At dawn of day, the Americans at work were espied by the sailors on board
of the ships of war, and the alarm was given. The captain of the Lively,
the nearest ship, without waiting for orders, put a spring upon her cable,
and bringing her guns to bear, opened a fire upon the hill. The other ships
and a floating battery followed his example. Their shot did no mischief to
the works, but one man, among a number who had incautiously ventured
outside, was killed. A subaltern reported his death to Colonel Prescott,
and asked what was to be done. “Bury him,” was the reply. The chaplain
gathered some of his military flock around him, and was proceeding to
perform suitable obsequies over the “first martyr,” but Prescott ordered
that the men should disperse to their work, and the deceased be buried
immediately. It seemed shocking to men accustomed to the funeral
solemnities of peaceful life to bury a man without prayers, but Prescott
saw that the sight of this man suddenly shot down had agitated the nerves
of his comrades, unaccustomed to scenes of war. Some of them, in fact,
quietly left the hill, and did not return to it.
To inspire confidence by example, Prescott now mounted the parapet, and
walked leisurely about, inspecting the works, giving directions, and
talking cheerfully with the men. In a little while they got over their
dread of cannon-balls, and some even made them a subject of joke, or rather
bravado; a species of sham courage occasionally manifested by young
soldiers, but never by veterans.
The cannonading roused the town of Boston. General Gage could scarcely
believe his eyes when he beheld on the opposite hill a fortification full
of men, which had sprung up in the course of the night. As he reconnoitered
it through a glass from Copp’s Hill, the tall figure of Prescott, in
military garb, walking the parapet, caught his eye. “Who is that officer
who appears in command?” asked he. The question was answered by Counsellor
Willard, Prescott’s brother-in-law, who was at hand, and recognized his
relative. “Will he fight?” demanded Gage, quickly. “Yes, sir! he is an old
soldier, and will fight to the last drop of blood; but I cannot answer for
“The works must be carried!” exclaimed Gage.
He called a council of war. The Americans might intend to cannonade Boston
from this new fortification; it was unanimously resolved to dislodge them.
How was this to be done? A majority of the council, including Clinton and
Grant, advised that a force should be landed on Charlestown Neck, under the
protection of their batteries, so as to attack the Americans in rear, and
cut off their retreat. General Gage objected that it would place his troops
between two armies; one at Cambridge, superior in numbers, the other on the
heights, strongly fortified. He was for landing in front of the works, and
pushing directly up the hill; a plan adopted through a confidence that raw
militia would never stand their ground against the assault of veteran
troops; another instance of undervaluing the American spirit, which was to
cost the enemy a lamentable loss of life.
BATTLE OF BUNKER’S HILL.
The sound of drum and trumpet, the clatter of hoofs, the rattling of
gun-carriages, and all the other military din and bustle in the streets of
Boston, soon apprised the Americans on their rudely fortified height of an
impending attack. They were ill fitted to withstand it, being jaded by the
night’s labor, and want of sleep; hungry and thirsty, having brought but
scanty supplies, and oppressed by the heat of the weather. Prescott sent
repeated messages to General Ward, asking reinforcements and provisions.
Putnam seconded the request in person, urging the exigencies of the case.
Ward hesitated. He feared to weaken his main body at Cambridge, as his
military stores were deposited there, and it might have to sustain the
principal attack. At length, having taken advice of the council of safety,
he issued orders for Colonels Stark and Read, then at Medford, to march to
the relief of Prescott with their New Hampshire regiments. The orders
reached Medford about 11 o’clock. Ammunition was distributed in all haste;
two flints, a gill of powder, and fifteen balls to each man. The balls had
to be suited to the different calibres of the guns; the powder to be
carried in powder-horns, or loose in the pocket, for there were no
cartridges prepared. It was the rude turn out of yeoman soldiery destitute
of regular accoutrements.
In the mean while, the Americans on Breed’s Hill were sustaining the fire
from the ships, and from the battery on Copp’s Hill, which opened upon them
about ten o’clock. They returned an occasional shot from one corner of the
redoubt, without much harm to the enemy, and continued strengthening their
position until about 11 o’clock, when they ceased to work, piled their
intrenching tools in the rear, and looked out anxiously and impatiently for
the anticipated reinforcements and supplies.
