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“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
The port of Boston in June, 1775, resembled a medieval castle under siege. Since the engagements at Lexington and Concord on April 19, General Thomas Gage and some 5,000 British regulars had been bottled up in the town by a force of rebellious colonials that numbered between 8,000 and 12,000 men.
Though Gage had scant respect for his ill-trained and disorganized opponents, his situation was still dangerous, and it grew more so by the day. Two rolling swells of high ground—Dorchester Heights to the south and the Charlestown peninsula to the north—dominated the town, and were as yet unoccupied by either side; Gage knew that if the Americans ever marshaled the strength to take and hold them, his position would be all but untenable. Thus, early in the month, he decided to seize both points, an operation that was to begin on June 18.
But by a fortunate accident, American intelligence in Boston learned of Gage’s plans, and the Committee of Safety—which, for the time being, served as the colonial high command—called for a quick countermove. On the night of June 16, about 1,000 men led by William Prescott of Massachusetts and Connecticut’s impetuous hero of the French and Indian Wars, Israel Putnam, occupied the Charlestown peninsula, and with great stealth began to dig in.
Though they had been ordered to fortify Bunker Hill, a iio-foot-high knoll well out of range of the British land batteries on Copp’s Hill in Boston, Prescott and Putnam chose instead to station their men on the lower and more exposed Breed’s Hill. By dawn on the seventeenth, when H.M.S. Lively discovered their presence and began to shell them, the Provincials had built a redoubt six feet high.
Gage immediately held a council of war with the three officers who had recently been sent from England to help him quell the rebellion, Major Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne. Clinton sensibly favored an attack on the narrow and unprotected neck of the Charlestown peninsula, just behind Bunker Hill, which would thus cut off the main American force. Gage overruled him. Whether out of pride in their crack regiments (which had been treated roughly in the retreat from Lexington and Concord) or contempt for the Provincial troops, the British high command decided instead to make a frontal assault on Breed’s Hill.
The British plan was to land at the easternmost extremity of the peninsula, Morion’s Point, and march on the redoubt. But the assault was delayed until midday, and the Americans were able to extend the exposed left side of their line to the Mystic River.
At one-thirty in the afternoon, Major General Howe, the senior officer under Gage, and the first contingent of redcoats began to embark in barges from Boston. What happened from that moment on is told in the stirring account that follows, taken from Richard M. Ketchum’s book, The Battle for Bunker Hill , soon to be published by Doubleday. The sun was blinding white, high in a clear sky. Inside the redoubt on Breed’s Hill the dust hung like a motionless curtain, and men inhaled it with every breath they drew; sweat ran down their faces, little rivulets streaking the dirt and stubble of beard.
Across in the town of Boston and on all the surrounding hills, housetops were jammed with onlookers, spellbound by the great act of war unfolding before them, watching their familiar, quiet world erupt in a monstrous cacophony of noise and violence. Now all the warships were firing, their sides exploding in sheets of orange flame followed by clouds of greasy black smoke rolling across the water. As far away as Braintree, where Abigail Adams held the hand of a little boy who would be the sixth President of the United States, windows rattled from the distant concussions, and people who could not see what was happening listened and wondered, as she did, whether “The day—perhaps the decisive day—is come, on which the fate of America depends.”
As the loaded barges shoved off from Boston’s Long Wharf the British fire intensified, the gunners concentrating on the little rebel stronghold on Breed’s Hill. Nine, twelve, and twenty-four-pound balls screamed across the water, throwing up spouts of dirt as they slammed into the hillside and the walls of the redoubt. One came so close to Captain Ebenezer Bancroft that it affected the sight in his left eye, leaving him with partial vision for the rest of his life, and moments later another sheared off an officer’s head, splattering Colonel William Prescott with his brains. The Colonel stood there unconcernedly, calmly brushing away the blood and cleaning off his hands with a bit of fresh dirt.
But for one long, awe-struck moment the worn, dirty, shirt-sleeved farmers, staring over the walls of their earthen fort, had eyes and thought for only one thing. Before them was a sight the like of which no one had seen before, and whether they had an hour or fifty years of life remaining to them, it was something they would remember until they died. Even seasoned British officers, men who had seen the great armies of Europe line up before an attack, admitted they had never witnessed a scene such as this.
