Battle of Bunker (Breed's) Hill
June 17, 1775
News of the skirmishes of April 19, 1775, at Lexington and Concord spread rapidly. As couriers fanned out through the small towns of Connecticut on the way to Hartford, and from there to New York and Philadelphia, the men of Connecticut grabbed their guns and set off for Massachusetts, but not as a mob of disorganized individuals. Although they did not wait for the Governor to issue the call to arms, the local militia units formed ranks and marched as if they had received formal instructions. Some were under way within 48 hours of the firing of the first shot on Lexington Green.
Word of the British retreat to Boston reached these men at different points along the road. Some who had not gone very far simply disbanded and went home, but others, who had already traveled some distance, continued on to Boston. Jedediah Hyde was among the men who marched from the town of Norwich under the command of Col. Jedediah Huntington. He remained in service for at least 12 days.
During the rest of April and May, Connecticut set about the task of formally calling up her troops. On May 1, Jedediah Hyde was commissioned a 1st Lieut. in Capt. Coit's Company of Gen. Parson's Regiment. While most of this regiment remained at New London, one company was sent to the Northern Department (Ticonderoga & environs), and two companies (including Coit's) were immediately assigned to the effort to keep the British bottled up in Boston. It is possible that Coit's Company was actually formed at Boston by Connecticut men who had marched there in response to the Lexington Alarm and never returned home.
By the beginning of June, the British commander at Boston, Gen. Thomas Gage, was in a most embarrassing position. The rebel army surrounding the city was not going to go away -- instead it was growing ever larger as new recruits continued to arrive. As a practical matter Boston was under siege. Gage asked for more men; he was sent three major generals, John Burgoyne, Henry Clinton, and William Howe, who arrived on May 25. A plan was laid to break out of Boston, but it was impossible to maintain any kind of secrecy in that hostile city, where hundreds of solid citizens with ample cause to hate the British gleefully reported every troop movement to the American commanders.
Warned that the British were preparing to march, the Americans ordered the fortification of Bunker Hill, but for some reason the militiamen set to work on adjacent Breed's Hill instead. Historians have never managed to discover how this came about, but the most likely explanation is that the goal was to place several small cannons within firing range of Boston and that the men in the field (who had not yet learned to follow orders) selected Breed's Hill because it was closer to the intended target. Both hills were on the Charlestown peninsula approached by a narrow neck of land; Bunker Hill was the higher of the two and overlooked Breed's Hill. The British, whose ships controlled the bay, could easily have surrounded the peninsula, cut off and besieged the Americans there and pounded them into surrender. In such a move the British might have been aided by the Americans' failure to secure the higher ground of Bunker Hill, which left the men on Breed's Hill exposed to potential fire from above.
As things turned out, however, these details became irrelevant because Gage decided against a siege and elected, instead, to mount a full frontal assault on the American position. Perhaps Gage feared that the time required for a siege might allow for something to go wrong. Perhaps he thought that a victory by such timid means would not adequately demonstrate the futility of continued resistance to His Majesty's authority. In all probability he believed that green troops fresh from the farms of New England would break and run in the face of the superior discipline of the professional soldiers of the British Army. His decision turned out to be a world class mistake, one which nearly lost the battle and which went a long way toward losing the entire war.
The British army was trained according to a theory of warfare which relied upon developing forces of sufficient numbers and discipline to be able to absorb volley after volley of enemy fire and still advance as a unit, continuing until the enemy position was overwhelmed. Marksmanship was less important than the ability to accomplish the time-consuming task of loading, firing, and reloading weapons in unison, so as not to slow down or interrupt the momentum of the advance. The forces would eventually approach closely enough so that some of their bullets could not help but inflict damage on the enemy's side. The battle would end in hand to hand combat, in which the bayonet formed the most useful part of the soldier's gun.
