Around the end of May, a great part of the reinforcements ordered from England arrived at Boston on May 25. Maj. Gen. William Howe, Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne, and Maj. Gen. George Clinton also arrived about the same time. Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage, thus reinforced, prepared for acting with more decision. Gage met with his war council to decide how best to control the harbor and retain access to the sea. They decided that control of the key terrain on Dorchester Heights and Charlestown on the northern side of Boston was critical to their success.
On June 12, Gage offered pardon to all who should forthwith lay down their arms, and return to their respective occupations and peaceable duties. It was also declared “that as the courts of judicature were shut, martial law should take place, till a due course of justice should be re-established.” It was supposed that this proclamation was a prelude to hostilities, and preparations were accordingly made by the Americans. A considerable height, by the name of Bunker Hill, just at the entrance of the peninsula of Charlestown, was so situated as to make the possession of it a matter of great consequence, to either of the contending parties. The British developed plans to occupy the high ground on the Charlestown peninsula, including the strategic high points of Bunker Hill (110 feet) and Breed's Hill (75 feet). The next day, the Americans learned of the British plans to take the heights on Charlestown.
On June 16, orders were issued that a detachment of 1,500 men, commanded by Col. William Prescott, should occupy and fortify the strategic high ground before the British could move on them. By some mistake, Breed's Hill, which was southeast of Bunker Hill and situated nearer Boston, was marked out for the entrenchments, instead of Bunker Hill. The Americans proceeded to Breed’s Hill and worked with so much diligence, that between midnight and dawn of June 17, they had thrown up a small redoubt. They were able to remain so silent that they were not heard by the British, even on the nearby ships.
The Americans continued to work until they had thrown up a small breastwork, extending from the east side of the redoubt to the bottom of the hill. As this eminence overlooked Boston, Gage thought it necessary to drive the American troops from it. Plans were hurriedly put in motion by the British to attack the Americans and drive them from their position. Maj. Gen. William Howe, one of the generals sent from Britain to assist Gage, was given the command. While the preparations were in train, the Americans extended their fortifications from the redoubt to the sea shore, to prevent a flank attack. More American troops gathered on Bunker Hill but few of them could be persuaded to move to the forward positions on Breed’s Hill.
On June 17, in the early morning, Gage ordered Howe to attack the Americans and remove them from Charlestown peninsula. While the troops prepared for the assault, the sloop-of-war, HMS Lively, and other artillery began bombarding the American positions, which lasted for most of the day. The shots landed far short of Breed’s Hill and did not cause any damage, but they frightened the militiamen. Many of them dropped their shovels and axes and tried to hide behind the redoubt. Col. ?? Prescott assured them that the ship’s cannon could not reach their position and that they must continue working on the breastwork. The shooting from the Lively soon stopped, but cannon fire from the other British ships in the Charles River took over.
Throughout the early morning hours, Prescott encouraged the militiamen by walking along the top of the walls of the redoubt, praising those who had worked hard and joking with them about the need to hurry. Other officers followed Prescott’s lead in keeping up morale even though they knew they were in view of the British gunners.
In Boston, the British heard rumors about the American's activities. Gage was advised by Clinton that they should be prepared to mount a dawn attack on the Charlestown Peninsula, but Gage believed the early reports of American troop movement were overstated. He chose to wait for daylight before he decided what to do. When daybreak came, he saw that the noise he thought represented the change of Patriot sentries had been caused by the building of an imposing fortification.
Prescott’s militiamen had worked for about 12 hours. They had little, if anything, to eat, and did not have any drinking water. Some expected to be relieved by other troops and were shocked when Prescott informed them that nearby troops had to stand ready in case the British attacked at another point. He did send for a few additional soldiers and for some food and water, but he made it clear that those who had built the redoubt would be its defenders.
Meanwhile, the British had decided to land troops at Moulton’s Point. The plan was to push around the open American left flank along the Mystic River beach and envelop the redoubt while a holding attack pinned the Americans in the fort. Prescott reinforced his exposed left by dispatching men to take position behind a stone and rail fence. A breastwork of stone extended the line from where the fence ended down the river bluff and beach area.
