Today visitors enjoy a leisurely walk around a five-acre park on a peaceful hilltop. This is all that remains of the ground that became a raging battlefield and the venue of the first, and arguably the bloodiest, full¬-scale battle of the Revolutionary War. It was at the top of this hill, on the night of 16 June 1775, that the acrimony between the British and many American colonists boiled over into savage fury, while the nearby wooden buildings of Charlestown, Massachusetts, burned from artillery fire by British warships.
This significant Revolutionary War battle, through time, was acknowledged to have been fought on Bunker Hill, but it actually took place on nearby Breed’s Hill. The campaign gained the British a narrow victory, but at the same time it inspired the colonists to continue to fight. The battle served to prove to the American people that the British Army was not invincible. It became a symbol of national pride and a rally point of resistance against British rule.
Extract from Essential Histories Specials 7: Liberty or Death – Wars that forged a nation
Outbreak – Shot heard round the world
The year 1775 marked the formal outbreak of hostilities between the British and Americans. A small skirmish in Lexington led to a larger confrontation in Concord, and the British withdrawal from Concord sparked a savage fight for survival and the beginning of outright conflict. The battle of Breed’s Hill (Bunker Hill), in June, was the first pitched battle of the war. This was followed by a bold American attempt, in December 1775, to seize and conquer Canada. After these events there could be no turning back. It was war.
The armed struggle for America began on 19 April 1775 in the towns of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. It could easily have been sooner. By late 1774, the British government was growing tired of its contentious North American colonists. General Gage, Commander-in-Chief in North America, received orders in December to arrest the instigators, but he considered the number of British troops available locally too small to be effective. Most of the British forces in North America were gathered and sent to Boston, nearly 13 battalions of infantry by the spring of 1775. Gage still considered this inadequate to deal with a possible insurrection.
In early April, Gage received reports that a large cache of weapons and gunpowder was being stored at Concord, 26 km (16 miles) northwest of Boston. The local militia was aware that the British knew about the stores, but not when the British might move against it. Senior members of the Continental Congress, such as John Adams and John Hancock, were in Lexington, and there was fear that the British would move to arrest them.
On 18 April at 8:00 pm the commanding officers of the British regiments in Boston were ordered to send their light and grenadier companies to the beach near the Magazine Guard by 10:00 pm. These troops numbered between 600 and 700 men and were commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Smith of the 10th Foot and Major John Pitcairn of the Marines. The troops were ferried across the Charles river towards Cambridge. All of the troops landed on Cambridge Marsh by midnight, but had to wait till 2:00 am before moving, in order to allow the shipping and unloading of provisions to be completed. Lieutenant Barker noted, “few but the commanding officers knew what expedition we were going upon”. Paul Revere and William Dawes secretly left Boston and rode towards Lexington and Concord to raise the alarm that the British were marching on the stores.
As the British troops marched towards Lexington, they began to receive intelligence that a large group of armed men was forming near the common at Lexington. Lieutenant-Colonel Smith sent a messenger back to Boston for reinforcements. A reinforcement brigade was ordered ready to move from Boston overland to Lexington. Due to orders not being conveyed correctly and time wasted to correct the mistake, the brigade was delayed and did not march until 8:45 am. The Lexington militia formed a company of 70 men on Lexington Green, under the command of Captain John Parker, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War.
Major Pitcairn and his companies arrived at Lexington Green just as the militia was forming up at around 6:00 am. Major Pitcairn called upon the militia to lay down their arms and return to their homes. The American commander, Parker, told his men not to fire; the British moved forward and a shot was fired. There has been extensive debate about who actually fired the first shot. Lieutenant Barker contends that “on our coming near them they [the American militia] fired one or two shots”. The situation was confusing for both sides, and Barker mentions that, after the initial shots, “our men without any orders rushed in upon them, fired and put them to flight”. The firing lasted for 15–20 minutes, when Pitcairn managed to restore order. Eight militiamen lay dead and 10 more were wounded. The British had suffered one wounded man.
Following this engagement, Pitcairn and the light infantry moved on to Concord to destroy the cache of weapons. The militia surrounding Concord was mobilized and moved to intercept the British column. The British seized Concord, and the light infantry was sent to secure bridges north and south of town, while the grenadiers dealt with destroying the weapons and gunpowder in the area. A fight broke out at the North Bridge after the British had occupied both sides. As the militia moved forward, the British withdrew from one side and fired a volley into the militia. An American stated that ‘we were all ordered to load [muskets] and had strick orders not to fire till they fired first then to fire as fast as we could … the British … fired three guns one after another … we then was all ordered to fire … and not to kill our own men’. The Concord militia opened fire and according to a British officer, “the weight of their fire was such that we were obliged to give way”.
