JUNE 16, 1775, CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS
It is June 1775 as you assume the role of Brigadier General Israel Putnam of Connecticut. Years of growing tension and discord between Britain and its American colonies finally boiled over into armed rebellion on April 19. At Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts “Minutemen” volunteers exchanged fire with British regulars sent from Boston to arrest Rebel leaders and seize the Americans’ caches of weapons and gunpowder. Although the engagements were more skirmishes than proper battles – the British suffered 300 killed, wounded or missing, while the Minutemen lost 49 killed and 39 wounded – the news that fighting had broken out electrified Americans throughout the restive colonies. On April 21, you joined the thousands of American militia volunteers swarming into the area around Boston, offered your services to the rebellion’s leadership and were granted a general’s commission.
Meanwhile, General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces in North America and headquartered in Boston, quickly requested and received troop reinforcements from Britain and now commands 6,500 British regulars. However, with Boston hemmed in on three sides by increasing numbers of American militiamen, Gage has decided to send troops to seize and occupy key positions in the area surrounding Boston, lest the Americans emplace cannon there to bombard the city and the British ships in Boston Harbor.
One of these key positions is Charlestown peninsula. Situated immediately north of Boston, it is a perfect natural “artillery platform” from which the Americans can target the city and harbor with cannon fire.
Major General Artemas Ward of Massachusetts commands the approximately 17,000 American militiamen from several northeastern colonies who are besieging Boston. In turn, Ward answers to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, which controls the raising of militia units and is in practical terms the rebellious colony’s governing body. When a Rebel sympathizer overhears Gage’s plan to send troops to occupy positions surrounding Boston and the news is leaked to the Americans, Ward turns to you for advice.
As a combat experienced veteran of the 1756-63 French and Indian War, including service in Rogers’ Rangers, you are well known for your personal courage and military expertise. Since most of the American commanders and militiamen are military novices, your knowledge and advice undoubtedly will prove to be crucial assets when these American “amateurs under arms” have to face disciplined British regulars in deadly combat. Moreover, in the Boston siege operation, Ward particularly values your experience as part of the June-July 1758 British Siege of Louisburg, Nova Scotia, which captured the French stronghold during the 1756-63 war.
Based on the key location and topography of Charlestown peninsula, situated only 2 miles from Cambridge, you advise Ward that it will certainly be a major British objective. The mile-long peninsula is roughly triangular-shaped, runs generally northwest to southeast, and is bounded by the Mystic River on the north, the Charles River on the south and Boston Harbor to the east. It connects to the mainland by a low, narrow strip of land called Charlestown Neck that is occasionally covered by tidewater.
Charlestown peninsula is made up of Charlestown (about 350 houses); some scattered farmhouses, barns, hayfields and pastures; and low-lying marshes. Three prominent elevations dominate the terrain. At the peninsula’s rear, near the neck, is Bunker Hill, which at 110 feet is the highest point. In the center is Breed’s Hill, 75 feet high with steep slopes on the south and north sides. Morton’s Hill, 35 feet high, slopes toward the peninsula’s eastern tip at Morton’s Point. A road extends across the length of the peninsula from Morton’s Point, over Bunker Hill and across the neck to the mainland. Another road connects Morton’s Point to Charlestown and then turns northwest south of Breed’s Hill to become the main road linking Charlestown to the neck.
REDCOATS AND REBELS
Although Ward’s 17,000 American militiamen outnumber the 6,500 British troops in Boston by nearly 3-to-1, Gage’s soldiers are all disciplined, superbly trained regulars – Britain’s famed “Redcoats.” Drilled to expertly execute the precise maneuvers required for linear tactics and conditioned to obey commands instantly, Gage’s Redcoats are a formidable force in battle. Their principal weapon is the bayonet-tipped, .75-caliber muzzle-loading flintlock musket, nicknamed “Brown Bess.” In combat, long ranks of Redcoats supported by artillery fire are marched to within musket range of the enemy line (50-75 yards), where they exchange volley fire with opposing infantrymen until they can rush forward to finish off their opponents with the “cold steel” of their bayonets. Assisting Gage in commanding field operations are three experienced generals – Sir William Howe, Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne – who arrived with the reinforcements.
Gage’s troops have an additional advantage in Boston: the Royal Navy. British warships, unopposed by any American naval force, control the waters surrounding the city and can land infantrymen at will along any portion of the extended coastline. Moreover, the naval cannon add substantial firepower to the infantry’s field artillery by bombarding any enemy targets within range. The British warships currently in Boston Harbor are HMS Falcon, Lively, Somerset, Glasgow and Symmetry plus two gondolas rigged as floating cannon batteries, for a total of 138 naval guns.