Gage then assigned positions for their attack: Howe with Brig. Gen. Robert Pigot under his command would lead the attack; Brig. Gen. Sir Hugh Percy would be in charge of troops at Boston Neck; Clinton would wait in Boston until Howe signaled him for help; and Burgoyne would command guns at Copp’s Hill.
By 1:00 P.M., the British began landing on Moulton’s Point. They quickly formed into columns of four and marched to the foot of Breed’s Hill. Then, in sight of the Americans, they unpacked substantial meals and sat down to eat. Dr. Joseph Warren, an important leader of the Patriot cause and a newly commissioned major general, came as a volunteer to help in the fight. As the British soldiers completed their meal, Gen. Israel Putnam brought Patriot militia to dig in on Bunker Hill. Col. John Stark and 2 New Hampshire regiments fortified an existing fence between the breastwork and the Mystic River with additional posts and rails and stuffed it with hay and grass to provide cover for men positioned there. They also constructed and fortified a stone wall on the Mystic River beach as an extension of the rail fence. This defense was to prevent the British from surrounding the redoubt.
Approximately 1,100 British troops under Howe set out along the beach of the Mystic River to outflank the Americans. The remaining 1,100 soldiers under Pigot started up the hill toward the patriots’ redoubt. Both groups wore heavy red-woolen coats, carried 60-lb. of equipment and fixed bayonets. The progress of Pigot’s troops over the uneven, grass-covered ground was slow, and the Americans were anxious to begin shooting them down. Mindful of their small amount of ammunition, officers cautioned the troops to use their weapons carefully. Ordered to fire low and pick off British officers, the Patriots held their fire until the British formations stepped within 50 yards. Hopefully, this would break up the British chain of command.
The first assault by the British forces came from the Mystic River beach when Howe gave the order for his soldiers to overrun the rail fence and the breastworks below the redoubt. When the command to fire finally came, the Americans shot with deadly accuracy. They were organized in 3 ranks, one of which was always firing. The British lines broke as one soldier after another dropped from the deadly fire. Soon, the call for retreat sounded. The Americans had repelled a major assault by the superior British army.
About 15 minutes later, a second assault was ordered. Pigot’s forces were in position to attack the front of the redoubt. The British soldiers found it difficult to march up the hill. They had to wade through tall grass and step over stone walls as they climbed the steepest part of the hill in the hot afternoon. Again, the Patriots withheld their fire until the British regulars were within 50 yards. They shot with deadly accuracy and again the British lines were broken. Again, the order for retreat was sounded.
The British generals watching the battle from Copp’s Hill could not believe that what they had deemed to be the finest soldiers in the world were being slaughtered by backwood Americans. After receiving orders from Gage to supply additional reinforcements, Clinton arrived in Charlestown with men from the 2nd Marine Battalion and the 63rd Regiment to support Pigot. Howe ordered his remaining troops to once again form themselves into a marching line. He permitted them to take off their heavy packs and even allowed some to take off their coats. Finally, the third British advance was mounted against the redoubt and breastworks. Legend has it that Prescott uttered the famous line, "Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes" to encourage soldiers to make each shot as effective as possible.
Many terrified militiamen had already left the scene of battle. Most of those who remained had little ammunition left with no hope of getting more. With close artillery cover, the British stormed the fort brandishing their bayonets. When they came close, the Patriots fired one to two volleys, then most stood their ground to face the British. Fierce handtohand bayonet and clubbed musket fighting occurred within the redoubt. Among those killed during the third assault was Warren. The Patriots waged a fighting retreat to Bunker Hill, across the Charlestown Neck, and eventually across to Cambridge.
The British took over the Bunker and Breed’s Hill positions and fortified them, holding them until they evacuated Boston at the end of the year. The battle was the first action for the Continental Army and showed how much work there was to be done in building an effective army. While most of the soldiers in the entrenched works fought tenaciously, the intended reinforcements on Bunker Hill refused to advance to the support of their comrades.
The British victory a was a moral victory for the Americans, however. People throughout America realized that the war was no longer just a rebellion of Boston and other Massachusetts colonists against British occupation. They had proved to themselves that, united, they had the ability and the character to confront the superior force of the British army. The cost of British victory was so great that serious doubts were raised about English leadership. Many now understood that war with the colonies would be hard, long, and expensive to both sides.
This early battle was one of the bloodiest fight of the war.