By the time of the American Revolution, Britain’s .75 calibre Land Pattern Musket head earned the unofficial nickname of “Brown Bess.” Even the 18th century Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue described the popular expression “to hug Brown Bess,” as slang for enlisting in the army.
Thick-featured and taciturn, General Howe in the best of times was said to be afflicted by a “sullen family gloom.” He, too, needed but a glance to see his own dilemma. Landing at Morton’s Point with the second lift of six hundred infantry and artillery troops from North Battery, Howe climbed a nearby hillock as gunners shouldered their fieldpieces onto dry ground and the empty boats rowed back to Boston. “It was instantly perceived the enemy were very strongly posted,” he subsequently told London.
On his far left, rebel gunmen infested rooftops and barns in Charlestown, while up the pasture slopes, five hundred yards from where Howe stood watching with his command group, a large bastion had sprouted from the hillside. The rest of the rebel defenses came into view: the triangular fleches, several guns throwing an occasional ball inaccurately toward the British lines, and the long fence-or was it a wall?-bristling with men stripped to their shirtsleeves. The fields and pastures ended in a short plunge down to the Mystic shoreline. With more rebels clustered atop Bunker Hill and spilling across Charlestown Neck despite the naval gunfire, Howe calculated that he faced “between five and six thousand” Americans-half again their actual number. He sent a courier flying to Province House with a request that Gage send reinforcements immediately; the attack would await their arrival. Redcoats poised to march near Morton’s Point broke ranks, grounded their muskets, and sat in the grass to smoke their pipes or gobble a quick dinner of bread and salt meat.
Howe made his plan. The Mystic beach seemed a promising corridor from which to outflank and turn the rebel line. On foot, the general would personally lead the British right wing, including grenadiers assaulting the rail fence while a column of light infantry companies slashed up that river shoreline. The left wing, led by the diminutive, moonfaced Brigadier Robert Pigot, would attack the redoubt to fix the enemy in place and maybe even overrun the parapet once Howe’s troops had broken through. Celebrated for his sangfroid against the French at Quebec, the Breton coast, and Havana, Howe was quoted as telling his officers, “I shall not desire one of you to go a step farther than where I go myself at your head.” Speed, agility, discipline, and violence would be decisive. Losing Boston, he reminded them, meant moving the entire army onto Graves’s ships, “which will be very disagreeable to us all.”
Including the reserves soon to arrive, Howe commanded more than twenty-six hundred men. British field guns began popping away at three p. m., “great nasty porridge pots flying through the air & crammed as full of devils as they could hold,” as a young militiaman wrote, each ball “whispering along with its blue tail.” The bombardment so unnerved the rebel artillery battery up the slope that one American gun captain reportedly “fired a few times, then swung his hat three times round to the enemy and ceased to fire.” Regulars tamped out their pipes and shouldered their muskets, bayonets fixed. Junior officers bawled out orders. Ten companies abreast would form a broad assault front on Pigot’s wing to the left, followed by ten more, a formation mirrored by Howe’s right wing except for the light infantry column along the Mystic, necessarily squeezed into a shoulder-to-shoulder front between river and riverbank.
On order, the great mass of redcoats heaved forward with a clatter of equipment and more bawling commands, the slate-blue Charles behind them and tawny dust clouds churning up with each stride. “Push on!” the troops yelled. “Push on!” Drummers rapped a march cadence, periodically punctuated by the boom of field guns towed forward with drag ropes. Howe marched with the deliberation of a man who had done this before, his eyes on the hillside ahead, trailed by aides, staff officers, and an orderly said to have carried a silver tray with a decanter of wine. Watching from the redoubt as this red tide advanced, Captain Ebenezer Bancroft of Dunstable, Massachusetts, would give voice to every patriot on the battlefield: “It was an awful moment.”
The moment grew more awful. For two months, Admiral Graves had longed to rain destruction on rebel heads, and while Howe drafted his plan on Morton’s Point, the admiral arrived by barge to note the hazard that enemy snipers in Charlestown posed to Pigot’s left flank. Did General Howe wish “to have the place burned?” Graves asked. As a precaution, brick furnaces aboard several warships had prepared all morning to heat cannonballs. General Howe indeed wished it so. A midshipman hurried to relay the order, and fiery balls soon fell on Charlestown like tiny meteors. Worse destruction came from Copp’s Hill in the North End, where early Boston settlers had once sought refuge from the “great annoyances of Woolves, Rattle-snakes, and Musketos.” British troops had muscled mortars and several mammoth 24-pounders to the edge of the ancient burying ground at Snow and Hill Streets, sixty feet above the Charles. While Generals Clinton and Burgoyne watched, gunners loaded combustible shells known as carcasses, each packed with gunpowder, Swedish pitch, saltpeter, and tallow. The Charlestown meetinghouse, with its slender, towering steeple, provided a conspicuous aiming stake.
The first shell fell short, bursting near the ferry slip. Gunners corrected their elevation, and within minutes “the whole was instantly in flames,” Burgoyne would write. Fire loped through Charlestown’s streets like a thing alive, igniting buildings at the foot of Chestnut Street and around Mauldin’s shipyard. Other structures along the docks followed in quick succession: distilleries, a tannery, warehouses, shipwrights, a cooperage. Fire climbed the pitched roofs-a “grand and melancholy sight,” one loyalist observed-then licked through houses away from the waterfront and up to the marketplace, incinerating the courthouse and the Three Cranes Tavern. North of the market, on Town Hill, more houses and another distillery caught fire. The light breeze shifted from southwest to east, as it often did on fine summer days, and flames drove lengthwise through Charlestown. Fire ignited more wharves and a ship chandlery. Ebony smoke rose in a column as wide as the town, then “hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies,” an American officer reported. Rebel musketmen scurried from the burning buildings to hide behind stone walls on Breed’s Hill and in a nearby barn.
“The church steeples, being made of timber, were great pyramids of fire above the rest,” wrote Burgoyne, who had a way with words. “The roar of cannon, mortars, musketry, the crash of churches, ships upon the stocks, the whole streets falling together in ruin, to fill the ear.” All in all, the conflagration was “one of the greatest scenes of war that can be conceived.”
Gawkers and gapers now climbed not only Boston rooftops and hillsides, but “the masts of such ships as were unemployed in the harbor, all crowded with spectators, friends and foes, alike in anxious suspense. It was great, it was high-spirited.”
They, too, looked because they could not look away.
The rebels waited, now killing mad. At four p. m., well over two thousand regulars ascended the slope in two distinct corps. Swallows swooped above the hills, and the stench of a cremated town filled the nose. Many militiamen had loaded “buck and ball”-a lead bullet and two or three buckshot, known as “Yankee peas.” “Fire low,” officers told the men. “Aim at their waistbands.” Again noting the brighter tint of the British officers’ tunics-vibrant from more expensive dyes-they added, “Aim at the handsome coats. Pick off the commanders.” In the redoubt, Prescott angrily waved his sword to rebuke several musketmen who were firing at impossible ranges; they were to wait until the enemy was danger close, within six rods or so-a hundred feet. “Aim at their hips,” Prescott ordered. “Waste no powder.” Five hundred yards to the north, at the far end of the rail fence, Stark told his men to hang fire until they could see the regulars’ half-gaiters below their knees. Someone may also have urged waiting till the whites of the enemy’s eyes were visible, an order that had been issued to Austrians, Prussians, and possibly other warring armies earlier in the century.
Howe’s corps, on the British right, found marching through the thigh-high grass difficult: fence after damnable fence forced the lines to stop and dismantle the rails or climb over them. As planned, light infantrymen angled through a shallow dell that led to the Mystic beach, now screened from the broader battlefield by the riverbank. Eleven companies with more than three hundred men funneled into a tight column, four or five men abreast. Beyond a slight curve in the shoreline stood the newly built fieldstone wall, defended by a few dozen rebel musketmen, some kneeling with their gun barrels resting on the stones. Closing at a dog trot to within fifty yards, redcoats from the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers in the vanguard of the column lowered their bayonets and prepared to charge.
