Monday, June 16, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The American War of Independence: Bunker Hill

By the spring of 1775, tensions between the British government and the American colonists had reached boiling point. For months, provincial militias had been drilling on village greens and hoarding stocks of gunpowder. The first clash had occurred when British General Thomas Gage had sent a military force to the villages of Lexington and Concord on the 18th April to seize local munitions and supplies. Whilst negotiations continued between the British government and colonists, Gage gathered what reinforcements he could into Boston. By the end of May it was becoming increasingly clear that further conflict was inevitable. As such, the British government dispatched three additional generals to support Gage. Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne had all been hand picked for their experience.

The Plan

It seemed intolerable to the British commanders that an army of regulars should be bottled up in Boston by mere militia. They therefore conceived an elaborate plan to occupy the Charlestown promontory to the north and the Dorchester Heights to the south-east with token forces and draw the American flanks. In the meantime, the main British force would storm through the narrow Boston neck and across the Charles River to attack the main American concentration centred around Cambridge.

Opposing the British was Artemas Ward, the American Commander-in-Chief. Although his troops outnumbered the British, they were ill-equipped, ill-disciplined and lacking in coherent leadership. Command of the American regiments was exercised by competing Colonels, Israel Putnam, Colonel William Prescott, and Dr. Joseph Warren. They decided that a challenge must be made to disrupt British preparations. Three regiments were therefore marched onto the Charlestown Peninsula during the night of the 16th June. Digging with shovels, the Americans threw up fortifications on Bunker Hill. Four hours after arriving, the militiamen had constructed a shoulder-high earthen fort which offered protection from both musket fire and long-range cannon. This gave the Americans control of the heights overlooking Boston and therefore the potential to bombard the city with cannon. The British decided that the threat of bombardment must be dealt with before their own plan could be put into action. Crucially, however, they choose to wait until the next morning before taking any action. This gave the Americans further time to organise reinforcements and improve the fort.

The British landing

General Howe decided that the best means of dealing with the earthen fort would be by landing at the Charlestown neck and cutting them off. At 1:30 p.m. the first British assault barges set off loaded with ten light infantry and ten grenadier companies. Their landing was completely unopposed. Howe was so confident of success that he had his men pile arms and eat lunch whilst the landing barges went back for the second wave of troops. In the meantime, the Americans in the fort had been joined by another thousand militiamen. Further reinforcements also arrived in the form of John Starks’ New Hampshire regiment. These men were probably the best marksmen in the American army. Two hundred of them were sent into Charlestown to provide harassing fire on any passing British troops.

Howe had by now, assembled his forces at the bottom of Bunker Hill. However, they could not have been worse dressed for the ordeal that would follow. Their brilliant red coats made them ideal targets. Furthermore, each British grenadier carried a heavy load of 125 pounds with their muskets weighing an additional 10 pounds.

The Assault

Slowly three red lines of British soldiers began to move up the hill. The advance soon ran into difficulties caused by the terrain. The British line became badly broken up as the soldiers hacked away at the waist high grass and low stone walls and fences. By contrast, on the northern side of the hill, British light infantry quickly advanced up the hill. The militiamen were ready for them. The American commander had hammered a stake into the earth 40 yards from the stonewall his men were defending. He ordered his men to hold their fire until the British and passed the post. The first volley thundered down the hill and completely halted the advancing wave of infantry. As more troops passed over their bodies, two further volleys inflicted the same results. Howe’s infantry at the centre took the fire of 1,500 men firing in unison. All across the line, the British were suffering heavy losses. There was nothing to do except for them to retreat and reform for another attempt.

The British advance up the hill under heavy fire

Howe led his men for a second assault. Three times, he found himself entirely alone, with everybody around him killed or wounded. A third attack was then organised. By now many of the British units were down to just a quarter, or even a tenth of their original strength. Fortunately for the attackers, General Clinton had been watching the events from afar and arrived with further reinforcements. Howe’s artillery had also now been brought up with the forward troops. He quickly devised a new plan of leaving the surviving light infantry to act as a skirmishing force whilst the rest of his men took the breastwork in the flank. At this moment American supplies of ammunition and gunpowder also ran out. Howe’s plan succeeded and British bayonets were suddenly amongst the Americans manning the earthen works. It was at this stage that the Americans suffered most of their casualties as they began to retreat.

Conclusion and Aftermath

Although the British had taken the hill, their losses were staggering at nearly fifty percent. 226 were killed with 828 wounded. Casualties were particularly high amongst the officers, with 27 killed and 828 wounded. By contrast, the Americans lost 450 men. However, their relatively untrained forces had stood up to professionals and inflicted massive losses. It was a sign of things to come and was arguably a turning point in the morale of the American revolutionaries. Although the Americans had technically lost the battle, their actions helped to serve as a recruiting agent amongst other colonists still undecided as to the chances of success against the British army.

Taking Bunker Hill brought no long term advantage to the British. It had almost been a pyrrhic victory. The loss of so many men made any future actions untenable for the time being. The following March, the Americans seized the Dorchester Heights and constructed an even larger fort. The entire British force and a thousand American loyalists boarded the ships in the harbour for Halifax and left Boston.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Battle of Bunker Hill, have a look at these books;

Mary Englar, ‘The Battle of Bunker Hill (We the People: Revolution and the New Nation)’ (2007)

William Weir, ‘Fatal Victories: From the Crusades to Bunker Hill to the Vietnam War: History's Most Tragic Military Triumphs and the High Cost of Victory’ (2006)

Richard M. Ketchum, ‘Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill’ (1999)

Victor Brooks, ‘The Boston Campaign: April 1775-March 1776 (Great Campaigns): April 1775-March 1776 (Great Campaigns)’ (1999)

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