About military theory and discipline the Americans knew very little. Personal discipline, individual initiative, devotion to the duties of community life, and respect for fellow members of the community -- these were the cornerstones of life in the New England colonies. To the hardworking and thrifty Yankee farmers who awaited the British regulars on Breed's Hill, wasting anything was a sin, and wasting anything as valuable and hard to come by as ammunition was unthinkable. For years their lives had depended upon the ability to hit what they aimed at, whether it was game for the dinner table, or Frenchmen and Indians on the warpath. Some of them had discovered that a musket ball seated in a piece of greased paper and rammed into a grooved or "rifled" gun barrel, developed a spin which increased both accuracy and range. Very few of them possessed a bayonet.
Col. William Prescott of Massachusetts commanded the American forces on the Hill, which initially consisted of about 1,000 men, most or all of whom were from Massachusetts. One of these was Dr. Joseph Warren of Boston, an outstanding physician for whom both the Boston patriots and the British had great respect. Although he held the superior rank of general, Dr. Warren elected to serve in the ranks under Prescott, whose abilities he recognized. Prescott's men were reinforced by a group from New Hampshire led by John Stark, and some detachments from Connecticut led by Israel Putnam -- bringing the total to about 1,500 Americans in all. Capt. Coit's Company was among the Connecticut detachments present.
On the morning of June 17, 1775, the British ships opened fire. Charlestown was set ablaze, its inhabitants forced to flee. The Americans continued to dig trenches and pile up brush along a fence running from the main fortification to the water's edge. The main British force landed at high tide and, led by Maj. Gen. William Howe, commenced their attack at about 1:00 in the afternoon. Because of the shortage of ammunition the Americans were under strict orders to aim at the waistcoats of the British soldiers, but to hold their fire until ordered otherwise. (Lt. James Dana of Mansfield, CT, threatened to personally shoot any man who fired before the command was given.) As the British continued their steady march up the hill, they could see the Americans inexplicably silent behind the fence. Then, suddenly, as the advancing British reached a point about fifty yards from the American line, a furious and continual firing erupted, whose deadly accuracy was impossible to withstand. The stunned British were forced to fall back.
In ordering a frontal assault, Gage had risked the reputation of the British army on the ability of Howe's troops to break the American line. He could no longer afford to settle for a siege. The men were ordered to advance again, marching forward over the bodies of their dead and wounded comrades, but the result was exactly the same as before. A third assault was ordered. There was no other choice -- failure to take the hill by storm would be considered a victory for the Americans. The courage displayed by both sides at this moment is almost unbelievable. As they started up the hill for the third time, the British soldiers had no way of knowing that the Americans had used up just about all of their ammunition. For their part, the Americans stood firm despite their desperate situation, giving every indication that they were ready to fight on indefinitely. As the British closed in, only a few shots were fired. The American ammunition was exhausted, but the intrepid Yankees continued their resistance. Using their muskets as clubs to ward off the British bayonets, they forced the British to fight for every inch of ground. It was an organized retreat, not the rout the British had expected when the day began.
The Americans suffered 453 casualties, mostly in the retreat -- 139 killed (including Dr. Warren, who was shot in the head while covering the retreat), 278 wounded, and 36 missing -- but approximately 70% of them escaped unscathed. The British lost approximately 1,150 -- 226 killed and 928 wounded -- or about 45% of the men engaged. "A dear bought victory," Clinton is reported to have said, "another such would have ruined us."
The effect of this battle was to electrify both sides of the Atlantic. The Yankee farmers had held their ground. They had been defeated, not by the professional soldiers drawn up against them, but by a lack of ammunition. Throughout the colonies, Americans began to believe that independence from Britain was not only desirable, but also possible. In England, a stirring (and highly prejudiced) American account of the battle caused an immediate sensation and a groundswell of sympathy for the embattled colonists. The official British report arrived almost two weeks after the American version, and was, by comparison, so dull that almost no one paid any attention to it. Gage was called home in disgrace, leaving Howe in command. The British at Boston made no further attempt to leave the safety of the city until the following April, when they woke one morning to find Dorchester Heights crowned with Ticonderoga's cannon. Realizing that their position had become untenable, they took to their ships and sailed away from Boston.
