“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
Along the entire British line the attack had failed, and behind their bulwarks ragged defenders jumped with joy at the sight of those red-coated backs dashing for cover. In every section of the rebel defenses, the troops were jubilant with the realization that they had repulsed a frontal attack by the famous regulars. Ninety-six British dead lay on the beach alone, and all over the field were prone bodies, scattered pieces of equipment, the wounded crying piteously, some trying to drag themselves back to their lines. And it had all been done so easily, at so little cost to the Americans. Only Prescott and Stark and a few others knew that the battle was far from won, and they walked back and forth along their lines, praising the men, encouraging them, reminding them that there would be more work to do.
By now Prescott had only 150 men left in the redoubt; another 200 or so were behind the breastwork, and there were between 400 and 500 along the American left, posted behind the rail fence and the stone wall—a force, in all, of no more than 800 or 1,000. Peering out of the redoubt, Peter Brown estimated that there were only 700 “of us left not deserted”—a bitter reference to those who had slipped out of the lines since the night before. To the rear, on Bunker Hill, there were hundreds of men, probably as many or more than there were at the front, but few of them had any intention of moving into a more exposed position.
Within a quarter of an hour Howe had re-formed his broken ranks, but this time he decided not to assault that murderous stone wall on the beach. He regrouped what was left of his light infantry and put them into line with the grenadiers on the right; these flank companies would storm the rail fence, supported as before by the 52nd and the 5th regiments. This time, however, Pigot was expected to carry the redoubt on his own, without waiting for a flanking movement from the right.
Again the scarlet lines, thinner now, but with the foot soldiers still carrying full packs, stepped off, and as in the first attack there was no fire from the rebels until the foe was within a hundred feet. Then came that . devastating explosion of musketry, then another and another, the Americans firing and loading as fast as they could. “As we approached,” a British officer said, “an incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel lines; it seemed a continued sheet of fire for near thirty minutes.” Howe’s right was being raked from behind the rail fence by Samuel Trevett’s cannon, which ripped into the advancing grenadiers. Meanwhile, the same British officer reported that,
Our Light-infantry were served up in Companies against the grass fence, without being able to penetrate—indeed, how could we penetrate? Most of our Grenadiers and Light-infantry, the moment of presenting themselves lost threefourths, and many nine-tenths, of their men. Some had only eight or nine men a company left; some only three, four, and five. On the left, Pigot was staggered and actually retreated. Observe, our men were not driven back; they actually retreated by orders.
Once again Howe saw his men thrashing through the long grass and climbing over fences in the face of the American volleys, saw his grenadiers and light infantry try to fire, then crowd together in a confused mass, only to have the oncoming second line plow into them from behind. As he confessed later, “The Light Infantry at the same time being repulsed, there was a Moment that I never felt before .” (Prescott remembered seeing Howe standing almost alone, surrounded entirely by dead or wounded.) It was inconceivable; the vaunted British infantry could not get close enough to drive home a charge with the cold steel, but were mowed down as if by a giant scythe as they struggled to advance. It was too much to endure, and suddenly the decimated ranks turned and ran again.
From the housetops and steeples of Boston, loyalist and patriot alike watched breathlessly while that ribbon of scarlet and white ascended the hill a second time. As they looked, there was an orange flash like “a continual sheet of lightning” along the string of earthworks, and even before the sound (one observer described it as “an uninterrupted peal of thunder”) reached them from across the water, the ribbon of toy soldiers was struck, and shivered as in a high wind, then crumbled into ruin. Where there had been a solid row of figures, now there was only a jagged line; on the ground was a narrow carpet of red, many of whose parts were still and silent, with here and there a twisting, writhing movement. Now and then an arm waved back and forth, helpless and appealing; single figures half-rose from the heap of bodies and sank back again as the living pushed on toward the breastworks, were hit again, and then surged back toward the water’s edge, trampling dead and wounded in their haste.
In his own straightforward way, Colonel William Prescott told what happened in the American redoubt: the enemy advanced and fired very hotly on the fort, and meeting with a warm reception, there was a very smart firing on both sides. After a considerable time, finding our ammunition was almost spent, I commanded a cessation till the enemy advanced within thirty yards, when we gave them such a hot fire that they were obliged to retire nearly one hundred and fifty yards before they could rally.