A stupendous, searing volley ripped into the British ranks, blowing the fusiliers from their feet. Gunsmoke rolled down a beach upholstered with dying regulars as their comrades stepped over them only to also be shot down. With a third of the Welch Fusiliers wounded, mortally or otherwise, the King’s Own Light Infantry behind them surged forward; they, too, were slaughtered, followed by the 10th Foot, the 52nd Foot, and other light companies trailing them. “It was like pushing a wax candle against a red-hot plate,” the historian Christopher Ward would write. “The head of the column simply melted away.” A man five feet, eight inches tall and weighing 168 pounds had an exterior surface of 2,550 square inches, of which a thousand were exposed to gunfire when he was facing an enemy frontally at close range. Rebel musket balls seemed to fill every square inch of that Mystic corridor, blasting enormous entry wounds into enemies panting for the fieldstone wall. Among the British officers shot, “few had less than three or four wounds,” a captain later wrote home. Men miraculously unharmed by bullets or buckshot were spattered with wedges of tissue, dislodged teeth, and skull fragments. After a final, futile surge, the regulars turned and ran “in a very great disorder,” a witness reported. They left behind ninety-six comrades, dead as mutton.
Howe heard the commotion below the riverbank to his right, but the rail fence just ahead, stiff with hundreds of American gunmen, drew his full attention. As he and the grenadiers took another stride, the top rail erupted in flame and filthy smoke, quickly followed by a volley from the rebel second rank. “The whole line was one blaze,” a young Sudbury militiaman named Needham Maynard later recalled. “They fell in heaps, actually in heaps.. The bodies lay there very thick.” Howe was unhurt, but men on either side of him crumpled. Disemboweled grenadiers, some screaming, some silent, tumbled one atop another. “I discharged my gun three times at the British, taking deliberate aim as if at a squirrel,” wrote Simon Fobes, a nineteen-year-old private from Bridgewater. “I had become calm as a clock.”
Regulars from two trailing regiments hurried forward to fill gaps in the grenadier line only to be gunned down. A crackle of musketry from the three fleches to Howe’s left swept his corps with cross fire. Wounded redcoats dragged themselves through the grass amid shrieks, curses, and plaintive wails for mother. The British return fire tended to fly high: a stand of apple trees behind the American line had few enemy balls embedded in the trunks, but the “branches above were literally cut to pieces,” Captain Henry Dearborn reported. A few lightly wounded rebels reloaded muskets for their upright comrades, trimmed lead bullets to fit odd-sized barrels, or acted as spotters: “There. See that officer?”
Howe pulled his men back briefly to regroup-“long enough for us to clean our guns,” Maynard, the Sudbury militiaman, noted-then heaved forward again only to be smashed once more. “Their officers were shot down,” Maynard added. “There seemed to be nobody to command ’em.” The British wounded included Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie, the grenadier commander, shot in the thigh by jittery light infantrymen who had joined the rail-fence fight after the carnage on the beach. Before he died, a week later, Abercrombie would tell London that his own army “gave me a plumper”-a volley-“and killed two officers and three privates,” while wounding twenty others in fratricidal mayhem. The undisciplined light companies, he suggested, “must be drilled before they are carried to action again.” A jeering rebel who recognized the crippled man being helped from the field shouted, “Colonel Abercrombie, are the Yankees cowards?”
A dozen men in Howe’s command retinue were now dead or wounded. “For near a minute,” an officer observed, “he was quite alone.” At last Howe turned and trudged down the hill, unscathed, though his white stockings were slick with British blood. “There was a moment,” he subsequently told General Harvey, “that I never felt before.”
Brigadier Pigot had suffered few casualties in feinting toward the redoubt-cannonballs from the 24-pounders on Copp’s Hill kept defenders crouched beneath their parapet. But now the weight of the British assault necessarily shifted to his corps. Marines, three regiments, and various detached companies pressed toward the crest of Breed’s Hill, bedeviled by fences, stone walls, and what Burgoyne called “a thousand impediments.” Approaching the redoubt, the line was “stopped by some brick kilns and enclosures, and exposed for some time to the whole of its fire,” a British ensign wrote. “And it was here that so many men were lost.”
Volley upon volley crashed from the redoubt and the protruding breastwork so that “the enemy fell like grass when mowed,” a rebel fifer said. Ebenezer Bancroft, the militia captain from Dunstable, observed, “Our first fire was shockingly fatal.” When a well-aimed fusillade ripped into the regulars, a militiaman bellowed, “You have made a furrow through them!” A diarist in the 47th Foot wrote that “for about fifty minutes it resembled rather a continual sheet of lightning and an uninterrupted peal of thunder than the explosion of firearms.” Some regulars used dead redcoats to build their own breastworks. An American captain reported that he fired all thirty-five rounds in his ammunition pouch, and then threw stones.
Among the fallen was Major John Pitcairn, the conqueror of Lexington Common, now dying in the grass from at least one ball in the chest. A major in the 52nd Regiment was described by a subordinate as “lying about ten yards from the redoubt in great agony” from five wounds; three dead captains lay near him. “They advanced towards us in order to swallow us up,” Private Peter Brown told his mother in Rhode Island, “but they found a choaky mouthful of us.” An Irish comrade added, “Diamond cut diamond, and that’s the whole story.”
Not quite, for diamond would now cut back. Bloody but unbowed, William Howe drew up a new plan. With more than five hundred reserve troops preparing to cross the Charles from Boston, he would renew the attack on the redoubt by shifting two regiments and the surviving grenadiers from his own corps to Pigot’s on the left. Companies would advance in tight columns rather than broad assault lines; the regulars would lighten their loads by leaving superfluous kit behind; and they were to attack swiftly, with bayonets only, rather than pausing to shoot and reload. Moreover, eight fieldpieces now on the battlefield would be hauled by drag ropes-each brass 6-pounder weighed a quarter ton-to positions east of the redoubt to batter the defenders. Howe was disgusted to learn that his artillery fire had slackened during the earlier assaults because side boxes on the guns were found to contain 12-pound balls, which were too fat for 6-pound muzzles. He ordered gunners to instead use grapeshot, plum-sized iron balls packed in canvas bags that blew open when fired.
Peering over the parapet from his battered redoubt, Colonel Prescott watched the red tide again creep up the Breed’s pastureland. The 150 or so Americans remaining in his small fort-their faces blackened from soot and powder, as if they’d been toiling in a coal yard-had little ammunition left. Militiamen searched pockets for stray cartridges or tapped the final grains from powder horns, tearing strips from their shirttails for wadding. Prescott ordered the last artillery cartridges torn open and the loose powder distributed to his infantry. Except for a single two-gun battery, the four American artillery companies sent into battle had been all but useless this afternoon, beset with cowardice, confusion, and technical ineptitude. Of six guns that reached the peninsula, five now stood silent and the sixth had been hauled away.
The failure of General Ward’s headquarters to resupply the redoubt was almost as disheartening as the dearth of reinforcements. Among the few doughty souls to arrive in mid-battle was a familiar if unlikely figure. Dr. Joseph Warren-elegantly dressed in a light coat, a white satin waistcoat with silver lace, and white breeches-strode through the sally port gripping a borrowed gun, his earlier headache gone, or ignored, or mended by the huzzahs that greeted him. Despite the high rank conferred several days earlier by the provincial congress, Warren declined offers of command, insisting that he take post in the line with other musketeers.
Up the peninsula, hundreds of leaderless militiamen “in great confusion” ambled about on Bunker Hill or beyond the Neck, a sergeant reported. A few without muskets brandished pitchforks, shillelaghs, and at least one grain flail. Captain John Chester, who had just arrived with his Connecticut company, found chaos: thirty men cowering behind an apple tree; others behind rocks or haycocks; twenty more escorting a single wounded comrade toward Cambridge “when not more than three or four could touch him to advantage. Others were retreating seemingly without any excuse.” One colonel, described as “unwieldy from excessive corpulence,” lay sprawled on the ground, proclaiming his exhaustion. British gunners aboard Glasgow and Symmetry continued to scorch the Neck with iron shot, giving pause to even the lionhearted. “The orders were press on, press on,” wrote Lieutenant Samuel Blachley Webb, now skittering toward the redoubt with Chester’s Connecticut company. “Good God how the balls flew. I freely acknowledge I never had such a tremor come over me before.”