Two Eyewitness Accounts
Lt. Col. Storrs (an officer in Israel Putnam's regiment) made the following entry in his diary on June 17, 1775, the day of the battle:
"At sunrise this morning a fire began from ye ships, but moderate. About ten went down to ye Hill to Genl. Putnam's Post, who has ye command. Some shot whistled around us. Tarried there a spell and Returned to have my company in readiness to relieve them -- One killed and 1 wounded when I came away. About 2 o'clock there was a brisk cannonade from ye ships on ye Battery or Entrenchment. At ____ orders came to turn out immediately, and that the Regulars were landing at sundry places. Went to Head Quarters for our Regimental ____. Received orders to repair with our Regiment to No. 1 and defend it. No enemy appearing -- orders soon came that our People in the Intrenchment were retreating and for us to secure ye retreat. Immediately marched for their relief. The Regulars did not come off from Bunker's Hill but have taken possession of the Intrenchments and our People make a stand on Winter Hill and we immediately went to entrenching. Flung up by morning an entrenchment about 100 feet square. Done principally by our Regiment under Putnam's direction. Had but little sleep the night."
Dorothea Gamsby was ten years old in 1775. She was in Boston when the war began. Military activity made it unsafe to travel back to her parents in the countryside, so she remained in Boston with her uncle, Sir George Nutting, and his wife, who were Loyalists. When the British left Boston, the Nuttings were forced to go with them, as it was no longer safe for Loyalists to remain. They took Dorothea with them, and it was many years before she and her family were reunited. Dorothea watched the battle from her aunt and uncle's house, and never forgot what she saw that day. This is the way she told the story to her granddaughter:
"Months passed like the dreams of childhood while the Colonys were ripening to rebelion, bloodshed and civil war. They sent a host of troops from home. Boston was full of them and they seemed to be there only to eat and drink and enjoy themselves, but one day there was more than usual commotion. Uncle said there had been an outbreak in the country, and then came a night when there was bustle, anxiety, and watching. Aunt and her maid walked from room to room, sometimes weeping. I crept after them unable to sleep when everyone seemed wide awake and the streets full of people. It was scarcely daylight when the booming of cannon on board the ships in the harbour shook every house in the Citty. My uncle had been much abroad lately and had only sought his pillow within the hour but he came immediately to my aunt's room, saying he would go and learn the cause of the fireing and come again to inform us. He had not left the house when a servant in livery called to say that the rebels had colected in force on Breed's Hill, were getting up fortifications, and that Governor Gage requested his presence. 'There must be a brush,' he said, 'for General Howe has ordered out the troops to dislodge them.' We were by this time thoroughly frightened but uncle bade (us) keep quiet, said there was no danger, and left us. You may depend we sought the highest window we had as soon as the light of advancing day gave us reason to hope for a sight of the expected contest. There they were, the audacious rebels! hard at work, makeing what seemed to me a monstrous fence. 'What is it they are going to do, aunt, and what are they makeing that big fence for?' 'They mean to shoot our King's soldiers, I suppose,' she said, 'and probably the fireing is intended to drive them away.' 'But, Aunt, the cannon balls will kill some of them. See, see, the soldiers and the banners! O, Aunt, they will be killed! Why can't they stay out of the way?' The glittering host, the crashing music, all the pomp and brilliance of war moved up toward that band of rebels, but they still laboured at their entrenchment; they seemed to take no heed. The bullets from the ships, the advanceing column of British warriors were alike unnoticed. 'I should think they would begin to get out of the way,' said my aunt. Every available window and roof was filled with spectators, watching the advanceing regulars. Every heart, I dare say, throbed as mine did and we held our breath, or rather it seemed to stop and oppress the labouring chest of its own acord, so intensely we awaited the expected attack, but the troops drew nearer and the rebels toiled on. At length one who stood conspicuously above the rest waved his bright weapon; the explosion came attended by the crash of music, the shrieks of the wounded, the groans of the dying. My aunt fainted. Poor Abby, (the maid), looked on like one distracted. I screamed with all my might. The roar of artilery continued, but the smoke hid the havoc of war from our view. The housekeeper attended to my aunt and beged for somebody to go for Dr. (Joseph) Warren, but