Across the third of a mile of water that lay between Charlestown and Boston came the barges—twenty-eight of them, two parallel lines of fourteen boats in single file, loaded to the gunwales with scarlet-coated British soldiers. The long white oars swept back and forth across the blue water in carefully ordered cadence, bringing the barges closer, ever closer, to the waiting rebels. In each of the two leading boats were six bright brass fieldpieces; behind them came the flower of the British army, nearly fifty men to a barge.
On and on the barges came, like lines of ancient galleys, sweeping ever nearer until men’s faces were distinguishable beneath their hats; one by one the boats ground ashore, spewing troops onto the narrow beach at Morion’s Point, big men, heavily loaded with muskets, blankets, and haversacks, who leaped out and jogged up the hill to form in long, disciplined lines. And as soon as they had unloaded their human cargo the barges turned again toward Boston and began their rhythmic crossing, this time to pick up some 450 additional foot soldiers, men in the red and blue coats of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, and the commanding officer of the assault force, Major General William Howe.
In all, 1,550 infantrymen landed in the first two waves—plenty of troops for the assignment as originally conceived—and thanks to the pounding guns of the fleet and the Copp’s Hill battery, there was no opposition. But Howe perceived while he was en route across the Charles that the situation had changed drastically, and soon after arriving he sent a message back to Gage asking for reinforcements at once. Beyond the redoubt, along the top of Bunker Hill, Howe could see a huge, milling throng of colonials which he took to be reserves; and at just about the time he landed, he saw several bodies of men make their way through that crowd, hurry down the eastern slope of the hill, and take position on the flat shelf above the Mystic River. This put an end to his hopes for an unopposed flanking movement around the American left, and forced him to send for his reserves.
But in the meantime he unaccountably revealed his intentions by ordering George Clark, commanding the light infantry, to take an advanced position along the water’s edge. “I was sent immediately forward with four companies of the corps of light infantry within about 400 yards of the works of the enemy, where we lay covered under the bank of the water and other banks extending to our left,” Clark said. And here they lay on their arms until the attack began. Forming the other troops who had landed, Howe pushed three lines up to the top of Morion’s Hill, and there the men unslung their haversacks and calmly ate dinner while the General waited for support to arrive. Once again, he was giving the rebels precious time to consolidate their defenses.
As soon as Prescotl saw lhal the entire British force would land at Morton’s Poinl, he ordered two fieldpieces to “go and oppose them.” Considering the number of guns available to him, and what they would face, it was a pitiful gesture, and Prescolt knew it, but he had very few alternalives left now. He turned to young Captain Thomas Knowlton and told him to take his Connecticul men along in support of the artillery. Before long the detachment disappeared from sight beyond a clump of trees below Breed’s Hill, and when they did not reappear where Prescott expected to see them, he could only assume that they had “marched a different course, and I believe those sent to their support followed, I suppose to Bunker Hill.”
He was mistaken in this, but only partially. Captains Samuel Gridley and John Callender had their men seize drag-ropes and haul the four guns out of the redoubt in near panic, and indeed they made straightaway for Bunker Hill, claiming to all who questioned them that they were out of ammunition. But just as they were about to beat their teams into a gallop for the final dash to safety across Charlestown Neck, Putnam halted them, skeptical about their excuse, and throwing open the lids of their side boxes, found them full of cannon balls. He ordered them back to the redoubt, but as soon as he departed the officers and men ran, abandoning their guns.
Knowlton, however, did what Prescott ordered him to do, and although he may have misunderstood the Colonel’s instructions as to the exact spot he was expected to defend, he occupied the first defensible position beyond the swamp that lay between Breed’s Hill and the Mystic, forming a line which ran almost parallel to the extended breastwork and about two hundred yards behind it—a line bounded on one side by a road leading up Bunker Hill and on the other by the bank of the Mystic River.
