British General William Howe lands his troops on the Charlestown Peninsula overlooking Boston, Massachusetts, and leads them against Breed’s Hill, a fortified American position just below Bunker Hill, on this day in 1775.
As the British advanced in columns against the Americans, American General William Prescott reportedly told his men, “Don’t one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” When the Redcoats were within 40 yards, the Americans let loose with a lethal barrage of musket fire, throwing the British into retreat. After reforming his lines, Howe attacked again, with much the same result. Prescott’s men were now low on ammunition, though, and when Howe led his men up the hill for a third time, they reached the redoubts and engaged the Americans in hand-to-hand combat. The outnumbered Americans were forced to retreat. However, by the end of the engagement, the Patriots’ gunfire had cut down nearly 1,000 enemy troops, including 92 officers. Of the 370 Patriots who fell, most were struck while in retreat.
The British had won the so-called Battle of Bunker Hill, and Breed’s Hill and the Charlestown Peninsula fell firmly under British control. Despite losing their strategic positions, the battle was a morale-builder for the Americans, convincing them that patriotic dedication could overcome superior British military might.
The British entered the Battle of Bunker Hill overconfident. Had they merely guarded Charlestown Neck, they could have isolated the Patriots with little loss of life. Instead, Howe had chosen to try to wipe out the Yankees by marching 2,400 men into a frontal assault on the Patriots’ well-defended position on top of the hill. The British would never make the same mistake again.