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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Battle of Bunker Hill
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The obstinate effort of the British ministry to oblige the Americans to pay taxes in the laying of which they had had no voice, and to force them to submit to their will by military force and severe commercial restrictions, had laid a train of irritation through the colonies which needed but a spark to kindle it into a blaze. That spark the fire of musketry at Lexington gave. A people who ten years before were fully loyal to England had been filled with rebellious sentiment by the effort to reduce them below the standard of liberty that was enjoyed by the English people. It was not, however, too late yet to bring them back to a state of loyalty. Had the troops been removed, the commercial restrictions abated, and the laying of taxes left to themselves, it is not impossible that the region of the United States might yet have remained a portion of the British empire. It became impossible from the moment of the firing upon the militia at Lexington and Concord. The train which the ministry had laid was ignited by that act, and the whole people flamed up into war with a suddenness that must have greatly amazed those good easy legislators who were so firmly convinced that the Americans would not fight. In New England, in particular, the tide was definitely turned from peace to war. As the tidings were spread by rapidly-riding messengers, the farmers and artisans on all sides dropped the implements of industry, seized those of war, and marched in all haste upon Boston. One incident of this kind has become famous. Israel Putnam, who had won honors in the French and Indian War, and Captain Hubbard, were at work on their farms in adjoining fields, when a man on horseback, with a drum, stopped to tell them of the fight. Hubbard, a man of method, at once walked home, put things in order, filled his knapsack, and started for the camp; but fiery old Putnam simply unyoked his team from the plough, sent his son home to tell his mother what had happened, mounted his horse, and dashed away for Boston, which he reached in twenty-four hours, though it was nearly one hundred miles distant.

The militia were gathering with surprising rapidity. Within a few days an army of twenty thousand men was encamped around Boston, extending from Dorchester to the Mystic River, and completely enclosing the British troops within the city. Generals Ward and Putnam were made commanders of the army, Ward having the chief command. In all haste they constructed lines of intrenchment sufficiently strong to encourage their undisciplined forces. During this interval, Gage, who had made no effort to face the provincials, was reinforced by troops under Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne, and had now an army of from ten to twelve thousand trained soldiers. Thus strengthened, he prepared to act with more energy, and issued a proclamation declaring those in arms rebels and traitors, and offering pardon to all who would go quietly home, with the exception of the arch-rebels Samuel Adams and John Hancock. The story of the stirring events which immediately followed we extract from Cutter's "Life of Israel Putnam."]

The American commanders, having ascertained that the British intended to take possession of the heights of Charlestown, as a vantage-ground from which to dislodge them from some of their intrenchments, and thus make a way into the country, resolved, by a sudden and secret movement, to defeat the project, by advancing to that position a portion of the left wing of their own camp.

Putnam, who had already carefully examined the ground, was strenuously in favor of this movement, and had urged it again and again in council, with all the arguments at his command. In common with Prescott, and other veterans, who understood the character of the American soldiery and knew the immense advantage to the order and discipline of the army which would be derived from active and hazardous service, he had repeatedly proposed to lead a party which should invite an engagement with the enemy..

The measure was ably opposed by some of the best and bravest men in the council, and there were obstacles in the way of its accomplishment which would have appalled any other men than those who planned and achieved it. One of these was the want of powder. There were, at that time, only eleven barrels in the public depots, and sixty-seven barrels in all Massachusetts,-- scarcely enough, under the most prudent management, for one day's fighting. To this objection General Pomeroy answered that he was ready to lead his men to battle with but five cartridges apiece. They were all experienced marksmen, and would fire no random shots; and if every American killed his five, they would have but little occasion for more powder..

The bolder counsels prevailed, and orders were issued to Colonels Prescott and Bridge, and the regiment of Colonel Frye, to be prepared for an expedition with all their men who were fit for service, and with one day's provision. The same order was issued to one hundred and twenty men of General Putnam's regiment, under the command of the brave Captain Knowlton, and one company of artillery, with two field-pieces. Putnam, having the general superintendence of the expedition, and Colonel Gridley, the chief engineer, accompanied the troops..