everybody was to much engaged with watching the smokeing battlefield. O, how wild and terrific was that long day! Old as I am, the memory of that fearful contest will sometimes come over my spirit as if it had been but yesterday. Men say it was not much of a fight, but to me it seems terrible. Charleston was in flames, women and children flying from their burning houses sought reffuge in the citty. Dismay and terror, wailing and distraction impressed their picture on my memory, never to be effaced. By and by drays, carts, and every description of vehicle that could be obtained were seen nearing the scene of the conflict and the roar of artillery seaced. Uncle came home and said the rebels had retreated. Dr. Warren was the first who fell that day. Then came the loads of wounded men attended by long lines of soldiers, the gay banners torn and soiled, a sight to be remembered a lifetime. I have read many times of the glory of war but this one battle taught me, however it be painted by poet or novelist, there is nothing but wo and sorrow and shame to be found in the reality. Want, utter destitution to many folowed and when the 12 of August came round and the British troops with the loyal citizens of Boston attempted to celebrate the birthday of their young Prince; scant and course was the cheer their stores afforded. They were temperance people then from sheer necessity. The winter passed, I cannot tell how, but when the spring came everybody went on board the shiping in the harbour, at least so it seemed to me, for the officers and soldiers went and everybody that I knew or cared for, except my Father's family, seemed huddled together in a vessel so small that no room was left for comfort."
Notes on Troop Strength
THE RECORD OF CONNECTICUT MEN IN THE MILITARY AND NAVAL SERVICE DURING THE WAR OF THE REVOLUTION (1775-1783),
Edited by Henry P. Johnston, A.M., under the authority of the Adjutant General of Connecticut;
Printed by The Case, Lockwood & Brainard Company, Printers and Binders, Hartford, CT; 1889.
[p.58] NOTE ON BUNKER HILL. The number of Connecticut troops present at this engagement was about four hundred. As far as letters and meagre records show they were detailed as follows: on the evening of June 16, 75, a body of one thousand men from the Massachusetts and Connecticut regiments around Cambridge, under the immediate command of Col. Prescott, was ordered to Charlestown Neck to fortify Bunker's (Breed's) Hill. Of this number two hundred were from Conn. under the command of Capt. Knowlton, the detachment being made up of details of one subaltern officer and about thirty men from companies in Putnam's and Spencer's regiments. Lt-Col. Storrs, of Putnam's, states that he sent from his company, "Lieut. Dana, Serjt. Fuller, Corp. Webb, and 28 Privates. Capt. Chester, of Spencer's, states that thirty-one went from his company, probably under Lieut. Stephen Goodrich. Putnam's own company was represented by Lieut. Grosvenor and thirty men. Prescott's command, working all night, completed a redoubt which threatened the British shipping. Lord Howe determined to drive the "rebels from it, and the battle of Bunker Hill followed, June 17. During the progress of the action, Captain Knowlton and the Connecticut men, with others, were sent to the left where they posted themselves behind a stone wall and inflicted heavy loss upon the enemy. Reinforcements from the American camp arrived both before and during the battle. Among these were the whole or portions of at least three companies of Connecticut troops. Captain Chester reached the stone wall with the rest of his company, perhaps sixty men, and Captains Clark and Coit, of Parson's regiment also arrived. These with the two hundred detailed the evening before would make about four hundred as Connecticut's representation at the battle. Among the Connecticut officers mentioned as present in the action were Gen. Putnam, in general command, Major Durkee, Captains Chester, Clark, Coit, Lieuts. Dana, Keyes, Hide, Webb, Grosvenor, Bingham (of Norwich), and Ensigns Hill and Bill (of Lebanon). A few of the men's names are also reported, namely: Roger Fox, William Cheeney, Asahel Lyon, Benjamin Rist, Samuel Ashbo, Gershom Smith, Matthew Cummings, Daniel Memory -- killed; Philip Johston, Wilson Rowlandson, Lawrence Sullivan, William Robinson, Benjamin Ross -- prisoners; Gershom Clark, of Lebanon, wounded; James Law, of Lebanon -- right arm broken; John Arnold, Ebenezer Clark, Elijah Abbe, William Clark, Beriah Geer, Nathan Richardson, William Watrous, Sylvanus Snow, William Moore, John Wampee, and Timothy Bugbee -- lost their guns in the fight. As to losses, one account gives fourteen killed and thirty wounded among the Connecticut men. Dr. Philip Turner is mentioned as "attendg wounded after Charlestown Battle. Lawrence Sullivan, prisoner, was released Feb. 24, 76. William Crane of Wethersfield, Chester's Co., was in the action.
