Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill

Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill

by Richard M. Ketchum

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Boston, 1775: A town occupied by General Thomas Gage's redcoats and groaning with Tory refugees from the Massachusetts countryside. Besieged for two months by a rabble in arms, the British decided to break out of town. American spies discovered their plans, and on the night of June 16, 1775, a thousand rebels marched out onto Charlestown peninsula and began digging a redoubt (not on Bunker Hill, which they had been ordered to fortify, but on Breeds Hill, well within cannon shot of the British batteries and ships). At daybreak, HMS Lively began firing. It was the opening round of a battle that saw unbelievable heroism and tragic blunders on both sides (a battle that marked a point of no return for England and her colonies), the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

Richard M. Ketchum recounts the early developments of the American Revolution in Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466879508
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 08/26/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 729,768
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Richard M. Ketchum (1922-2012) graduated from Yale University and commanded a subchaser in the South Atlantic during World War II. As director of book publishing at American Heritage Publishing Company for twenty years, he edited many of that firm's volumes, including The American Heritage Book of the Revolution and The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, which received a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. Ketchum was the cofounder and editor of Blair&Ketchum's Country Journal, a monthly magazine about rural life. He and his wife lived on a sheep farm in Vermont. He is the author of the Revolutionary War classics Decisive Day and The Winter Soldiers.
Richard M. Ketchum (1922-2012) is the author of the Revolutionary War classics Decisive Day: The Battle of Bunker Hill; The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton; the award-winning New York Times Notable Book Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War; and, most recently, Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York. He lived in Vermont.

Read an Excerpt

Decisive Day

The Battle for Bunker Hill

By Richard M. Ketchum

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1974 Richard M. Ketchum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7950-8


Our Elbows Must Be Eased

It had been a rough, unseasonable crossing. His Majesty's Ship Cerberus was thirty-four days out of Spithead when a lookout sighted Cape Ann through the lifting fog at dawn on May 25. Two hours later, as the vessel worked her way up the tortuous channel into Boston harbor, past low, wooded islands that lay mysterious and velvety green in the veiled morning sunlight, the crew and several military passengers were on deck early, eager for their first glimpse of land.

Two days before, when the Cerberus spoke a Salem fishing schooner, there had been an ominous hint of trouble around Boston; so when His Majesty's sloop Otter appeared out of the mist the men crowded to the rail and waited, silent and expectant, for any word she might carry. As the sloop came about and headed into the wind, a big, handsome man in the scarlet coat and epaulets of a British major general stepped to the quarterdeck rail of the warship, cupped his hands, and sang out impetuously: "What news is there?"

Across the water the Otter's skipper put a speaking trumpet to his mouth. There had been fighting between rebels and General Gage's troops, he shouted. More than a month ago. Nearly three hundred of the King's soldiers killed, wounded, or missing. Now Boston was surrounded by ten thousand country people.

Only the slap of sails, the creaking of spars, and the rush of water against the two ships' sides could be heard as the man's voice died away. Then the army officer called out again:

"How many regulars in Boston?"

"About five thousand," came the reply.

Another moment of silence; then the big man swung round toward his companions with a smile and exclaimed, "What! Ten thousand peasants keep five thousand King's troops shut up? Well, let us get in, and we'll soon find elbowroom!" A cheer went up aboard the man-o'-war at that, and as the sloop fell astern, heading for blue water, the men returned to their duties laughing at General John Burgoyne's little joke. He had a way of putting things, the general did; those rebels were for it when the Cerberus arrived.

There was no doubt that the big warship was carrying the most impressive array of military brass England could muster at that particular moment. On March 2, 1775, the Earl of Sandwich, First Sea Lord, had written Captain James Chads of the Cerberus, informing him that "The King having thought fit that the Major Generals Howe, Burgoyne & Clinton, should be employed upon His Majesty's Service in North America, and that they should repair as soon as possible to Boston," Chads should receive them on board his vessel "together with their Attendants, Servants & Baggage, and proceed with them without loss of time to Boston." Meanwhile Admiral Samuel Graves, Vice Admiral of the Blue, Commander of His Majesty's Ships and Vessels in North America at Boston, had been alerted to the major generals' arrival and told to expedite the return of the Cerberus to England with any dispatches they prepared after landing.