As Lieutenant Dana, who was with Knowlton, described their position, they dug in “behind a fence half of stone and two rayles of wood. Here nature had formed something of a breast-work, or else there had been a ditch many years ago. They grounded arms, and went to a neighboring parallel fence, and brought rayles and made a slight fortification against musquet-ball.” The result of their efforts was thus a double fence, with hay stuffed between the two lines of rails; and since the fence at the rear was on top of a low stone wall, with a ditch behind it, the position was stronger than it might seem. (One Englishman stated later that the completed breastwork was ten feet thick.)
There was still a gap between the rail fence and the breastwork, however, and although the swamp in front of it would hinder Howe’s advance, someone—Knowlton, possibly, or reinforcements who came up later-had the presence of mind to construct here three little flèches, or V-shaped trenches, each one behind and slightly above the other.
By this time the one serious hole in the rebel lines…the open area between the end of the rail fence and the Mystic—was being filled in. The men Howe had seen running down the hill as he disembarked were the New Hampshire regiments of John Stark and James Reed. They had arrived at the crucial spot at precisely the right moment. Fortunately for the Provincials, the British barges had to make two round trips before Howe appeared on the scene, and this extra margin of time allowed John Stark to drive his men from Medford to the Charlestown peninsula and get them into line alongside the Mystic River at the right instant to foil Howe’s plans.
Stark had had his troubles getting there, however. When he reached the Neck, it was crowded with men from two regiments who were afraid to cross in the face of fire from British ships in the river. The Symmetry , with eighteen nine-pounders, lay off Charles-town, and two floating batteries, or barges, each with one twelve-pounder, had hauled in near the milldam, and these three vessels were raking the whole Neck, preventing fainter hearts than Stark from crossing. This was a spot where courage and leadership counted, and John Stark possessed both. Without a moment’s hesitation he started for Bunker Hill, ordering his men to follow; and when one of his officers suggested nervously that they quicken their pace, Stark fixed him with a withering eye and said, “Dearborn, one fresh man in action is worth ten fatigued ones,” and walked on as before.
Israel Putnam was in command on Bunker Hill, but John Stark was not about to take orders from any Connecticut officer, nor did he need anyone to tell him what to do. He saw immediately the unprotected gap on the American left, pushed his men through the confused crowd on the hill, and led them at a trot down to the rail fence, where he joined Knowlton. Howe and the second contingent of redcoats were disembarking as they came down the slope, and Stark halted his men just long enough at the rail fence to deliver “a short but animated address,” followed by three cheers, before having them extend the lines to the bank of the Mystic. Apparently some of the grass in these fields had been cut, for Henry Dearborn recalled how it lay in windrows and cocks, and the men gathered it up, stuffing it between fence rails as Knowlton had done in his sector, and repairing the fence as best they could. Their defense was scarcely ball-proof, but at least it gave the appearance of a breastwork and lent the men behind it some sense of security.
Adding to that feeling was the presence of Major Andrew McClary, a giant nearly six and a half feet tall, who was everywhere, bolstering their courage, giving encouragement and advice, seeing that all was in readiness. McClary was one of the most popular officers in the New Hampshire camp and was already something of a hero as a result of planning and leading a raid on the Castle at Portsmouth in December of 1774, four months before Lexington, when many of the muskets now carried by the New Hampshire regiments had been seized.
When Stark went over to the riverbank, where the fence ended, and saw that the steep bank fell off about eight or nine feet to a narrow beach, he realized at once that the British could march in complete safety along the water’s edge, just below the little cliff. He hailed his “boys” and had them bring stones to make a wall right down to the river, and behind it he posted a triple row of defenders.
The American line was now as complete as it was ever going to be, and a British soldier scanning it from the vantage point of Morion’s Hill would have seen four distinct elements from left to right: the redoubt, the breastwork, the rail fence, and the stone wall on the beach. (Between the end of the breastwork and the beginning of the fence was the gap in which the three flèches had been built.) The extreme American right consisted of two unfortified positions: a little cartway along a fence, between the redoubt and Charlestown, where a company of Little’s regiment and a few other troops, among them Nutting’s company, had been posted; and the main street of Charlestown, at the bottom of Breed’s Hill, where three companies from Doolittle’s, Reed’s, and Woodbridge’s regiments were stationed.
