• Exploring American History

Firing in a timely manner

The first major battle of the Revolutionary War, known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, proved to be one of the conflict’s bloodiest. On the morning of June 15, 1775, the American colonies were buzzing with news of British plans to take control of Charlestown Peninsula.

At this time, General Thomas Gage led the British occupying force in Boston. On the morning of June 17, 1775, he awoke to learn the two hills across the Charles River, Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill, were filled with American troops and fortifications led by Colonel William Prescott. The patriots had spent the previous night digging in and preparing for battle with the British. By daybreak, they had erected an earthen formation measuring 30’x160’ of fence rails (called fleches).

The quantity of New Englanders involved numbered between 2,500 and 4,000. Though listed in the history books as being located on Bunker Hill, Breed’s Hill was the actual location and proved to be the better choice due to the location of the British ships; thereby providing the colonists a more superior attack position.

Determined to show the patriots who was boss, Gage ordered General William Howe to attack and remove the rebels from that location. Committed to his determination never to send his troops into a conflict he was not willing to lead them, Howe ferried his troops across the river and up the slope of Breed’s Hill as the British drums and fifes were heard.

Entrenched on the hill, the patriots now felt a bit of discomfort and uncertainty as they watched the British troops advance in their direction. In the process, it was hard to fight off the impulse to fire quickly, then run for safety from the bayonets they saw attached to the British rifles. An order was soon heard, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” There are two schools of thought regarding the reason why this order was given: 1) it would delay shots being fired until the British came within range of the colonists’ muskets and 2) the colonists would make better use of what ammunition they had.

Historians are uncertain as to who exactly gave the order, but credit is given to both Colonel William Prescott of Massachusetts and Israel Putnam, an Indian fighter from Connecticut. For all anyone knows, the two men may have been like-minded and barked out the order at the same time. The identity of who actually gave the order is not nearly as important as the results gained from its obedience.

As the Redcoats approached, they grouped themselves into a rectangular shape and began to advance on the colonists’ position. Wearing their bright red jackets, with bayonets affixed to their unloaded muskets, the prevailing attitude of the British troops was they would merely march up the hill and terrorize the colonists into retreat. One thing they did not factor in their plan was the area’s terrain. Hidden in the long grass were numerous low stone walls, which made conquering the hill more difficult for British troops who were weighed down with heavy equipment.

The patriots waited in nervous anticipation as the British drew closer. When the redcoats were within fifteen paces of their location, the patriots fired and the hillside was quickly covered with dead redcoats. Angered by the surprise, the British fell back to regroup, then went at the patriots again. Not having heeded the warning from their first attempt, the redcoats again sustained a good many losses. General Howe, his white silk britches now stained with blood, rallied his troops the third time and this time successfully reached the hill’s crest. It was all for naught, however, due to the fact the Americans were now out of ammunition and had left.

This battle, which lasted a total of three hours, proved to be one of the deadliest during the course of the Revolutionary War. Though in the end, the colonists were forced to retreat, they did not go quietly. When the smoke cleared, the patriots had laid claim to over 1,000 British troops, which amounted to approximately 45-50% of the Redcoats who advanced on them. The British claim on the Americans numbered approximately 440 casualties – roughly 10%.

Despite their retreat, the Americans bestowed upon the world’s best-trained army a lesson they would not soon forget. It also offered the patriots a much needed confidence boost.

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