The Battle of Bunker Hill — the First Major Battle of the American Revolutionary War

June 17, 1775

The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775, and was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The British won, but the outcome was significant because American forces showed they could hold their own with the British. Some of the most important events of 1775 happened during the battle, which was part of the Siege of Boston and Boston Campaign.

Battle of Bunker Hill, 1775, American Revolutionary War, Joseph Warren, AHC Digital

Dr. Joseph Warren was famous for his role in the Patriot Cause during the American Revolution. Warren was killed during the Battle of Bunker Hill. Image Source: American History Central Digital Illustration.

Battle of Bunker Hill Summary

The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought between the United States of America and Great Britain on June 17, 1775, during the Siege of Boston.

Following the opening battles of the war that took place on April 19 — Lexington and Concord — Massachusetts militia followed British troops back to Boston. During the march, the Americans harassed the British, inflicting heavy casualties on them. When the British reached Boston, the Americans broke off the attack and surrounded the town.

Over the next few days, militia forces from the neighboring colonies joined in the siege. On May 20, Artemas Ward was placed in command of all forces, which was referred to as the Army of Occupation.

When word of the events of April 19 reached England, the British government sent additional troops and officers to reinforce the garrison at Boston. The reinforcements arrived in May.

Battle of Bunker Hill, Painting, Moran
This painting depicts British troops moving up the hill toward the American redoubt. Image Source: Library of Congress.

In Philadelphia, on June 14, the Continental Congress voted to organize the Army of Occupation that was laying siege to Boston into the Continental Army. Two days later, George Washington was named Commander-in-Chief of the new army.

On the night of June 16, the Americans decided to fortify Bunker Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula. The operation, under the command of Colonel William Prescott, was conducted throughout the night, however, the fortifications were built on Breed’s Hill.

The next morning, the British woke to find the Americans had control of the high ground above Boston Harbor and would be able to fire on their ships. The British leaders, including General Thomas Gage and General William Howe, launched an assault on the hill during the afternoon of the 17th.

The British made two failed attacks on the hill, but the Americans, running low on ammunition, were unable to stop the third assault. British forces overwhelmed the Americans, who were forced to retreat.

During the evacuation, General Joseph Warren — one of the most important Patriot leaders in Massachusetts — was shot and killed. Although the British won the battle, it served as an important moral victory for the Americans because they proved they could fight with the British and hold their own.

5 Key Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill

  • Date Started: The Battle of Bunker Hill started on Saturday, June 17, 1775.
  • Date Ended: The battle ended on June 17, 1775.
  • Location: The battle took place on and around Breed’s Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula.
  • Military Campaign: The battle was part of the Boston Campaign and the Siege of Boston.
  • Who Won: Great Britain won the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Battle of Bunker Hill, View from the Beach, British Assault
This illustration by Alonzo Chappel depicts the British moving up Breed’s Hill to attack the Americans. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Major Events at the Battle of Bunker Hill

Some of the most important events at the Battle of Bunker Hill are:

  1. British troops assembled on the beach, out of range of the American muskets, and planned to attack the American redoubt — a small dirt fort — on Breed’s Hill.
  2. American forces led by John Stark reinforced the redoubt by taking positions along an old fence, that ran along the left flank of the redoubt — which is exactly where the British planned to attack.
  3. As the British advanced up the hill for the first assault, someone — most likely Prescott or Israel Putnam — told the Americans “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” When the British were close enough, the Americans opened fire and forced them to fall back.
  4. The British ships in the harbor opened fire on Charlestown — which was abandoned earlier in the day. Many of the homes and other buildings caught fire.
  5. Howe ordered a second assault on the hill, which was also pushed back by the Americans, who were running low on ammunition.
  6. The British tried to attack the left wing a third time, but Stark and his men pushed them back and they went and attacked the redoubt from the other side.
  7. The British overwhelmed the Americans, who ran out of ammunition and poured over the walls of the redoubt. There was intense, hand-to-hand fighting in the redoubt, and the British used bayonets.
  8. The Americans evacuated and Stark and his men covered their retreat.
  9. The British pursued the Americans to Bunker Hill but stopped because they expected them to turn around and attack them. However, the Americans returned to their camps around Boston, ending the Battle of Bunker Hill.
  10. Dr. Joseph Warren was killed during the retreat, a significant loss to the Patriot Cause.
  11. Major John Pitcairn, who led British forces at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, was killed during the battle by a “black soldier named Salem.” This man could have been either Peter Salem or Salem Poor.
Battle of Bunker Hill, Burning of Charlestown
Thomas Davies made this sketch of the Burning of Charlestown in 1775. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Buildup to Bunker Hill

Midnight Riders Warn the Countryside as the British March Toward Concord

The American Revolutionary War broke out on the morning of April 19, 1775. British troops were on the march to Concord, with orders from Governor Thomas Gage to destroy weapons and ammunition that were being stored there by colonial revolutionaries.

In order to get to Concord, the British had to march through Lexington, where they were met by a small force of minutemen and militia that had been alerted the night before by Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott.

