- Historic Sites
Rebels And Redcoats
Participants describe the opening of the American Revolution
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
There were three hills on Charlestown peninsula: Bunker Hill, Breed’s Hill, and Morton’s Hill. Bunker Hill, a round, smooth eminence, was considerably the highest, 110 feet, just inside Charlestown Neck. Connected to it on the southeast by a ridge was steep Breed’s Hill, 75 feet. East of Breed’s lay brick kilns and clay pits and sloughy land; west was the most settled part of Charlestown. In the southeast corner of the mile-long peninsula, where it widened to a halfmile, was Morton’s Hill, about 35 feet high, sloping down to Morton’s Point. A highway varying from sixteen to thirty feet wide ascended from Morton’s Poinl, traversed Breed’s and Bunker hills, and ran out the Neck, which the tides occasionally overflowed. Anolher road branched from lhe highway to the left, circled the base of Breed’s Hill, and joined the road from Charlestown, meeting the highway at the Neck.
For a reason never satisfactorily explained, the American detachment, which included Captain Samuel Gridley’s artillery company with two fieldpieces and a fatigue party of 200 Connecticut troops under Captain Thomas Knowlton, marched over Bunker Hill to Breed’s Hill, nearer the enemy, where Colonel Richard Gridley, chief engineer, laid out a plan of fortification. Here every advantage of the higher Bunker Hill was lost, for Breed’s commanded neither the water nor its own flanks. Its only advantage was that it was so much nearer to Boston that even small cannon from its top could threaten the town and the shipping. Peter Brown wrote:
… we entrenched and made a fort of about ten rod long and eight wide, with a breastwork of about eight more. We worked there undiscovered till about five in the morn, and then we saw our danger, being against eight ships of the line and all Boston fortified against us….
And about half after five in the morn, we not having about the fort done, they began to fire (I suppose as soon as they had orders) pretty briskly a few minutes, and then stopped, and then again to the number of about twenty or more. They killed one of us, and then they ceased till about eleven o’clock, and then they began pretty brisk again; and that caused some of our young country people to desert, apprehending the danger in a clearer manner than the rest, who were more diligent in digging and fortifying ourselves against them. We began to be almost beat out, being tired by our labor and having no sleep the night before, but little victuals, no drink but rum….
It being about three o’clock, there was a little cessation of the cannons roaring. Come to look, there was a matter of forty barges full of regulars coming over to us. It is supposed there were about three thousand of them and about seven hundred of us left not deserted, besides five hundred reinforcement that could not get so nigh to us as to do any good hardly, till they saw that we must all be cut off, or some of them, and then they advanced.
When our officers saw that the regulars would land, they ordered the artillery to go out of the fort and prevent their landing if possible, from which the artillery captain took his pieces and went right off home to Cambridge as fast as he could, for which he is now confined and we expect will be shot for it.
But the enemy landed and fronted before us and formed themselves in an oblong square, so as to surround us which they did in part, and after they were well formed, they advanced towards us in order to swallow us up. But they found a chokey mouthful of us, though we could do nothing with our small arms as yet for distance and had but two cannon and nary gunner. And they from Boston and from the ships a-firing and throwing bombs keeping us down till they got almost round us.
The booming of the ships’ guns in Boston before sunrise on the morning of the sixteenth, followed almost instantly by the crash of guns from a battery on Copp’s Hill, was General Gage’s first notice that the rebels had stolen a march on him, and were entrenching on Breed’s Hill. In a few minutes the other generals arrived, and to a window-shaking cannonade sat down to a council of war. Obviously the rebels must be driven at once from Charlestown peninsula. General Clinton proposed that while an attack be made on the hill, troops should also be sent at once to cut off Charlestown Neck, “not a stonethrow across,” but General Howe argued that a direct frontal attack on the new rebel redoubt would be sufficient. Howe prevailed. Then hours passed, while bread was baked, meat boiled, and officers waited upon tides; finally a main body of 1,550 men and a reserve of 700 under Howe landed at Morton’s Point and formed on that hill.
By now the rebels had extended an earthwork left of their redoubt about a hundred yards. To the rear, beyond a patch of swampy ground, another breastwork extended leftward to the bank of the Mystic; it “consisted of two fence rails, the intervals filled with bushes, hay and grass which they found on the spot ready cut.” Along this rail fence lay Knowlton’s detachment, strengthened by Colonel John Stark’s New Hampshire regiment and some of James Reed’s.
Howe himself, with the light infantry, commanded the British right, facing the fence, expecting to turn the rebel flank, while General Robert Pigot, commanding the left, was to assault the redoubt.
As Private Peter Brown continued to work feverishly on the American earthwork, the red lines moved forward. A British officer, advancing with Howe’s troops, later described the redcoat advance that hot afternoon: