- 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
In the frightful confusion of disaster, the British wounded were taken aboard the waiting boats and ferried across to Boston. The hillside was strewn with the dead and the dying, and from every section rose the pitiful moans and cries of the wounded. There are reports that some of Howe’s officers begged him not to attack again; he was faced with the choice of abandoning the attempt altogether or of trying another frontal assault, for the tides would not permit him to land in the Americans’ rear even if he wanted to do so. He had seen what a direct attack cost, but he decided to try at least one more; and to execute it he needed more men. So while his battered units re-formed along the banks of the Charles, Howe sent a message to Clinton requesting reinforcements. Gage had made Clinton responsible for supporting Howe with troops as he needed them, and Clinton had already sent the field commander reserves in time for his first attack; now he dispatched the 63rd Regiment and the and Marines.
But further inactivity was more than Clinton could stand; he and Burgoyne had been at the Copp’s Hill battery from the beginning, watching the flow of events on the opposite shore, and when he saw the complete collapse of Pigot’s left and the wounded gathering leaderless on the shore, he acted. Telling Burgoyne to explain to Gage why he had left without orders, he commandeered a boat and was rowed toward Charlestown. As they landed north of the town, two men in his boat were wounded, proving that there were still some rebels in the stricken village, but Clinton ignored the opposition and “collected all the guards and such wounded men as could follow—which, to their honour, were many—and advanced in column with as much parade as possible to impress the enemy.” With Henry Clinton in the lead, this heroic little company of invalids made its way back to the battlefield to rejoin Pigot and fight once more.
In the rebel works there had been another scene of elation when the redcoats retreated for the second time, and during the long interval occasioned by Howe’s regrouping and wait for reinforcements, the Americans began to doubt if he would attack again. Then, with renewed signs of British activity, the defenders looked to their ammunition and suddenly realized they were virtually out of powder. Some men had used all theirs, others had but a few shots left, for in the hectic moments when the British lines loomed ever closer they had fired not in volleys, but as fast as they could reload and discharge theirweapons—often three or four shots a minute—and now the powder supply was almost exhausted.
To the rear the scene was as chaotic as ever. Troops were milling around beyond the Neck, afraid to run the gantlet of cannon fire, while hundreds more were wandering about leaderless atop Bunker Hill. Old Put was doing his best to get units into action, and on the safe side of the hill he came across one outfit whose commander, Colonel Samuel Gerrish, “unwieldy from excesssive corpulence,” lay prostrate on the ground, pleading exhaustion. According to one of Gerrish’s men, the moment they came in sight of the enemy “a tremor seiz’d” the fat colonel and “he began to bellow, ‘Retreat! retreatl or you’ll all be cutt off!’ which so confus’d & scar’d our men, that they retreated most precipitately.” Putnam ordered Gerrish to collect his wits and his soldiers and lead them to the lines, even threatening some of them and slapping them with the flat of his sword, but he could do nothing.
John Chester, captain of the Wethersfield, Connecticut, company that had decided to cover its bright blue and red uniforms with drab clothes before marching out of Cambridge, arrived at the Neck in time to witness the confused scene: When we arrived there was not a company with us in any kind of order, although, when we first set out, perhaps three regiments were by our side, and near us; but here they were scattered some behind rocks and hay-cocks, and thirty men, perhaps, behind an apple-tree, frequently twenty men round a wounded man, retreating, when not more than three or four could touch him to advantage. Others were retreating, seemingly without any excuse, and some said they had left the fort with leave of the officers, because they had been all night and day on fatigue, without sleep, victuals, or drink; and some said they had no officers to head them, which, indeed, seemed to be the case.
Chester saw one entire company deserting, led by its officers. He shouted to the company commander, asking why he retreated, but was ignored, upon which Chester halted his own men, ordered them to cock their muskets, and informed the other officer that he would open fire unless he took his men back to the lines. The deserters immediately about-faced and headed for action.
On Breed’s Hill the grisly task of bringing off the dead and wounded had begun. In comparison to British losses, those of the Americans were slight, but a number of officers and men were down. Colonel Brewer, whose men had taken a position between the breastwork and the rail fence, was hurt, and so was Colonel John Nixon, who was carried off the field with a serious wound.