The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Bunker Hill

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BUNKER HILL, a round, smooth elevation in Charlestown, Mass., 110 ft. high, commanding the peninsula of Boston. It is connected by a ridge on its southern slope with Breed's hill, about 75 ft. high, the crests of the two hills being about 700 yards apart. These heights are famous for the battle fought on them between the British and American forces, June 17, 1775. The city of Boston was at that time occupied by the British under Gen. Gage, who had recently received large reënforcements under Gens. Howe, Burgoyne, and Clinton. Around Boston, having their headquarters at Cambridge, were the minute men of Massachusetts and various bodies of militia and parties of volunteers, as yet independent of each other, obeying their several commanders, knowing little of military discipline, united only by their devotion to the common cause, but of whom Washington in person was soon to take command. Gen. Artemas Ward, the military head of Massachusetts, was however in general regarded as commander-in-chief, while Prescott, Putnam, Gridley, Stark, and Pomeroy, who had learned the art of war in the old contests between England and France, served under him. The beleaguered and now reënforeed British had determined to begin offensive operations against the rebels. This design became known in the American camp, where the daring counsels of the officers and the inexperienced eagerness of the soldiers at once suggested the project of anticipating any movement of Gen. Gage. It was determined to seize and fortify the heights of Charlestown on the night of the 16th of June, and Col. William Prescott, of Pepperell, received command of a force of 1,000 men to execute this perilous enterprise. The detachments paraded soon after sunset on Cambridge common, where prayers were offered up by Langdon, the president of Harvard college. About 9 o'clock they began their march toward Charlestown, and near the isthmus called Charlestown neck were joined by Major Brooks and Gen. Putnam, and by the wagons laden with intrenching tools. Prescott conducted them undiscovered up the ascent of Bunker hill, and thence, after a consultation, to Breed's hill, which was nearer to Boston, and had better command of the town and shipping. There the lines of a redoubt were marked out, and a little after midnight the first sod was thrown up. At dawn a strong redoubt about eight rods square, flanked on the left by a breastwork which extended northerly toward a piece of low land called the Slough, was already completed, and was espied from the ships in the harbor. These immediately brought their guns to bear upon it, and the cannonade awoke the citizens and occupants of the town. Amid an incessant shower of shot and shells, on one of the hottest days of the season, after having toiled all night, and possessing but scanty supplies, the Americans steadily pursued their work till about 11 o'clock. At that time the intrenching tools were removed by Putnam to Bunker hill, with the design of forming a new breastwork there. Prescott strengthened his right flank by some troops thrown into the village of Charlestown at the southern foot of the hill, and on the left, at the very moment of battle, a fortification against musket balls was completed by the intertexture of two rail fences and the new-mown hay of the meadows. While the military din which reëchoed from the streets of Boston announced an impending attack, Prescott repeatedly sent messages to Cambridge asking for reënforcements and provisions, and Putnam went in person to urge the exigencies of the case. Yet Ward hesitated to expose his stores and to risk a general engagement by weakening his main body, and it was not till 11 o'clock that orders from him reached Stark at Medford to advance to the relief of Frescott. This veteran was at the head of 500 New Hampshire troops, and wisely led them on slowly, determined to bring them fresh into battle. He appeared on the heights about 2 o'clock, and took his position on the left to maintain the rustic bulwark which reached toward the Mystic. At the same time Warren arrived, and after declining the command, which was tendered to him by Putnam at the rail fence, and by Prescott on Breed's hill, entered the redoubt as a volunteer, and was cheered by the troops as he selected the place of greatest danger and importance. Already the British army of assault had landed. Gen. Gage had decided, in opposition to a majority of his council, to attack the Americans in front instead of in rear, in the conviction that raw militia would flee before an assault of veterans. About 1 o'clock 28 boats and barges, containing four regiments of infantry, 10 companies of grenadiers, 10 of light infantry, and a proportion of field artillery, in all about 2,000 men, bore away from Boston under cover of a heavy fire from the ships in the harbor, and landed without opposition at Moulton's point, a little north of Breed's hill. Gen. Howe commanded the right wing, which was to push along the bank of the Mystic river, and attempt to force the rail fence, and so to outflank and surround the whole American party; Gen. Pigot commanded the left wing, which was to mount the hill and force the redoubt. Reënforcements were on their way toward the American lines all day, but the whole number who arrived in time to take part in the action did not exceed 1,500 men. Prescott commanded upon the redoubt, Knowlton and Stark on the left, and Putnam was active and efficient in various ways, now planning additional fortifications on Bunker hill, now scouring the whole peninsula to hurry up reënforcements, and now mingling with, encouraging, and threatening the men at the rail fence. The two columns of the British, after partaking of refreshments, advanced to a simultaneous assault a little after 2½ o'clock. They presented a formidable appearance, and Gen. Pigot's division ascended the hill in good order, discharging their musketry, and galled only by a flanking fire from the Americans in Charlestown. The men in the redoubt, obedient to the strict command