Two hundred and forty-six years ago this week, we will mark the anniversary of one of America’s most sacred battles, the Battle of Bunker Hill. Although a loss, the battle site bears a towering monument. The renowned Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Layfette, requested to be buried with soil from Bunker Hill over his coffin.
Why does an unmitigated defeat hold such a revered place in the American psyche? Because the way the Americans fought–the price they exacted in British blood–changed forever how the colonists would be viewed by the British–and how they would view themselves. Old and young, black and white, rich and poor, experienced war veterans together with volunteer farmers—a ragtag bunch of Americans united in a way the British never expected in order to repel the greatest professional army of the time.
Both the British and the Americans wanted control of Bunker Hill, the highest point on the Charlestown peninsula north of Boston, for strategic reasons. On June 17, 1775, some of the most ferocious fighting of the Revolutionary War would determine who would keep it.
Hearing that the British were planning to take the hill on June 18, American General Israel Putnam began to work on defensive fortifications on June 15. The next day, Colonel William Prescott arrived with 1,200 additional men. He argued that artillery would be better positioned to reach Boston from the shorter Breed’s Hill, so he had his men construct an earthen redoubt on the crest of that hill.
Among the colonists who built these fortifications on the coveted peninsula were several African Americans from Essex County, including combatants Cuff Chambers and Jacob Francis. The remarkable full story of these men and the unit they fought with is now told in the new bestselling book, The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware. The book is a Band of Brothers-style treatment of the regiment from Marblehead, Massachusetts, a unique largely unknown group of Americans who changed the course of history.
Scores of African Americans would fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Years later, when applying for his pension from the United States government for his service in the war, Francis would recount an endearing story about commanding officer General Putnam, affectionately nicknamed Old Put:
The men were at work digging, about 500 men on the fatigue at once, I was at work among them, they were divided into small squads of 8 or 10 together, & a non-commissioned officer to oversee them. General Putnam came riding along in uniform as an officer to look at the work. They had dug up a pretty large stone which lay on the side of the ditch. The General spoke to the corporal who was standing looking at the men at work & said to him, ‘My lad throw that stone up on the middle of the breastwork,’ the Corporal touching his hat with his hand said to the General, ‘Sir, I am a Corporal.’ ‘Oh.’ (said the General) ‘I ask your pardon, Sir,’ and immediately got off his horse and took up the stone and threw it up on the breastwork himself & then mounted his horse & rode on, giving directions.
Upon seeing the colonists’ fervent activity, the British decided to move up the timing of their attack by a day. On June 17, the twenty-gun HMS Lively began its assault on the colonists’ as-yet-unfinished redoubt, and the other British cannons in the harbor soon joined in. Although a 9-pound cannonball decapitated a young American, Colonel Prescott refused to be intimidated. Jumping to the top of the earthen redoubt, he waved his hat and yelled, “Hit me if you can!” and encouraged the men to continue their work despite the hail of artillery and the constant tremors from the cannonballs thudding into the hill.
From Boston, General Gage saw Prescott’s antics through his spyglass. He asked Prescott’s Loyalist son-in-law, who happened to be standing by the British general’s side, if he believed the older man would fight. “Yes, sir. He is an old soldier; he will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins; it will be a bloody day, you may depend on it.”
Multiple generations fighting together or on opposite sides were not unusual in the Revolutionary War. The Marblehead Regiment contained several father/son pairs as well as brothers, cousins, and best friends. Some of the youngest members of the regiment, as young as ten years old, served as fifers and drummers, whose purpose was to communicate commands over the din of battle to maneuver troops.
Meanwhile, the orderly British assembled their men and ferried them in longboats to the eastern edge of the Charlestown peninsula. The Redcoats enjoyed a leisurely lunch on the beach while waiting for more troops before they began their assault in earnest. By midafternoon, the additional British reinforcements had arrived, swelling their ranks to almost 3,000 men. Not all the colonists had Prescott’s bravado. Watching thousands of professional British soldiers amass and prepare for battle was too much for some. Provincial officers sent out a desperate plea for reinforcements to colonial leaders.
On General Howe’s command, the warships halted their bombardment, and the Redcoats began their ground assault. To eliminate the threat of marksmen, the British first set fire to the wooden buildings of Charlestown using hot shot—cannonballs heated on forges aboard the warships and fired on the town. Soon billowing black smoke blanketed the battlefield, choking the fighters and lending an apocalyptic aura to the setting.
Behind the Patriot lines, a teenage drummer boy and a fifer played “Yankee Doodle”; the tune the British had mockingly used to taunt the Americans at Salem and Lexington had become the American fight song.
Howe formed his men into ranks. Two wings of scarlet over one thousand men strong formed on the left and right at the base of Breed’s Hill. Artillerymen moved the all-important cannons into position, ready to take aim at the hastily constructed fortifications on the hill. The slight breeze hardly cooled the men from the afternoon sun on the summer day. Sweat poured down Howe’s men’s faces as they sweltered in woolen coats. Regimental drummers and fifers played while Patriot marksmen began to target the British as they were still moving into position.
Few had answered the provincial officers’ desperate call for reinforcements, but the few who did, including Massachusetts Provincial Congress President Doctor Joseph Warren and Marblehead Captain Samuel Trevett and his company of 51 men, made a crucial difference in the battle.
In the next few hours, over a thousand men would fall. Many to never rise again. The mighty British army would charge the hill repeatedly only to be rebuffed over and over by a continuous sheet of Patriot fire from behind their makeshift hasty defenses. When the Patriots finally exhausted all of their gunpowder and ammunition, the battle was fought hand-to-hand and with sword and bayonet. The British won the day, but the hundreds of British dead and wounded compared to the Patriots’ significantly smaller losses forced General Howe and the British Crown to re-evaluate the threat posed by these unruly ragtag Americans.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books. His latest, The Indispensables, is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble and would make an excellent Father’s Day gift. His other bestsellers include Washington’s Immortals and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian