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Excerpt from Chapter 1
Bunker Hill: The Arrival of Private John Greenwood, Age Fifteen, Fifer
Early on the warm morning of June 17, 1775, British artillery in Boston and on Her Majesty's ships in the harbor opened fire on the Charlestown peninsula, north of the city. The peninsula contained the community of Charlestown, with its four hundred homes and some two hundred shops, warehouses, barns, and churches, plus three very high and large grassy hills, Bunker, the highest, Breed's, and Morton's. American troops had fortified Bunker and Breed's hills with earthworks, wooden fencing, and six cannon on the previous evening. General Thomas Gage, the commanding general in British-occupied Boston, was determined to clear the wide knolls to prevent the rebels from maintaining an elevated location where they would shell his army in the city or his ships in the harbor. An artillery pounding was to be followed by an afternoon attack of more than fifteen hundred troops.
Just after 1:30 p.m., a small navy of twenty-eight wide barges, each filled with more than forty armed British soldiers, and one transporting the man in charge of the operation, General William Howe, and his staff began to make its way across the harbor from Boston toward Morton's Point. As the ships moved through the water, the eyes of the men on board focused on Breed's and Bunker Hills.
At just over six feet tall, physically well-proportioned and able to remain calm under fire, the affable Howe cut an impressive military figure. He and his men landed and quickly realized that their cannon had the wrong-sized cannonballs and were inoperable. Howe sent the boats back for reinforcements and usable ammunition while the British navy and land artillery fired shells into Charlestown. The shells hit several of the wooden residences there, igniting small fires whose thick smoke drifted throughout the area. One shell hit a church steeple, setting it on fire, and it soon toppled into the street.
The British assault on the two hills was viewed by one of the largest audiences of civilians to witness any battle during the American Revolution. The British artillery had opened up earlier that morning and the cannonading awakened everyone. Hundreds of residents in Charlestown climbed to the tops of their homes and raced out into nearby streets and meadows to watch the fighting on the hills. In Boston, several thousand people stood on the roofs of their houses for a good view. Some climbed to the tops of churches. Hundreds more packed the wharves near the water where the view was clearer.
Somehow, it was Breed's Hill, a lower and less defensible knoll than Bunker, that the majority of the Americans wound up fortifying that day as the British continually shelled the area. The top of the hill was so elevated that the men there could see all of Boston's dozen or so church steeples. They could also look down on the mill pond, the north battery full of British cannon, Hudson's Point, and, barely, John Hancock's commercial shipping wharf, plus the tops of the masts of ships moored at the Long Wharf, on the other side of town. The provincial forces were led by General Israel Putnam, a veteran of the French and Indian War, and Colonel William Prescott. It was Prescott, the tall commander with the muscular build, developed from nearly twenty years of farming, who made most of the decisions. The esteemed Dr. Joseph Warren, sixty-nine, head of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, had joined them as a volunteer in a rash burst of patriotism applauded by all.
Wrote James Thacher, a local doctor who was an eyewitness, "[The British] immediately commenced a tremendous cannonade from their shipping, their floating batteries, and from all their fortifications. Bombs and shot were incessantly rolling among the provincials during the forenoon 'til the Royal Grenadiers and light infantry could be prepared to make their formidable attack."1 Private Peter Brown, a company clerk in Prescott's Massachusetts regiment, had fought at Concord. He watched the sea of Redcoats in their immaculate uniforms swarm off the barges and prepare for the attack. It was an awesome sight. Brown wrote that the British had so many men that they appeared ready to surround the provincials. "They advanced toward us in order to swallow us up. But they found a choky mouthful of us, though we could do nothing with our small arms as yet for distance and had but two cannon and nary a gunner. And they from Boston and from the ships a firing and throwing bombs, keeping us down 'til they got almost round us."
Howe ordered his men to march slowly in the direction of the newly dug breastworks on Breed's Hill. He sent the Royal Welch Fusiliers on a trot across a beach near the rear of the hill, toward a low stone wall and wood fence below the breastworks that seemed lightly defended because there was no firing coming from it.
Howe and his officers did not realize that Colonel John Stark and others had instructed their men behind the wall to withhold their fire until the Redcoats were close enough to hit with some accuracy. They were also instructed to shoot the officers to cause confusion and prevent orders from being heard.
When the intimidating Fusiliers, four abreast, bayonets fixed, trotted within fifty yards of the wall, the Americans opened up. The sound of the volley-it seemed that every musket was fired at once-could be heard throughout Boston.
The fury and force of the gunfire stunned the British. Stark had been right. At that close distance the muskets were lethal. Officers were hit and went down. The first line of men, instead of continuing up the slope toward the Americans, halted and tried to exchange fire with their muskets; this caused the second line to walk right into them. They were all easy targets for the Americans. Some of the British soldiers pitched forward, dead, and the men next to them fell backwards, musket balls lodged in their heads and chests, blood spurting everywhere. Those behind and around them were hit and killed or wounded and went down. Screams filled the air. Howe's vision of one single charge to drive the Americans off the hill and back to Charlestown evaporated in a roar of muskets, the air filled with the flames of the guns discharging and a rising cloud of smoke. Howe's own trousers were splattered with the blood of his men.
On the southern side of the hill, a similar outcome occurred as the Americans unleashed a thunderous musket volley that cut into the British army approaching the earthworks and the redoubt, a wooden wall that protected them. The British were decimated. Their regulars were not only easy targets, but Howe had so many of them, 1,550, and they were positioned so close together, that musket balls missing one soldier hit the man next to him or behind him.
The British were also advancing through grass that hid large rocks and deep holes. Soldiers tripped on the impediments and fell, sometimes bringing down those near them. Others tripped over their bodies as they tumbled. Their formations came apart in minutes and their legendary ability to maneuver on the battlefield was thwarted. As they tried to stand or help each other, they were hit with yet another volley of fire from the provincials behind the breastworks on top of Breed's Hill. Orders shouted by the English army officers were drowned out by the screaming of the wounded lying in the grass, the triumphant shouts of the rebels and the sounds of the muskets. Blood flew everywhere in the hot afternoon air and the British, shaken, retreated back down the hill.