In stark contrast to Gage’s Redcoats, Ward’s American Rebels lack discipline, experience and even the most basic soldier knowledge, such as camp sanitation. Most of them are farmers and tradesmen who, except for those that fought at Lexington and Concord, have not yet faced British regulars in combat. Although the militiamen are eager to learn the intricate marching maneuvers and precise musket drills necessary to fight proper battles – their singular virtue is their revolutionary zeal – most of the officers training them are just as inexperienced as they are. Proficiency among militia regiments varies widely and depends on how long a unit has been in existence and the competence of its leaders.
Most Rebels, like their Redcoat opponents, carry muzzle-loading smoothbore flintlock muskets. Ward’s militiamen, however, are armed with a dizzying array of weapons that vary in caliber, style and condition, ranging from military Brown Bess muskets “liberated” from British arsenals to long-barreled civilian “fowling pieces” used to hunt ducks and geese. Given the inaccuracy of the smoothbore muskets, the militiamen prefer to fire “buck and ball,” which combines three to six buckshot pellets with one larger musket ball to produce a “shotgun” pattern that increases the probability of hitting an enemy. Many of the men carry flintlock rifles brought from home that are deadly accurate at ranges up to 300 yards. Yet these weapons are slow to load and lack bayonets, making them unsuitable for the massed volley fire required to execute linear battle tactics.
Artillery guns of various calibers support the American militiamen, but the total number of these guns cannot match that held by the British.
COUNCIL OF WAR
Yesterday, June 15, you and Ward attended a council of war convened by the Committee of Safety in response to Gage’s leaked plan. Spurred by the knowledge that tomorrow, June 17, Gage will send British troops to seize and occupy Charlestown peninsula, Dorchester Heights, Roxbury and Cambridge, the committee ordered Ward to strengthen existing defenses and to send troops to fortify and defend unoccupied positions. Realizing the particular importance of Charlestown peninsula, the committee ordered Massachusetts Colonel William Prescott to lead 1,000 militiamen and six cannon to the peninsula to fortify Bunker Hill, near Charlestown Neck.
Although Prescott is in command, with Ward’s concurrence you attach yourself to the force that is marching to Charlestown peninsula today. Shortly before midnight, just after the militiamen pass over Charlestown Neck and onto the peninsula, Prescott asks you and the engineer officer, Colonel Richard Gridley, to review and advise on the tactical situation confronting his force. Despite specific orders from the committee to fortify and defend Bunker Hill, you summarize three possible courses of action for defending Charlestown peninsula.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: FORWARD DEFENSE. Under this plan, the militiamen will defend well forward from within fortifications Gridley will construct on Morton’s Hill, near the peninsula’s eastern tip. Since the British cannot afford to leave a strong, entrenched force at their backs, this move will compel the enemy to attack within the constricted confines of Morton’s Point, which is bounded on three sides by water. Although the position is exposed to gunfire from enemy warships and land batteries in Boston, the British likewise will be well within range of the American cannon.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: CENTER DEFENSE. This option centrally locates the militiamen atop fortifications Gridley will construct on Breed’s Hill; thus it allows for control of the peninsula’s main roads, provides all-around fields of fire and offers added protection from attacks because of the hill’s steep north and south slopes. It also places the defenders farthest away from the gunfire of British warships and land batteries. Moreover, if the attackers breach the hill’s fortifications, the militiamen have the option to withdraw to Bunker Hill to continue the fighting from there.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: REAR DEFENSE. With this plan – specifically ordered by the Committee of Safety – the militia will defend from the rear of the peninsula from atop Bunker Hill, its highest elevation. Since an old British fort already exists on the hill, Gridley’s job is simplified. Moreover, the height of the rise reduces the effectiveness of cannon fire from the flat trajectory of British naval guns. Since Bunker Hill is positioned closest to the neck, defending from there will facilitate reinforcement and resupply from the mainland – and if necessary, allow a swift retreat.
As you and Prescott discuss the possible courses of action, Gridley impatiently reminds you that the construction of fortifications and emplacement of artillery must begin immediately if they are to be completed by dawn.
What next, General Putnam?
