Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Why Was the Battle of Bunker Hill Fought?
Today marks the anniversary of the opening shots in the Battle of Bunker Hill. The battle, waged in June of 1775, was actually fought on Breed's Hill. Yet generations of Americans have known it as "the Battle of Bunker Hill."
The Battle of Bunker Hill is perhaps most famous for Colonel William Prescott's order: "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes." But why was the battle fought in the first place?
Why Was The Battle of Bunker Hill Fought?
The Battle of Bunker Hill (or Breed's Hill) was a natural extension of the battles of Lexington and Concord, which were fought in April 1775.
With the "Intolerable Acts" (the British response to the Boston Tea Party) the British had occupied Boston and declared martial law throughout much of New England.
Concerned with growing unrest in the countryside, British General Thomas Gage, the military governor in Boston, dispatched troops in April 1775 to Concord to seize munitions being stockpiled by the colonial militia. While en route, British soldiers clashed with colonists at Lexington and then fought a pitched battle with even more colonial militia at Concord.
Following the battles of Lexington and Concord, the British withdrew (under heavy fire) to Boston. While in Boston, the British went through a command change (Gage was sacked), and contemplated their next move.
While in Boston, the British were sloppily (but still effectively) besieged by angry, armed colonists. When those colonists began fortifying Breed's Hill, on the Charlestown Peninsular, the British had to act.
The Battle of Bunker Hill
Believing that a decisive, straight-on show of force would break the spirit of rebellion, the British launched a frontal attack against the rebel militia entrenched on Breed's Hill.
The first two assaults were disastrous for the British, but the Americans ran out of powder and musket balls. Colonel Prescott ordered a retreat, as the British stormed the hill on their third assault.
From a battlefield standpoint, it was a British victory. At the end of the battle, the British held the ground. But it was a costly battle for the British. They suffered over a thousand casualties (226 dead and 828 wounded).
British General Clinton wrote in his diary: "A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America."
Interestingly enough, General Clinton's prediction was close to the truth. In the course of the American Revolution, the British would win most of the battles. But they would never break the resolve of the colonists. Ultimately, the Americans would have their independence.
For more on the Battle of Bunker Hill, read "The Decisive Day is Come," courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.