« PreviousContinue »
of the sea, which for breadth has been compared to the Thames at London Bridge. Charleston, like Boston itself, is built at the extremity of a peninsula, which is joined to the Continent by a neck or narrow strip of land. Within this peninsula of Charleston the ground rises in two uneven ridges; the one nearest to Boston called Breed's Hill; the other, more remote, Bunker's Hill. Important as this position appeared to the security of Boston it had hitherto been neglected by General Gage. The Americans, more alert, now resolved to occupy it. On the evening of the 16th of June they sent a body of their Militia along Charleston Neck, with directions to intrench themselves on Bunker's Hill. The troops marched accordingly, but by some mistake as to their orders they, instead of Bunker's, took possession of Breed's Hill. Working all night they threw up a square redoubt on the summit of the ground; working so secretly, however, as not to give the least alarm to several ships of war that were anchored at no great distance from them. When on the morning of the 17th the break of day discovered their position, a heavy cannonade was opened upon them from the Lively sloop, and from Copp's Hill in Boston: but this the Americans sustained very calmly, and in spite of it completed their intrenchment.
As the position of Breed's Hill overlooked the town of Boston, General Gage thought it necessary to drive the Americans from it. With this view he sent over in boats a division of his army commanded by General Howe. The troops landed towards noon, but perceiving the Americans wait for them with firmness, General Howe applied for a reinforcement, which was despatched accordingly, and which raised his whole numbers to above two thousand men. During this interval the Americans also received from their main army a large accession of force, led on by Dr. Joseph Warren the physician of Boston, who had lately become the President of the Massachusetts Congress, and been raised (by his own authority in fact) to the rank of Major General.—Then all preparations being completed, the British troops slowly advanced up the hill, formed in two lines and under cover of a heavy fire of cannon and howitzers. Their right was headed by General Howe; their left by Brigadier General Pigot. As the left marched forward it was greatly galled in flank by musketry from Charleston, a body of American riflemen having been posted in the houses; upon which by Howe's order the town was set on fire and destroyed; an act afterwards urged against the English, though surely without good reason, as a wanton and barbarous outrage. Over these painful scenes of civil strife and desolation was poured the unclouded effulgence of a mid-day and mid-summer sun. General Burgoyne, who was gazing upon them from one of the batteries at Boston, has described them in a private letter with no slight dramatic force. "And now," says he, "ensued one of the greatest scenes of war that can "be conceived. If we look to the height Howe's corps, 'ascending the hill in the face of intrenchments and in "a very disadvantageous ground, was much engaged; to "the left the enemy pouring in fresh troops by thousands "over the land; and in the arm of the sea our ships and "floating batteries cannonading them; straight before "us a large and noble town in one great blaze;—and "the church-steeples being timber were great pyramids "of fire above the rest—behind us the church-steeples "and heights of our own camp covered with spectators "of the rest of our army which was engaged; the hills "round the country also covered with spectators; the "enemy all in anxious suspense; the roar of cannon, "mortars, and musketry; the crash of churches, ships "upon the stocks, and whole streets falling together to "fill the ear; the storm of the redoubts with the objects "above described to fill the eye; and the reflection that "perhaps a defeat was a final loss to the British empire "in America to fill the mind; made the whole a picture "and a complication of horror and importance beyond "anything that ever came to my lot to witness."*
When the English approached the summit of Breed's Hill the Americans encountered them with great coolness and determination, reserving their fire till within eighty or a hundred yards and then pouring it with deadly aim.
* General Burgoyne to Lord Stanley, June 25. 1775. This letter appeared in the newspapers of the day, and will be found reprinted in the American Archives.
