IT WAS NEARLY THREE O'CLOCK of the afternoon of the seventeenth of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy five, that the solid mass of silent veterans which had landed upon Moulton's Point, and had prepared themselves with due deliberation to execute the order of the day, moved forward to attack the American army, then entrenched on the summit of Breed's Hill.
To General Howe himself was entrusted the responsibility of breaking up the American left wing, to envelope it, take the redoubt in the rear, and cut off retreat to Bunker Hill and the main land. The light infantry, therefore, moved closely along the Mystic river, threatening the extreme left, while the grenadiers directed their advance upon the stone fence, with their left wing demonstrating toward the unprotected gap which was clearly exposed between the fence and the short breastwork next the redoubt. General Pigot, who commanded the left wing, advanced directly against the redoubt itself.
The movements were heralded by a profitless artillery fire from Morton's Hill, but this soon ceased, for the solid shot all ready for use, were designed for twelve-pounder guns, and those in position had the caliber of sixes. The prompt order to use only grape, was followed by an advance of the pieces to the edge of an old brick-kiln, the spongy ground and heavy grass not permitting their ready handling at the foot of the hill slope, or even just to its right. The guns, thus advanced, thereby secured a more effective range of fire upon the skeleton defenses of the American centre, and an eligible position from which subsequently to effect a more direct fire upon the exposed portion of the American front, and upon the breastwork and redoubt themselves.
The advance of the British army was like a solemn pageant in its steady headway, and like a parade for inspection in its completeness of furnishment. This army, bearing their knapsacks and the full equipment for campaign service, moved forward as if by the very force of its closely knit columns it must sweep away all obstructions, and overturn every barrier in its way. But right in the way was a calm, intense, and energizing love of liberty.
It was represented by plain men of the same blood, and of equal daring. Contrast marked those opposing Englishmen very distinctly that summer afternoon. The plain men handled plain fire-locks. Ox-horns held their powder, and their pockets held the bullets. Coatless, under the broiling sun, unencumbered, unadorned by plum age or service medals,—looking like vagabonds after their night of labor, and their day of hunger, thirst and waiting, this live obstruction was truly in the way of that advancing splendor. Elated, conscious, assured of victory, with firm step, already quickened as the space of separation lessens, there is left but a few rods of interval—a few steps only, and the work is done.
A few hasty shots impulsively fired, but quickly restrained, drew an innocent fire from their front rank. The pale men behind the mock defense, obedient at last to one will, answered nothing to that reply, and nothing to the audible commands of those steady columns, waiting still.
It needs no painter to make the scene seem clearer than it appears from the recital of sober deposition and the record of surviving participators on either side. History has no contradictions to confuse or explain away the realities of that fearful tragedy.
The left wing is near the redoubt. It is nothing to surmount a bank of fresh earth but six feet high, and its sands and clods can almost be counted, it is so near, so easy, — sure !
Short, crisp, and earnest,—low toned, but felt as an electric pulse from redoubt to river, are the words of a single man—of Prescott! Warren by his side repeats it! That word runs quickly along the impatient lines. The eager fingers give back from the waiting trigger. "Steady men !" "Wait until you see the white of the eye !" "Not a shot sooner !" "Aim at the handsome coats!" "Aim at the waist-bands." "Pick off the commanders !" "Wait for the word, every man, steady!"
Those plain men, so patient, can already count the buttons, can read the emblem on the belt-plate, can recognize the officers and men whom they have seen on parade at Boston Common. Features grow more and more distinct. The silence is awful. These men seem breathless— dead! It comes, that word, the word, waited for— "Fire!" On the right, the light infantry gain an equal advance, almost at the same instant that the left wing was treading so near the humble redoubt. Moving over more level ground, they quickly make the greater distance, and have passed the line of those who marched directly up the hill. The grenadiers also move upon the centre with the same serene confidence, and the interval has lessened to the gauge of space which the spirit of the impending word defines. That word, waits behind the centre and the left wing, as it lingers behind the breastwork and redoubt. Sharp, clear, and deadly in tone and essence it rings forth—"Fire!"
From redoubt to river, along the whole sweep of devouring flame, the forms of brave men wither as in a furnace heat. The whole front goes down! For an instant the chirp of the cricket and the grass hopper in the freshly cut grass, might almost be heard, then the groans of the suffering, then the shouts of impatient yeomen who leap over obstacles to pursue, until recalled to silence and to duty.
Staggering, but reviving, grand in the glory of their manhood and the sublimity of their discipline, heroic in the fortitude which restores them to self-possession ; with a steady step in the face of fire, and over the bodies of the dead, the remnant dare to renew the battle. Again, the deadly volley, and the shattered columns, in spite of entreaty or command, move back to the place of starting, and the first shock of battle is over.