So the three men — William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne — the best England had to offer, had boarded ship and sailed west toward a destiny which was to alter the course of their lives. Of recent years this military trio had seen more fighting in Parliament than on the battlefield, but their departure was nevertheless an auspicious one, suggesting a bit of doggerel to a London wit:

"Behold the Cerberus the Atlantic plow,
Her precious cargo — Burgoyne, Clinton, Howe.
Bow, wow, wow!"

Of the three, Henry Clinton seems to have minded the crossing most. For nearly two weeks there had been fresh gales and squalls, and on May 7 a particularly hard blow carried away the ship's starboard main topsail sheet. Clinton had been thoroughly seasick (less so than on previous voyages, he observed — one result of being crowded into a tiny cabin with six others having been that he was on deck almost constantly). In his hours of misery he may have taken some solace from the thought of what it was like aboard the troop transports which had left before them, carrying reinforcements to North America. Clinton had sailed on transports, and knew how they heeled over even in mild weather, with the lee ports under water as often as they were out. Belowdecks was the awful stench of men packed like animals into filthy, almost airless quarters. The food was poor and insufficient, the water rotten, and at night the clanking of pumps kept the wretched landsmen tossing sleeplessly on their pallets of rancid straw. First they succumbed to seasickness, then to boils from exposure to salt water, then to scurvy — and on older ships the dread ship-fever often raged. They got no pity from the sailors, either, who had a saying, "A messmate before a shipmate, a shipmate before a stranger, a stranger before a dog, a dog before a soldier." As one British noncom described his voyage to America: "There was continued destruction in the foretop, the pox aboveboard, the plague between decks, hell in the forecastle, the devil at the helm."

No, the Cerberus was bad, but the transports were worse, and fortunately for Clinton the weather had turned fair after the first fortnight. Now the sight of Boston's outlying islands, with rolling green countryside beyond, brought a lift to the spirits and set a major general to thinking of the future that lay ahead. Burgoyne's "elbowroom" jest had been typical of the man, but it was a fairly accurate summary of what Henry Clinton felt, too. Off to the left of the roadstead he could see Castle William, mounting a hundred guns or more; ahead, above the silhouette of Boston, the masts of the Royal Navy swayed against the sky; in the city itself were five thousand regulars under General Thomas Gage, with more on the way from Ireland. It was inconceivable that any number of untrained, ill-equipped, poorly led provincials could hold out for long against that kind of strength.

In a sense this was a homecoming for Clinton, although the thought may not have occurred to him in just that way. He was the only son of a British admiral and had been born in America in 1738. Before going "home" to England, he had had a taste of militia training in the colonies; he obtained a lieutenant's commission in the 2nd Foot Guards at the age of thirteen; and by thirty-four he was a major general, after campaigning on the continent during the Seven Years' War. But if his youth and rank suggested brilliance, there was little to justify it. Clinton was a colorless, short, rather paunchy man with a round face, a large nose, and a sensitivity to criticism that was almost a disease. Although he was an intelligent, reasonably competent soldier who might have gone far, his tendency to suspect everyone, to look behind every remark and gesture for an affront, made him mistrust even himself in the end.

