that they were not discovered by the sentinels on the ships-of-war that lay in sight below them, and whose voices, crying out hourly "All's well!" they could distinctly hear. There lay the Lively, Glasgow, Somerset, and Cerberus, with floating batteries, in fancied security, while the toilers piled the earth so vigorously, that a redoubt rose six feet above the earth at daybreak on Saturday, the 17th of June. Then they were discovered by the sentinel on the Lively. The captain beheld the strange apparition with wonder and alarm, and without waiting for orders from the admiral, he put springs on his cable and opened a sharp fire on the unfinished work. Other vessels opened broadsides upon that seeming creation of magic, while the Americans within the redoubt, unhurt by the shots, worked steadily on.
That cannonade at dawn on a beautiful summer morning, broke the slumber of the troops and citizens in Boston, and filled both with astonishment. Very soon roofs, balconies, and steeples were alive with gazers upon the strange scene. Gage summoned his principal officers to a council, when it was decided that the Americans must be dislodged, at all hazards. The newly-arrived generals proposed to land troops on Charlestown Neck, and taking the "rebels" in reverse, cut off their retreat and prevent their reinforcement. Gage decided to attack them in front; and about twenty-five hundred troops, composed of infantry, grenadiers, and artillery, with twelve pieces of cannon, crossed the Charles River in boats, at a little past noon, under cover of a tremendous cannonade from the shipping and Copp's Hill, and landed toward the eastern extremity of the Charlestown peninsula, at the head of the present Chelsea Bridge. There Howe reconnoitred the American position, ordered his men to dine, and sent back to Boston for reinforcements. The men at the redoubt had toiled all the forenoon, completed their work, and at meridian exchanged the pick and spade for the accountrements of war. Almost twelve hours had they labored, with little rest and food. They had cast up a redoubt about eight rods square, and an embankment on its left extending about a hundred yards toward the Mystic River; also a similar line on the right. The troops, wearied with work and want of food and sleep, asked for relief, but their leader said "No;" you have cast up the redoubt, and you shall have the honor of defending it." They asked for reinforcements, which he at first declined calling for, supposing the British would not attack him. At length there were indications in the city that they were coming out, and Prescott sent to General Ward for reinforcements. That officer tardily complied with the request, and sent the New Hampshire regiments of Stark and Reed; also some small field pieces. Some other detachments joined Prescott, and Dr. Joseph Warren, who had just received a commission as major-general, arrived with the cheering news that other reinforcements were coming. Putnam was there, flying from point to point to make dispositions for securing a victory, and urging Ward, who was afraid of an attack upon Cambridge, to send on reinforcements.
When Howe was about to move at three o'clock in the afternoon, the Americans were prepared for the contest. Prescott, with Warren, and the constructors of the redoubt, were within that work, excepting the Connecticut troops, who, with the New Hampshire forces, were at a rail fence and breastworks on the west of the redoubt. The artillery companies were between the breastwork and a rail fence on the eastern side, and three companies were stationed in Charlestown at the foot of Breed's Hill.
Just as the fight was about to begin, reinforcements came for Howe and landed at the present entrance to the Navy Yard. They consisted of a regiment, some companies of light infantry and grenadiers, and a marine battalion led by Major Pitcairn of Lexington fame. The entire British force now confronting the Americans on the peninsula numbered more than three thousand.
At half-past three o'clock, Howe's great guns moved toward the redoubt, and opened fire upon the works. They were followed by the troops in two columns, commanded respectively by Generals Howe and Pigot, the infantry and grenadiers assailing the outworks. At the same time the guns on the ships and the battery on Copp's Hill hurled random shot in abundance upon the little earthwork. In the midst of the roaring thunder, the Americans were silent in the redoubt, and mostly so along the lines of intrenchments and fences, for their leader had ordered them not to fire until they could see the whites of the eyes of the approaching foe. The silence was a riddle to the English. It was soon solved. When they were within the prescribed distance, up rose the concealed host, fifteen hundred strong, at the word Fire! and poured such a tremendous and destructive storm of bullets upon the climbers of the green slope, that whole platoons and even companies were prostrated as a scythe would have mown down the long grass through which they were wading. Flags fell to the ground like the tall lilies in a mown meadow, and the shattered army was horror-struck for a moment. The bugles sounded, and they fell back to the shore, when a shout of triumph went up from the crest of Breed's Hill. Howe soon rallied his men, and repeated the attack with a similar result.
The British were greatly annoyed by shots from houses in Charlestown, and, at the request of Howe, shells were thrown into it from Copp's Hill, and set the village on fire. Very soon almost two hundred wooden buildings--dwellings and churches--were in flames, and Breed's Hill was shrouded in black smoke for awhile, until a gentle breeze that suddenly sprang up blew it away. At the same time General Clinton, who, from Copp's Hill, had seen the second recoil of the British troops, hastened across the river, and at the head of some broken battalions shared in the perils and success of a third attack, for Howe had again rallied his troops, and was pressing toward the Americans. The British had been ordered to march at quick step, and use only their bayonets. These and the artillery soon drove the defenders of the breastworks into the redoubt. Again from that flaming centre went out dreadful volleys that shattered the head of the British column. The powder of the Americans was now almost exhausted. Their fire became more feeble. The British pushed up to and over the ramparts; and after a hand-to-hand struggle in the redoubt with bayonets and clubbed muskets, the Americans were driven out. They fled toward Charlestown Neck, where reinforcements had been arrested by a severe enfilading fire from the British vessels. The retreat of the main body was covered by the prolonged fighting of Stark, Reed, and Knowlton at the outworks, with some reinforcements. Warren was the last to leave the redoubt, and was hurrying toward Bunker's Hill, where Putnam was trying to rally the fugitives, and was shot dead by a bullet that pierced his brain. The British loss in this battle--killed, wounded, and prisoners--was ten hundred and fifty-four. Among the officers slain was Major Pitcairn. His pistols are now in the possession of descendants of General Putnam. The Americans lost in killed, wounded, and missing, four hundred and fifty.
This conflict, known as the Battle of Bunker's Hill, though fought on Breed's Hill, lasted almost two hours. It was gazed upon by anxious thousands who were on the neighboring hills and the roofs, and steeples in Boston, deeply interested spectators of a terrible scene in which dear kindred were engaged. When the redoubt was carried and the Americans retreated, the whole body of troops on the peninsula were compelled to run the gauntlet of cannon-balls from the British vessels, as they fled across Charlestown Neck. Many were slain there. The survivors encamped that night on Prospect Hill, and the British reposed on their arms on the field of battle until the next morning, when they passed over the water to Boston never again to appear on the main land of Massachusetts.
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