The detachment drafted for this expedition, consisting of about one thousand men, under the immediate command of Colonel Prescott, were assembled on the common at Cambridge at an early hour on the evening of the 16th of June, where prayers were offered by Rev. President Langdon, of Harvard College. Immediately after dark they commenced their silent march through Cambridge and across the Neck, Colonel Prescott leading the way. He was attended only by two sergeants, carrying dark lanterns, open only in the rear.

Arrived at the base of Bunker Hill, they found the wagon laden with intrenching- tools, and then only were the men made acquainted with the nature and purpose of the expedition. A serious question now arose among the leaders.

[It was perceived that intrenchments on Bunker Hill would be of minor importance unless the elevation known as Breed's Hill, nearer Boston, was seized and fortified. After a long consultation, Putnam's counsel was taken, to erect the main work on Breed's Hill, with a subsidiary one on Bunker Hill, as a protection to the rear, and as a rallying-point in case of defeat.]

It was midnight before the first spade entered the ground. It was then within four days of the summer solstice. They had, consequently, but about for hours to work, before the dawning light would disclose their operations to the enemy and expose them to an immediate cannonading from the batteries in Boston and the ships in the harbor. But such was the spirit and resolution of the whole party, officers and men, that the work was effected in that brief space. Instructed and stimulated by Putnam and Prescott, who did not fear a spade or a pickaxe any more than a sword or a musket, and feeling that life and liberty alike depended on their success, they performed prodigies of labor during that notable night, - -surpassed only by the prodigies of valor by which they signalized the following day. The works being in a state of promising forwardness, and every man cheerfully doing his whole duty, Putnam repaired to his camp at an early hour, to make all necessary preparations for the coming crisis.

The crisis came with the dawning light. When the British officers, aroused at peep of day by their startled sentinels, beheld their daring foes above them, overlooking their whole position with formidable intrenchments, which had sprung up as by enchantment in the night, they could scarcely credit the evidence of their own senses. It was instantly perceived that, if the Americans were not driven from their bold position at once, Boston would be no longer tenable by the British. A council of war was called, which directed an immediate assault.

Meanwhile, as preparations for the assault were going on, a brisk but unavailing fire was opened upon the Americans from the armed vessels and floating batteries, and from the battery on Copp's Hill.. General Putnam, on discovering the design of the enemy, returned immediately to Cambridge, and urgently advised that a reinforcement should be sent to Colonel Prescott's aid, and that his men should be supplied with suitable refreshment before the action should commence. His application for reinforcements was unsuccessful. General Ward was strongly impressed with the idea that the British would land on Lechemere's Point, or Inman's farm, in Cambridge, and make an assault upon the camp, and so cut off the rear of the party in Charlestown. He was the more convinced of this, as the scanty depots of ammunition and military stores on which the salvation of the American army depended were at Cambridge and Watertown, and in no way could the British gain so decided an advantage over them as by securing or destroying them. And this had been the direct object of all their active operations hitherto. It appears, also, that a formidable party of General Gage's council of war, among whom were Generals Clinton and Grant, were urgently in favor of making an attack at this place. Ward, therefore, thought it unsafe to weaken his own force, as that would not only invite an attack, but render it difficult to repel it. On the same grounds he resisted the earnest solicitation of Putnam's troops to follow their commander to the battle, assuring them that theirs was the post of danger, and, consequently, of honor..

The cannonading from the British ships and floating batteries, though kept up incessantly during all the morning, effected nothing. The Americans kept on steadily at their works, suffering more from hunger and fatigue than from the fire or the fear of the enemy. Putnam was very anxious to avail himself of the time required for the British troops to prepare for engagement to throw up another redoubt, according to the original plan, and in obedience to orders, on Bunker Hill. He accordingly, with a handful of men, commenced an intrenchment on that summit, which, if it could have been completed so far as to afford a tolerable protection to his troops, would have enabled him to check the advance of the British and prevent them from occupying the redoubt on Breed's Hill. The two summits were within gunshot of each other, the former, which was nearly thirty feet higher, having complete command of the latter.

[Little was done on this breastwork, the attack of the British making more urgent work for the men.]

