Rebels And Redcoats

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Our troops advanced with great confidence, expecting an easy victory. As they were marching up to attack, our artillery stopped firing. The general on inquiring the reason was told they had got twelve pound balls to six pounders, but that they had grape shot. On this, he ordered them forward and to fire grape.

As we approached, an incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel lines. It seemed a continued sheet of fire for near thirty minutes. 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 three-fourths, and many nine-tenths, of their men. Some had only eight and 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.

Across the Charles, Howe’s colleagues, Burgoyne and Clinton, stood in a battery overlooking Charlestown. Spread before them, as in a vast amphitheater, was the fierce defense of Breed’s Hill. Upon Burgoyne, no stranger to warfare, the sight of Howe’s stubborn assault, broken and flung back, made such an impression that when he wrote a friend in England a few days later, every detail was still burning fresh in his memory:

As his first arm advanced up the hill, they met with a thousand impediments from strong fences and were much exposed. They were also exceedingly hurt by musketry from Charlestown, though Clinton and I did not perceive it till Howe sent us word by a boat and desired us to set fire to the town, which was immediately done…. Our battery kept an incessant fire on the height. It was seconded by a number of frigates, floating batteries, and one ship of the line.

And now ensued 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 the entrenchments 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 of 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 in ruins 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 a picture and a complication of horror and importance beyond anything that ever came to my lot to be witness to.

About midway of the American entrenchments was Robert Steele, a drummer boy of Ephraim Doolittle’s regiment, which had come up during the day from Cambridge under command of its major, Willard Moore. The two favorite tunes with fifers and drummers in those first days were “Yankee Doodle” and “Welcome Here.” Years later, Robert told a friend, “I beat to ‘Yankee Doodle’ when we mustered for Bunker Hill that morning,” and he related what he recalled of the battle:

… the British … marched with rather a slow step nearly up to our entrenchment, and the battle began. The conflict was sharp, but the British soon retreated with a quicker step than they came up, leaving some of their killed and wounded in sight of us. They retreated towards where they landed and formed again … came up again and a second battle ensued which was harder and longer than the first, but being but a lad and this the first engagement I was ever in, I cannot remember much more … than great noise and confusion. One or two circumstances I can, however, distinctly remember….

About the time the British retreated the second time, I was standing side of Benjamin Ballard, a Boston boy about my age, who had a gun in his hands, when one of our sergeants came up to us and said, “You are young and spry, run in a moment to some of the stores and bring some rum. Major Moore is badly wounded. Go as quick as possible.”

We threw down our implements of war and run as fast as we could and passed over the hill … down to Charlestown Neck and found there was a firing in that quarter. We heard the shot pass over our heads, which I afterwards understood were thrown from a floating battery in Mystic River and from the shipping on the Boston side of the Neck.