About this time General Putnam, who had been to headquarters, arrived at
the redoubt on horseback. Some words passed between him and Prescott with
regard to the intrenching tools, which have been variously reported. The
most probable version is, that he urged to have them taken from their
present place, where they might fall into the hands of the enemy, and
carried to Bunker’s Hill, to be employed in throwing up a redoubt, which
was part of the original plan, and which would be very important should the
troops be obliged to retreat from Breed’s Hill. To this Prescott demurred
that those employed to convey them, and who were already jaded with toil,
might not return to his redoubt. A large part of the tools were ultimately
carried to Bunker’s Hill, and a breastwork commenced by order of General
Putnam. The importance of such a work was afterwards made apparent.
About noon the Americans descried twenty-eight barges crossing from Boston
in parallel lines. They contained a large detachment of grenadiers,
rangers, and light infantry, admirably equipped, and commanded by
Major-general Howe. They made a splendid and formidable appearance with
their scarlet uniforms, and the sun flashing upon muskets and bayonets, and
brass fieldpieces. A heavy fire from the ships and batteries covered their
advance, but no attempt was made to oppose them, and they landed about 1
o’clock at Moulton’s Point, a little to the north of Breed’s Hill.
Here General Howe made a pause. On reconnoitering the works from this
point, the Americans appeared to be much more strongly posted than he had
imagined. He descried troops also hastening to their assistance. These were
the New Hampshire troops, led on by Stark. Howe immediately sent over to
General Gage for more forces, and a supply of cannon-balls; those brought
by him being found, through some egregious oversight, too large for the
ordnance. While awaiting their arrival, refreshments were served out to the
troops, with “grog,” by the bucketful; and tantalizing it was, to the
hungry and thirsty provincials, to look down from their ramparts of earth,
and see their invaders seated in groups upon the grass eating and drinking,
and preparing themselves by a hearty meal for the coming encounter. Their
only consolation was to take advantage of the delay, while the enemy were
carousing, to strengthen their position. The breast-work on the left of the
redoubt extended to what was called the Slough, but beyond this, the ridge
of the hill, and the slope toward Mystic River, were undefended, leaving a
pass by which the enemy might turn the left flank of the position, and
seize upon Bunker’s Hill. Putnam ordered his chosen officer, Captain
Knowlton, to cover this pass with the Connecticut troops under his command.
A novel kind of rampart, savoring of rural device, was suggested by the
rustic general. About six hundred feet in the rear of the redoubt, and
about one hundred feet to the left of the breastwork, was a post and
rail-fence, set in a low foot-wall of stone, and extending down to Mystic
River. The posts and rails of another fence were hastily pulled up, and set
a few feet in behind this, and the intermediate space was filled up with
new mown hay from the adjacent meadows. This double fence, it will be
found, proved an important protection to the redoubt, although there still
remained an unprotected interval of about seven hundred feet.
While Knowlton and his men were putting up this fence, Putnam proceeded
with other of his troops to throw up the work on Bunker’s Hill, despatching
his son, Captain Putnam, on horseback, to hurry up the remainder of his men
from Cambridge. By this time his compeer in French and Indian warfare, the
veteran Stark, made his appearance with the New Hampshire troops, five
hundred strong. He had grown cool and wary with age, and his march from
Medford, a distance of five or six miles, had been in character. He led his
men at a moderate pace to bring them into action fresh and vigorous. In
crossing the Neck, which was enfiladed by the enemy’s ships and batteries,
Captain Dearborn, who was by his side, suggested a quick step. The veteran
shook his head: “One fresh man in action is worth ten tired ones,” replied
he, and marched steadily on.
Putnam detained some of Stark’s men to aid in throwing up the works on
Bunker’s Hill, and directed him to reinforce Knowlton with the rest. Stark
made a short speech to his men now that they were likely to have warm work.
He then pushed on, and did good service that day at the rustic bulwark.
About 2 o’clock, Warren arrived on the heights, ready to engage in their
perilous defence, although he had opposed the scheme of their occupation.
He had recently been elected a major-general, but had not received his
commission; like Pomeroy, he came to serve in the ranks with a musket on
his shoulder. Putnam offered him the command at the fence; he declined it,
and merely asked where he could be of most service as a volunteer. Putnam
pointed to the redoubt, observing that there he would be under cover.
“Don’t think I seek a place of safety,” replied Warren, quickly; “where
will the attack be hottest?” Putnam still pointed to the redoubt. “That is
the enemy’s object; if that can be maintained, the day is ours.”
Warren was cheered by the troops as he entered the redoubt. Colonel
Prescott tendered him the command. He again declined. “I have come to serve
only as a volunteer, and shall be happy to learn from a soldier of your
experience.” Such were the noble spirits assembled on these perilous
The British now prepared for a general assault. An easy victory was
anticipated; the main thought was, how to make it most effectual. The left
wing, commanded by General Pigot, was to mount the hill and force the
redoubt, while General Howe, with the right wing, was to push on between
the fort and Mystic River, turn the left flank of the Americans, and cut
off their retreat.
General Pigot, accordingly, advanced up the hill under cover of a fire from
field-pieces and howitzers planted on a small height near the landing-place
on Moulton’s Point. His troops commenced a discharge of musketry while yet
at a long distance from the redoubts. The Americans within the works,
obedient to strict command, retained their fire until the enemy were within
thirty or forty paces, when they opened upon them with a tremendous volley.
Being all marksmen, accustomed to take deliberate aim, the slaughter was
immense, and especially fatal to officers. The assailants fell back in some
confusion; but, rallied on by their officers, advanced within pistol shot.
Another volley, more effective than the first, made them again recoil. To
add to their confusion, they were galled by a flanking fire from the
handful of Provincials posted in Charlestown. Shocked at the carnage, and
seeing the confusion of his troops, General Pigot was urged to give the
word for a retreat.
In the mean while, General Howe, with the right wing, advanced along Mystic
River toward the fence where Stark, Read and Knowlton were stationed,
thinking to carry this slight breastwork with ease, and so get in the rear
of the fortress. His artillery proved of little avail, being stopped by a
swampy piece of ground, while his columns suffered from two or three
fieldpieces with which Putnam had fortified the fence. Howe’s men kept up a
fire of musketry as they advanced; but, not taking aim, their shot passed
over the heads of the Americans. The latter had received the same orders
with those in the redoubt, not to fire until the enemy should be within
thirty paces. Some few transgressed the command. Putnam rode up and swore
he would cut down the next man that fired contrary to orders. When the
British arrived within the stated distance a sheeted fire opened upon them
from rifles, muskets, and fowling-pieces, all levelled with deadly aim. The
carnage, as in the other instance, was horrible. The British were thrown
into confusion and fell back; some even retreated to the boats.
There was a general pause on the part of the British. The American officers
availed themselves of it to prepare for another attack, which must soon be
made. Prescott mingled among his men in the redoubt, who were all in high
spirits at the severe check they had given “the regulars.” He praised them
for their steadfastness in maintaining their post, and their good conduct
in reserving their fire until the word of command, and exhorted them to do
the same in the next attack.
Putnam rode about Bunker’s Hill and its skirts, to rally and bring on
reinforcements which had been checked or scattered in crossing Charlestown
Neck by the raking fire from the ships and batteries. Before many could be
brought to the scene of action the British had commenced their second
attack. They again ascended the hill to storm the redoubt; their advance
was covered as before by discharges of artillery. Charlestown, which had
annoyed them on their first attack by a flanking fire, was in flames, by
shells thrown from Copp’s Hill, and by marines from the ships. Being built
of wood, the place was soon wrapped in a general conflagration. The thunder
of artillery from batteries and ships, the bursting of bomb-shells; the
sharp discharges of musketry; the shouts and yells of the combatants; the
crash of burning buildings, and the dense volumes of smoke, which obscured
the summer sun, all formed a tremendous spectacle. “Sure I am,” said
Burgoyne in one of his letters,–“Sure I am nothing ever has or ever can be
more dreadfully terrible than what was to be seen or heard at this time.
The most incessant discharge of guns that ever was heard by mortal ears.”
The American troops, although unused to war, stood undismayed amidst a
scene where it was bursting upon them with all its horrors. Reserving their
fire, as before, until the enemy was close at hand, they again poured forth
repeated volleys with the fatal aim of sharpshooters. The British stood the
first shock, and continued to advance; but the incessant stream of fire
staggered them. Their officers remonstrated, threatened, and even attempted
to goad them on with their swords, but the havoc was too deadly; whole
ranks were mowed down; many of the officers were either slain or wounded,
and among them several of the staff of General Howe. The troops again gave
way and retreated down the hill.