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A Perspective on the Battle of Bunker Hill

June 11, 2020

by Jeremy Gypton

H. Charles McBarron. Yorktown. Public Domain, from the US Army Chief of Military Historians’ office.

On June 13th, 1775, American troops around Boston learned of a British plan to occupy the hills on the Charlestown peninsula, north of the city, providing them with a commanding view of the area and enabling artillery to be used against American forces there. Acting on this information, Col. William Prescott on June 16th led about 1200 men to fortify what is now known as Breed’s Hill. Originally ordered to take and hold Bunker Hill, which was higher, they instead opted for Breed’s, which was lower and closer to the city. Over the night of June 16th, the Americans constructed a series of earthworks and other defensive positions on and around the hill, and by morning were prepared to meet the British attack they were sure would come on the 17th.

The British, waking on the 17th to American fortifications on Breed’s Hill, launched an amphibious attack on the peninsula with about 3000 troops, who repeatedly charged American positions, losing about one-third that number and being repulsed a few times before finally forcing the Americans out of their positions and chasing them off the peninsula, back over Bunker Hill, and ‘winning’ the day. It is worth considering that casualty rates that high are not sustainable – anything above 10% is typically considered to be too costly, depending on the context. One-third was, put simply, shocking to the British.

Although what came to be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill was a tactical loss for the Americans – that is, the British achieved their immediate, battlefield objective of pushing the colonial militia off the hills north of Boston – it was a strategic victory for the Americans. News of the colonials’ stand against what they saw as the best army in the world, and the horrible casualties they caused against them, served to bolster American spirits, embolden their resolve to fight, and give them a clear example that they could fight a conventional battle against the British and almost prevail. It is an interesting thing to note that a loss turned quickly into a victory, based not so much on the events of the day, but the perceptions of the two sides.

To get a sense of one side of this battle, we can read British Lieutenant J. Waller’s account, written by him less than a week after the battle. Notice his focus only on the events of the day, as well as his comments about who the Americans seemed to target the most, and how the larger perception of the battle was nowhere on his mind at this point.

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