Two-hundred thirty-nine years ago today, one of the pre-eminent battles in American history took place. And one of the biggest misnomers in American history started.
In June 1775, Boston was held by British troops. At that time, Boston was on a peninsula, with only a small neck of land connecting it to the mainland at Roxbury. The neck was fortified for defense from the very beginning. In 1774, General Gage created heavier fortifications and added a ditch that filled with water at high tide, effectively turning Boston into an island.
Hills in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Charlestown overlooked Boston. By June 1775, British officers were about to send troops to these hills for additional protection. On June 13 colonial leaders learned of the plans and created a defense plan.
The village of Charlestown was located on another peninsula, which protruded into Boston Harbor on the north side of Boston. On the night of June 16, 1,200 troops under the command of William Prescott crept into Charlestown to fortify Bunker Hill, overlooking Boston.
Once the initial work started on Bunker Hill, Prescott and other officers, including engineer Richard Gridley decided that it made more sense to locate the fortifications on nearby Breed’s Hill. Breed’s Hill was closer to Boston than Bunker Hill. They built a large redoubt there during the night.
Their work was noticed by the British just before dawn. General Clinton urged an early attack via Charlestown Neck that would allow them to starve out the Colonials and cut off their avenue of retreat. But the remaining generals, including Burgoyne, Gage, and Howe were determined that the Colonials were no match for British regulars, and that a direct attack would be quick and easy.
The British assault started at 3 p.m. By 5 p.m., the colonists had retreated across the neck, and the British controlled the hill. But the victory was Pyrrhic at best. The retreat was orderly and in control, not a wild flight by the Colonials. In fact, Colonial forces ensured that the British could not surround them, allowing fleeing forces to escape.
That day, 2,400 Colonial forces met more than 3,000 British regulars. The Colonials suffered losses of 115 killed, 305 wounded, and 30 captures (20 of whom later died). British forces, however, were decimated. Among the 226 killed were 19 officers. And 828 were wounded, including 62 officers. Colonials casualties were only 19%, while more than a third of British troops were killed or injured, including a large number of officers. Even though they lost that day, overall victory went to the Colonials. The fact that they inflicted far more damage than they themselves suffered galvanized the colonies and gave them confidence that the British forces were not infallible.
But forevermore that battle would be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill. On the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, in 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette laid the cornerstone for a monument to the battle. Geographically, however, the Bunker Hill Monument even today stands on Breed’s Hill, perpetuating one of the greatest misnomers in American history.