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: FORWARD DEFENSE
You and Prescott agree that defending from well forward on the peninsula forces the British to attack in the most restricted area and therefore from the most vulnerable position. Once this decision is made, Gridley rushes to Morton’s Hill to construct fortifications during the remaining four hours of darkness. Under his supervision, the militiamen build a redoubt (small fort) atop the hill and a line of 6-foot-high breastworks extending southward.
As work on the fortifications commences, you become increasingly concerned about the size of Prescott’s defense force. You decide to ride back to Cambridge to urge Ward to send reinforcements.
Meanwhile, since the construction is taking place so close to the water’s edge during an otherwise still night, the sounds of shovels and picks digging into the stony ground alerts a sentry on the British warship HMS Lively. Royal Navy gunners quickly react by delivering a broadside of cannon fire. At 2 a.m. other warships sail near to join in the action. The heavy naval gunfire seriously disrupts the defenders’ work, inflicts numerous casualties and shakes the confidence of the inexperienced Americans.
Just before dawn you finally convince Ward to send reinforcements and he promises to dispatch two units, Colonel John Stark’s 1st New Hampshire Regiment and Colonel James Reed’s 3d New Hampshire Regiment. You then gallop back to Charlestown peninsula. Unfortunately, in the growing daylight you and Prescott can now clearly see the glaring vulnerability of the American position on Morton’s Hill – a British attack on either or both of its flanks would cut off and trap the defenders. You urge Prescott to displace part of his force westward to create a covering position on Breed’s Hill that could help protect a withdrawal of the main body from Morton’s Hill.
Prescott’s subordinate officers, however, claim that the militiamen, after working for hours under fire and with little food and water, are too exhausted to comply. Ominously, the officers also report that many of their men have already deserted, quietly slipping away under the cover of darkness, which significantly thins the defenders’ ranks. Ignoring these protestations – and the proper chain of command – you personally round up 100 militiamen and over their objections lead them a half-mile west to Breed’s Hill to build a covering position along a rail fence reinforced with stone, hay and spadework.
Just after noon, scores of British infantrymen in rowboats head toward landing sites on the peninsula. The larger contingent, 2,000 men with eight artillery guns under General Howe’s command, lands to the south at Charlestown, easily brushing aside a few American snipers. Once ashore and clear of the town, Howe forms his Redcoats in ranks and begins advancing on the southwest flank of Morton’s Hill.
The smaller landing force, 800 elite light infantrymen and grenadiers with four cannon under General Clinton, comes ashore at 2 p.m. on the Mystic River beach to the north and behind Morton’s Hill. With superb discipline and precision, the Redcoats assemble and swiftly maneuver to cut off Prescott’s retreat from the hill.
After gazing helplessly at the impending disaster unfolding at Morton’s Hill, you desperately look over your shoulder for the arrival of the promised reinforcements. Finally, you see Stark’s and Reed’s regiments crossing Bunker Hill and you ride over to them. In an attempt to give Prescott’s men a fighting chance to escape the enclosing trap and reach the covering position on Breed’s Hill, you direct Stark’s regiment to attack Clinton’s force in the north and send Reed’s regiment to block Howe’s Recoats on the south flank.
Although the New Hampshire regiments are two of the best in Ward’s army and are led by outstanding commanders, they are unable to traverse the length of the peninsula in time to prevent the British from crushing Prescott’s force. Caught in the open after moving outside the Morton’s Hill fortifications, his militia ranks dissolve into a panicked mob in the face of superior British maneuvering and concentrated volley fire. Prescott and a few mounted officers manage to escape and join you on Breed’s Hill.
In the wake of the debacle, you quickly lead the New Hampshire regiments and the small Breed’s Hill covering force off the peninsula and place them in defensive positions on the mainland side of Charlestown Neck. Hot on your heels, however, are the victorious Redcoats. Elated by their lopsided victory with only minor casualties, the British will certainly attack Cambridge to lift the Siege of Boston – and likely defeat the American Revolution in its infancy.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: CENTER DEFENSE
After Prescott is convinced that defending from the center of the peninsula is the best course of action, Gridley supervises the construction of a 40-yard-square redoubt atop Breed’s Hill. The militiamen build 6-foothigh breastworks on the south flank, while on the north flank they fortify the stone-and-rail fence running to the Mystic River shore. Prescott also places a contingent of snipers inside Charlestown.