The sun had begun to dip in the southwestern sky, dimmed by the black coils of smoke above Charlestown, when Pigot’s legions again drew near, high-stepping their dead. British grapeshot spattered the earthworks, driving defenders from the parapet even as American fire wounded a dozen gunners shouldering the fieldpieces into position. “They looked too handsome to be fired at,” Corporal Francis Merrifield lamented, “but we had to do it.” Prescott told his men to wait until the British vanguard was within thirty yards of the redoubt walls; on command, militiamen hopped up on their fire steps, and a point-blank volley staggered the enemy ranks again. A ball clipped the skull of Captain George Harris, commanding the 5th Foot grenadier company; dragged through the grass by a lieutenant, Harris cried, “For God’s sake, let me die in peace.” Of four grenadiers who carried him to a nearby copse, three were wounded, one mortally.
But the battle had turned. Regulars pressed close on three sides, leaping across a narrow ditch to hug the berm before scaling the steep ramparts. American gunshots grew scattered; some Jonathans saved their last round to shoot British officers atop the parapet. “Our firing began to slacken. At last it went out like an old candle,” Needham Maynard recalled. More redcoats tumbled into the redoubt, now shooting. “Take their guns away,” Prescott yelled, “twitch ’em away.” Enemies grappled, grunting and swearing. A brown miasma of smoke and churning dust hung in the air. Americans swung their muskets as clubs, fighting “more like devils than men,” a regular reported, and when the walnut stocks shattered, they swung the bent barrels or threw rocks.
Prescott was among the last to escape, “stepping long, with his sword up,” parrying bayonet thrusts that snagged his banyan but not his flesh. Peter Brown scrambled over the wall and ran for half a mile; musket balls, he told his mother, “flew like hail stones.” Captain Bancroft fought his way out, first with a musket butt, then with his fists, bullets nicking his hat and coat and shearing off his left forefinger. Corporal Farnsworth of Groton would tell his diary, “I received a wound in my right arm, the ball going through a little below my elbow.. Another ball struck my back, taking a piece of skin about as big as a penny.. I was in great pain.”
They were the lucky ones. “Nothing could be more shocking than the carnage that followed the storming of this work,” wrote Lieutenant John Waller of the 1st Marines. “We tumbled over the dead to get at the living, who were crowding out of the gorge of the redoubt..’Twas streaming with blood & strewed with dead and dying men, the soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the brains of others.” Thirty American bodies, some mutilated beyond recognition, lay scattered across the shambles. The triumphant, vengeful roar of British regulars could be heard in Boston.
Lieutenant Webb and his Connecticut militia arrived to see the melee spill from the sally port. “I had no other feeling but that of revenge,” he wrote. “Four men were shot dead within five feet to me.. I escaped with only the graze of a musket ball on my hat.” Dr. Warren did not escape: sixty yards from the redoubt, a bullet hit him below the left eye and blew through the back of his head. He toppled without a word.
By five-thirty p. m., rebel forces were in full retreat up the peninsula, bounding from fence to fence, barn to barn, leaving a debris trail of cartridge boxes, tumplines, goatskin knapsacks, even coats and hats shed in the heat of the day. The wounded hobbled, or were carried on backs or in stretchers fashioned from blankets and muskets. On their heels came not only Pigot’s regiments but Howe’s regular regiments and grenadiers, who had bulled through the breastworks and the three fleches. Also in pursuit was General Clinton, who on his own initiative had crossed the Charles from Copp’s Hill, rallied regulars milling in the rear of Pigot’s corps, then circled north to give chase. “All was in confusion,” he wrote. “I never saw so great a want of order.”