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.
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.
Just behind the firing line, officers crouched low and moved swiftly back and forth, passing the word to shoot low, to wait for the order to fire, to pick out the officers and aim for the crossing of the belts, to wait until they could see the whites of their eyes. And the red tide moved slowly nearer, near enough now so the defenders could distinguish faces beneath the tall pointed helmets, make out rows of shining buttons and belt buckles. Now and again there was a strange moment of silence—the big guns had stopped firing, for fear of hitting their own men—broken only by the steady dull thump of marching feet, the swish of long grass as 2,000 men pushed through it, the crackle of flames and the occasional splintering crash of a building in Charlestown.
Over along the beach Howe’s light infantry moved forward rapidly across the level, unobstructed sand, and the long, lancelike column was almost close enough to charge. Still there was silence behind the rebel barricade, no sign of movement. The British were only two hundred feet away, then one hundred, now fifty, when a row of dull musket barrels leveled along the stone wall, a nasal New England voice twanged, and the wall disappeared in a sheet of flame and oily black smoke. The blast of fire tore apart the leading ranks of Fusiliers, and as the rows behind closed up they were shattered by the violent hail of bullets. Officers fell, men spun around and dropped headlong into the shallow water, and the column stopped, recoiled, then came on again, the King’s Own Regiment shoving through the broken Fusiliers, clambering over the dead and wounded, only to be met with that withering fire from the wall.
Officers’ voices shouted hoarsely through the din, ordering the men forward, but with each advance the men in the lead simply melted away, falling grotesquely and piling up the awful carnage on the narrow beach until there was nothing to do but turn back. And turning back, the men began to run, terror-stricken, pelting along the wet sand toward safety. Behind them the defenders peered through thick smoke that lay like a greasy blanket around the stone wall, saw their flight, saw the fallen “as thick as sheep in a fold,” the dead floating crazily on the ebbing tide, the shallow water lapping red against the sand.
The flank attack on which Howe’s hopes rested was shattered. The Reverend Peter Thacher, watching from across the Mystic, saw the light infantry retreat “in very great disorder down to the point where they landed, & there some of them even into their boats; at this time their officers were observed by spectators on the opposite shore to … use the most passionate gestures & even to push forward ye men with their swords.”
There could be no retreating; even though the flank attack had failed, Howe could still rely on his long line of grenadiers and regulars and a direct frontal blow. These men, advancing steadily on the level above and k out of sight of the beach, had been delayed by the long grass, the rough terrain, and the fences, and just as they were readying for the charge heard the great roll of musketry off to their right and the screams of wounded men. There was one last fence to cross before they could attack, and they had just climbed over it and were forming for the charge when a few defenders behind the rail fence opened on them.
Lieutenant Knowlton had given orders not to fire until the enemy came within fifteen rods, and then not until the word was given. But Lieutenant Dana told his friend John Chester that he had been the first to shoot,
and that he did it singly, and with a view to draw the enemy’s fire, and he obtained his end fully, without any damage to our party. Our men then returned the fire, well-directed, and to very good effect, and so disconcerted the enemy that they partly brokfe and recreated. Many of our men were for pursuing, [but by] the prudence of the officers they were prevented lea[ving so] advantageous a post.
It is hard to believe that Dana alone forced the redcoats to fire, but whatever the cause, apparently they halted to do so and were struck at that moment by a blast from the rail fence that shattered their lines. By some miracle, Howe was not hit, but all around him officers and aides were down, and his tough grenadiers fell by threes and fours, leaving gaping holes in that once-perfect line. They loaded again and fired, but their aim was hurried and the bullets went over the Americans’ heads, while the standing, red-coated figures made perfect targets for the defenders, sighting their pieces along the fence rails. The line of regulars, coming up behind the grenadiers, was torn apart by the murderous volleys, and at last both lines turned and ran out of range, too badly mauled to continue.
