The Battle of Bunker Hill: Part One

Boston_mapThe Battle of Bunker Hill took place on a peninsula of land referred to as Charlestown peninsula.  In describing the peninsula in his book, History of the Siege of Boston, And of the Battles of Lexington, Concord And Bunker Hill, Richard Frothingham says: “The peninsula of Charlestown is situated opposite to the north part of Boston, and is separated from it by the Charles River. It is about a mile in length from north to south, and its greatest breath, next to Boston, is about half a mile, whence it gradually becomes narrower until it makes an isthmus, called the Neck, connecting it to the mainland. The Mystic River, about a half mile wide, is on the east side; and on the west side is the Charles River, which here forms a large bay” [1]

On the map notice the narrow Neck where the peninsula connects to the mainland, and also notice Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill.  These were terrain features which would be important to the battle.  The Neck was the only way by land to get soldiers on and off the peninsula.  Therefore, it was the Americans’ only way to send reinforcements and the only way for them to retreat if they were being overrun by the British.

Imagine coming across that narrow neck and then looking up at Bunker Hill which was one hundred and ten feet tall. Once you got up on Bunker Hill, which was the highest point on the peninsula, you could see Breed’s Hill below, which was seventy-five feet tall,[2] and beyond Breed’s Hill you could see the little town of Charlestown down by Charles River, and across the half mile wide Charles you could see the town of Boston.  If there were any ships in the Charles River or the Mystic River, you could see them. It was quite a view. No wonder when people looked up from Boston at Breed’s Hill with its steep slopes on the east and west side, and saw Bunker Hill even higher behind it, they referred to them as Charlestown Heights.

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General Gage, who was in charge of the British army at Boston, was concerned about the safety of his army. And  “even he could not fail to see that the heights of  Charlestown and of Dorchester threatened his army. His plan was to first seize Dorchester Heights, and for that action was set a date—the night of the eighteenth of June.

“But Gage’s counsel was never well kept.  While Burgoyne (one of Gage’s generals) complained that the British “are ignorant not only of what passes in Congress, but want spies for the hill half a mile off, the Americans were in no such embarrassment.  They had spies at every corner, and—we may suppose—listeners at many a door. Gage had already arrested men supposed to have been signaling from steeples. We do not know how the news got through on this occasion; at any rate the Americans were informed as early as the 13th.” [3]

Now, of course, with this being the news, something had to be done.  Since congress had not yet decided to form a Continental army, the chiefs of the provincial army, (the army of Massachusetts, for they were the ones in charge of the siege at the moment), felt “called upon to act.”[4]

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“On learning the news of Gage’s projected move, the  Committee of Safety called for an accounting of the condition and supplies of the various regiments, advised an increase in the army, recommended that all persons go armed, even to church, and finally on the 15th of June took the decisive step of advising the seizure of Bunker Hill.   A detachment was made up, consisting on paper of fifteen hundred men, but in fact of about twelve hundred.  These were placed under the command of Colonel William Prescott.” [5]

Colonel Prescott was from Pepperell, Massachusetts which was about forty-five miles northwest of Boston.  Richard Frothingham describes Prescott as follows: “Colonel Prescott was over six feet in height, of strong and intelligent features with blue eyes and brown hair. He was bald on the top of his head, and wore a tie wig. He was large and muscular, but not corpulent.  He was kind in his disposition, plain but courteous in his manners; of limited education, but fond of reading; never in a hurry, and cool, self-possessed in danger.” [6]

This was an accurate statement.  What I would add to Frothingham’s statement is what you are about to see as you read about the Battle of Bunker Hill.  You are about to see a man who is cool in the face of danger because he is wholeheartedly committed to the cause and in the midst of battle he is focused on the task that needs to be done.

This is a man who served in two previous wars.  In Prescott you will see a man who is focused on the task at hand because he knows what needs to be done and when it needs to be done.  This includes when the men should not be shooting and when they should be, and how to handle the increasing stresses as the battle continues.

He is a man of courage, who is not afraid to die and to the end you will see him encourage his men and look after his men, moving from coordinating the shooting at the British in the redoubt to hand to hand fighting, not fearing the conflict.

This was a man who was willing to take a stand, for he understood the reason their ancestors had come to America.  He knew they wanted to enjoy the blessing of having both their civil and religious liberties. He also understood it was the responsibility of each generation to pass those liberties on to their children.  Therefore, his attitude concerning the responsibility of his own generation was, “Now, if we should give them up, can our children rise up and call us blessed?”[7]     

That is a good question, a question we should be thinking about today instead of “Who is going to win the next football game?”  Here was a man determined to protect liberties which had been passed down from generation to generation. Therefore, his question comes with an assumed answer, and it is assumed because of his commitment to the cause.  This is the kind of man he was.

Another man who would figure prominently in the Battle of Bunker Hill was General Israel Putnam. Putnam was from Connecticut and is described as follows: “He was a farmer, fifty-seven years of age, widely known throughout New England by the affectionate title of ‘Old Put.’ He had led the first Connecticut company sent out in 1755 in the French and Indian War, in which he saw long and hard service and was engaged in many sensational exploits. He was captured by Indians, tied to the stake to be burned, and rescued at the very last moment by a French officer.  He was a prisoner at Montreal for a long time until exchanged.  He had a regiment to attack Havana and was shipwrecked on the coast of Cuba. He fought the Indians again in 1764.”[8]

Therefore, while Israel Putnam may have looked to strangers as just an old a farmer due to the fact that his appearance would not have impressed anyone.  He was described as being only five feet six inches tall, “a rather short, broad-shouldered, burly man with a big round head crowned by an unruly shock of grey hair.” [9]

But he was a man with a highly respected military past, and was not afraid to be in the thick of battle. Therefore, when he got the word that the British were in a fight with militia at Lexington and Concord, he immediately gathered up his minute men, left his farm in Connecticut, and headed for the fight.

The Battle of Bunker Hill took place because it was the plan recommended by him to lure the British army out of Boston and make them pay a dear price to take the hill.  This is how the battle came about. The British had decided to take Dorchester Heights, and because of the strategic advantage that would give the British, the patriots were determined to respond.  The next article in this series will deal with the plan and the preparation.

[1] Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, And of the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1903) p. 118-119

[2] Ibid., p. 120.

[3] Allen French, The Siege of Boston (New York, NY: The MacMillan Company, 1911), p. 67.

[4]  Ibid., p. 68.

[5] Allen French, The Siege of Boston (New York, NY: The MacMillan Company, 1911), p. 68.

[6] Richard Frothingham, p. 167.

[7] George Bancroft, History of the United States, From the Discovery of the American Continent Volume VII (Boston, MA: Little, Brown And Company, 1861) Chapter VIII, page 99.

[8] Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, p. 75-76.  Reprinted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

[9] Ibid.


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Bob Wittstruck was a pastor for 33 years, was the associate director of the Black Hills Creation Science Association, and is a supporter of both Christian schooling and home schooling. His latest book, The Forgotten Factor of History God Rules, is being printed in February or March of 2016. His email address is [email protected]
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