A lifetime when it is past, is but as a moment! A moment some times, is as a lifetime! Onset, and repulse! Three hundred lifetimes ended in twenty minutes.
Putnam hastened to Bunker Hill to gather scattering parties in the rear, and to facilitate the passage of reinforcements across the isthmus, where the fire from the British shipping was maintained with destructive energy. But the battle at last had to depend mainly upon the men who had toiled all night, and who had gained confidence and firmness by the experience of those eventful hours. Nothing could bring the reinforcements in time.
The British troops rapidly re-formed their columns. Never, on other battle fields, did officers more gloriously evince the perfection of discipline, and the perfection of self-devotion. The artillery was pushed to the front, and much nearer to the angle made by the breastwork next the redoubt, and the retiring line through the open
gap to its left. The American officers animated their men, and added fresh caution not to waste a single shot. The guns of Gridley and Callender were temporarily employed at the unprotected interval near the breastwork, and then withdrawn to the rear. The company of the latter officer became scattered and never returned to the fight. The remainder of the line kept up to duty, and resumed the silent waiting which had been so impressive before the attack began.
The British columns again advanced, and deployed as before across the entire extent of the American lines. The ships of war redoubled their effort to clear the isthmus of advancing reinforcements. Shot and shell cut up the turf, and dispersed the detachments which had reached the summit of Bunker Hill, and the companies which had been posted at Charlestown to annoy the British left, were driven to the shelter of the redoubt.
Charlestown had already been fired by the carcasses which fell through its roofs, and more than four hundred wooden houses kindling into one vast wave of smoke and flame, added impressiveness and terror to the scene, while a favoring breeze swept its quivering volume away from the battle field, leaving to the American forces a distinct and suggestive view of the returning tide of battle.
Nearer than before, the British troops press on! No scattering shots anticipate their approach this second time. It is only when a space of hardly five rods is left, and a swift plunge could almost fore run the rifle's flash, that the word of execution impels the bullet, and the front rank, entire, from redoubt to river, is swept away. Again, again, the attempt is made to inspire the paralyzed troops, and rally them from retreat; but the living tide flows back—flows back even to the river.
Another twenty minutes, hardly twenty-five, and the death angel has gathered his battle harvest, five hundred sheaves of human hopes, as when the Royal George went down beneath the waters with its priceless values of human life.
At the first repulse, the 38th regiment had halted under the shelter of a stone wall by the road which passes around the base of Breed's Hill, between the slope and Morton's Hill. At the second repulse, the same regiment supported on its left by the 5th, held a portion of its command in check, just under the advanced crest of the hill, and gradually gathered in the scattering remnants for a third assault.
The condition of the British army is one of grave responsibilities and grave issues. That which had the color of a simple dispersion, and punishment of half organized and half armed rebels, begins to assume the characteristics of a "forlorn hope" in a most desperate struggle.
"A moment of the day was critical" said Burgoyne.
"A continuous blaze of musketry incessant and destructive," says Stedman.
The British officers pronounced it, "downright butchery to lead the men afresh against those lines," says Gordon.
"Of one company not more than five, and of another not more than fourteen escaped," says Ramsay.
"Whole platoons were laid upon the earth like grass by the mower's scythe," says Lossing.
"The British line totally broken, fell back with precipitation to the landing place," says Marshall.
"Most of our grenadiers and light infantry, the moment they presented themselves, lost three-fourths, and many nine-tenths of their men. Some had only eight and nine men a company left, some only three, four, and five," is the statement of a British letter, dated July 5th, 1/75, an d cited by Frothingham.
"A shower of bullets. The field of battle was covered with the slain," says Botta.
"A continuous sheet of fire," says Bancroft.
"The dead lay as thick as sheep in a fold," said Stark.
It was just at this protracted interval, yet less than a single hour, that each army evinced the great qualities of their common blood.
Clinton and Burgoyne had watched the progress of events from Copp's Hill, and with true gallantry and courage, the latter threw him self into a boat with reinforcements, and volunteered to share the issue of a third advance. Four hundred marines additional to the 1st battalion which had remained at the landing place, hurried across the narrow river, and these united with the 4th regiment under General Clinton, were ordered to flank the redoubt, and scale its face to the extreme left, while General Howe with the principal part of the grenadiers and light infantry, supported by the artillery, undertook the storming of the breastworks bending back from the mouth of the redoubt, and so commanding the entrance.
The remnants of the 5th, 38th, 43d, and 52d regiments under General Pigot, were ordered to connect the two wings, and make an attack upon the redoubt in front.