The British suffered one killed and 11 wounded, including four officers. They withdrew towards Concord, and orders were received at around midday for all units to fall back towards Boston, the military stores having been destroyed. As the troops left Concord, sniping began from houses along the road to Boston. About 2 km (one mile) outside of Concord, the British column crossed at Meriam’s Corner, where it became bunched up. Militiamen opened up on the large column, inflicting heavy casualties on the flanks and rear.
The relieving brigade from Boston met up with the remainder of the British column at Lexington, bringing the numbers of British troops close to 1,500 men. The combined force marched out towards Boston. As a British officer noted: “we were attacked on all sides from woods, and orchards and from stone walls and from every house on the road side”. The British reaction to this sort of attack was described as follows: “the soldiers were so enraged at suffering from an unseen enemy, that they forced open many a house from which the fire proceeded, and put to death all those found in them”. Militiamen poured in from all the surrounding towns to fight against the withdrawing British column, but the British were able to keep them at a distance with the use of flanking parties and a very good rearguard formation.
When they arrived in Cambridge, the British column decided to head towards Charlestown, as the bridge from Cambridge to Boston had either been destroyed or was heavily defended. The column arrived at Charlestown at 7:00 pm and occupied the area until boats were sent to ferry the troops back over to Boston. The militia did not pursue the British into Charlestown because the area was open terrain. As Barker noted: “the rebels did not chuse [sic] to follow us to the Hill as they must have fought us on open ground and that they did not like”.
The British lost about 70 killed and 170 wounded during the day’s fighting, while the Americans are estimated to have lost 100 men killed and wounded. The British had been successful in extricating themselves from the area and had applied good lightinfantry tactics in clearing the militia from the stone walls and houses that lined the road to Boston.
Following this first skirmish, the surrounding colonies sent militia reinforcements to Boston during the remainder of April and May. By the end of May, militia numbers had swelled to about 17,000 men. The British received reinforcements in the shape of Major-Generals (later Lieutenant-Generals) Sir William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, and Sir John Burgoyne as well as the 35th, 49th, and 63rd Regiments of Foot over the course of May and June. Gage finally felt equipped to occupy the two dominant heights commanding Boston, Dorchester Heights and Charlestown (Breed’s Hill). The rebels received word of this and began to dig a redoubt on Breed’s Hill on the evening of 16 June 1775.
The British decided to attack the American positions on Breed’s Hill, in an episode that has come down the years of history as the battle of Bunker Hill. Colonel William Prescott was in charge of the American forces on the hill; these were estimated at a few thousand men. Defensive positions had been dug from the redoubt down to the Mystic River in an attempt to rebuff any flanking attack from the British.
The British sent a force of 2,000 men over to Charlestown in the early afternoon of 17 June, under the command of General Howe. Howe, a veteran of the French-Indian War, understood the needs of light infantry and the difficulties of assailing a fixed position frontally, so it is even more surprising that his main attack was a frontal assault. This can perhaps be attributed to the arrogant belief that the rebels would flee once they saw the British regulars advancing.
The British left, under the command of Brigadier Robert Pigott, had marched to within yards of the American lines when a heavy volley was fired into their midst. A second volley followed, forcing the left wing to fall back. The British troops were supported by artillery, but this had no impact on the first attack. One American observer described “the balls flying almost as thick as hailstones from the ships and floating batteries … our people stood the fire some time”. Howe’s troops on the right flank were similarly unable to breach the American defenses. Pigott launched a second frontal attack with no more success. A British officer said, “the oldest soldiers here [Boston] say that it was the hottest fire they ever saw not even the Battle of Minden  … was equal to it”. Howe’s second attempt on the right wing failed as well.
Reinforcements arrived as the decision was made to attempt a third and final attack. The American defenders, meanwhile, were running low on ammunition, and Prescott ordered his men to hold their fire until the last possible moment. The British line advanced, and when they were within 30–60 feet (9–18 m), the Americans fired their last rounds. The British pushed forward with bayonets fixed, driving the Americans from their positions. The Americans managed to retreat over the Charlestown Neck without much opposition, however, as Gage failed to translate the victory into a decisive rout.
The British had seized the hill, but it was a Pyhrric victory. Of the 2,500 British troops involved, 228 had been killed and 800 wounded. The Americans, on the other hand, had lost only 100 killed and 270 wounded. These casualties were the worst the British suffered during the war. As Gage noted in a letter that was published in the London Gazette, “the tryals [sic] we have shew that the Rebels are not the despicable Rabble too many have supposed them to be” (22–25 July 1775). This battle also made clear to the Americans that, though they might be successful in defense, they would require a professional Continental-style army to challenge the British in the open fields of America.
