1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bunker Hill
BUNKER HILL, the name of a small hill in Charlestown (Boston), Massachusetts, U.S.A., famous as the scene of the first considerable engagement in the American War of Independence (June 17, 1775). Bunker Hill (110 ft.) was connected by a ridge with Breed's Hill (75 ft.), both being on a narrow peninsula a short distance to the north of Boston, joined by a causeway with the mainland. Since the affair of Lexington (April 19, 1775) General Gage, who commanded the British forces, had remained inactive at Boston awaiting reinforcements from England; the headquarters of the Americans were at Cambridge, with advanced posts occupying much of the 4 m. separating Cambridge from Bunker Hill. When Gage received his reinforcements at the end of May, he determined to repair his strange neglect by which the hills on the peninsula had been allowed to remain unoccupied and unfortified. As soon as the Americans became aware of Gage's intention they determined to frustrate it, and accordingly, on the night of the 16th of June, a force of about 1200 men, under Colonel William Prescott and Major-General Israel Putnam, with some engineers and a few field-guns, occupied Breed's Hill—to which the name Bunker Hill is itself now popularly applied—and when daylight disclosed their presence to the British they had already strongly entrenched their position. Gage lost no time in sending troops across from Boston with orders to assault. The British force, between 2000 and 3000 strong, under (Sir) William Howe, supported by artillery and by the guns of men-of-war and floating batteries stationed in the anchorage on either side of the peninsula, were fresh and well disciplined. The American force consisted for the most part of inexperienced volunteers, numbers of whom were already wearied by the trench work of the night. As communication was kept up with their camp the numbers engaged on the hill fluctuated during the day, but at no time exceeded about 1500 men. The village of Charlestown, from which a galling musketry fire was directed against the British, was by General Howe's orders almost totally destroyed by hot shot during the attack. Instead of attempting to cut off the Americans by occupying the neck to the rear of their position, Gage ordered the advance to be made up the steep and difficult ascent facing the works on the hill. Whether or not in obedience—as tradition asserts—to an order to reserve fire until they could see the whites of their assailants' eyes, the American volunteers with admirable steadiness waited till the attack was on the point of being driven home, when they delivered a fire so sustained and deadly that the British line broke in disorder. A second assault, made like the first, with the precision and discipline of the parade-ground met the same fate, but Gage's troops had still spirit enough for a third assault, and this time they carried the position with the bayonet, capturing five pieces of ordnance and putting the enemy to flight. The loss of the British was 1054 men killed and wounded, among whom were 89 commissioned officers; while the American casualties amounted to 420 killed and wounded, including General Joseph Warren, and 30 prisoners. (See American War of Independence.)
The significance of the battle of Bunker Hill is not, however, to be gauged by the losses on either side, heavy as they were in proportion to the numbers engaged, nor by its purely military results, but by the moral effect which it produced; and when it is considered from this standpoint its far-reaching consequences can hardly be over-estimated. "It roused at once the fierce instinct of combat in America ..., and dispelled ... the almost superstitious belief in the impossibility of encountering regular troops with hastily levied volunteers ... No one questioned the conspicuous gallantry with which the provincial troops had supported a long fire from the ships and awaited the charge of the enemy, and British soldiers had been twice driven back in disorder before their fire." The pride which Americans naturally felt in such an achievement, and the self-confidence which it inspired, were increased when they learnt that the small force on Bunker Hill had not been properly reinforced, and that their ammunition was running short before they were dislodged from their position. Had the character of the fighting on that day been other than it was; had the American volunteers been easily, and at the first assault, driven from their fortified position by the troops of George III., it is not impossible that the resistance to the British government would have died out in the North American colonies through lack of confidence in their own power on the part of the colonists. Bunker Hill, whatever it may have to teach the student of war, taught the American colonists in 1775 that the odds against them in the enterprise in which they had embarked were not so overwhelming as to deny them all prospect of ultimate success.
In 1843 a monument, 221 ft. high, in the form of an obelisk, of Quincy granite, was completed on Breed's Hill (now Bunker Hill) to commemorate the battle, when an address was delivered by Daniel Webster, who had also delivered the famous dedicatory oration at the laying of the corner-stone in 1825. Bunker Hill day is a state holiday.
(R. J. M.)
- W.E.H. Lecky, History of England in the Eighteenth Century, iii. 428.
- General Gage's despatch. American Remembrancer, 1776, part 11, p. 132.