A demonstration was also made against the American left, more to occupy its attention than to force the defenses. The artillery was to advance a few rods, and then swing about to the left, to sweep the breastwork for Howe's advance.
The preparations were nearly complete. It only remained to bring the men to their duty. Knapsacks were unslung, every needless encumbrance was laid aside, and the troops moved forward stripped for fight.
The power of discipline, the energy of wise commanders, and the force of every possible incentive which could animate British veterans of proud antecedents, and established loyalty, combined to make the movement as memorable as it was momentous.
Within the American lines the preparation involved equal responsibility, but under fearful discouragement. Few of the troops had three rounds of ammunition left. During the second attack a part of the men loaded while others fired, and the expenditure of powder was commensurate with the results. The remaining cannon cartridges were economically distributed, and there was no longer any hope that substantial aid would come to their relief. There were less than fifty bayonets to the entire command, and gloomy apprehensions began to be entertained, but not at the expense of a firm purpose to fight to the last.
During the afternoon General Ward sent forward his own regiment and those of Patterson and Gardner. The last named officer led three hundred of his men safely across the isthmus, reached Bunker Hill, and commenced to throw up earthworks under the direction of General Putnam, but was soon ordered to the lines, and was mortally wounded while executing the order. Few of his men actually participated in the fight, the majority, after his fall, returning to Bunker Hill. Adjutant Febiger, a Danish officer, gathered a portion of Colonel Gerrish's regiment, reached the redoubt as the last action commenced, and did good service, but the other regiments were too late.
Putnam, impressed with the critical nature of another attack, de voted himself wholly to an attempt to establish another position on Bunker Hill for accumulation of reinforcements, and a point of resistance, in case the advanced positions should be abandoned, but he could accomplish nothing in the face of the activity of the shipping, now delivering its fire at short range.
Within the redoubt itself, and along the slender line, all was resolution and attention to duty. Colonel Prescott appreciated thoroughly the purpose of the enemy as soon as the sudden wheel of the British artillery to the left, indicated their power to concentrate its fire upon his lines of retreat, and the reduction of the redoubt. The order was given to reserve every shot until the enemy should come within twenty yards. One single volley was delivered as the attack was made at the same moment upon three sides of the ill-fated work. For an instant the columns were checked, but in another they dashed forward with bayonets fixed. Those who first surmounted the parapet fell. Major Pitcairn was mortally wounded as he entered the works. Lieutenant-colonel Abercrombie, Majors Williams, and Speedlove shared his fate. A single artillery cartridge was distributed for a last effort, and then, intermingled with the assailants, fighting with clubbed guns and stones, the garrison yielded the contest, and each for himself, under Prescott's order, made a quick retreat. Prescott and Warren were the last to leave, and the latter, just without the redoubt, shot through the head, gave life to the cause he had so valiantly defended.
But with the capture of the redoubt, the struggle was not ended. Major Jackson rallied Gardner's men on Bunker Hill, and with three companies of Ward's regiment and Febiger's party, an effort was made to cover the retreat, and a vigorous fire was for a short time maintained upon the advancing enemy. It saved more than half of the garrison.
At the rail fence and clear to the river, Starks', Colt's, Reed's, and Chester's companies twice repulsed an attack, and by a resistance, prolonged as long as their powder held out, they afforded opportunity for the fugitives from the redoubt to make good their retreat. Then they also fell back, in no precipitate flight, but with a fair front, and a steadiness worthy of their brave resistance.
Putnam made one more effort to halt the men at Bunker Hill, but without bayonets or ammunition, worn out in physical strength, and hopeless of a successful resistance, the retreat became general, and the day closed with their occupation of the field works of Prospect Hill, and other defenses nearest of approach.
The British army occupied Bunker Hill, but did not pursue be yond the isthmus. General Clinton advised an immediate attack upon Cambridge, but General Howe declined the attempt. Both armies were too worn out to renew battle, and Colonel Prescott's gallant offer to retake the position if he could have three fresh regiments, found no response from the committee of safety and council of war. Both armies lay on their arms all night, equally apprehensive of attack.
The losses are given as officially stated, and as adopted by Stedman, and Bancroft.
British casualties. Nineteen officers killed, and seventy wounded; of rank and file, two hundred and seven killed, and seven hundred and fifty-eight wounded. Total casualties, 1054.
American casualties. One hundred and forty five killed and missing, and three hundred and four wounded. Total casualties, 449.
Thus each army lost nearly one-third of the forces brought into real action.
Thus brief is the record of a battle, which, in less than two hours destroyed a town, laid fifteen hundred men upon the battle field, equalized the relations of veterans and militia, aroused three millions of people to a definite struggle for National Independence, and fairly inaugurated the war for its accomplishment.