Today is the 240th anniversary of one of the seminal battles of the American Revolution. Schoolchildren across the country learn about the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the important role they played in the history of our country. Bunker Hill was a seminal conflict, and the bloodiest battle of the entire Revolution.
After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the American militia men returned home. The British were pinned up in Boston, on the Shawmut Peninsula. After a two-month standoff, the Americans headed for Charlestown, which at the time was a small town on a peninsula across Boston Harbor from Boston.
Charlestown was very strategic at that point because of its proximity to the British forces locked up in Boston. On the night of June 16, more than a thousand soldiers left Cambridge carrying tools to carve out fortifications. They were to create the redoubts on the farm owned by the Bunker family. The property included a large hill that overlooked Boston. Unfortunately there was disagreement concerning their orders.
The troops were led by Israel Putnam and William Prescott, and the fortifications were being overseen by engineer Richard Gridley. They disagreed with the where the fortifications should be built. Although work started on Bunker Hill, it was felt that nearby Breed’s Hill provided a better opportunity because, although lower than Bunker Hill, it is located much closer to Boston and it was thought to be more defensible. So the fortifications were built there.
By morning the British were noticing the work of the militia, and by afternoon, British troops landed at Charlestown to engage them. By 3 p.m. the British were headed for the redoubt. After three assaults, the redcoats overtook the colonials and in a rout they were headed back over the Charlestown Peninsula by 5 p.m. But it was a Pyrrhic victory.
The Americans lost 115 of their number during the battle. Another 305 were wounded, and 30 were captured (20 of whom died as prisoners). The British troops, however, suffered 236 death (19 of whom were officers). Another 832 were wounded, 62 of whom were officers. The British lost more than twice as many as the Americans. And it was the bloodiest engagement of the entire war, which would last another eight years.
Although the great battle is still remembered today, we don’t always remember it accurately. Many believe that it took place in Boston, but Charlestown was not annexed to the city until 1873. And it has gone down in history as the Battle of Bunker Hill despite that it took place on Breed’s Hill. A couple of years ago historian Nathaniel Philbrick wrote a book which discusses the misinformation about the battle. The Smithsonian interviewed him for a story about the book, and the battle, which you can read in The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill.