- 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
Across the third of a mile of water that lay between Charlestown and Boston came the barges—twenty-eight of them, two parallel lines of fourteen boats in single file, loaded to the gunwales with scarlet-coated British soldiers. The long white oars swept back and forth across the blue water in carefully ordered cadence, bringing the barges closer, ever closer, to the waiting rebels. In each of the two leading boats were six bright brass fieldpieces; behind them came the flower of the British army, nearly fifty men to a barge.
On and on the barges came, like lines of ancient galleys, sweeping ever nearer until men’s faces were distinguishable beneath their hats; one by one the boats ground ashore, spewing troops onto the narrow beach at Morion’s Point, big men, heavily loaded with muskets, blankets, and haversacks, who leaped out and jogged up the hill to form in long, disciplined lines. And as soon as they had unloaded their human cargo the barges turned again toward Boston and began their rhythmic crossing, this time to pick up some 450 additional foot soldiers, men in the red and blue coats of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, and the commanding officer of the assault force, Major General William Howe.
In all, 1,550 infantrymen landed in the first two waves—plenty of troops for the assignment as originally conceived—and thanks to the pounding guns of the fleet and the Copp’s Hill battery, there was no opposition. But Howe perceived while he was en route across the Charles that the situation had changed drastically, and soon after arriving he sent a message back to Gage asking for reinforcements at once. Beyond the redoubt, along the top of Bunker Hill, Howe could see a huge, milling throng of colonials which he took to be reserves; and at just about the time he landed, he saw several bodies of men make their way through that crowd, hurry down the eastern slope of the hill, and take position on the flat shelf above the Mystic River. This put an end to his hopes for an unopposed flanking movement around the American left, and forced him to send for his reserves.
But in the meantime he unaccountably revealed his intentions by ordering George Clark, commanding the light infantry, to take an advanced position along the water’s edge. “I was sent immediately forward with four companies of the corps of light infantry within about 400 yards of the works of the enemy, where we lay covered under the bank of the water and other banks extending to our left,” Clark said. And here they lay on their arms until the attack began. Forming the other troops who had landed, Howe pushed three lines up to the top of Morion’s Hill, and there the men unslung their haversacks and calmly ate dinner while the General waited for support to arrive. Once again, he was giving the rebels precious time to consolidate their defenses.
As soon as Prescotl saw lhal the entire British force would land at Morton’s Poinl, he ordered two fieldpieces to “go and oppose them.” Considering the number of guns available to him, and what they would face, it was a pitiful gesture, and Prescolt knew it, but he had very few alternalives left now. He turned to young Captain Thomas Knowlton and told him to take his Connecticul men along in support of the artillery. Before long the detachment disappeared from sight beyond a clump of trees below Breed’s Hill, and when they did not reappear where Prescott expected to see them, he could only assume that they had “marched a different course, and I believe those sent to their support followed, I suppose to Bunker Hill.”
He was mistaken in this, but only partially. Captains Samuel Gridley and John Callender had their men seize drag-ropes and haul the four guns out of the redoubt in near panic, and indeed they made straightaway for Bunker Hill, claiming to all who questioned them that they were out of ammunition. But just as they were about to beat their teams into a gallop for the final dash to safety across Charlestown Neck, Putnam halted them, skeptical about their excuse, and throwing open the lids of their side boxes, found them full of cannon balls. He ordered them back to the redoubt, but as soon as he departed the officers and men ran, abandoning their guns.
Knowlton, however, did what Prescott ordered him to do, and although he may have misunderstood the Colonel’s instructions as to the exact spot he was expected to defend, he occupied the first defensible position beyond the swamp that lay between Breed’s Hill and the Mystic, forming a line which ran almost parallel to the extended breastwork and about two hundred yards behind it—a line bounded on one side by a road leading up Bunker Hill and on the other by the bank of the Mystic River.
As Lieutenant Dana, who was with Knowlton, described their position, they dug in “behind a fence half of stone and two rayles of wood. Here nature had formed something of a breast-work, or else there had been a ditch many years ago. They grounded arms, and went to a neighboring parallel fence, and brought rayles and made a slight fortification against musquet-ball.” The result of their efforts was thus a double fence, with hay stuffed between the two lines of rails; and since the fence at the rear was on top of a low stone wall, with a ditch behind it, the position was stronger than it might seem. (One Englishman stated later that the completed breastwork was ten feet thick.)