The Battle of Bunker Hill was a bloody, Pyrrhic victory for the British soldiers occupying Boston. It demonstrated the resolve and intractability of the American patriots.
After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, New Englanders from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and what would later become the state of Vermont streamed into the vicinity of Boston. Not really an army, this armed mob wanted the British out of Boston.
The sheer numbers of those gathered on the hills outside of Boston deeply troubled Military Governor Thomas Gage and his newly arrived subordinates, William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne.
On the evening of June 15/16, the patriots moved forward to Breeds Hill, a more prominent location closer to Boston on the Charlestown peninsula, where they prepared a fortified position that all but invited a British response. General John Stark from New Hampshire recognized that the left flank of the fortified position was exposed along the south bank of the Mystic River. He and his men assembled a makeshift split-rail barricade to blunt any flanking action employed by the British. When the British officers looked out at what had been erected in the short span of one evening they were stunned. Gage knew he had to take action.
On the sultry afternoon of June 17, 1775, Gage and his commanders ordered British regulars and grenadiers to be transported across Boston Harbor and disembarked in lower Charlestown. Gage would force the rabble’s hand with an assault.
As the British moved into position, the fatigued but spirited defenders took position inside their hastily thrown up fortifications. They could see what was coming. Amongst the defenders were several enslaved and free African Americans, most notably Salem Poor, who would play a pivotal role in the coming fight.
Led by the courageous General William Howe, King George’s troops climbed Breeds Hill in perfect battle formation. Allegedly, one of the American commanders of the improvised garrison, William Prescott, encouraged his men to “not fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” As British troops neared the redoubt, the patriots unleashed a withering volley, creating an absolute slaughter. One patriot said afterwards, “They advanced toward us in order to swallow us up, but they found a choaky mouthful of us.” It was a veritable bloodbath as the British retreated back to their lines. Once more they pushed up the hill, stepping over the bodies of their dead and wounded comrades, and once more they received the ire of a patriot volley. The heat and humidity did not take sides as patriots and regulars dripped sweat while the haze of gunfire blanketed the hill.
The British had underestimated the resolve of the patriots and their skill in crafting a fortified position. Regrouping for a third time, the British once more stepped off to assault the hill. This time they succeeded in breaking through as the patriots ran out of powder and shot. Intense hand-to-hand fighting broke out inside the fortification once British troops breached the patriot works. In the close-quarters fight, Salem Poor brought down British Major John Pitcairn, who had risen to infamy as a the result of the fighting at Lexington and Concord.
The patriots eventually retreated and returned to their lines outside of the perimeter of Boston. The butcher’s bill for the British had been lengthy, with 282 of the King’s troops dead and another 800 wounded. Patriot casualties were less than half of the British total. British General Henry Clinton was appalled at the carnage, calling it “a dear bought victory.”
Though defeated, the patriots were not demoralized. Those that chose to stay and keep the British bottled up in Boston became the nucleus of the Continental Army. The transformation of the mob into an army would fall upon the shoulders of the Virginian, George Washington, as the Continental Congress commissioned him to take charge of the rebels outside of Boston and mold them into a cohesive fighting force. Washington assumed command in Cambridge, Massachusetts within two weeks of the erroneously-named Battle of Bunker Hill. After June 17, 1775 reconciliation between England and her colonies was no longer possible.