“The Decisive Day Is Come”


Major Willard Moore, who had taken command of Ephraim Doolittle’s Massachusetts regiment in the absence of its colonel and lieutenant colonel, had been wounded in the thigh, and as his men were carrying him up Bunker Hill he was hit again. He pleaded with someone to bring him water but there was none to be had, and he lay there in agony, telling his men to look after themselves. A sergeant saw two boys standing nearby and told them to run and get some rum. “Major Moore is badly wounded,” he said. “Go as quick as possible.” One of the youngsters was Robert Steele of Dedham, a drummer in Doolittle’s regiment who had beat his comrades into line that morning to “Yankee Doodle”; the lad with him was Benjamin Ballard. A glance at the flames of Charlestown told them there was no hope of finding anything in that quarter, so they hurried off toward the Neck.

The Symmetry was still firing, and as they raced across the little isthmus they heard the balls fly overhead. On the other side they located a store which appeared to be deserted, so Steele stamped on the floor and called out, asking if anyone was there. When a man’s voice answered from the cellar, Steele said they wanted rum. No reply. After a moment Steele called again, asking the man why he stayed in the cellar. “To keep out of the way of the shot,” came the honest answer, and then, “If you want anything in the store, take what you please.”

So Steele took a two-quart earthen pitcher and filled it with rum, Ben Ballard drew a pail of water, and they set off for the front lines again, passing through throngs of skulkers on the safe side of the Neck and atop Bunker Hill, and arriving at the entrenchment just as the British prepared to advance for the third time. “Our rum and water went very quick,” Robert Steele noted. Dozens of British officers had been killed or maimed, and the hillside was covered with dead and wounded who were too close to the rebel defenses for anyone to rescue. Major Spendlove, who had served forty years in the 43rd Regiment, received a mortal wound during the second charge, and his command was taken over by John Gunning, who had applied that very morning for a vacant majority in another regiment. Among the light infantry, which had borne some of the heaviest fighting, Captain Edward Drewe of the 35th was hit in the shoulder, thigh, and foot; Lieutenant Massey was shot through the thigh; Bard, the third officer of the same outfit, was badly hurt; and the non-coms were virtually wiped out.


Captain Lyon of the 35th, whose pregnant wife had watched the course of the fighting from the Boston shore, was loaded into a boat and taken back to be nursed by the grief-stricken woman; but, like Drewe and Bard, he died of his wounds. By the end of the day, this light company of the 35th Regiment was without a single officer, sergeant, or corporal, and the command fell to the senior private, who led the five remaining men. All told, the grenadiers and light infantry lost nearly seventy per cent of their strength.

Howe, preparing for the third assault, was substantially without aides or staff, so many had fallen in the first two charges. One aide, Thomas Hyde Page, was hit in the ankle and later lost the leg; Lieutenant Jordan, a naval aide, was dead with a bullet through his head. Even Howe’s batman, Evans, who had followed him doggedly all over the field with refreshments, had had a wine bottle shot out of his hands, and was nursing a badly bruised arm. However, the British commander now had 400 fresh troops of the 2nd Marines and the 63rd Regiment for support, and more significantly, he had decided to vary his tactics. At last he allowed the men to remove their packs and leave behind all superfluous equipment.

This time his troops were to march most of the way in column before deploying for the final bayonet charge, and he shifted the weight of his line to the left, sending what remained of the grenadiers and the sand against the breastwork instead of the rail fence, leaving only a few troops to make a demonstration against the latter works. To support the assault he brought up his artillery, stationing the guns where they could rake the American lines with grape, and as the cannon moved forward, the third British attack got under way, the long columns slanting up the hillside into a lowering afternoon sun.

Ahead of them the rank grass was snarled and trampled, the green strands streaked red with blood and patches of scarlet doth, and the entire rim of the slope was pockmarked with depressions where fallen men lay, most of them still and silent, a few thrashing in agony, begging a comrade for help. Many of the marchers wore bandages or a rough sling, and as the drums beat they headed up the hill through the low-lying smoke, faces set, their hearts pounding, dreading the resumption of that withering blast from the rebel lines.