- 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
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.