The veteran General Pomeroy, on hearing the distant roar of the artillery, borrowed a horse to carry him to the field. On approaching the Neck, which was swept by a tremendous firing form the British ships, he became alarmed, not for his own safety, but for that of the horse he had borrowed. He accordingly left his charger in charge of a sentinel, and coolly walked over, mounted the hill, and advanced to the rail fence. He was received with the highest exultation, and the name of Pomeroy rang through the line.

[General Warren had previously made his way to the same point. Later, when it became evident that an assault would be made upon the works, General Ward sent reinforcements to Prescott.]

The British van soon appeared in view. The Americans, eager to salute them, were with difficulty restrained from firing too soon. General Putnam rode along the line, giving strict orders that no one should fire till the enemy had arrived within eight rods, nor then, till the word of command should be given. "Powder is scarce," said he, "and must not be wasted. Do not fire at the enemy till you see the whites of their eyes; then fire low,--take aim at their waistbands,--aim at the handsome coats,--pick off the commanders." The same orders were given by Prescott, Pomeroy, Stark, and all the veteran officers.

The effect of these orders was tremendous. With a bold and confident front, assured of an easy victory over the raw, undisciplined troops of the Provinces, the British troops advanced to the fatal line, eight rods in advance of the defences, when a well-aimed volley from the deadly muskets within swept away the whole front rank, and laid many a gallant officer in the dust. Rank succeeded rank, and volley following volley mowed them down, till at length they were compelled to retreat..

Three times did the brave veterans of the British retreat before the deadly fire of the American militia, with the loss of whole ranks of men and the very elite of their officers; and three times, in the face of this almost certain death, they returned to the charge. They had expected an easy victory, and promised themselves that at the first approach of a regular army the raw, undisciplined Americans would fly like frightened sheep. They now found, not less to their cost than to their surprise, that they had men to deal with, and that courage, daring, and the highest heroism were less a matter of training than of principle. As colonel Abercrombie led up his men to the charge, he was saluted by a familiar stentorian voice from the redoubt, reminding him, probably, of a reproachful epithet he had applied to his enemies: "Colonel Abercrombie, are the Yankees cowards?"

Hitherto the British had neglected the only manoeuvre by which they could possibly defeat their enemy, so long as their ammunition should last. This was to charge with the bayonet. The Americans were wholly unprovided with bayonets, and therefore could not resist nor withstand a charge. But this the assailants did not know. They relied upon their fire, which was for the most part aimless and ineffectual, while every shot from the redoubt, the breastwork, and the rail fence, being reserved and deliberate, found its victim.

While these terrible scenes were enacting, several reinforcements arrived from Boston to the aid of the British, till their whole number amounted to not less than eight thousand. To add new horrors to the scene, vast columns of smoke were observed over Charlestown, and the village was seen to be on fire in several places.

[The British had been annoyed by a fire from this place, and sent a detachment of men to burn it. While they were doing so, and seeking to gain the rear of the Americans under cover of the smoke, Putnam saw them, and opened on them with some cannon which had been deserted.]

The pieces were well aimed, General Putnam dismounting and pointing them himself, and every ball took effect. One canister was so well directed that it made a complete lane through the columns of the enemy, and threw them into momentary confusion. With wonderful courage, however, they closed their ranks, and advanced again to the charge. The Americans, their cartridges being spent, resorted to their muskets, and, suffering their assailants to approach still nearer than before, poured in a volley with such deliberate aim that the front rank was swept wholly away, and officers and men fell in promiscuous heaps..

In the midst of this thunder of artillery and rattling of musketry, the sulphurous smoke rolling up in heavy volumes, and the balls whistling by on every side, Captain Foster, of Colonel Mansfield's regiment, arrived with a supply of powder from the American camp. It was brought in casks in wagons, and distributed loose to the soldiers, as they were able to take it; some receiving it in their horns, some in their pockets, and some in their hats, or whatever else they had that would hold it.

