- 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
Although Howe had taken most of the picked men from the flank companies for what was to be the decisive attack, Pigot nevertheless had three companies each of light infantry and grenadiers, plus the 38th, the 43rd, and 47th regiments and the ist Marines. Both wings were approximately equal, Howe having thirty-seven companies and Pigot thirty-eight, and Howe planned to roll up the American left and charge in on the redoubt from behind while Pigot moved around the fringe of Breed’s Hill, skirting the houses of Charlestown, and struck the redoubt from that side. The British general saw no reason for the attackers to stop and fire: the assault would be made with the bayonet alone.
About three o’clock in the afternoon the long lines of British infantry stepped off, their advance heralded by a sharp cannonade from two twelve-pounders on Morion’s Point; while out in front, one of the grenadier companies pushed forward the little sixes for closer work. Almost at once these light guns were in difficulty; there was trouble getting them through the soft clay and swampy ground at the foot of Morton’s Hill, and the gunners discovered to their dismay that the side boxes were filled with twelve-pound instead of six-pound balls.
Howe sent immediately for the proper balls, ordering the substitution of grapeshot until they arrived; but the range was too much for grape, and the guns were temporarily worthless. However, the ships’ cannon, those on Copp’s Hill, and the twelve-pounders on Morton’s Hill concentrated their fire on the rebel works, and with this support the redcoats pushed forward.
Off to the right along the narrow strip of beach, the light infantry led the way, with a company of the famous Welch Fusiliers, the 23rd Infantry, out in front. Four abreast, eleven companies marched in precise columns, their bright uniforms sparkling in the sun, bayonets gleaming, the men’s eyes trained on the low stone wall in the distance.
To their left came the long, double battle line, stretching nearly halfway across the peninsula. This was a parade march, with ten companies side by side—some 300 scarlet-coated men—marching forward on the broad front, followed by another wave of ten companies in step behind them, and these two lines were duplicated farther to the left, as Pigot’s wing began its advance. The day was fiercely hot, and the British soldiers, steaming in red woolen uniforms, were loaded with three days’ provisions, blankets, cartouche boxes, ammunition, and muskets—about the same weight as if they carried a good-sized deer on their backs.
The unmown grass through which most of the battle line had to maneuver was thick and high, reaching almost to the waist in places, and concealing—as anyone who has walked through an uncut New England meadow knows—countless rocks and potholes. There were ten or twelve stone walls and fences to clamber over, a brick kiln, swamps, and sticky clay; and for Pigot’s troops the going was all uphill. Portions of the lines stopped at times, slowed by fences (General John Burgoyne said they “met with a thousand impediments from strong fences,” and Howe complained that these obstructions broke the perfection of his line); again they halted to let the fieldpieces come up.
At the southwestern end of the peninsula Charlestown was in flames, “a most awful, Grand and Melancholy Sight,” one young loyalist said. To John Burgoyne, watching from Copp’s Hill, it was
one of the greatest scenes of war that can be conceived: if we look to the height, Howe’s corps, ascending the hill in the face of intrenchments, and in a very disadvantageous ground, was much engaged; to the left the enemy pouring in fresh troops by thousands, over the land; and in the arm of the sea our ships and floating batteries cannonading them; straight before us a large and noble town in one great blaze—the church-steeples, being timber, were great pyramids of fire above the rest; behind us, the church-steeples and heights of our own camp covered with spectators of the rest of our army which was engaged; the hills round the country covered with spectators; the enemy all in anxious suspense; the roar of cannon, mortars and musketry; the crash of churches, ships upon the stocks, and whole streets falling together, to fill the ear; the storm of the redoubts, with the objects above described, to fill the eye; and the reflection that, perhaps, a defeat was a final loss to the British Empire in America, to fill the mind—made the whole picture, and a complication of horrour and importance, beyond any thing that ever came to my lot to be witness to.
Behind their earthworks and flimsy fences the rebels watched and waited; men faint with hunger and fatigue, dirty farmers in floppy felt hats and homespuns, fingering their muskets nervously, feeling instinctively for spare cartridges, anxiety and disbelief welling up in their dry throats as the finest infantry in the world moved closer and closer, threatening to engulf them.