Battle of Lexington

The Americans were under orders from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress not to engage the British unless the British attacked them first. However, someone fired a shot and both sides opened fire. The Americans were routed at the Battle of Lexington and the British continued their march to Concord.

Battle of Concord

By the time the British arrived at Concord, most of the weapons and ammunition had been safely hidden or moved to other towns. Militia from all over the countryside gathered on the hills around the town and watched while the British conducted their search. When the British set fire to some of the supplies they found, the Americans thought they were burning the town and decided to attack. A skirmish broke out at the North Bridge and more shots were exchanged at the Battle of Concord.

British Return to Boston

When their business in Concord was finished, the British began the march back to Boston. The militia followed the British the entire way, firing on them from behind walls, trees, and buildings, and inflicted heavy casualties. Smaller battles took place, including Parker’s Revenge and the Battle of Menotomy.

Siege of Boston Begins

Once they arrived in Boston, the British made their way into the town. The militia could not follow them, because of the warships in the harbor, which would be able to open fire on them with heavy cannons. Instead, the militia surrounded the city on the north, west, and south, and the Siege of Boston began.

Artemas Ward Takes Command

Overall, the militia forces were disorganized, because they came from different colonies — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. On May 20, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress named Artemas Ward commander-in-chief of all Massachusetts troops. Eventually, the militia units from the other colonies that were taking part in the siege were placed under his command. Collectively, the army was known as the Army of Occupation.

Parliament Sends Reinforcements

When word of the bloody encounters at Lexington and Concord reached England, the British government dispatched additional troops to reinforce the garrison in Boston. Those troops arrived in May 1775, along with three generals — William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton.

Washington Named Commander-in-Chief

Subsequently, on June 14, 1775, the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, voted to create the Continental Army, which included the militia from Massachusetts and surrounding colonies that were laying siege to the British forces in Boston. On June 16, George Washington was named commander-in-chief of the new army. He began to make preparations to travel to Boston, where Artemas Ward would cede the command to him.

Americans Fortify Breed’s Hill

The Americans knew that if they could gain control of some of the high ground around Boston they would gain a strategic advantage over the British. They chose to occupy the Charlestown Peninsula, north of Boston.

On June 16, American forces under the command of Colonel William Prescott of Massachusetts were sent onto the Charlestown Peninsula, with orders to occupy Bunker Hill. For reasons that are not entirely clear, they constructed their fortifications on neighboring Breed’s Hill, which was lower than Bunker Hill and closer to Boston.

Battle of Bunker Hill, William Prescott at the Hill
This illustration depicts the American troops, under Colonel William Prescott, taking possession of Breed’s Hill on the night of June 16th, 1775. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The First Major Battle of the American Revolutionary War

When the British saw the fortifications the next morning, some of the warships in the harbor opened fire. Gage and the other generals met and decided to attack the American position. General William Howe led the British attack, which began on the afternoon of June 17.

The British made two failed assaults, during which the Americans waited until the last possible moment to fire. Legend has it the Americans were told to hold their fire until they saw “the whites of their eyes.” The British suffered heavy casualties, but the Americans ran out of ammunition. The British reorganized for a third assault and routed the Americans.

After overrunning the fortifications, the British inflicted heavy damage on the Americans as they retreated to the main camp in Cambridge. The fighting lasted about two hours and resulted in 1,054 British casualties, compared with 441 American casualties. Most of the American casualties came during the retreat and included Joseph Warren, who had played a key role in the revolutionary movement in Massachusetts.

This painting by John Trumbull depicts the death of Joseph Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Important American Leaders at the Battle of Bunker Hill

Israel Putnam, General

Israel Putnam. He was a legendary — and beloved — figure from Connecticut. He was in charge of the position on Bunker Hill.

Colonel William Prescott, Illustration

William Prescott. He was in command of the defenses and the redoubt on Breed’s Hill.

General John Stark, Illustration

John Stark. He led the defense along the rail fence that secured the flank and kept the British from taking the redoubt early in the battle.

Battle of Bunker Hill Significance

The Battle of Bunker Hill is significant to United States history because it was the first large battle of the American Revolutionary War. Before the battle, there was hope a peaceful resolution could be reached. Although it is known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, most of the fighting took place on Breed’s Hill and the Charlestown Peninsula.

Battle of Bunker Hill Outcome

The outcome of the Battle of Bunker Hill was a British victory. However, the British suffered heavy casualties. The battle was a moral victory for Americans throughout the colonies, who now had real evidence that they could not only engage the greatest military force in the world but also inflict heavy casualties on it.