Clinton was the youngest of the three major generals on the Cerberus, but the second in rank. The senior man was William Howe, reputedly a distant cousin of the King and therefore marked for advancement, but for all that a soldier of unquestioned talent and ability. He too had served in America, at the capture of Louisbourg in '58, and the following year at the storming of Quebec. There the great James Wolfe, who had called Howe the best officer in the King's service, picked him to lead the detachment that scaled the Heights of Abraham. Howe's older brother was the admiral, "Black Dick" Howe, and another brother, George Augustus, third Viscount Howe, had been one of the most popular figures in America a generation earlier. He was killed in Abercromby's hopeless frontal assault on the French at Ticonderoga, and the New Englanders who had served with him loved him so well that they placed a monument in Westminster Abbey as a reminder of "the affection their officers and soldiers bore to his command." It was more than most officers of that age received, and George III, in giving William his appointment, may have recognized that the name Howe still held some magic in the colonies. Against this, of course, was the matter of William Howe's politics. He was a staunch Whig, and as a member of Parliament had assured his Nottingham constituents in 1774 that he would accept no command which meant fighting Americans. When his appointment arrived he is said to have asked if it was a request or an order, and only when assured it was the latter did he comply, explaining that he "could not refuse without incurring the odious name of backwardness to serve my country in distress." (Henry Clinton would take pains to make the same point, many years after the Revolution. "I was not a volunteer in that war," he wrote. "I was ordered by my Sovereign and I obeyed.")

But if his politics were suspect in some quarters, Howe's professional skill was recognized by friends and enemies alike. Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State for the colonies, had not spoken to Howe's brother, the admiral, for seventeen years. (Germain was the same man who, as Lord Sackville, had been pronounced "unfit to serve his majesty in any military capacity whatsoever" as a result of misconduct in the Seven Years' War, but who was now deemed capable of handling one of the most critically important jobs in the kingdom.) After receiving the news of Lexington and Concord, Germain wrote to a friend, comparing those battles with Braddock's defeat, recalling the lessons in Indian fighting which the British army had learned as a result, and concluding that "Nobody understands that discipline so well as General Howe ... who will, I am persuaded, teach the present army to be as formidable as that he formerly acted with."

Major General William Howe was a large, dark-complexioned man of forty-six, whose soldierly bearing had begun to lose ground to the high living he enjoyed so thoroughly. He was an inveterate gambler; in fact, his debts unquestionably influenced his decision to come to America, for he needed the money which active duty would bring him. He had the mind, the qualities of leadership, and all the opportunities a soldier might wish for, yet Howe was doomed to years of disappointment and criticism in the colonies. In all of the complaints leveled against him — that he was a Whig, that he drank too much, that his attentions to an American mistress kept his mind off campaigning, that he was lazy, lacked initiative, and sympathized with the rebels — in all these charges there were varying degrees of truth. Yet it is worth mentioning that no man who served with Howe or against him ever questioned his courage on the battlefield.

The third man of the triumvirate, Major General John Burgoyne, was by all odds the most singular personality. He was junior to both Howe and Clinton, despite his fifty-three years, but this was because he had entered the army at the advanced age of twenty-two, had sold his commission three years later, and had not rejoined until 1756. He was the colorful commander of the 16th Dragoons, known as "Burgoyne's Light Horse," which the King was fond of reviewing, and in the Portugal campaign of 1762–63 had received much praise for capturing Valencia with cavalry alone. Burgoyne's theories on the treatment of troops were far in advance of his age. Among his proposals was the radical notion that soldiers should be treated like intelligent human beings, that they should not be subjected to brutal corporal punishment, that they should not be trained "like spaniels by the stick"; and at the same time he urged that officers read books, learn to write accurate reports, and study mathematics. Because he practiced these precepts himself, he was extremely popular with his men, who nicknamed him "Gentleman Johnny."

The nickname fit in every respect. Burgoyne came from an old Lancashire family of some repute, and he was a graceful-mannered, dashing figure, handsome in the ruddy-faced, full-fed style of the period. Like Howe, he was a heavy gambler, and was also prominent in London high life as a member of Parliament, man of fashion, wit, and playwright (David Garrick brought out his play Maid of the Oaks shortly before Burgoyne received his appointment to the American command).