After the casualties suffered at Breed’s Hill, the British decided not to attack Dorchester Heights. While Charlestown was occupied, the British remained holed up in Boston for the rest of the year. General Gage was replaced by General Sir William Howe as Commander-in-Chief of America in October 1775.
Battle of Quebec
The final military campaign of 1775 took place in upstate New York and Canada. American forces had seized the British posts at Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point in May 1775. In June, the Continental Congress created the Separate Army, giving the command to Major-General Philip Schuyler, along with orders to attack Canada. Schuyler’s deputy, Brigadier Richard Montgomery, a former British regular, was given field command of the army. He was ordered to attack towards Montreal and rendezvous with a New England force under the command of Brigadier Benedict Arnold. Arnold’s force followed the Penobscot river (in present-day Maine), intending to arrive outside Quebec City, the principal British garrison in Canada.
Montgomery’s advance went according to plan, but the British and Canadian militiamen at St John’s, Quebec, unexpectedly held out for five weeks. Montreal fell on 13 November 1775, with cold weather setting in. Arnold’s force had underestimated crossing the Maine frontier, and arrived fatigued and hungry outside Quebec in mid-November. Montgomery arrived in early December. The British commander and governor at Quebec, Lieutenant-General Sir Guy Carleton, had only 1,800 troops, nearly all of whom were newly raised militia or recruits. Most of the regulars had been sent to Boston.
The Americans fielded about 1,000 men. They attacked the city on 31 December, one day before many of Arnold’s New England troops’ terms of enlistment ended. A snowstorm began as the attack was launched; an American soldier described the scene:
this morning about 4 AM the time appointed to storm the city our army divided into different parts to attack the city … we got near the walls when a heavy fire of cannon and small arms began from the enemy, they being prepared and expecting us that night … came to the wall cannon roaring like thunder and musket balls flying like hail.
Brigadier Montgomery was killed and General Arnold wounded. The Americans suffered heavy losses, and, though they remained outside the city, the threat to Quebec had passed.
The British strategy of 1775 had been to apply overt military action to try to resolve a problem that was essentially political in origin. Their aim in doing so was to quell the growing dissatisfaction of the colonists and in this they failed. The concentration of British regulars in Boston had not frightened the local population into submission. On the contrary, the population had become more openly hostile in the presence of troops. The attempt to seize and destroy the weapon caches in Concord, while technically successful, had sparked an all-out rebellion. Lack of strategic planning found the bulk of the British North American forces hemmed into Boston, surrounded by a hostile citizenry. The victory at Breed’s Hill, won at such great cost, had left the senior commanders in Boston hesitant to destroy the local American forces surrounding them.
Finally, the Americans had almost succeeded in capturing Canada. While an American victory would almost certainly have provoked a more definitive response from the British, the reality remained that the Americans had successfully invaded as far as Quebec, conclusively demonstrating just how vulnerable the British were in dealing with the insurrection. Senior members of the British government called for a naval blockade of the colonies, but the ultimate decision was to concentrate resources in a land war.
The Americans had been able to achieve great things in 1775. They had forced the British into Boston and kept them trapped there. Some members of the Continental Congress recognized, however, that the British were not going to give in easily and stressed the need for proper military training and force to counter the British regulars.
Essential Histories Specials 7: Liberty or Death – Wars that forged a nation
An examination of the wars in North America from the French-Indian War in 1754 until the end of the War of 1812, which brought lasting peace between Britain and the United States. This book places the 1775 rebellion in the broader context of America’s struggle for independence.
Campaign 37: Boston 1775
An exploration of the opposing commanders and forces involved, whilst describing how the sparks at Lexington and Concord ignited the smouldering resentment of the Colonists into the flame of a rebellion. The British assault on Breed’s Hill and the burning of Charlestown were the first major battles of the American Revolution; after the events at Boston there was no turning back.
Campaign 128: Quebec 1775
This title looks at the battle following Breed’s Hill. The American attack on Quebec in 1775 was a key episode in the War of Independence. Capture of the city would give the Americans control of Canada – a disaster for the British. The subsequent campaign involved a 350-mile trek across uninhabited wilderness, and a desperate American attack on the city of Quebec that left one American general dead.
Elite 93: American War of Independence Commanders
The commanders who led the opposing armies of the American War of Independence came from remarkably different backgrounds. They included not only men from Britain and America, but from Germany, France and Spain as well. This title details the appearance, careers and personalities of the commanders on both sides.
Warrior 68: Continental Infantryman of the American Revolution
America raised three distinct forces to win its revolution; untrained, short-service militiamen; state troops; and the regular Continentals. The latter were the backbone of the army, providing a disciplined and effective fighting force. This book takes a close look at the Continental infantryman of the period examining all facets of their daily life