The United States of America: A History Book 2: Chapter V - Bunker Hill
THE encounters at Lexington and Concord thoroughly
aroused the American people. The news rang through the land that blood had
been spilt—that already there were martyrs to the great cause. Mounted
couriers galloped along all highways. Over the bustle of the market-place—in
the stillness of the quiet village church—there broke the startling shout,
"The war has begun." All men felt that the hour had come, and they promptly
laid aside their accustomed labour that they might gird themselves for the
battle. North Carolina, in her haste, threw off the authority of the King,
and formed herself into military companies. Timid Georgia sent gifts of
money and of rice, and cheering letters, to confirm the bold purposes of the
men of Boston. In aristocratic and loyal Virginia there was a general rush
to arms. From every corner of the New England States men hurried to Boston.
Down in pleasant Connecticut an old man was ploughing his field one April
afternoon. His name was Israel Putnam. He was now a farmer and tavernkeeper—a
combination frequent at that time in New England, and not at all
inconsistent, we are told, "with a Roman character." Formerly he had been a
warrior. He had fought the Indians, and had narrowly escaped the jeopardies
of such warfare. Once he had been bound to a tree, and the savages were
beginning to toss their tomahawks at his head, when unhoped-for rescue found
him. As rugged old Israel ploughed his field, some one told him of
Lexington. That day he ploughed no more. lie sent word home that he had gone
to Boston. Unyoking his horse from the plough, in a few minutes lie was
mounted and hastening towards the camp.
and its suburbs stand on certain islets and peninsulas, access to which,
from the mainland, is gained by one isthmus which is called Boston Neck, and
another isthmus which is called Charlestown Neck. A city thus circumstanced
is not difficult to blockade. The American Yeomanry blockaded Boston. There
were five thousand soldiers in the town; but the retreat from Concord
inclined General Gage to some measure of patient endurance, and he made no
attempt to raise the blockade.
The month of
May was wearing on. Still General Gage lay inactive. Still patriot Americans
poured in to the blockading camp. They were utterly undisciplined. They were
without uniform. The English scorned them as a rabble "with calico frocks
and fowling-pieces." But they were Anglo-Saxons with arms in their hands,
and a fixed purpose in their minds. It was very likely that the unwise
contempt of their enemies would not be long unrebuked.
On the 25th, several English ships of war dropped their
anchors in Boston Bay. It was rumoured that they brought large
reinforcements under Howe, Burgoyne, and Clinton—the best generals England
possessed. Shortly it became known that Gage now felt himself strong enough
to break out upon his rustic besiegers. But the choice of time and place for
the encounter was not to be left with General Gage.
On Charlestown peninsula, within easy gun-shot of
Boston, there are two low hills, one of which, the higher, is called Bunker
lull, and the other Breed's Hill. In a council of war the Americans
determined to seize and fortify one of these heights, and there abide the
onslaught of the English. There was not a moment to lose. It was said that
Gage intended to occupy the heights on the night of the 18th June. But Gage
was habitually too late. On the 16th, a little before sunset, twelve hundred
Americans were mustered on Cambridge Common for special service. Colonel
Prescott, a veteran who had fought against the French, was in command.
Putnam was with him, to be useful where he could, although without specified
duties. Prayers were said; and the men, knowing only that they went to
battle, and perhaps to death, set forth upon their march. They marched in
silence, for their way led them under the guns of English ships. They
reached the hill-top undiscovered by the supine foe. It was a lovely June
night— warm and still. Far down lay the English ships—awful, but as yet
harmless. Across the Charles river, Boston and her garrison slept the sleep
of the unsuspecting. The "All's well" of the sentinel crept, from time to
time, dreamily up the hill. Swift now with spade and mattock, for the hours
of this midsummer night are few and precious—swift, but cautious, too, for
one ringing stroke of iron upon stone may ruin all.