Then were blown to the winds the silly predictions of Lord Sandwich and Colonel Grant as to the alleged deficiency of courage in the Colonists; predictions which, besides being in this case utterly false and groundless, have always a manifest tendency to defeat themselves. Such predictions, it is plain, had not been forgotten by those whose honour they assailed. It is said that when one of the English regiments drew nearer than the rest many of the Americans opposite called out to its commanding officer, "Colonel Abercrombie, are the Yankees "cowards ?"— and most clearly they were not. On the other hand the British troops had grievous odds against them. By the unskilful direction of their chiefs they were encumbered with three days' provision, and their knapsacks on their backs. Under this heavy load and beneath a burning sun they had toiled up a rugged hill covered with long grass reaching to their knees and intersected by various fences and inclosures; and instead of being brought to attack the American force in flank, which would have been equally effectual for dislodging it, they had been led on directly in front, where the ascent was steepest and where the intrenchment was strongest. With these previous disadvantages, and now exposed to the close and well-directed fire of their enemy, they wavered, gave way, and fell back in disorder towards the landing place. Here they were quickly rallied by their officers, and a second time led up to the charge. But by another blunder of those placed in authority over them, a supply of ball for the field artillery being sent from the ordnance department at Boston was found to be of larger dimensions than fitted the calibres of the guns; and this oversight of course prevented the further use of the field artillery that day. Again did the Americans from behind their intrenchments pour upon them a destructive fire. Again were they repulsed and driven in confusion down the hill. At this critical moment General Clinton, without waiting for orders, put himself at the head of a small detachment (two battalions) which hastened over in boats from Boston. The reinforcement though small was most seasonable, and the presence of Clinton himself proved of material service in rallying the soldiers and preparing them for another onset. To that onset, the third and last, weary as they were, they rushed up with irresistible impetuosity and carrying the enemy's redoubt at the point of the bayonet. By this time the Americans' supply of powder had begun to fail; still they fought on bravely, and even, it is said, maintained the contest with their clubbed muskets, until at last they were dislodged and put to flight. Though retreating in utter disarray there was no more than a show of pursuit against them, but they suffered severely in passing Charleston Neck from the cross fire of two floating batteries and of the Glasgow man-of-war. And thus, only changing the numbers but retaining the phrase of a gallant officer in relating another gallant exploit, we may say that, "the remnant of five and "twenty hundred unconquerable British soldiers stood "triumphant on the fatal hill!" *
Such was the battle which not quite aptly, considering the disposition of the ground, has received from the neighbouring height the name of Bunker's Hill. The loss of the British was immense considering their number engaged. Of that number wellnigh one half had fallen; above 220 killed; above 820 wounded. The Americans as having fought from behind intrenchments suffered far less severely; according to their own account their entire loss in killed and wounded was under 450. None among their slain was more lamented than their Doctor-General Warren ; a man in the prime of life, of tried energy, great powers of persuasion, and highly promising abilities.
The Americans at that period—and some of them even to the present day—have claimed the battle of Bunker's Hill as a victory. Yet considering that the British were left in possession of the ground and maintained it for several months to come, and considering also that of six pieces of artillery which the Americans brought into action they carried away but one, there can surely be no question that according to the rules of war they must be considered as defeated.—It may be acknowledged, however, that none of the more substantial fruits of success were on this occasion gathered by the English. The peninsula of Charleston proved but a barren acquisition
* The phrase is General Napier's, in his spirit-stirring narrative of the day of Albuera. (Peninsular War, vol. iii. p. 541.)
to them since it was comprised in the blockade of Boston by the enemy's lines. And General Washington arriving at head quarters, about a fortnight afterwards, and assuming the chief command, immediately applied himself to strengthen and support those lines by throwing up new intrenchments, stationing new outposts, and adopting every other precaution, so far as his means allowed, to hem in the British troops and prevent them from issuing forth as invaders of the open country.
Not merely did the Americans at that period boldly claim the victory at Bunker's Hill; they also indulged in the widest latitude of statement as to the relative forces there engaged. One account, for example, published in Rhode Island, swells the British to five thousand while reducing the Americans to two thousand men,—thus nearly inverting the true numbers!—But not satisfied even with this version, we find Mr. Isaac Lothrop, a member of the Massachusetts Congress, who writes two days later, descant on "our brave little army consisting of about five "hundred men at most!"* The more judicious and candid American historians have since admitted their troops to have amounted to four thousand, f But if we may rely on the official relation addressed by General Gage to the Secretary of State, the British in this battle were opposed by "above three times their own number,"— that is, by upwards of seven thousand men. J
In this battle there was no charge or complaint against the British chiefs for want of spirit, but it is manifest that they showed a want of skill. On the American side however the officers did not upon the whole behave so bravely as the men. General Washington, on reaching the camp shortly afterwards, made a strict inquiry, and reports the result as follows in a confidential letter to the President of Congress: "Upon my arrival and since some
* See the American Archives, vol. ii. p. 1036 and 1089.
t Marshall's Life of Washington, vol. ii. p. 214. ed. 1S05.
J Despatch to the Earl of Dartmouth, June 25. London Gazettes, July 25. 1775. By the French the very lowest estimate is still admitted — at least in their works of fiction. Thus we find in the Bohemienne of M. Scribe, "— Bunker's Hill ccte redouve ou j'ai "vu six cents Americains, decides a mourir, se defendre contre * toute l'armee Anglaise 1"