- 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
There was still a gap between the rail fence and the breastwork, however, and although the swamp in front of it would hinder Howe’s advance, someone—Knowlton, possibly, or reinforcements who came up later-had the presence of mind to construct here three little flèches, or V-shaped trenches, each one behind and slightly above the other.
By this time the one serious hole in the rebel lines…the open area between the end of the rail fence and the Mystic—was being filled in. The men Howe had seen running down the hill as he disembarked were the New Hampshire regiments of John Stark and James Reed. They had arrived at the crucial spot at precisely the right moment. Fortunately for the Provincials, the British barges had to make two round trips before Howe appeared on the scene, and this extra margin of time allowed John Stark to drive his men from Medford to the Charlestown peninsula and get them into line alongside the Mystic River at the right instant to foil Howe’s plans.
Stark had had his troubles getting there, however. When he reached the Neck, it was crowded with men from two regiments who were afraid to cross in the face of fire from British ships in the river. The Symmetry , with eighteen nine-pounders, lay off Charles-town, and two floating batteries, or barges, each with one twelve-pounder, had hauled in near the milldam, and these three vessels were raking the whole Neck, preventing fainter hearts than Stark from crossing. This was a spot where courage and leadership counted, and John Stark possessed both. Without a moment’s hesitation he started for Bunker Hill, ordering his men to follow; and when one of his officers suggested nervously that they quicken their pace, Stark fixed him with a withering eye and said, “Dearborn, one fresh man in action is worth ten fatigued ones,” and walked on as before.
Israel Putnam was in command on Bunker Hill, but John Stark was not about to take orders from any Connecticut officer, nor did he need anyone to tell him what to do. He saw immediately the unprotected gap on the American left, pushed his men through the confused crowd on the hill, and led them at a trot down to the rail fence, where he joined Knowlton. Howe and the second contingent of redcoats were disembarking as they came down the slope, and Stark halted his men just long enough at the rail fence to deliver “a short but animated address,” followed by three cheers, before having them extend the lines to the bank of the Mystic. Apparently some of the grass in these fields had been cut, for Henry Dearborn recalled how it lay in windrows and cocks, and the men gathered it up, stuffing it between fence rails as Knowlton had done in his sector, and repairing the fence as best they could. Their defense was scarcely ball-proof, but at least it gave the appearance of a breastwork and lent the men behind it some sense of security.
Adding to that feeling was the presence of Major Andrew McClary, a giant nearly six and a half feet tall, who was everywhere, bolstering their courage, giving encouragement and advice, seeing that all was in readiness. McClary was one of the most popular officers in the New Hampshire camp and was already something of a hero as a result of planning and leading a raid on the Castle at Portsmouth in December of 1774, four months before Lexington, when many of the muskets now carried by the New Hampshire regiments had been seized.
When Stark went over to the riverbank, where the fence ended, and saw that the steep bank fell off about eight or nine feet to a narrow beach, he realized at once that the British could march in complete safety along the water’s edge, just below the little cliff. He hailed his “boys” and had them bring stones to make a wall right down to the river, and behind it he posted a triple row of defenders.
The American line was now as complete as it was ever going to be, and a British soldier scanning it from the vantage point of Morion’s Hill would have seen four distinct elements from left to right: the redoubt, the breastwork, the rail fence, and the stone wall on the beach. (Between the end of the breastwork and the beginning of the fence was the gap in which the three flèches had been built.) The extreme American right consisted of two unfortified positions: a little cartway along a fence, between the redoubt and Charlestown, where a company of Little’s regiment and a few other troops, among them Nutting’s company, had been posted; and the main street of Charlestown, at the bottom of Breed’s Hill, where three companies from Doolittle’s, Reed’s, and Woodbridge’s regiments were stationed.