of Prescott, withheld their fire till the enemy had approached within eight rods, when a tremendous volley was discharged, and nearly the whole front rank of the British fell. The assailants, recoiling for a moment, again advanced, and were met by a second volley more effective than the first. The Americans were all marksmen, and for a few minutes an unremitting fire was kept up between the two armies, till the British staggered and retreated in disorder, some of them even to their boats. Gen. Howe's division had in like manner moved gallantly forward, been received at the distance of nine rods by a deadly fire from the whole line of the rail fence, and forced after a struggle into confusion and a precipitate retreat. The moments following this first check were employed by the American officers in cheering and praising the men. Meantime Charlestown neck, over which recruits were hurrying to the action, was raked by an unceasing discharge of balls and bomb shells from the neighboring British batteries and ships; the village of Charlestown, from which so much annoyance had been experienced in the first attack, was set on fire by shells thrown from Copp's hill, and its 500 wooden edifices burst into a blaze; and amid the confusion of this scene the British began their second attempt to storm the redoubt, firing musket shots as they ascended the hill. The Americans reserved their fire till the enemy was within six rods, and then a volley aimed with the skill of sharpshooters did its accustomed execution. The British, however, pressed boldly forward in the face of a continuous stream of fire, but staggered before reaching the redoubt, and, in spite of the remonstrances, threats, and even blows of the officers, again gave way, and retreated in greater confusion than before, leaving some of their dead within a few yards of the works. The grass fence on the left was at the same time maintained against Gen. Howe, whose division suffered severely in loss of men and officers. The crowd of spectators on the opposite shore beheld with astonishment the successful stand of raw militia against veteran regulars. Gen. Clinton, who from Copp's hill had watched the action, now hurried over as a volunteer with reënforcements. The terrible scene was new to the American troops, yet they answered with cheers when Prescott cried, “If we drive them back once more, they cannot rally again.” But it was now discovered that the ammunition was nearly exhausted, and when the engagement was renewed the Americans had each only from one to four charges of powder left, and not more than 50 bayonets in all. The British advanced in three divisions, from the south, east, and northeast, and when close at hand received the same murderous volley as before. They advanced with fixed bayonets, and the American fire immediately slackened. The last round of ammunition shot down those of the enemy who first mounted the parapet, one of whom was Major Pitcairn. There was for some time a hand-to-hand struggle carried on by the Americans with their few bayonets, the stocks of the muskets, the barrels after the stocks were broken off, and even with stones, till, the wings of the British getting into the rear of the redoubt, a little before 4 o'clock Prescott gave the order for retreat. He himself was one of the last to leave the redoubt, parrying with his sword bayonets which pierced his coat, and his men cut their way through the two divisions by whom they were nearly surrounded. They received a destructive volley as they left the redoubt, and Warren fell shot through the head with a bullet. Stark and Knowlton maintained their station at the rail fence till the troops of Prescott had left the hill, and then retired slowly, Pomeroy, a veteran of 70 years, firing back upon the enemy till his musket was shattered by a ball. The retreat was across Bunker hill, where they were encountered by Putnam, who had been collecting reënforcements, and who sought in vain to rally them to make a stand at the unfinished works which he had constructed. The retreat was harassed by a raking fire from the British ships and batteries, but there was no pursuit beyond Charlestown neck. Putnam, who had assumed the supreme direction after the retreating forces left Bunker hill, rallied a portion of the fugitives, and encamped that night on Prospect hill. Prescott repaired to headquarters at Cambridge, and was so little discouraged that he offered with three regiments to recover his post. Indeed, the result of the battle, though a defeat, had all the moral effect of a victory. The loss of the British in killed and wounded, by the account of Gen. Gage, was at least 1,054, among whom were 70 commissioned officers wounded and 13 killed. The whole loss of the Americans was 145 killed and missing, and 304 wounded. The death of Warren, one of the most guileless and ablest of patriots, caused profound and universal sorrow.

AmCyc Bunker Hill - Monument.jpg

Bunker Hill Monument.

—In the centre of the grounds included within the redoubt on Breed's hill now stands the obelisk known as Bunker Hill monument. It is a square shaft, built of Quincy granite, 221 ft. high, 31 ft. square at the base, and 15 at the top. Its foundations are enclosed 12 ft. under ground. Inside of the shaft is a round hollow cone, 7 ft. wide at the bottom and 4 ft. 2 in. at the top, encircled by a winding staircase of 294 stone steps, which leads to a chamber immediately under the apex, 11 ft. in diameter. This chamber has four windows, which afford a wide view of the surrounding country, and contains two cannons, named respectively Hancock and Adams, which were used in many engagements during the war. The cornerstone of this monument was laid on the 50th anniversary of the battle, June 17, 1825, by Gen. Lafayette, then the nation's guest, when Daniel Webster pronounced an oration to an immense concourse of people. There were present on the occasion about 200 soldiers of the revolution and 40 survivors of the battle. The monument was completed in 1842, its entire expense having been over $150,000; and on June 17, 1843, it was dedicated, Daniel Webster being again the orator.