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Battle of Bunker Hill

June 17, 1775, the first major battle of the Revolutionary War

Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the British Army retreated to Boston, where they were soon encircled by 20,000 provincial militiamen. The colonials did not have enough manpower or weapons to attack the city directly, however, so they decided to simply "wait the British out." The two sides maintained a tense stalemate until June, when British General Thomas Gage, in conference with Major Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne, decided to take command of the heights across the Charles River, including Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill.

Upon learning of the British plans, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety ordered General Artemas Ward, commander of the colonial militia surrounding Boston, to beat the British to the Charleston Peninsula. Ward, along with General Israel Putnam, Colonel William Prescott, and about 1,500 militiamen arrived on the evening of June 16th and immediately began building earthen fortifications. The original plan called for the militiamen to fortify the taller and steeper Bunker Hill, but for reasons not fully understood they chose to fortify Breed's Hill instead. Not only was Breed's Hill smaller and more gently sloping than Bunker Hill, the former was within range of the British ship-borne cannons, and the combination of those facts would prove to be almost fatal for the Americans.

contemporary map of the battlefield
contemporary map

When the British awoke on the morning of June 17th they were astonished to see an earthen fort 160 feet long and 30 feet high atop Breed's Hill, with breastworks and a rail fence all the way down to the Mystic River. British ships began bombarding the hill almost immediately, but the colonials kept working. Some 2,200 British troops under the command of Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot landed on the Peninsula at about three o'clock in the afternoon and began marching in formation up Breed's Hill. The Americans allowed the British to get within 150 feet before unleashing a vicious volley of rifle fire, which forced Howe's men to beat a quick retreat. General Howe ordered his men to make another charge, but they were again repulsed by the Americans.

Howe gave his men an hour to recoup, during which time he also received 400 new troops from Boston, before ordering a third charge. Prescott's men again waited until the last minute to open fire, but by then they were running out of ammunition and this time the British succeeded in forcing the Americans off of Breed's Hill. The Americans made one last stand on Bunker Hill before retreating toward Cambridge. The British had gained control of the Charleston Peninsula, but at the cost of 226 dead and 828 wounded. The Americans suffered 140 dead and 271 wounded.

depiction of the battle lines and fortifications on Breed's Hill
depiction of the battle lines and fortifications on Breed's Hill

SOURCES
History Channel www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/battle-of-bunker-hill
Massachusetts Historical Society www.masshist.org/revolution/bunkerhill.php
U.S. History www.ushistory.org/us/11d.asp

SEE ALSO
Battles of Lexington and Concord
William Howe
John Burgoyne
Israel Putnam

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Campaigns and Battles

This page was last updated on June 16, 2017.