More than a thousand of the best of the British troops had now fallen before the murderous fire of an enemy whom they affected to despise as peasants and rebels. Among these was a large number of their bravest and most accomplished officers.. Meanwhile, the Americans, protected by their intrenchments, had suffered but little loss. But now the crisis was to come. Their ammunition was exhausted, and there was no alternative but to retreat. General Howe had learned, by a terrible experience, that it was vain to think of frightening the "undisciplined rebels" from their defences by the mere smell of gunpowder. With the advice of the accomplished and chivalrous General Clinton, who had just come to his aid, he commanded the works to be scaled and the enemy driven out at the point of the bayonet. He led the charge in person, as he had done before. General Clinton joined General Pigot, with a view to turn the right flank of the enemy. The artillery were ordered to advance to the same time, turn the left of the breastwork, and rake the line. This was the most vulnerable point in the American defences, and had hitherto been wholly overlooked.

[Every possible preparation was made to meet this charge, but the powder of the Americans was exhausted.]

They had sent in vain to the camp for a further supply. The magazine there was reduced to less than two barrels. The few who had a charge remaining reserved their last fire till the artillery, now advancing to turn the flank of their breastwork, had approached within the prescribed distance. Then every shot took effect. The gallant Howe, who had escaped unhurt hitherto, received one of the last of the American balls in his foot.

The fire of the Americans gradually diminished, and then ceased. Instantly their muskets were clubbed, and the stones of their defences were seized and hurled at the advancing foe. This only served to betray their weakness, and infused a new energy into their assailants. No longer exposed to that destructive fire which had so fearfully thinned their ranks, they now marched forward, scaled the redoubt, and began the work of retribution. The artillery, advancing at the same instant to the open space on the north, between the breastwork and the rail fence, enfiladed the line, and sent their balls through the open gate-way, or sally-port, directly into the redoubt, under cover of which the troops at the breastwork were compelled to retire.

The heroic but diminutive Pigot was the first to scale the works. He was instantly followed by his men, now confident of an easy victory. Troops succeeded troops over the parapet, till that little arena, where the first great effort of American prowess was put forth, was filled with combatants, prepared to contest its possession.

To contend, without a bayonet in his company, against such a superior force, would have been worse than madness. Prescott saw this, and reluctantly ordered a retreat. He and Warren were the last to leave the redoubt. The latter seemed to disdain to fly, even when nothing else remained to him. With sullen reluctance he followed his countrymen to the port, which he had scarcely passed when a ball from the enemy arrested him. Major Small [of the British army], as a personal friend,.. endeavored to save him. But Warren would neither yield nor fly. He fell between the retreat and the pursuit, having won the respect of his enemies and the everlasting gratitude of his countrymen, and leaving his name as one of the watchwords of liberty throughout the world..

The retreating Americans were now between the two wings of the British army, so that they could not fire without endangering the lives of each other. A brave and orderly retreat was effected.. Putnam, though the balls fell around him like hail, was wholly insensible of danger. Coming to one of the deserted field- pieces, he dismounted, took his stand by its side, and seemed resolved to brave the foe alone. One sergeant alone dared to stand by him in this perilous position. He was soon shot down, and the general himself retired only when the British bayonets were close upon him and he was in imminent danger of being made a prisoner..

The Americans had retreated about twenty rods, before the enemy had time to rally. They were then suddenly exposed to a destructive fire, which proved more fatal to them than all the previous contest. Some of the best and bravest men were left on this part of the field, and several officers, whose behavior that day had given promise of the highest military distinction. The retreat was maintained in good order, over the Neck, to Prospect and Winter Hills, where they took up their position for the night, throwing up hasty intrenchments, which were soon strengthened and fortified, so as to present to the enemy another line of defence, equally formidable with that they had just purchased at the expense of so much blood.

[The story of the battle of Bunker Hill is so familiar to readers as ordinarily presented that we offer the above account as a picture of the same scene from a somewhat different point of view. Though Putnam was the superior in rank, Prescott was the actual commander. Yet Putnam's deeds upon the field were of sufficient interest to warrant our bringing him into the foreground of the picture. The result of this battle, though technically unfavorable to the Americans, was of the utmost importance as inspiring them to the determined prosecution of the war. The number of British regulars engaged, though not so great as above stated, was double that of the Americans, and the bravery of the latter in holding their imperfect works until their powder gave out, and until they had killed and wounded a number of the enemy nearly equal to their whole force engaged, gave a sufficient and satisfactory answer to the question which had been broached in England, "Will the Americans fight?"]

William Cutter

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