The Battle of Bunker Hill: Part Two

Orders concerning what was to be done to prepare for the Battle of Bunker Hill came from General Ward, the man who would be the ranking officer until General Washington arrived. Frothingham explains what the orders were: “The detachment was placed under the command of Colonel Prescott, of Pepperell, who had orders in writing, from General Ward, to proceed that evening (June 16th) to Bunker Hill, build fortifications to be planned by Col. Richard Gridley, the chief engineer, and defend them until he should be relieved, the order not to be communicated until the detachment had passed Charlestown Neck.”[1]

The twelve hundred men under Prescott’s command selected to fortify Bunker Hill included men from three Massachusetts regiments, one Massachusetts artillery company, and “a fatigue party (a work party) of two hundred men drafted from Putnam’s Connecticut regiment and commanded by Captain Thomas Knowlton,”[2] along with the chief engineer, Colonel Richard Gridley.” “The men assembled on Cambridge Common in the late afternoon of June 16th, equipped with packs, blankets, and twenty-four hours rations.  After hearing President Samuel Landon of Harvard pray for divine blessing, the column waited for darkness and then marched silently across Charlestown Neck.[3]


(Map Note: This map is courtesy of the  private collection of Roy Winkelman.  The source is Frank Gilbert, The World: Historical and Actual (Chicago, IL; National Library Association, 1892) p. 505.

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Colonel Prescott was at its head, arrayed in a simple and appropriate uniform with a blue coat and a three cornered hat.  Two sergeants carrying dark lanterns, were a few paces in front of him, and the entrenching tools, in carts, in the rear. Col. Gridley accompanied the troops. They were enjoined to maintain the strictest silence, and were not aware of the object of the expedition until they halted at Charlestown Neck.[4]

“At Charlestown Neck they were met by General Putnam, Major John Brooks, and some wagons loaded with  fascines, gabions empty hogsheads and entrenching  tools.” [5]   The fascines were bundles of rods and sticks bound together, used in construction or military operations for filling in marshy ground or other obstacles and for strengthening the sides of embankments, ditches, or trenches. The gabions were wirework containers filled with rock, or other material, used in the construction of retaining walls. The hogsheads were large casks capable of containing sixty-three gallons. Along with the entrenching tools, these, obviously, were things the men would need for building the redoubt.

Prescott and most of the men would continue on from Charlestown Neck up over Bunker Hill and to the foot of Breed’s Hill.  However, at Charlestown Neck “Captain John Nutting of Prescott’s regiment was detached, with his company and ten of Knowlton’s men, and sent into Charlestown to watch for movements of the enemy.”[6]

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Once the main body got to the foot of Breed’s Hill,        “Colonel Prescott called the field officers around him, and communicated his orders. A long consultation took place in relation to the place to be fortified. The veteran Colonel Gridley, and two generals, one of whom was General Putnam, took part in it. The order was explicit as to Bunker Hill, and yet a position nearer Boston, now known as Breed’s Hill, seemed better adapted to the objects of the expedition, and better suited to the daring spirit of the officers.”[7]

And while Frothingham does not elaborate on what he means by “better adapted to the objects of the expedition,” after some thought, the advantages of Breed’s Hill in that regard, are pretty obvious. For they had come to build fortifications which would be a threat to the British in Boston, a threat which would demand that the British respond.  And being that much closer to Boston, that threat would be enhanced.  For if they were to place artillery on Breed’s Hill, which the British would have to consider a very likely possibility, Boston would be well within range of their artillery.  For remember Boston was only a half mile across the river.

And while this was true, it must be said that this was a situation where there were advantages to both possibilities.  For Bunker Hill was closer to the Neck, their only way of escape. And if the British were to launch some attack to shut off their way of escape, it would be better for them to be on Bunker’s Hill: “The moments were precious, and the engineer strongly urged the importance of a speedy decision.  At the pressing importunity of one of the generals, it was concluded to proceed to Breed’s Hill.  At the same time it was determined that works should be erected on Bunker Hill. When the detachment reached Breed’s Hill, the packs were thrown off, the guns were stacked, Colonel Gridley marked out the plans of a fortification.” [8]

The fortification was to be a four sided square redoubt. A redoubt is a little fort. The word means “a place of retreat.”  Each side of the redoubt was to be 136 feet long.

Regarding the construction of the redoubt, Don Higginbotham adds: “Gridley ordered the erection of a six foot parapet containing firing platforms of earth and wood. Gridley and Prescott also supervised the construction of a breastwork running eastward from the redoubt down the hill and extending one hundred yards.”[9]

If you are wondering what a parapet is, think of old castles in Europe first. Think of those notched openings on the top of the castle wall.  Behind those notched openings was a walkway where archers could walk back and forth.  And the purpose of the notched openings was for them to shoot arrows through. That wall with the notched openings was the parapet.

Now, obviously, on Breed’s Hill they did not have a castle. But they did have a six foot parapet with firing platforms behind made of earth and wood. And so, they stood on the firing platforms and used the parapet to protect themselves as they were shooting.

As for breastworks, a breastwork is a temporary fortification, often an earthwork thrown up to breast height to provide protection to defenders firing over it from a standing position.  And so, these are the things they were seeking to build.  “It was about midnight when the pick and shovel work was begun. It was a warm, still night, dimly lit by the stars in a cloudless sky.  They could see the dark outlines of the ships lying at anchor in the narrow channel of the Charles and, very near to the shore on which they stood, the Lively with her twenty guns, the Falcon sloop with sixteen, the Symmetry, armed transport with eighteen, the Glasgow with twenty-four, and the great sixty-eight gun Somerset.” [10]

In his book, The Siege of Boston, Allen French says:  “Prescott at once set his men at work digging, endeavoring to raise a good protection before morning.  In this he was successful.  His men were all farmers, used to the shovel and pick; the earth was soft and

scarcely stony; and there was no interruption.” [11]

However with the British ships lying so close at anchor, and sentries on the shore in Boston, they had to be careful.  “This proximity to an enemy required great caution; and a thousand men, accustomed to handling the spade, worked with great diligence and silence on the entrenchments; while the cry of “All’s well,” heard at intervals through the night by the patrols, gave the assurance that they were not discovered.”[12]

And so, here the men led by Colonel Prescott were, on the Charlestown heights with a commanding view of Boston across the river, taking this unmanned hill in the night and setting up fortifications to defend it.  In the next article we will see the initial response of the British.

[1] Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, And of the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill p. 122.

[2] Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, p. 77.  Reprinted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

[3] Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1971), p. 70

[4] Richard Frothingham, p. 122.

[5] Christopher Ward,  p. 78.  Reprinted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

[6] Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, p. 78.

[7] Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, And of the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill p. 123.

[8] Richard Frothingham, p. 123-124.

[9] Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence, p. 71

[10] Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution,  p. 79.

[11] Allen French, The Siege of Boston, p. 69.

[12] Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, And of the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill p. 124-125.

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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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