The Magazine

In Dubious Battle

Why Bunker Hill was a pyrrhic victory for the British.

Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
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I’ve previously read two fine accounts of Bunker Hill written by two masterful American historians independent from the cloister of academia: Decisive Day by the late, great Richard Ketchum and Now We Are Enemies by Thomas Fleming. Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book follows in the tradition of these gentlemen-writers, who narrate history in well-wrought prose. But Philbrick essays a wider subject matter than the Battle of Bunker Hill of June 17, 1775; this is actually an engaging history of Boston, the center of resistance and scene of action during the first two years of the American Revolution.

‘The Death of General Warren’ by John Trumbull (1786)

‘The Death of General Warren’ by John Trumbull (1786)

In 1774, responding to the Boston Tea Party, an outraged Parliament closed the port of Boston to all trade, appointed General Thomas Gage military governor, and sent four regiments to Massachusetts. In England, General Gage boasted to King George III that this number was sufficient; in Boston, he realized his error and requested more troops. Gage’s situation further deteriorated after the battles of Lexington and Concord (April 1775), as he found himself in a precarious strategic position, bottled up in the peninsula surrounded by hills that was Boston. 

Reinforcements of 1,500 men were dispatched, along with three generals: William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. Arriving in Boston in May 1775, all three agreed to fortify Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights, commencing on June 18. But colonists got word of the plan and, to the amazement of the British, built fortifications overnight on June 16 on Breeds and Bunker hills in Charlestown. Huddling in an emergency council of war, the British planned a frontal assault on the rebel positions, with General Clinton demurring. William Howe led the attack against what, in contempt, he called “peasant farmers,”  believing they would run at the first sight of British regulars.

In his journal, Clinton recorded that Howe thought his plan would be “carried off easily.” Certainly, the rebels were farmers: The adroitness of their spades had been shown in constructing a six-foot fortification in record time. And unlike English farmers, Americans were adept in the use of firearms from an early age. They also had military experience, learned in militias and in fighting the French and Indian War. One aristocratic English officer who fought at Lexington and Concord wrote in a private letter home that the rebels “have men amongst them who know very well what they are about.”

General Howe did not understand his enemy, or that Americans were, culturally, a new people who had developed differently from their British cousins. The colonial American experience had been a long lesson in the method of settling problems of immediate necessity, and throughout the revolution, the British would be continually astonished by Yankee inventiveness and ingenuity. 

The ever-alert General Clinton actually heard the rebels digging in the early hours of June 17 and urged an immediate attack. But Howe dithered; by the time the battle began, it was two in the afternoon on a hot day, with all of Boston looking on from rooftops and church steeples. The British stormed the hill twice, but were driven back by deadly fire. American muskets were made all the more murderous by the traditional use of “buck and ball,” a mixture of one large lead ball to every four pieces of buckshot, and American troops aimed for officers, whose more resplendent uniforms made excellent targets. The British looked upon purposely aiming at officers as a severe breach of military decorum, but American practicality, and a culture of producing immediate results, was disdainful of such niceties of warfare. 

With dogged resolve, Howe made a third attack, finally emerging triumphant as rebel gunpowder ran out. But it was a pyrrhic victory—and Clinton truly said that “another such would have ruined us.” In fact, Bunker Hill was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the British Army, with 1,054 casualties: 226 dead and 828 wounded. The Americans suffered 420 casualties, with 115 dead. 

Bunker Hill’s aftermath hardened the resolve on both sides. Britain became more cautious, no longer gambling on a decisive victory that they hoped would crush the growing tide of revolution.