Meanwhile, you return to Cambridge and urge Ward to send reinforcements. However, he orders forward only 200 men from Colonel John Stark’s New Hampshire regiment. As you ride back to Charlestown peninsula, the British warships Falcon and Lively begin firing on Breed’s Hill, as does the land battery on Copp’s Hill in Boston under General Burgoyne. Two gondola floating batteries along with HMS Glasgow and Symmetry bombard the neck.
At 9 a.m., with no promised reinforcements in sight, Prescott sends Major Brooks to plead for troops and ammunition. The appeal succeeds, and Ward orders forward Stark’s 1st New Hampshire Regiment and Colonel James Reed’s 3d New Hampshire Regiment. You lead a contingent of men to construct a reserve defensive position on Bunker Hill.
British forces begin landing at Morton’s Point at 1 p.m. Two hours later, General Howe’s Redcoats are deployed in battle lines as elite light infantrymen move along the peninsula’s Mystic River coast against the Americans’ extreme left flank. Grenadiers and two infantry regiments prepare to engage the fortified fence position frontally, while Brigadier General Robert Pigot’s two infantry regiments and a Royal Marine battalion face the Americans’ southern breastworks. The total British attack force numbers 2,300 troops with 12 cannon.
The New Hampshire regiments arrive just before the British begin their attack. You hold some of Stark’s men in the reserve position on Bunker Hill, while Stark and Reed move to reinforce the left. Stark’s men quickly build makeshift defenses on the Mystic River beach to oppose the approach of the British light infantry. Reed’s men reinforce the defenders along the fortified fence line.
As the British attack commences, the men of Pigot’s force tramp through tall grass, scramble over fences and march directly against the redoubt and breastworks. General Howe’s Redcoats on the British right also move with difficulty through high grass and over fences toward the fortified fence line, while the light infantrymen advance along the north shore to engage Stark’s position. Meanwhile, British field artillery proves ineffectual – the gunners discover their ammunition is the wrong size!
To steady the inexperienced militiamen, conserve musket ammunition and ensure the advancing British are within deadly range, you shout, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”
As the Redcoats close to about 50 yards, Prescott orders, “Fire!” The Rebel battle line immediately erupts in flame and billowing gun smoke. The “buck and ball” fired by the muskets and the shot, rusty nails and broken glass launched by the cannon combine to tear huge gaps in the Redcoats’ ranks. Pigot’s force surges forward again, but a second devastating blast from the Americans’ muskets and cannon sends the Redcoats into a hasty retreat.
Howe’s force in the north fares no better. It also advances to within 50 yards when the American defenders at the fortified fence line blast to pieces the Redcoats’ first two ranks. A second volley by the Americans inflicts more casualties.
Stunned, the British pull back to regroup. The Copp’s Hill battery under Burgoyne opens fire on Charlestown, setting it on fire to clear out the American snipers. General Clinton arrives with reinforcements – 500 infantrymen and Royal Marines – near Charlestown, placing them in position to attack the south flank of the redoubt at Breed’s Hill. Clinton gathers stragglers and walking wounded to refill the thinned ranks on the British left.
Howe, meanwhile, grimly orders his troops to drop their packs and fix bayonets. Marching up a slope littered with British bodies, his men advance to within 20 yards of the redoubt, where the Americans deliver a final musket volley with the last of their ammunition. The Redcoats pour over the redoubt’s ramparts and grapple with the Americans using bayonets and clubbed muskets.
With the Breed’s Hill fortifications finally breached, Prescott orders his defenders to retreat toward Bunker Hill. Demonstrating superb skill and discipline, Stark’s and Reed’s men cover the retreat and then withdraw in good order. Once begun, however, the retreat proves impossible to stop until the militiamen have swept over Bunker Hill, crossed Charlestown Neck and occupied defenses in Cambridge.
Although the Redcoats’ tactical victory leaves the British in possession of Charlestown peninsula, they have paid a shockingly high price – the peninsula is carpeted with red-coated bodies. You judge that the terrific punishment delivered by the American militiamen will convince Gage to seriously reconsider further costly operations to lift the siege.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: REAR DEFENSE
You and Prescott agree to comply with the Committee of Safety’s orders and defend the rear of the peninsula at Bunker Hill. Gridley immediately begins improving the old British fort’s fortifications atop the hill and begins constructing 6-foot-high breastworks on the south side to defend the approach from Charlestown.
You decide to return to Cambridge and ask Ward for reinforcements; however, concerned that the British will move directly on Cambridge, he refuses to send any more troops to the peninsula. Returning to Bunker Hill after sunrise, you pass through British naval gunfire bombarding the neck and endeavoring to hit the heights of Bunker Hill. You take position at the neck and attempt to stop some of Prescott’s militiamen who are trying to flee the peninsula now that they realize their route of retreat is under British fire.