Yet for the rebels, disorder brought salvation. The New Hampshire and Connecticut regiments, seeing the redoubt fall, pulled back from the rail fence in an orderly withdrawal to give covering fire for Prescott’s fugitives. Some militiamen loitering atop Bunker Hill advanced down the slope to pelt the British pursuers with bullets, a belated but vital contribution to the battle. “The retreat was no flight,” Burgoyne would write. “It was even covered with bravery and military skill.” Howe had seen enough and suffered enough: when Clinton confronted him north of the redoubt to urge pursuit to the Neck and beyond, Howe “called me back,” Clinton wrote later, “I thought a little forcibly.”
Americans by the hundreds surged through the gantlet of naval gunfire still scything the only exit from the peninsula. Some died within yards of safety, including Major Andrew McClary, one of Stark’s Hampshiremen, hit with a frigate cannonball. “He leaped two or three feet from the ground, pitched forward, and fell dead upon his face,” an officer reported. But most straggled unharmed onto the high ground beyond the Neck, exhausted and tormented by thirst. General Putnam followed on his white horse, cradling an armful of salvaged entrenching tools. “I never saw such a carnage of the human race,” he would be quoted as saying.
For now the carnage was over, mostly. Rebel snipers in trees and houses across the Neck continued to plink away at enemy pickets, killing a 38th Foot lieutenant with a random shot. The British answered with broadsides from Glasgow and salvos from a 12-pounder. Charlestown burned and burned, painting the low clouds bright orange in what one diarist called “a sublime scene of military magnificence and ruin.” Marines landed in skiffs to set fire to wooden structures that had escaped the earlier flames. Prescott, ever pugnacious, vowed to retake his lost hill that night if given ammunition, bayonets, and three rested regiments. General Ward sensibly demurred.
“Dearest Friend,” Abigail Adams wrote from Braintree to her husband, John, then meeting in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress. “The day, perhaps the decisive day, is come on which the fate of America depends.” She continued:
Charlestown is laid in ashes.. Tis expected they will come out over the Neck tonight, and a dreadful battle must ensue.. The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we cannot eat, drink, or sleep. Night fell. The British did not come. From Prospect and Winter Hills above the Cambridge road came the excavating sounds of mattock and spade, as militiamen once again stacked their muskets and began to dig the next line of resistance.
British medicos scuffed through the high grass to feel with their feet for the dead and the merely dying, then held their flickering lanterns close to distinguish between the two. Those with a pulse or a glint in the eye were hoisted onto drays and wheeled to barges on the Charles for transport to Boston. “The cries and moans of the dying was shocking,” wrote General Clinton, who also picked his way across the battlefield. “I had conversation with many of these poor wretches in their dying moments.”
Later studies by the British Army would demonstrate that soldiers wearing conspicuous red uniforms were more than twice as likely to be shot in combat as those in muted blues and grays. The tally at Breed’s Hill seemed to anticipate those findings: Gage’s army had regained roughly a square mile of rebel territory at a cost exceeding a thousand casualties, or more than a man lost per acre won. Over 40 percent of the attacking force had been killed or wounded, including 226 dead; losses were especially doleful in the elite flanker companies-the light infantry and grenadiers. Nineteen officers also had been killed. Of all the king’s officers who would die in battle during the long war against the Americans, more than one out of every eight had perished in four hours on a June afternoon above Charlestown.
Casualties in some units were calamitous. All but four grenadiers from the King’s Own were killed or wounded. Of thirty-eight men in the 35th Foot light company, only three escaped rebel bullets; with every officer, sergeant, and corporal hit, the senior private led other surviving privates. After sustaining 123 casualties, British marines were nonplussed to find that their tents in Boston had been plundered during the battle, apparently by regulars not in the field. The Admiralty voiced “astonishment that it could have happened” but declined to pay compensation, because of the precedent such reimbursement would set. Howe, who lost virtually his entire staff to death or injury, admitted to General Harvey that when he studied the casualty lists, “I do it with horror.”