- 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
had we stopped there much longer, the enemy would have picked us all off. I saw this, and begged Colonel Nesbitt of the 47th to form on our left, in order that we might advance with our bayonets to the parapet. I ran from right to left, and stopped our men from firing; while this was doing, and when we had got in tolerable order, we rushed on, leaped the ditch, and climbed the parapet, under a most sore and heavy fire.
There was a moment at the last when the British staggered once again—a moment when the battle’s outcome hung in the balance—then they recovered and came on with a rush. Prescott said later that one more round of ammunition might have pushed them back then and there, but there was not one more round. The last American volley sputtered out “like an old candle,” and with a great animal roar that was heard in Boston the redcoats surged forward. Bayonets glinted in the smoky gloom, the mitered hats of the big grenadiers loomed over the breastwork. Angry, sweating redcoats, the breath sobbing in their throats, stormed up the dirt walls of the redoubt as the marines poured in from the right. All the pent-up anger and misery and frustration of that ghastly afternoon was in their charge, and there was no stopping them. They had murder in their eyes, and they lashed out, stabbing and slashing with the bayonet, not bothering to fire, cursing, yelling, pressing the assault home with the terrible brutal fury of which man is sometimes capable.
Almost none of the Americans had bayonets—nothing but clubbed muskets or fists or rocks—yet they fought, one regular said, “more like Devils than Men” in this hand-to-hand melee. Even so, Prescott saw there was no chance and ordered his men to retreat, to get out as best they could. Peter Brown was “not suffered to be toutched, altho’ I was in the fort when the Enemy came in, and jumped over the walls, and ran half a mile where Balls flew like Hailstones, and Canons roared like Thunder.”
Captain Ebenezer Bancroft had just taken the ramrod from his firelock when a British officer leaped at him. He fired, killing the man, then rushed for the entrance to the redoubt, holding his gun “broadwise before my face” to keep from being clubbed. A rifle butt smashed down on his shoulder, and as he ran toward Bunker Hill, weak with fatigue, sightless in one eye, he realized that the forefinger of his left hand was gone. Coffee Whittemore, a Negro, had a hole in his hat from a musket ball, and in the final moments of the fight he seized a sword from a fallen British officer and carried it off in triumph (to the disgust of his friends, he sold it a few days later).
Amos Farnsworth was another who stayed in the redoubt until the enemy broke through, and when the retreat began he raced out about ten or fifteen rods past the outlet, where he “received a wound in my rite arm, the bawl gowing through a little below my elbow breaking the little shel bone. Another bawl struk my back, taking a piece of skin about as big as a penny. But I got to Cambridge that night.” Colonel Ebenezer Bridge had his head and neck laid open by a British sword. His second-in-command, Moses Parker, was groveling in the dirt, one knee fractured by a ball; but it was every man for himself in these frantic closing moments of the fight, and Parker was left behind, to be taken prisoner and to die after a British surgeon amputated his leg.
The redoubt that had protected Prescott’s troops all day nearly became a death-trap for them now. There was only one narrow exit at the rear of the fort, and the black smoke and dust were so thick the men had to feel their way along the walls to find it. Yet this weird gloom kept the uneven struggle from becoming a massacre; the British could not tell friend from foe and dared not fire into the mass of men crowded around the passage. It was a nightmare of confusion and chaos, with the shadowy figures of wildly shouting, moving men, half-panicked as they surged and fought their way toward the only exit, half-mad with rage as they beat off the thrust of death from behind. Prescott refused to run; striding toward the opening with sword raised, he parried the swipes of bayonets, and although his coat and waistcoat were pierced, he was not injured.
When he and the other Americans emerged from the fort, they found themselves between two approaching bodies of the enemy which had enveloped the redoubt from opposite sides, and while neither of these could fire for fear of hitting their own men, other British were coming up from behind, scaling the rear wall of the redoubt, shooting into the retreating rebels. Prescott’s adjutant went down, and Captains Maxwell, Dow, and Farwell were wounded.
Somewhere, in the last wild rush, Joseph Warren disappeared in the murk of battle. The man Lord Rawdon called “the greatest incendiary in all America,” who had once said he would like to die fighting the British in blood up to his knees, got his wish. No one saw him fall, but he was hit in the head by a ball and must have been killed instantly. “He died in his best cloaths,” a British officer wrote; “everybody remembers his fine silk-fringed waistcoat.”