Off on the British left, Pigot’s lines had advanced slowly in what was intended only as a feint or delaying action while Howe’s forces should punch through on the right. In spite of the raging fire in the streets of Charlestown, rebel skirmishers there harassed Pigot so effectively that his men were unable to mount a real attack on the redoubt, and when he saw what had happened to Howe he called them back.
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.
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.
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.
An Ipswich man remembered that “they looked too handsome to be fired at; but we had to do it,” and another American told how the British “advanced in open order, the men often twelve feet apart in the front, but very close after one another in extraordinary deep or long files. As fast as the front man was shot down, the next stepped forward into his place; but our men dropt them so fast, they were a long time coming up. It was surprising how they would step over their dead bodies, as though they had been logs of wood.” There was no need to wait for a chance to fire, one rebel said; all you had to do was load and there would be a mark at hand, as near as you pleased.
But running out of targets was scarcely the problem. Behind the rampart, men with powder-blackened faces bit the end off their last cartridge, rammed it home, pulled the trigger, and then looked around for something else to shoot. Some were firing nails or little scraps of metal picked up off the ground, others grabbed handfuls of rocks and began hurling them at the oncoming enemy, desperately trying to prevent that terrible gleaming forest of bayonets from coming any closer.
Captain George Harris, leading the grenadiers of the 5th Regiment up the slope, scaled a little rise between the breastwork and the redoubt, was pushed back, and on the third attempt was grazed on the top of his head by a ball. As he fell backward he was caught by his lieutenant, Lord Rawdon, who called four soldiers to help him to safety. Three of the men were hit as they took him back down the hillside, and Harris told them irritably, “For God’s sake, let me die in peace.”
Somehow they got him out of gunshot to safety, and Harris’ servant, who had been searching frantically for him, came running up just in time to get his master into the last boat then available for the wounded. Although it was jammed, they took Harris aboard, faint and shivering from shock, and shortly after he arrived in Boston a surgeon performed a trepanning operation on him, which the stolid Englishman watched by means of mirrors.
Atop Breed’s Hill the fighting raged on toward its fiery climax. Despite the barrage from the British field-pieces, no breach had been made in the American defenses. Then suddenly, Lord Rawdon said,
our men grew impatient, and all crying ‘Push on, push on,’ advanced with infinite spirit to attack the work with their small arms. As soon as the rebels perceived this, they rose up and poured in so heavy a fire upon us that the oldest officers say they never saw a sharper action. They kept up this fire until we were within ten yards of them; nay, they even knocked down my captain [Harris], close beside me, after we had got into the ditch of the entrenchment … There are few instances of regular troops defending a redoubt till the enemy were in the very ditch of it, [yet] I can assure you that I myself saw several pop their heads up and fire even after some of our men were upon the berm [the top part of an earthwork— Ed. ] … I received no hurt of any kind, but a ball passed through a close cap which I had.
Lying on the outside of the redoubt, under the protection of its wall, Rawdon called out to young Ensign Hunter of the 52nd to show him how narrowly he had missed death. Another officer, Major Williams, was badly wounded, and Rawdon asked Hunter to go and find a surgeon to tend him; but Hunter, who had just seen Harris’ rescuers shot as they carried him off, “had sense enough to know that I was much safer close under the works than I could be at a few yards from it, as the enemy could not depress their arms sufficiently to do any execution to those that were close under, and to have gone to the rear to look for a surgeon would have been almost certain death.”
Samuel Webb took his place in the American line just as the fighting reached its peak and, looking around at his dead and wounded countrymen, had “no other feelings but that of Revenge.” It was a good thing he had the stomach for fighting; five or six more Americans dropped within five feet of where he stood, and a musket ball grazed his hat. Webb saw Gershom Smith of his company go down. Edward Brown, who was at Smith’s side, fired his own gun, then reached for Smith’s and shot it. At that moment bayonets loomed over the breastwork, and the regulars began pouring in. Brown leaped for an enemy, seized his musket, and killed him with it on the spot.