When General Gage looked out upon the heights next
morning, lie saw a strong intrenchment and swarms of armed men where the
untrodden grass had waved in the summer breeze a few hours before. He looked
long through his glass at this unwelcome apparition. A tall figure paced to
and fro along the rude parapet. It was Prescott. "Will he fight?" asked Gage
eagerly. "Yes, sir," replied a bystander; 11to the last drop of his blood."
It was indispensable that the works should be taken. A
plan of attack was immediately formed. It was sufficiently simple. No one
supposed that the Americans would stand the shock of regular troops. The
English were therefore to march straight up the hill and drive the Americans
away. Meanwhile reinforcements were sent to the Americans, and supplies of
ammunition were distributed. A gill of powder, to be carried in a
powder-horn or loose in the pocket, two flints and fifteen balls, were
served out to each man. To obtain even the fifteen balls, they had to melt
down the organ-pipes of an Episcopal church at Cambridge.
At noon English soldiers to the number of two thousand
crossed over from Boston. The men on the hill-top looked out from their
intrenchments upon a splendid vision of bright uniforms and bayonets and
field-pieces flashing in the sun. They looked with quickened pulse but
unshaken purpose. To men of their race it is not given to know fear on the
verge of battle.
The English soldiers paused
for refreshments when they landed on the Charlestown peninsula. The
Americans could hear the murmur of their noisy talk and laughter. They saw
the pitchers of grog pass along the ranks. And then they saw the Englishmen
rise and stretch themselves to their grim morning's work. From the steeples
and house-tops of Boston—from all the heights which stand round about the
city—thousands of Americans watched the progress of the fight.
The soldiers had no easy task before them. The day was
"exceeding hot," the grass was long and thick, the up-hill march was
toilsome, the enemy watchful and resolute. As if to render the difficulty
greater, the men carried three days' Provision with them in their knapsacks.
Each man had a burden which weighed one hundred and twenty pounds in
knapsack, musket, and other equipments. Thus laden they began their perilous
While yet a long way from the enemy
they opened a harmless fire of musketry. There was no reply from the
American lines. Putnam had directed the men to withhold their fire till they
could see the whites of the Englishmen's eyes, and then to aim low. The
Englishmen were very near the works when the word was given. Like the
left-handed slingers of the tribe of Benjamin, the Americans could shoot to
a hairbreadth. Every man took his steady aim, and when they gave forth their
volley few bullets sped in vain. The slaughter was enormous. The English
recoiled in some confusion, a pitiless rain of bullets following them down
the hill. Again they advanced almost to the American works, and again they
sustained a bloody repulse. And now, at the hill-foot, they laid down their
knapsacks and stripped off their great-coats. They were resolute this time
to end the fight by the bayonet. The American ammunition was exhausted. They
could give the enemy only a single volley. The English swarmed over the
parapet. The Americans had no bayonets, but for a time they waged unequal
war with stones and the but-ends of their muskets. They were soon driven
out, and fled down the hill and across the Neck to Cambridge, the English
ships raking them with grape-shot as they ran.
They had done their work. Victory no doubt remained
with the English. Their object was to carry the American intrenchments, and
they had carried them. Far greater than this was the gain of the Americans.
It was proved that, with the help of some slight field-works, it was
possible for undisciplined patriots to meet on equal terms the best troops
England could send against them. henceforth the success of the Revolution
was assured. "Thank God," said Washington, when he heard of the battle, "the
liberties of the country are safe." Would that obstinate King George could
have been made to see it! But many wives must be widows, and many children
fatherless, before those (lull eyes will open to the unwelcome truth.
Sixteen hundred men lay, dead or wounded, on that fatal
slope. The English had lost nearly eleven hundred; the Americans nearly five
hundred. Seldom indeed in any battle has so large a proportion of the
The Americans, who had thus taken up arms and resisted
and slain the King's troops, were wholly without authority for what they had
done. No governing body of any description had employed them or recognized
them. What were still more alarming deficiencies, they were without a
general, and without adequate supply of food and ammunition. Congress now,
by a unanimous vote, adopted the army, and elected George Washington
Commander-in-Chief of the patriot forces. They took measures to enlist
soldiers, and to raise money for their support.