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[p.72] SIXTH REGIMENT -- COL. PARSONS' -- 1775 [Raised on the first call for troops in April-May, 1775. Recruited from New London, Hartford, and present Middlesex Counties. Two companies, including Capt. Coit's, marched at once to Boston, and Capt. Mott's was ordered to the Northern Dept. The other companies remained on duty at New London until June 17, when they were ordered by the Governor's Council to the Boston camps. There the regiment took post at Roxbury in Gen. Spencer's Brigade, and remained until the expiration of term of service, Dec. 10 75. Adopted as Continental. Regiment re-organized under Col. Parsons for service in 76.
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[p.74] 4th Company William Coit. . .Captain . . New London. . .Com. May 1; engaged at Bunker Hill June 17; detached to command of privateer; disc. Dec. 75; entered Navy in 76. Jedediah Hide . .1st Lieut.. Norwich. .Com. May 1; engaged at Bunker Hill June 17; disc. [Dec.] 75; in service in 77. James Day . . . .2d Lieut. . New London. . .Also Adjutant. See above. William Adams, Jr., . . Ensign. . . . .New London. . .Com. May 1; disc. [Dec.] 75 [Enlistment Roll of this Company missing.]
THE STORY OF THE CONTINENTAL ARMY, 1775-1783, by Lynn Montross, Reprinted by Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, 1967, Formerly published as RAG, TAG, AND BOBTAIL, by Harper & Brothers, 1952. (Bunker Hill troop strength and casualty lists, Maps)
THE WAR FOR INDEPENDENCE, A Military History, by Howard H. Peckham, Published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1958. (Time of attack, Clinton quote)
THE RECORD OF CONNECTICUT MEN IN THE MILITARY AND NAVAL SERVICE DURING THE WAR OF THE REVOLUTION (1775-1783), Edited by Henry P. Johnston, A.M., under the authority of the Adjutant General of Connecticut; printed by The Case, Lockwood & Brainard Company, Printers and Binders, Hartford, CT; 1889. (Lexington Alarm information & Connecticut troop organization, Service record of Jedediah Hyde, Storrs' account of battle)
PENSION FILE OF JEDEDIAH HYDE #S39759 (Service record of Jedediah Hyde)
HISTORY OF WINDHAM COUNTY, CONNECTICUT, by Ellen D. Larned, Vol. II (1760-1880), Published by the Author, 1880. (Putnam and Dana quotes)
THE PRICE OF LOYALTY, Tory Writings From the Revolutionary Era, Narrative and Editing by Catherine S. Crary, Published by McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, etc., 1973. (Dorothea Gamsby's story)
THE RIDDLE OF JOSEPH WARREN, by Jay Stevens, "Yankee Magazine, Vol. 57, No. 7, July, 1993.
THE SIEGE OF BOSTON, by Donald Barr Chidsey, Published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 419 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016, 1996.
See also: Worcester Polytechnic Institute Breed's Hill / Bunker Hill Staff Ride
Copyright © 1998 G. R. Gordon