At the far left end of Pigot’s line, which had swung around the west side of the redoubt in order to flank it, the British marines ran into the same shattering fire that had characterized the entire American defense. As they fell into confusion, most of the marines began to fire at the works instead of charging, and Adjutant Waller had all he could do to keep two companies in formation. Major John Pitcairn, who had commanded the British at Lexington in April, was attempting to rally his men; they heard him shout that the enemy had abandoned the fort, heard a boy call from behind the wall, “We are not all gone!” And at that moment, men said later, a Negro named Salem Prince shot Pitcairn through the head. He fell into the arms of his son; close by him a captain and a subaltern were down, and Waller realized that
had we stopped there much longer, the enemy would have picked us all off. I saw this, and begged Colonel Nesbitt of the 47th to form on our left, in order that we might advance with our bayonets to the parapet. I ran from right to left, and stopped our men from firing; while this was doing, and when we had got in tolerable order, we rushed on, leaped the ditch, and climbed the parapet, under a most sore and heavy fire.
There was a moment at the last when the British staggered once again—a moment when the battle’s outcome hung in the balance—then they recovered and came on with a rush. Prescott said later that one more round of ammunition might have pushed them back then and there, but there was not one more round. The last American volley sputtered out “like an old candle,” and with a great animal roar that was heard in Boston the redcoats surged forward. Bayonets glinted in the smoky gloom, the mitered hats of the big grenadiers loomed over the breastwork. Angry, sweating redcoats, the breath sobbing in their throats, stormed up the dirt walls of the redoubt as the marines poured in from the right. All the pent-up anger and misery and frustration of that ghastly afternoon was in their charge, and there was no stopping them. They had murder in their eyes, and they lashed out, stabbing and slashing with the bayonet, not bothering to fire, cursing, yelling, pressing the assault home with the terrible brutal fury of which man is sometimes capable.
Almost none of the Americans had bayonets—nothing but clubbed muskets or fists or rocks—yet they fought, one regular said, “more like Devils than Men” in this hand-to-hand melee. Even so, Prescott saw there was no chance and ordered his men to retreat, to get out as best they could. Peter Brown was “not suffered to be toutched, altho’ I was in the fort when the Enemy came in, and jumped over the walls, and ran half a mile where Balls flew like Hailstones, and Canons roared like Thunder.”
Captain Ebenezer Bancroft had just taken the ramrod from his firelock when a British officer leaped at him. He fired, killing the man, then rushed for the entrance to the redoubt, holding his gun “broadwise before my face” to keep from being clubbed. A rifle butt smashed down on his shoulder, and as he ran toward Bunker Hill, weak with fatigue, sightless in one eye, he realized that the forefinger of his left hand was gone. Coffee Whittemore, a Negro, had a hole in his hat from a musket ball, and in the final moments of the fight he seized a sword from a fallen British officer and carried it off in triumph (to the disgust of his friends, he sold it a few days later).
Amos Farnsworth was another who stayed in the redoubt until the enemy broke through, and when the retreat began he raced out about ten or fifteen rods past the outlet, where he “received a wound in my rite arm, the bawl gowing through a little below my elbow breaking the little shel bone. Another bawl struk my back, taking a piece of skin about as big as a penny. But I got to Cambridge that night.” Colonel Ebenezer Bridge had his head and neck laid open by a British sword. His second-in-command, Moses Parker, was groveling in the dirt, one knee fractured by a ball; but it was every man for himself in these frantic closing moments of the fight, and Parker was left behind, to be taken prisoner and to die after a British surgeon amputated his leg.
The redoubt that had protected Prescott’s troops all day nearly became a death-trap for them now. There was only one narrow exit at the rear of the fort, and the black smoke and dust were so thick the men had to feel their way along the walls to find it. Yet this weird gloom kept the uneven struggle from becoming a massacre; the British could not tell friend from foe and dared not fire into the mass of men crowded around the passage. It was a nightmare of confusion and chaos, with the shadowy figures of wildly shouting, moving men, half-panicked as they surged and fought their way toward the only exit, half-mad with rage as they beat off the thrust of death from behind. Prescott refused to run; striding toward the opening with sword raised, he parried the swipes of bayonets, and although his coat and waistcoat were pierced, he was not injured.
