- 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
A few diehards were even firing from the remains of houses around Charlestown (Clinton was annoyed from that direction while he proceeded down the middle of the peninsula), but the end was in sight. Clinton, expecting the rebels to make a stand on the back side of Bunker Hill, was amazed to find it deserted; he posted a force there, sent skirmishers out to man the stone walls between this point and the Neck, and satisfying himself that the enemy was being vigorously pressed, returned to Boston.
Just as in the redoubt, the Americans paid dearly for having left themselves but one narrow avenue of retreat. To make an orderly withdrawal under fire from a losing field was too much to expect under the best of circumstances, but when more than a thousand frantic, disorganized troops, heading for the safety of the mainland, were suddenly compressed into a solid mass to funnel across the Neck, which was only about thirty-five yards wide at its narrowest point, the result was chaos.
Progress was impeded by the wounded and by the debris of battle; British musket fire was closing in from the rear; and to make matters far worse, the entire Neck was being raked by the guns of the Glasgow . One thought was uppermost in the mind of everyone, and that was to reach the other side as quickly as possible. Desperately they surged forward, pushing and shoving, stumbling and falling over wounded men and pieces of men blown apart by the merciless British cannon, shouting in anger and terror and frustration as they fought to get out of this trap.
Thirty-six hours ago they had last rested; they had been a full day without food or water; and for men totally unused to war and unprepared, they had seenit all—continuous pounding from enemy cannon, frontal assaults by veteran infantry, the shattering climax of a bayonet charge and hand-to-hand combat. Already driven beyond the limits of human endurance, they were forced to call forth some final reserve of energy, and incredibly they did so, to make this frenzied dash across the confining causeway.
Once the solid artery of retreat hit the wider reaches of the mainland it broke up into little groups that scattered across the moors and clay pits of Charlestown Common, moving inland toward a sinking sun. Utterly spent, some of the Provincials did not even bother to look back; their only thought was of camp and rest and a security that had seemed impossible minutes before. And as they disappeared, straggling off along the dusty roads toward Cambridge and Medford, the battle for Bunker Hill was over, except for one last incident.
It must have been after 5:30 P.M. , when the Somerset log reported that the “firing slackened,” that Major Andrew McClary, of Stark’s regiment, reached the mainland. Looking back, he saw Clinton’s detachment moving onto the crest of Bunker Hill, and just to make certain that they had no plans to push on toward the mainland, he recrossed the Neck, went close enough to the British lines to decide that no further attack was intended, and finally headed back to rejoin his command. Walking alone in the gathering dusk, he had almost reached safety when a last cannon ball from the Glasgow tore him to pieces. As a historian wrote long afterward, “No smaller weapon seemed worthy to destroy the gigantic hero.”
Back in Boston, the impatient Clinton had turned his thoughts to a counterstroke, to be delivered immediately. Such was “the Panick” in the rebel ranks, he thought, that a thousand men could easily sweep up their entire defenses. But the Americans, to their everlasting credit, were already at work digging again, fortifying Winter Hill on the mainland side of Charlestown Neck, where, as Lie-utenant Colonel Experience Storrs recorded in his diary, “We immediately went to entrenching; flung up by morning an entrenchment 100 feet square. Done principally by our regiment under Putnam’s directions, had but little sleep the night.”
Henry Clinton should have known better. No one wrote a better epitaph on the battle than he did that evening, nor gave a more convincing reason for not resuming it: “A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us.”