- Historic Sites
“The Decisive Day Is Come”
The battle between rebels and redcoats that should have taken place at Bunker Hill was fought at Breed’s instead. It was the first of many costly mistakes for both sides
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
An Ipswich man remembered that “they looked too handsome to be fired at; but we had to do it,” and another American told how the British “advanced in open order, the men often twelve feet apart in the front, but very close after one another in extraordinary deep or long files. As fast as the front man was shot down, the next stepped forward into his place; but our men dropt them so fast, they were a long time coming up. It was surprising how they would step over their dead bodies, as though they had been logs of wood.” There was no need to wait for a chance to fire, one rebel said; all you had to do was load and there would be a mark at hand, as near as you pleased.
But running out of targets was scarcely the problem. Behind the rampart, men with powder-blackened faces bit the end off their last cartridge, rammed it home, pulled the trigger, and then looked around for something else to shoot. Some were firing nails or little scraps of metal picked up off the ground, others grabbed handfuls of rocks and began hurling them at the oncoming enemy, desperately trying to prevent that terrible gleaming forest of bayonets from coming any closer.
Captain George Harris, leading the grenadiers of the 5th Regiment up the slope, scaled a little rise between the breastwork and the redoubt, was pushed back, and on the third attempt was grazed on the top of his head by a ball. As he fell backward he was caught by his lieutenant, Lord Rawdon, who called four soldiers to help him to safety. Three of the men were hit as they took him back down the hillside, and Harris told them irritably, “For God’s sake, let me die in peace.”
Somehow they got him out of gunshot to safety, and Harris’ servant, who had been searching frantically for him, came running up just in time to get his master into the last boat then available for the wounded. Although it was jammed, they took Harris aboard, faint and shivering from shock, and shortly after he arrived in Boston a surgeon performed a trepanning operation on him, which the stolid Englishman watched by means of mirrors.
Atop Breed’s Hill the fighting raged on toward its fiery climax. Despite the barrage from the British field-pieces, no breach had been made in the American defenses. Then suddenly, Lord Rawdon said,
our men grew impatient, and all crying ‘Push on, push on,’ advanced with infinite spirit to attack the work with their small arms. As soon as the rebels perceived this, they rose up and poured in so heavy a fire upon us that the oldest officers say they never saw a sharper action. They kept up this fire until we were within ten yards of them; nay, they even knocked down my captain [Harris], close beside me, after we had got into the ditch of the entrenchment … There are few instances of regular troops defending a redoubt till the enemy were in the very ditch of it, [yet] I can assure you that I myself saw several pop their heads up and fire even after some of our men were upon the berm [the top part of an earthwork— Ed. ] … I received no hurt of any kind, but a ball passed through a close cap which I had.
Lying on the outside of the redoubt, under the protection of its wall, Rawdon called out to young Ensign Hunter of the 52nd to show him how narrowly he had missed death. Another officer, Major Williams, was badly wounded, and Rawdon asked Hunter to go and find a surgeon to tend him; but Hunter, who had just seen Harris’ rescuers shot as they carried him off, “had sense enough to know that I was much safer close under the works than I could be at a few yards from it, as the enemy could not depress their arms sufficiently to do any execution to those that were close under, and to have gone to the rear to look for a surgeon would have been almost certain death.”
Samuel Webb took his place in the American line just as the fighting reached its peak and, looking around at his dead and wounded countrymen, had “no other feelings but that of Revenge.” It was a good thing he had the stomach for fighting; five or six more Americans dropped within five feet of where he stood, and a musket ball grazed his hat. Webb saw Gershom Smith of his company go down. Edward Brown, who was at Smith’s side, fired his own gun, then reached for Smith’s and shot it. At that moment bayonets loomed over the breastwork, and the regulars began pouring in. Brown leaped for an enemy, seized his musket, and killed him with it on the spot.
At the far left end of Pigot’s line, which had swung around the west side of the redoubt in order to flank it, the British marines ran into the same shattering fire that had characterized the entire American defense. As they fell into confusion, most of the marines began to fire at the works instead of charging, and Adjutant Waller had all he could do to keep two companies in formation. Major John Pitcairn, who had commanded the British at Lexington in April, was attempting to rally his men; they heard him shout that the enemy had abandoned the fort, heard a boy call from behind the wall, “We are not all gone!” And at that moment, men said later, a Negro named Salem Prince shot Pitcairn through the head. He fell into the arms of his son; close by him a captain and a subaltern were down, and Waller realized that