When he and the other Americans emerged from the fort, they found themselves between two approaching bodies of the enemy which had enveloped the redoubt from opposite sides, and while neither of these could fire for fear of hitting their own men, other British were coming up from behind, scaling the rear wall of the redoubt, shooting into the retreating rebels. Prescott’s adjutant went down, and Captains Maxwell, Dow, and Farwell were wounded.
Somewhere, in the last wild rush, Joseph Warren disappeared in the murk of battle. The man Lord Rawdon called “the greatest incendiary in all America,” who had once said he would like to die fighting the British in blood up to his knees, got his wish. No one saw him fall, but he was hit in the head by a ball and must have been killed instantly. “He died in his best cloaths,” a British officer wrote; “everybody remembers his fine silk-fringed waistcoat.”
All resistance in the redoubt and the breastwork collapsed at last, but fortunately for those who were fleeing, the rail fence held firm and the defenders there were able to cover their comrades’ retreat before withdrawing themselves in good order. A handful of fresh men led by William Coit and John Chester kept up a “brisk fire” from behind a stone wall along the way, and some thirty of Stark’s men helped Samuel Trevett bring off one of his fieldpieces—the only one the rebels managed to save. They succeeded in hauling it to the summit of Bunker Hill before a British company sighted the prize and stormed after them, and there was a rough little encounter, with several American losses, before Trevett and the New Hampshiremen drove off the attackers and dragged the gun away.
The entire American left flank, acting as a rear guard, fell back stubbornly, carrying their wounded with them, taking cover wherever they found it, and returning the British fire like professional troops. The i last rebels to leave were those with the most to fight for—the Charlestown company of Thomas Gardner’s regiment, who had hurried into line at the rail fence just before the third British attack. They had lost their colonel (Gardner was mortally wounded while trying to lead reinforcements to the redoubt, and was carried off the field on a litter of rails by his son and some other men); they had watched, helpless, while their village and their homes went up in flames; and if ever a company was fighting mad, it was this one. But there was nothing much that anyone could do now, beyond saving his own skin.
Fortunately for the Americans, the British had very nearly reached the end of their string. They had climbed Breed’s Hill three times that afternoon, and the grisly slopes were littered with their dead; twice victory had eluded them, and when it came at last it was because discipline and courage overcame fear and exhaustion and defeat. By all rights these men had been beaten; now they were utterly worn out by their efforts, their losses were staggering, their morale was nearly gone, and if they paused to draw breath and failed to pursue the still contentious Americans, it was no wonder.
Some of the best of them were gone. Colonel James Abercromby, the commander of the grenadiers, was dying; so was Major Pitcairn of the marines, who had been carried back to Boston by his son. Someone who saw the younger man, covered with blood, wandering dazedly through the streets of the town, was about to help him when he was informed that the blood was from the father’s wound. Gage sent a doctor immediately to Pitcairn, but the marine knew he was dying and refused to let the physician waste his time. To young Jeremy Lister fell the task of telling Lieutenant Kelley’s wife of her husband’s mortal wound and of standing by helplessly while she “for some time sat motionless with two small Children close by her.”
Henry Clinton arrived at the scene of victory at the moment when Howe, seeing as if for the first time the number of British dead on the field, was beginning to realize its cost. Not one of the General’s aides was left; all were either killed or wounded. The pride of the army, the flank companies, had been cut to ribbons, and the toll of officers and men in all regiments was appalling. When Clinton saw him, Howe was far from a victorious general; he was exhausted, his white gaiters streaked with blood from the long grass on the hill, and he had the look of a man who has stared death and disaster in the face.
Howe admitted privately to Clinton that his left “was totally gone” just before the final onslaught, and Clinton was so disturbed by all he saw and heard during these few moments that he committed his impressions to cipher: “All was in Confusion, officers told me that they could not command their men and I never saw so great a want of order.”