Battle of Bunker Hill Casualties and Statistics

  • The Battle of Bunker Hill lasted about two hours.
  • The Battle of Bunker Hill resulted in 1,054 British casualties and 441 American casualties. Most of the American casualties occurred during the retreat.
Battle of Bunker Hill, Fight in the Redoubt
This illustration by John Steeple Davis depicts the hand-to-hand fighting in the redoubt. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of Bunker Hill Facts

  • The battle is known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, despite the fact that the focus of the action was on the American fortifications on Breed’s Hill.
  • The Battle of Bunker Hill was the first significantly large battle of the Revolutionary War.
  • The outcome of the battle did not break the Siege of Boston and British troops were still trapped in Boston by American forces.
  • The Battle of Bunker Hill was witnessed by thousands of civilians from neighboring hills, rooftops, and balconies in Boston. Abigail Adams and young John Quincy Adams could see the battle from their home in Braintree.
  • Although the British were victorious at Bunker Hill, the battle was a moral victory for Americans throughout the colonies, who now had real evidence that they could engage and inflict heavy casualties on the greatest military force in the world.
Battle of Bunker Hill, Redoubt After the Battle
Thomas Davies made this sketch of Breed’s Hill and the battlefield in 1775. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Battle of Bunker Hill Commanders

The military commanders at the Battle of Bunker Hill were some of the most recognizable names of the American Revolutionary War.

American Commanders

At the time, the Americans were fighting as the Army of Occupation, on behalf of the United Colonies. Congress did not adopt the name “United States of America” until September 9, 1776.

  • William Prescott
  • Israel Putnam
  • John Stark
  • Joseph Warren

British Commanders

  • William Howe
  • Thomas Gage
  • Robert Pigot
  • James Abercrombie
  • Henry Clinton
  • Samuel Graves
  • John Pitcairn

Battle of Bunker Hill APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Siege of Boston, and the American Revolutionary War for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Battle of Bunker Hill APUSH Definition

The definition of the Battle of Bunker Hill for APUSH is the first major battle of the American Revolutionary War. It happened on June 17, 1775. After the Americans built a small fort on Breed’s Hill, the British attacked. The British suffered heavy casualties but won the violent battle. Despite the loss, the Americans gained confidence. Dr. Joseph Warren, a prominent American political and military leader, was killed during the batte.

Basic Details About the Battle of Bunker Hill

  • On the night of June 16, American soldiers were sent onto the Charlestown Peninsula, north of Boston, to occupy Bunker Hill, but for reasons that are not entirely clear, they constructed their fortifications on neighboring Breed’s Hill.
  • Rather than laying siege to the American forces on the peninsula by sealing off the neck, the British command opted for a frontal assault on Breed’s Hill on June 17, 1775.
  • Following two failed assaults that resulted in heavy losses, the British overran the American fortification on a third attempt after British reinforcements arrived and the Americans ran low on ammunition.
  • After overrunning the fortifications on Breed’s Hill, the British inflicted heavy damage on the Americans as they fled the Charlestown Peninsula.

Battle of Bunker Hill Video fro APUSH Notes

This short video from the American Battlefield Trust provides a quick overview of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Battle of Bunker Hill Timeline

The Battle of Bunker Hill time period was the Boston Campaign of the American Revolutionary War. This list shows the main battles and events that took place before and after the Battle of Bunker Hill, and how it fits into the chronological order of the Boston Campaign.

  • April 18–19, 1775 — The Midnight Rides of Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott. Revere and Dawes warned Lexington and Prescott made it to Concord.
  • April 19, 1775 — Battle of Lexington
  • April 19, 1775 Battle of Concord
  • April 19, 1775 Parker’s Revenge
  • April 19, 1775 — Battle of Menotomy
  • April 19, 1775 — Siege of Boston Started
  • April 23, 1775 — Artemas Ward Placed in Command of the Massachusetts Militia Forces
  • May 10, 1775Capture of Fort Ticonderoga
  • May 10, 1775Second Continental Congress Started
  • May 25, 1775 — British Generals John Burgoyne, Henry Clinton, and William Howe arrived in Boston with reinforcements.
  • May 27, 1775 — Battle of Chelsea Creek
  • June 12, 1775 — Thomas Gage offered a pardon to all rebels except for Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
  • June 14, 1775 — Continental Congress organized the Army of Occupation into the Continental Army.
  • June 15, 1775 — George Washington was named Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
  • June 17, 1775 — Battle of Bunker Hill
  • July 3, 1775 — George Washington took command of the Continental Army.
  • October 10, 1775 — William Howe replaced Thomas Gage.
  • November 9, 1775 — Skirmish at Lechmere Point
  • November 17, 1775 — Knox Expedition Left Boston
  • January 25, 1776 — Knox Expedition Arrived in Framingham
  • March 3, 1776 — American Occupation of Dorchester Heights
  • March 7, 1776 — Howe Decided to Evacuate Boston
  • March 17, 1776 — Evacuation Day

Books and Suggested Reading

American History Central suggested the following books about the Battle of Bunker Hill. Please note that this section contains links to Amazon.com. If you click the links and purchase anything, American History Central may earn a commission.

Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution

In Bunker Hill, Nathaniel Philbrick writes about pre-Revolutionary Boston and the spark that ignited the American Revolutionary War. In the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party and the violence at Lexington and Concord, the conflict escalated and skirmishes gave way to outright war in the Battle of Bunker Hill. It was the bloodiest conflict of the war, and the point of no return for the rebellious colonists. Philbrick provides an exceptional look at the battle and its dynamic personalities, including John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, and George Washington.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The Battle of Bunker Hill — the First Major Battle of the American Revolutionary War
  • Date June 17, 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Bunker Hill, William Prescott, William Howe, Joseph Warren, Battle of Bunker Hill location
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 17, 2024

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