When Washington reached the army before Boston, he
found it to consist of 14,000 men. They were quite undisciplined. They were
almost without ammunition. Their stock of powder would afford only nine
rounds to each man. They could thus have made no use of their artillery.
Their rude intrenchments stretched a distance of eight or nine miles. At any
moment the English might burst upon them, piercing their weak lines, and
rolling them back in hopeless rout. But the stubborn provincials were, as
yet, scarcely soldiers enough to know their danger. Taking counsel only of
their own courage, they strengthened their intrenchment, and tenaciously
maintained their hold on Boston.
convenient hill-top Washington looked at his foe. lie saw a British army of
10,000 men, perfect in discipline and equipment. It was a noble engine, but,
happily for the world, it was guided by incompetent hands. General Gage
tamely endured siege without daring to strike a single blow at the audacious
patriots. It was no easy winter in either army. The English suffered from
small-pox. Their fleet failed to secure for them an adequate supply of food.
They had to pull down houses to obtain wood for fuel, at the risk of being
hanged if they were discovered. They were dispirited by long inaction. They
knew that in England the feeling entertained about them was one of bitter
disappointment. Poor Gage was recalled by an angry Ministry, and quitted in
disgrace that Boston where lie had hoped for such success. General Howe
succeeded to his command, and to his policy of inactivity.
Washington on his side was often in despair. His
troops were mainly enlisted for three months only. Their love of country
gave way under the hardships of a soldier's life. Washington was a strict
disciplinarian, and many a free-born back was scored by the lash. Patriotism
proved a harder service than the men counted for. Fast as their time of
service expired they set their faces homeward. Washington plied them with
patriotic appeals, and even caused patriot songs to be sung about the camp.
Not thus, however, could the self-indulgent men of Massachusetts and
Connecticut be taught to scorn delights and live laborious days. "Such
dearth of public spirit," Washington writes, "and such want of virtue, such
fertility in all the low arts, I never saw before." When January came he had
a new army, much smaller than the old, and the same weary process of
drilling began afresh.
He knew that Howe was
aware of his position. The inactivity of the English general astonished
Washington. He could explain it no otherwise than by believing that
Providence watched over the liberties of the American people.
In February liberal supplies of arms and ammunition
reached him. There came also ten regiments of militia. Washington was now
strong enough to take a step.
To the south of
Boston city lie the heights of Dorchester. If the Americans can seize and
hold these heights, the English must quit Boston. The night of the 4th of
March was fixed for the enterprise. A heavy fire of artillery occupied the
attention of the enemy. By the light of an unclouded moon a strong
working-party took their way to Dorchester heights. A long train of waggons
accompanied them, laden with hard-pressed bales of hay. These were needed to
form a breastwork, as a hard frost hound the earthy and digging alone could
not be relied upon. The men worked with such spirit, that by dawn the bales
of hay had been fashioned into various redoubts and other defences of most
formidable aspect. A thick fog lay along the heights, and the new fortress
looked massive and imposing in the haze.
rebels," said Howe, "have done more work in one night than my whole army
would have clone in a month."
And now the
English must fight, or yield up Boston. The English chose to fight. They
were in the act of embarking to get at the enemy when a furious east wind
began to blow, scattering their transports and compelling the delay of the
attack. All next clay the storm continued to rage. The English, eager for
battle, Jay in unwilling idleness. The vigorous Americans never ceased to
dig and build. On the third day the storm abated. But it was now General
Howe's opinion that the American position was impregnable. It may be that he
was wisely cautious. It may be that he was merely fearful. But he laid aside
his thoughts of battle, and prepared to evacuate Boston. On the 17th the
last English soldier was on board, and all New England was finally wrested
from King George.
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