But if Howe, undone by the battle, wanted energy, Clinton did not. He saw at once that the rebels must be driven off the peninsula while they were still disorganized, and after stationing a detachment of 100 men in Prescott’s abandoned redoubt, he took all the able-bodied troops that were available, caught up with Pigot, who had already moved after the Americans, and headed up the road to Bunker Hill. Off to his right, Stark and Knowlton and Gardner were still making their way deliberately and obstinately toward the rear, their men putting up “a running fight,” Lord Rawdon wrote admiringly, “from one fence, or wall, to another.”
Burgoyne, too, complimented the rebels on their retreat. It was, he said, “no flight: it was even covered with bravery and military skill.” (They were so successful in bringing off their wounded that the British took only thirty-one prisoners, most of them mortally injured.) Despite the sudden collapse of their defenses and the precipitous retreat from the redoubt, the Provincials simply refused to give up.
A few diehards were even firing from the remains of houses around Charlestown (Clinton was annoyed from that direction while he proceeded down the middle of the peninsula), but the end was in sight. Clinton, expecting the rebels to make a stand on the back side of Bunker Hill, was amazed to find it deserted; he posted a force there, sent skirmishers out to man the stone walls between this point and the Neck, and satisfying himself that the enemy was being vigorously pressed, returned to Boston.
Just as in the redoubt, the Americans paid dearly for having left themselves but one narrow avenue of retreat. To make an orderly withdrawal under fire from a losing field was too much to expect under the best of circumstances, but when more than a thousand frantic, disorganized troops, heading for the safety of the mainland, were suddenly compressed into a solid mass to funnel across the Neck, which was only about thirty-five yards wide at its narrowest point, the result was chaos.
Progress was impeded by the wounded and by the debris of battle; British musket fire was closing in from the rear; and to make matters far worse, the entire Neck was being raked by the guns of the Glasgow . One thought was uppermost in the mind of everyone, and that was to reach the other side as quickly as possible. Desperately they surged forward, pushing and shoving, stumbling and falling over wounded men and pieces of men blown apart by the merciless British cannon, shouting in anger and terror and frustration as they fought to get out of this trap.
Thirty-six hours ago they had last rested; they had been a full day without food or water; and for men totally unused to war and unprepared, they had seenit all—continuous pounding from enemy cannon, frontal assaults by veteran infantry, the shattering climax of a bayonet charge and hand-to-hand combat. Already driven beyond the limits of human endurance, they were forced to call forth some final reserve of energy, and incredibly they did so, to make this frenzied dash across the confining causeway.
Once the solid artery of retreat hit the wider reaches of the mainland it broke up into little groups that scattered across the moors and clay pits of Charlestown Common, moving inland toward a sinking sun. Utterly spent, some of the Provincials did not even bother to look back; their only thought was of camp and rest and a security that had seemed impossible minutes before. And as they disappeared, straggling off along the dusty roads toward Cambridge and Medford, the battle for Bunker Hill was over, except for one last incident.
It must have been after 5:30 P.M. , when the Somerset log reported that the “firing slackened,” that Major Andrew McClary, of Stark’s regiment, reached the mainland. Looking back, he saw Clinton’s detachment moving onto the crest of Bunker Hill, and just to make certain that they had no plans to push on toward the mainland, he recrossed the Neck, went close enough to the British lines to decide that no further attack was intended, and finally headed back to rejoin his command. Walking alone in the gathering dusk, he had almost reached safety when a last cannon ball from the Glasgow tore him to pieces. As a historian wrote long afterward, “No smaller weapon seemed worthy to destroy the gigantic hero.”
Back in Boston, the impatient Clinton had turned his thoughts to a counterstroke, to be delivered immediately. Such was “the Panick” in the rebel ranks, he thought, that a thousand men could easily sweep up their entire defenses. But the Americans, to their everlasting credit, were already at work digging again, fortifying Winter Hill on the mainland side of Charlestown Neck, where, as Lie-utenant Colonel Experience Storrs recorded in his diary, “We immediately went to entrenching; flung up by morning an entrenchment 100 feet square. Done principally by our regiment under Putnam’s directions, had but little sleep the night.”
Henry Clinton should have known better. No one wrote a better epitaph on the battle than he did that evening, nor gave a more convincing reason for not resuming it: “A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us.”