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Bunker Hill: America's Greatest Battle?

By Paul Lockhart 
Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: May 03, 2011 
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A romanticized version of Bunker Hill took root before the war was over. Though the colonists lost the battle, this postcard from 1775 or 1776 wraps the moment in glory (Weider History Group Archive).
A romanticized version of Bunker Hill took root before the war was over. Though the colonists lost the battle, this postcard from 1775 or 1776 wraps the moment in glory (Weider History Group Archive).

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On the night of June 16, 1775, a small band of rebel militia from Massachusetts and Connecticut marched quietly from their camp at Cambridge to the hills overlooking Charlestown, Massachusetts. Only a narrow stretch of the Charles River separated these hills from British-occupied Boston; only the impenetrable darkness of the moonless night hid them from the eyes of British sentries posted along the opposite bank of the Charles. And here, right under the redcoats' very noses, the rebels—nearly dead from fatigue, tortured by hunger and thirst—scratched out an improvised, ramshackle little fort with pick and spade in the unyielding, rocky soil.

The plain truth—though it may sound shocking or unpatriotic, even blasphemous—is that the Battle of Bunker Hill wasn't all that important. Why then is it so famous?

Their action, supervised by Colonel William Prescott of Massachusetts and Major General Israel Putnam of Connecticut, was intended as an overt challenge to Lieutenant General Thomas Gage and his small British army in Boston. Indeed, the British took it as such. When dawn broke the next morning, revealing the fort on the hill, British warships in and about Boston Harbor responded with a massive bombardment the likes of which had never been seen or heard before in British North America. Hours later, small boats from the fleet ferried a British assault force across the Charles. In the blistering heat of the late afternoon on Saturday, June 17, the redcoats attacked the rebel lines on the heights of Charlestown again and again, ultimately driving the rebels back, but at a ghastly cost in British lives.

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Though the fighting centered around a prominence known to locals as Breed's Hill, the clash would become immortalized as the Battle of Bunker Hill, named for Breed's more dominant neighbor. It was an iconic moment, one of the truly enduring images from the story of America's violent birth. Students of the Revolution are undoubtedly more familiar with Saratoga and Yorktown, which were pivotal victories for the colonists. But no other battle in the war can lay claim to as much renown; indeed few battles in American history apart from Gettysburg and D-Day are as familiar.

Yet the plain truth—though it may sound shocking or unpatriotic, even blasphemous—is that the Battle of Bunker Hill wasn't all that important.

That's not to say that nothing of consequence came from Bunker Hill. As generations of historians have observed, it was bloodletting there that finally convinced the British crown that the rebels were deadly serious, that the rebellion in His Majesty's North American colonies was not going to be dismissed with the wave of a hand. Ending the insurrection would require, as Gage himself had been arguing for months, a weighty investment in British blood and treasure. For the Americans, Bunker Hill, though a defeat, provided a much-needed boost of confidence. For Bunker Hill seemed to prove that barely trained American militia could stand up to Britain's professional arm, though that was precisely the wrong lesson and one that would cost the Americans dearly.

But beyond that, there's nothing especially distinctive about the Battle of Bunker Hill. With less than 6,000 combatants, the clash was small even by the modest standard of Revolutionary War battles, pintsize compared to typical European battles of the 18th century. At the 1759 battle of Kunersdorf during the Seven Years' War, for example, an army of nearly 60,000 Russians and Austrians defeated a Prussian army of around 51,000. The losses among the British at Bunker Hill, we are often told, were shockingly high, and yet the proportion of British casualties—around 40 percent—was about par for the course when set in the context of 18th-century battles fought in Europe.

Nor does Bunker Hill hold much strategic significance. It did not witness the elimination of a field army, like Saratoga two years later, or even part of an army, like Trenton in 1776; it did not mark the dramatic end of a great campaign, like Germantown or Monmouth or King's Mountain—all of which, ironically, are less famous than Bunker Hill. Bunker Hill did not end the American siege of Boston. It did not compel the British to leave. It did not significantly advance the American cause, or set it back, for that matter. Indeed, it could be argued that Bunker Hill had little if any effect on the outcome of the Revolutionary War.

If Bunker Hill was not of great consequence, why then is it so famous?

One could make the case that the drama and spectacle of the battle itself—the first pitched battle of the Revolution—is enough to justify its abiding fame. Battles are inherently dramatic events that bring out the best and the worst in people. But there's something about Bunker Hill that's especially compelling. There's the tension and excitement as the exhausted American citizen-soldiers struggle against fear and fatigue, digging furiously, hoping against hope to finish their earthworks before dawn betrays them to the British. There's the terror of the initial naval bombardment, as hundreds of guns from the British fleet thundered for hours—loudly enough to echo through houses several miles to the south in Braintree, where Abigail Adams held the hand of her young son, future president John Quincy Adams, and fretted over the storm to come. There's the bravery of the frightened rebels in the impromptu fortifications, somehow summoning the courage to stay put while tons of iron solid shot flew screaming around their heads. There's the pageantry of the British amphibious assault, the neatly aligned boats rowed in unison, ferrying brass fieldpieces and thousands of redcoats over the dark waters of the Charles, wreathed in the white smoke spewed by the guns of the fleet. And after the glorious spectacle, the grim business of killing and the countless acts of heroism that came with it. The outnumbered rebels, watching in awe as the red-clad battalions rolled over the ground before them, bayonets glittering in the afternoon sun, moving inexorably toward the American earthworks. The British, equally fearful and almost equally raw, marching straight into what must have seemed like certain death. And the dolorous end of the battle has its own share of vivid imagery, just as entrancing. The rebels, spent, their ammunition gone, making a final retreat to the safety of Cambridge, while their enemies—battle-mad and raging at the temerity of these ruffians—swarmed over the American battlements, bayoneting those souls unable or unwilling to flee.

It has helped, too, that Bunker Hill has had more than its share of advocates over the years. Nearly two centuries before battlefield preservation became a popular cause in the United States, patriotic Bostonians hoped to save something of the famous battleground. Bunker Hill was, after all, the only battle of any consequence fought in Massachusetts during the war, Lexington and Concord having been little more than skirmishes. There were many reminders of the Bay Colony's Revolutionary past, though, alas, they were already disappearing one by one as Boston grew to meet the needs of a burgeoning population and a new century.

But Bunker Hill was the most eloquent, the most evocative symbol of the sacrifices made by New England, and of the bravery and public spirit that animated these first patriots. Its soil had been drenched with the blood of the sons of Massachusetts and Connecticut and New Hampshire, so to Boston's social and political elite it seemed only right and fitting that the battle should be permanently commemorated.

Consecration of the battlefield began while many veterans of the Revolution were still alive. First, the Freemasons built a simple memorial, a humble pillar of wood and stone. It was intended to honor one of their own: Dr. Joseph Warren, the young Boston physician who had almost single-handedly directed the war effort in the first weeks of the rebellion, and who had been among the rebel dead after the redcoats had bayoneted their way into the earthworks on that bloody June day. The Freemasons' gesture, though generous, was not grand enough to suit Bostonians who wanted to proclaim their importance in American history to the world as the 50th anniversary of the Revolution approached. Banding together as the Bunker Hill Monument Association, these dedicated citizens solicited donations, bought up land, and made plans to erect a huge, dignified monument on the site where Colonel Prescott and his boys defended their fort to the last round. On the precise anniversary day of the battle, June 17, 1825, the last surviving general of the Continental Army—the Marquis de Lafayette—led a large procession to Charlestown. Less than 18 years later, the monument was complete: a great obelisk, some 220 feet high, towering over Boston's rising skyline.

Bunker Hill was the only major battle of the Revolution, and one of the few in American history, to be fought before an audience: In Chelsea and along the North Shore and the shore of the Back Bay, farmers, tradesmen, women, and children turned out by the thousands to watch the battle. In Boston itself, civilians lined the rooftops, peering through the smoke from the ships in the fleet to catch glimpses of the battle and the burning shops of Charlestown. Thousands, too, came out to see Lafayette lay the monument's cornerstone in 1825 and the final dedication of the obelisk in 1843. Both ceremonies were rare treats, with parades of congressmen and diplomats, dignitaries and brass bands, volunteer fire companies and militia regiments. Several dozen veterans of Bunker Hill marched in the 1825 procession, though it was later discovered that many of these pleasant, chatty old men were poseurs—they had never fought in the Revolution, much less at Bunker Hill.

The most popular attraction of all, though, was the great orator Daniel Webster. A leading mem­ber of the Monument Association, he spoke at both the 1825 and 1843 ceremonies, and his "Bunker Hill Orations" rank among his greatest public speeches. Webster scholars and admirers usually prefer his 1825 remarks, but aside from subtle differences the message was roughly the same on both occasions. The world, he pronounced in his powerful, economical style, owed a great deal to America, for America was illuminating the path that led from tyranny and darkness into democracy, freedom, and enlightenment.

Americans, in turn, owed everything to their Revolutionary forefathers. Those men, and especially the patriots who risked everything in a desperate gamble at Bunker Hill, gave their all in order to secure the freedoms that Americans now enjoyed. We can't exactly emulate those patriots, Webster reminded his audience, for there is nothing we can do that could possibly match—in daring, in courage, in lasting value—what our ancestors accomplished through sweat and blood in the Revolution. What we can do, Webster continued, is remember those sacrifices, teach them to our children, and use them to inspire ourselves and posterity to great deeds. There was no better way of doing this, Webster said, than with the plain and understated majesty of the Bunker Hill monument. "And then, when honored and decrepit age shall lean against the base of this monument," the great speaker concluded his 1843 oration, "and troops of ingenuous youth shall be gathered round it, and when the one shall speak to the other of…the great and glorious events with which it is connected, there shall arise from every youthful breast the ejaculation, 'Thank God I—I also—am an American!'"

