“The Decisive Day Is Come”


Behind the lines the situation was chaotic. Of nine Massachusetts regiments ordered out from Cambridge at the time of the alarm, only five were even partially represented on the field when the British attacked. Whole regiments and fragments of regiments went astray, wandering hither and yon because their commanders either misunderstood or disobeyed orders, or because the orders were uncertain or garbled to begin with. Some halted on the wrong side of the Neck, some went no farther than Bunker Hill, some headed in the wrong direction altogether. As one informant wrote Sam Adams after the battle: “To be plain it appears to me there never was more confusion and less command. No one appeared to have any but Col. Prescott whose bravery can never be enough acknowledged and applauded.—General Putnam was employd in collecting the men but there were not officers to lead them on.”


It is difficult to imagine anyone who could have been spared less easily by the American high command than Joseph Warren, the thirty-four-year-old Boston doctor who was president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, an important member of the Committee of Safety, and a major general (though Warren had been so recently elevated to that rank that he had not yet officially received his commission). But Warren operated on the theory that major generals were supposed to fight, and minutes after the alarm sounded in Cambridge he was heading toward Charlestown with young Dr. Townsend, one of his medical students. Along the way someone must have recognized him and given him a horse, for two of his friends subsequently reported that Warren had overtaken them on horseback, exchanged greetings, and disappeared down the Charlestown Road. He reached the Neck between two and three o’clock, when the British cannonade was at its height, and made his way up the northwest side of Bunker Hill.

Putnam caught sight of Warren and came over to ask for orders, but the doctor refused, saying he had come as a volunteer. (Even in all the din and confusion, the contrast between these two must have occasioned a smile from the soldiers: Warren the man of intellect, tall and handsome in his best clothes; Old Put, the man of action, his shirtsleeves rolled up and a battered hat on his head.) After asking where he could be of most use, Warren went out to the redoubt, where Prescott also offered to relinquish his command. Again Warren refused, saying, “I have no command here; I have not received my commission,” and, before taking his place in the line, he added a graceful word about how he would consider it a privilege to fight under Prescott.

While waiting for his reserve, William Howe saw the last sizable gap in the rebel line being filled up, saw what looked like a breastwork being erected on the American left, and concluded that some armed boats, sent up the Mystic to a point behind the rail fence, could drive the farmers out of their lines easily; so he ordered that useful pair of floating batteries over by the milldam to suspend action there and come around to the Mystic side. An hour or so earlier the plan would have worked, but the tides were with the Americans this day, and once the boats left their anchorage they could not get up either river again.

While this abortive maneuver was in progress, Howe turned his attention to his own left wing, fearful that the rebels in Charlestown might turn his flank or at least cause trouble during the attack. Snipers were beginning to annoy the British even at long range, so Howe posted a regiment on the left to protect his advance on that side and, turning to Admiral Thomas Graves, asked if the fleet could assist in routing the Provincials from the town. Graves asked eagerly if Howe wanted the place burned, and when the General agreed, signaled the ships to fire red-hot balls, which had been prepared for just such an eventuality, into the town. The battery, across the Charles River in Boston, was instructed to shoot carcasses—or balls containing combustibles—and before long a landing party came ashore at the eastern end of town and put the buildings to the torch.


And now Howe’s reserve reached him; companies of grenadiers and light infantry landing between Morion’s Point and Charlestown. (The boats carrying them were under the command of Midshipman Cuthbert Colling wood, who would one day succeed the dying Admiral Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar.) With them came the ist Marines and the 47th Regiment, giving the English general some 2,200 rank and file, plus his artillery. As soon as they were in position Howe formed his men into two wings, with Brigadier General Robert Pigot commanding the left and himself the right.

The plan of attack was a simple one. Howe had sized up the American left as the weak point, for it was logical to assume that men who had taken a position only an hour or so earlier would have had far less opportunity to fortify than those who had been working all night in the redoubt. Therefore, the British right wing would strike the hammer blow, with the elite light-infantry companies advancing in columns along the narrow beach to overrun the low stone wall and sweep in behind the defenders at the rail fence, while the big grenadiers, supported by the 5th and 52nd regiments, advanced in two lines against the fence.