At the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, early in the Revolutionary War, the British defeated the Americans. Despite their loss, the inexperienced colonial forces inflicted significant casualties against the enemy, and the battle provided them with an important confidence boost during the Siege of Boston. Although commonly referred to as the Battle of Bunker Hill, most of the fighting occurred on nearby Breed’s Hill.
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Breed’s Hill Fortified
On June 16, 1775, on the heels of the Battles of Lexington and Concord that kicked off the Revolutionary War, American troops learned that the British were planning to send troops from Boston to occupy the hills surrounding the city.
Some 1,000 colonial militiamen under Colonel William Prescott built earthen fortifications on top of Breed’s Hill, located on the Charlestown Peninsula overlooking Boston. The men originally had been ordered to construct their fortifications atop Bunker Hill but instead chose the smaller Breed’s Hill, closer to Boston.
‘The Whites of their Eyes'
On June 17, some 2,200 British forces under the command of Major General William Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot landed on the Charlestown Peninsula, then marched to Breed’s Hill.
As the British Army advanced in columns against the Americans, Prescott, in an effort to conserve the Americans’ limited supply of ammunition, reportedly told his men, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” When the Redcoats were within several dozen yards, the Americans let loose with a lethal barrage of musket fire, throwing the British into retreat.
After re-forming their lines, the British attacked again, with much the same result. Prescott’s men were now low on ammunition, though, and when the Redcoats went up the hill for a third time, they reached the redoubts and engaged the Americans in hand-to-hand combat. The outnumbered and outgunned Americans were forced to retreat.
However, by the end of the engagement, the casualties of the Battle of Bunker Hill were high: Patriot gunfire had cut down some 1,000 enemy troops, with more than 200 killed and more than 800 wounded. More than 100 Americans perished, while more than 300 others were wounded.
The last of the Americans left on the hill avoided being captured by the British because Peter Salem, a Black soldier, shot and mortally wounded Major John Pitcairn, the British commanding officer leading the final charge up the hill.
Three weeks later—on July 2, 1775—George Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts to take command of the Continental Army.
Who Won the Battle of Bunker Hill?
The British won the so-called Battle of Bunker Hill, and the Bunker Hill area—plus Breed’s Hill and the Charlestown Peninsula—fell firmly under British control.
Despite losing their strategic positions, the battle was a significant morale-builder for the inexperienced Americans, convincing them that patriotic dedication could overcome superior British military might. Additionally, the high price of victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill made the British realize that the war with the colonies would be long, tough and costly.
Bunker Hill Monument
The first monument on Breed’s Hill, installed in 1794, was a wooden pillar dedicated to Doctor Joseph Warren, a leader of the American troops who died in the fighting. It was later decided to install a more permanent memorial.
On June 17, 1825—50 years after the Battle of Bunker Hill—the cornerstone was laid for the Bunker Hill Monument. In attendance were some 40 veterans from the original battle, and another 190 from the Revolutionary War. The ceremony was led by General Marquis de Lafayette and statesman Daniel Webster.
The completed Bunker Hill Monument—a 221-foot-tall granite obelisk—was erected in 1843 as a memorial to those who died in the Battle of Bunker Hill. The monument is located on Breed’s Hill, where most of the fighting took place.
The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Smithsonian Magazine.
The Battle of Bunker Hill. National Park Service.
Today in History - June 17: The Battle of Bunker Hill. Library of Congress.
Building the Bunker Hill Monument. National Park Service.