The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775. It was the first major battle of the American Revolutionary War, and was fought during the Siege of Boston. Although the result on the field of battle was a British victory, it was a moral victory for the American forces who proved they could hold their own with the British regulars.
British March to 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 and William Dawes.
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.
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, 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.
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.
British Attack the Hill
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 during 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 damages 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.
Significance of the Battle
Known as the Battle of Bunker Hill — despite the fact that most of the fighting took place on Breed’s Hill — the combat on the Charlestown Peninsula was the first significantly large battle of the American Revolutionary War.
Although the British were victorious, the battle was a moral victory for Americans throughout the colonies, who now had real evidence that they could not only engage, but inflict heavy casualties on the greatest military force in the world.