Disgusted at Ward’s refusal to allow reinforcements, Prescott sends Major Brooks to appeal directly to the Committee of Safety. Brooks convinces the committee that it must reinforce Bunker Hill’s defenders or the venture will fall apart. The committee orders Ward to send Colonel John Stark’s 1st New Hampshire Regiment and Colonel James Reed’s 3d New Hampshire Regiment to Bunker Hill.
At 1:30 p.m., a rowboat flotilla of British soldiers in the Charles River lands elite light infantrymen, four infantry regiments and artillery at Charlestown’s docks. This 1,500-man British force, under the leadership of General Howe, assembles and forms ranks between Charlestown and Breed’s Hill. An hour later, a second rowboat flotilla carrying a force of 1,300 grenadiers, two Royal Marines contingents and an infantry regiment under the command of General Clinton rows up the Mystic River.
Howe’s Redcoats begin to advance on Bunker Hill. The British artillery, meanwhile, bombards the hill’s fortifications, distracting the defenders from firing on the Mystic River force, which rows past Bunker Hill and lands on the mainland just beyond the neck.
You and Prescott attempt to calm the inexperienced and increasingly agitated militiamen, who now see Redcoats to their front and rear. Stark’s and Reed’s New Hampshire regiments arrive from the northwest; however, instead of crossing over the neck to reinforce the nervous Americans at Bunker Hill, they must now engage the Mystic River landing force. Leaving Prescott to manage the Bunker Hill defense, you ride back across the neck to take charge there.
Clinton quickly forms his men into battle lines, and disciplined volley fire pushes back the militia regiments. American officers, however, rally their men, who re-form ranks and deliver their own volley. Their shots slow but cannot halt the steady British advance to cut off the neck. You order Stark to attack Clinton’s right flank, and the move appears to be stopping the British advance – until another British volley strikes down Stark.
You now direct Reed to take command of both New Hampshire regiments, yet the best he can do is to position them to block any British advance northwest toward Cambridge. He cannot prevent Clinton from cutting off the neck.
Meanwhile, Howe’s first assault on Bunker Hill is repulsed with heavy casualties. The British general orders his men to drop their packs and fix bayonets. He then forms his infantry into several long columns, less vulnerable to musket fire than the original attack’s line formation, and places small parties of light infantry skirmishers between each column to fire at the redoubt’s defenders. Howe’s second assault breaches Bunker Hill’s breastworks and captures them.
Prescott and his militiamen, with their retreat blocked by Clinton’s force, have no choice but to throw down their arms and surrender. Howe’s Redcoats round up nearly 900 Rebels. After detailing troops to guard the American prisoners at Bunker Hill, Howe leads his men across the neck, where they link up with Clinton’s men. With the combined British force ready to advance on Cambridge, it seems certain the Siege of Boston will soon be broken.
HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS
Putnam chose to defend Charlestown peninsula from atop centrally located Breed’s Hill (COURSE OF ACTION TWO: CENTER DEFENSE), which he judged gave the Americans the best chance for success, and the battle unfolded as described in the COA Two narrative.
Although the British won a tactical victory at the geographically misnamed Battle of Bunker Hill, the triumph came at an appalling, psychologically numbing cost, particularly in officer losses. British casualties were 226 dead and 828 wounded – a horrific 35 percent of the Redcoat troops in the battle. Eighty-one British officers were killed or wounded. American casualties, at 450 killed, wounded or taken prisoner, totaled less than half the number suffered by the British. Clinton’s comment that “a few more such victories would have put an end to British dominion in America” underscores the fact that it was clearly a Pyrrhic victory. Stunned by the Americans’ ability to inflict such heavy losses, British commanders (Howe replaced Gage in October 1775) made no further effort to break the siege.
On July 3, 1775, newly appointed Continental Army commander in chief General George Washington arrived to oversee the Siege of Boston. The turning point that led to American victory came when Colonel Henry Knox moved 60 tons of captured cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to the Boston siege lines between November 1775 and January 1776. With the British force ringed by the American cannon – which were capable of heavily bombarding the ships in the harbor and thus severing the vital British sea supply line – Howe had no choice but to leave. Loading 10,000 British troops and 1,000 American Loyalist supporters onto 120 ships, he evacuated Boston on March 17, 1776.
Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Armchair General.