Perhaps now, in the 21st century, some of us are so jaded that Daniel Webster's heartfelt patriotic sentiments appear laughably maudlin or at best naive. "Troops of ingenuous youth" pausing to chat amiably with "honored and decrepit old age," whether at the base of the Bunker Hill monument or elsewhere, is not an image that comes readily to mind. But it really doesn't matter if we find his sentiments quaint, because the qualities of America and Americans that he gave voice to have become an enduring part of our creation myth. And Webster understood how Bunker Hill highlighted those qualities. For the Battle of Bunker Hill was and is the great American battle. It defines what it means to be American.

More than any other famous battle in American history, Bunker Hill has become an integral part of American historical mythology, the stories we tell ourselves about how we came to be, about what distinguishes us as Americans. The American citizen-soldiers, volunteers fighting for hearth and home, for liberty and freedom, were the underdogs. They were seriously outnumbered by their enemies—and seriously outclassed. The redcoats, as trained professionals, were superior soldiers. Bunker Hill proved that Americans, as the myth goes, can accomplish a great deal with sheer nerve, patriotic spirit, and native ingenuity. Americans were frontiersmen and marksmen, according to this myth; they didn't need to be trained like those effete, aristocratic European automatons.

Mindful of their supposed inferiority, American leaders moved boldly to take possession of the heights of Charlestown and challenge the staid, predictable British to a fight. No other battle in American history shows this contrast—between amateur freedom fighters and the professional hirelings of the Old World—as starkly as Bunker Hill.

And although Bunker Hill was not an American victory, it's easy to view the battle as an American triumph: the British won, we tell ourselves, only because the Americans ran out of ammunition and then only at the last, most critical moment, when sufficient ammunition alone would have ensured they held out and vanquished the British.

There is a kernel of truth in all this, as there is in all historical myths, but also considerable danger. Because just as events like Bunker Hill help to shape the myths about our past, so too do those myths shape the way we look at events like Bunker Hill. What the battle stands for, in short, becomes more important than the actual course of events in the battle itself, not just in the "mythic" version of the battle, but also in accounts written by respected historians. To heighten the drama of Bunker Hill and to make it a more effective demonstration of American virtue, we exaggerate those aspects of the story that fit the myth and gloss over those that don't. We like to lionize those rebels who were more flamboyant and active, and criticize those who were not. Tradition has lauded William Prescott and Israel Putnam for their zeal and daring, even though the actions of these two leaders put the entire rebel army in serious jeopardy. The same tradition denounces Artemas Ward, the colorless commander in chief, for his caution, suggesting that he may have lost the battle—though it was his caution, his refusal to commit his entire army to an unwinnable battle, that most likely saved it from destruction.

The myth recasts the enemy as well. Americans like their enemies to be formidable but ridiculous. So the redcoats are invariably depicted as "veterans of many battles"; their generals are portrayed as contemptuous of American martial skill and later astonished by the tenacious resistance of the American forces.

In fact, the British soldiers were nearly as raw as the rebels they faced, and their generals were well aware and respectful of the skill and determination of the American forces. In one account of the battle after another, historians have overlooked or misinterpreted a thousand little details so that the accepted story of the battle better fits the myth.

The true account does not diminish the accomplishments and obvious bravery of the fighting men on both sides. But the qualities that make a great story—or a great myth—are not necessarily those that make a great battle. When compared to truly epic clashes in American military history, like Gettysburg or D-Day or the Bulge, for that matter, Bunker Hill was small in scale and unexceptional in consequences.

The battle does, however, rightfully hold a place in our hearts because it has become a vital part of the American identity. More than any other battle in our history, Bunker Hill brought out those virtues that Daniel Webster saw and admired in his fellow citizens: a love of liberty, an unswerving devotion, a willingness to sacrifice, a readiness to serve.

 

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3 Responses to “Bunker Hill: America's Greatest Battle?”


  1. 1
    Paul Penrod says:

    Bunker Hill altered forever the British mindset that their regular army could just "chase this rabble from the field". Three of the four principal British commanders, Burgoyne, Clinton and Howe witnessed the gutting of their battalions on the slopes, and their future campaigns were colored by indecision, indirect approaches and inaction. The fourth, Cornwallis was not there and he fought a much more aggressive war

  2. 2
    jackson says:

    Nice job

  3. 3
    Bill Parrow says:

    Not to forget as well the effect that the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battle of Lexington and Concord had on colonists throughout the 13 colonies. They are realizing now their common cause and common values with these New Englanders.
    It's hard to imagine these very different colonies coming together, as the will in another year, unless these Battles occurred.
    As Webster said at the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument in 1843, This column stands on Union.
    As well, on June 17 1875 at the battle's centennial, various veterans from the former Confederate and Union armies were moved to attend an official reconciliation ceremony on that day at the Bunker Hill Monument.



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