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“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
All resistance in the redoubt and the breastwork collapsed at last, but fortunately for those who were fleeing, the rail fence held firm and the defenders there were able to cover their comrades’ retreat before withdrawing themselves in good order. A handful of fresh men led by William Coit and John Chester kept up a “brisk fire” from behind a stone wall along the way, and some thirty of Stark’s men helped Samuel Trevett bring off one of his fieldpieces—the only one the rebels managed to save. They succeeded in hauling it to the summit of Bunker Hill before a British company sighted the prize and stormed after them, and there was a rough little encounter, with several American losses, before Trevett and the New Hampshiremen drove off the attackers and dragged the gun away.
The entire American left flank, acting as a rear guard, fell back stubbornly, carrying their wounded with them, taking cover wherever they found it, and returning the British fire like professional troops. The i last rebels to leave were those with the most to fight for—the Charlestown company of Thomas Gardner’s regiment, who had hurried into line at the rail fence just before the third British attack. They had lost their colonel (Gardner was mortally wounded while trying to lead reinforcements to the redoubt, and was carried off the field on a litter of rails by his son and some other men); they had watched, helpless, while their village and their homes went up in flames; and if ever a company was fighting mad, it was this one. But there was nothing much that anyone could do now, beyond saving his own skin.
Fortunately for the Americans, the British had very nearly reached the end of their string. They had climbed Breed’s Hill three times that afternoon, and the grisly slopes were littered with their dead; twice victory had eluded them, and when it came at last it was because discipline and courage overcame fear and exhaustion and defeat. By all rights these men had been beaten; now they were utterly worn out by their efforts, their losses were staggering, their morale was nearly gone, and if they paused to draw breath and failed to pursue the still contentious Americans, it was no wonder.
Some of the best of them were gone. Colonel James Abercromby, the commander of the grenadiers, was dying; so was Major Pitcairn of the marines, who had been carried back to Boston by his son. Someone who saw the younger man, covered with blood, wandering dazedly through the streets of the town, was about to help him when he was informed that the blood was from the father’s wound. Gage sent a doctor immediately to Pitcairn, but the marine knew he was dying and refused to let the physician waste his time. To young Jeremy Lister fell the task of telling Lieutenant Kelley’s wife of her husband’s mortal wound and of standing by helplessly while she “for some time sat motionless with two small Children close by her.”
Henry Clinton arrived at the scene of victory at the moment when Howe, seeing as if for the first time the number of British dead on the field, was beginning to realize its cost. Not one of the General’s aides was left; all were either killed or wounded. The pride of the army, the flank companies, had been cut to ribbons, and the toll of officers and men in all regiments was appalling. When Clinton saw him, Howe was far from a victorious general; he was exhausted, his white gaiters streaked with blood from the long grass on the hill, and he had the look of a man who has stared death and disaster in the face.
Howe admitted privately to Clinton that his left “was totally gone” just before the final onslaught, and Clinton was so disturbed by all he saw and heard during these few moments that he committed his impressions to cipher: “All was in Confusion, officers told me that they could not command their men and I never saw so great a want of order.”
But if Howe, undone by the battle, wanted energy, Clinton did not. He saw at once that the rebels must be driven off the peninsula while they were still disorganized, and after stationing a detachment of 100 men in Prescott’s abandoned redoubt, he took all the able-bodied troops that were available, caught up with Pigot, who had already moved after the Americans, and headed up the road to Bunker Hill. Off to his right, Stark and Knowlton and Gardner were still making their way deliberately and obstinately toward the rear, their men putting up “a running fight,” Lord Rawdon wrote admiringly, “from one fence, or wall, to another.”
Burgoyne, too, complimented the rebels on their retreat. It was, he said, “no flight: it was even covered with bravery and military skill.” (They were so successful in bringing off their wounded that the British took only thirty-one prisoners, most of them mortally injured.) Despite the sudden collapse of their defenses and the precipitous retreat from the redoubt, the Provincials simply refused to give up.