Upon learning that he was to be posted to America, Burgoyne had begun putting his friendship with highly placed persons to use. Always one to turn a nice phrase in public, he put himself firmly on the side of the Ministry by asking boldly, "Is there a man in England — I am sure there is not an officer or soldier in the King's service — who does not think the Parliamentary rights of Great Britain a cause to fight for — to bleed and die for?" And at the same time, privately dissatisfied with his assignment and anxious for his future (he was quick to see that he would be junior to three other generals in Boston), he began seeking the command in New York. He approached Lord North, Germain, Lord Dartmouth, Lord Rochford, and even Howe himself, to no avail. As a last resort he persuaded Lord North to set before the King a proposal that he might return to England by fall if he did not receive an important command, and he sailed for America with George III's approval of this plan.

All in all, the three major generals seem to have gotten on well during the voyage. Not long after they landed Clinton wrote a friend, confiding that "At first (for you know I am a shy bitch) I kept my distance [and] seldom spoke till my two colleagues forced me out. ... I could not have named two people I should sooner wish to serve with in any respect."

At 10 A.M. on May 25, 1775, the Cerberus took a pilot aboard, and soon afterward passed His Majesty's ships Mercury, Nautilus, and Falcon lying at anchor in Nantasket Roads. After saluting the admiral she dropped anchor in seven fathoms of water about a half mile offshore where, according to the log, the watch officer "found riding ... the Preston, Boyne, Somerset, Glasgow & Marlin." Boats were lowered — one carrying to Samuel Graves his promotion to Vice-Admiral of the White — and the three major generals, their attendants, and baggage were rowed across the water toward the docks, where a crowd had already collected to greet them on this historic occasion.

Boston was a very different city from the one Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne had expected to find when they left England on April 21. So far as they knew then, it was the seat of most of the colonial troubles, a hotbed of radicalism — but that was no more nor less than it had been for five years. The guns fired at Lexington and Concord two days before their departure had changed all that, and just now Boston was for all the world like a medieval castle under siege. The cheers that went up when their boat touched Long Wharf were from Tories, from men and women loyal to the Crown who believed pathetically that the arrival of these three would somehow change everything, rid them of the plague that had settled over the countryside, and set things to rights again. Even the army had taken hope from the rumors of their arrival. As Lieutenant John Barker of the King's Own wrote on May 1: "We are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Genl. Officers and Troops that are expected; we want to get out of this coop'd up situation. We cou'd now do that I suppose but the G — [Gage] does not seem to want it; there's no guessing what he is at; Time will shew."

Many a man loyal to the Crown had been unable to guess what Gage was at, had failed to understand why he and his men had not put a quick end to the trouble long before now. Only a month earlier the Earl of Sandwich had risen in the House of Lords and with some heat taken to task a member of the Opposition who described the conquest of America as "impracticable." "Suppose the colonies do abound in men," Sandwich had cried, "what does that signify? They are raw, undisciplined, cowardly men. I wish instead of 40,000 or 50,000 of these brave fellows, they would produce in the field at least 200,000, the more the better, the easier would be the conquest; if they did not run away, they would starve themselves into compliance with our measures." A similar opinion was held by virtually every officer now serving in the colonies. It might be a nasty business, fighting against men who were, after all, Englishmen of a sort; but even though it would only be a brief affair, one could hope that there might be some opportunity for glory and recognition.


Excerpted from Decisive Day by Richard M. Ketchum. Copyright © 1974 Richard M. Ketchum. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
CHAPTER I: Our Elbows Must Be Eased,
CHAPTER II: For the Security of This Colony,
CHAPTER III: We Readyly and Cheerfully Obeyed,
CHAPTER IV: Raw Lads and Old Men Half Armed,
CHAPTER V: A Most Awful, Grand and Melancholy Sight,
CHAPTER VI: I Wish This Cursed Place Was Burned,
A Note on Sources,
By Richard M. Ketchum,

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