The Final British Attacks on the Redoubt at Bunker Hill Part I

There are two contemporary maps of the battle of Bunker Hill, one drawn by Lieutenant Henry de Berniere and the other by Lieutenant Page, British officers both. On them, one notices rigidly straight lines of advance and retreat, symmetrically precise formations, neatly dotted vectors of artillery fire. Just as a highway map cannot convey the actual feeling of driving, their sketches are an abstraction of the battle. In a manner typical of Enlightenment military science—not art—they depict an idealized and rational vision of what happened, not the gritty, addled reality. During battle itself, similarly, soldiers are rarely sure what happened. Blurriness, scattered memories, tunnel vision, and fuzziness are almost universal among veterans. That both Berniere and Page mistakenly transposed Breed’s Hill with Bunker Hill—and that no one noticed—is only further evidence of their maps’ illusory qualities.

Superimposing ex post facto a neat, easily comprehensible pattern on the tumult and bedlam of battle, any battle, is ultimately an exercise in futility, albeit a necessary one—for how else could we construct a coherent account of their course? In this respect Bunker Hill suffers from a defect common to every clash in history: No man was everywhere at once. Each individual present had his own restricted view of how the fighting progressed. Those in the redoubt, for instance, could barely see their comrades behind the rail fence, and vice versa. For that reason, in his account Colonel Prescott vaguely mentions “a party of Hampshire, in conjunction with some other forces, lined a fence at the distance of three score rods [330 yards] back of the Fort”—the redoubt—and never again refers to the events that happened there. Mirroring Prescott’s confined perspective, Captain Charles Stuart, who watched the battle from Boston with his brother-in-law, Lord Percy, talks only of an attack on the “Fort” and had no idea what was happening at the rail fence, which he could not see from his position. Likewise, Colonel Stark would have been as cut off from the redoubt as Howe, who could not have known in any timely manner how Pigot was faring against Prescott’s defenses. Consequently, envisaging the battle, as traditional narratives do, as a sequence of coordinated, planned actions and reactions is wrongheaded from the outset. Each commander instead worked autonomously and tried to make sense of what was happening only in his immediate area.

Within the lower ranks, similarly, every memoir, diary, account, and letter tends to capture only a snippet of the broader battle; their takes are microscopic and subjective, not panoramic and objective. In scientific terms, combat is anisotropic, in the sense that its properties and characteristics vary according to the changing perspectives of observers and participants.

There are, in other words, many Bunker Hills, or rather, multiple facets of the same battle. Every soldier, in short, focused solely on what was happening directly before his eyes to the exclusion of all else. He could not help but do otherwise. When engaged in a battle, soldiers pay virtually no heed to the precise topographical names or characteristics of where they are: They classify terrain not as map coordinates but as, say, a useful hill from which to hold off the enemy or a bit of woodland with good cover or a difficult field to traverse. It is only afterward, sometimes long afterward, when they consult maps and photos or talk to former comrades or read a history of the battle that they begin to work out, piece by piece, where they were and what happened. By that time, “official” names have been bestowed upon various geographical features or famous episodes, and the old soldiers naturally adopt them to help make sense of their experiences.

Even then, owing to the cunning of memory, their recollections of what happened are inevitably jerky and disordered. Of combat, vivid details seem real yet may be false, uncontestable facts become uncertain, and the conventional linear progression from past to present to future dissolves into a half-remembered sludge periodically interrupted by disturbing flashbacks, out-of-order sequences, and fragmented recollections. These disconcerting effects are not a product of passing time and increasing age but set in immediately after combat.

At Bunker Hill, for that reason, nobody seems even able to give a universally accepted answer to the basic question of how long the fighting lasted. Participants and spectators variously estimated the time between the first exchanges of musketry and the militias’ withdrawal at “ten or fifteen minutes,” “about an hour,” “battle began about 3, and retreat about 5,” “thirty-five minutes,” “above an hour,” “three quarters of an hour,” “about three hours,” “four hours,” “an hour and a half,” and “half an hour,” to list just a few. The disparities are partly owing to the companies’ different arrival times and the subjective reliance on tracking the sun’s passage across the sky to estimate the time of day, as well as the extent of their heavy combat involvement, but the faulty memories that attend combat are generally caused, or at least exacerbated, by underlying psychological and physiological factors.

Under conditions of high stress and extreme excitement, such as during a gunfight, the way in which individuals process incoming sensory information alters. They think less rationally, their deliberative and analytical skills rapidly deteriorating as their cortexes filter or tune out stimuli unessential to survival. Actions become automatic, instinctive—a type of cognition known as “experiential.” A common symptom of operating in such mode is that sensory perceptions undergo severe distortion.

Studies have found at least half of participants will experience the event in slow motion, a fifth in faster-than-normal time; two-thirds will hear at “diminished volume,” meaning that the sound of nearby gunshots is greatly muffled, and a fifth at amplified levels; about half will see what is happening with tunnel vision and black out everything not directly ahead and the other half with amazingly heightened clarity. Most individuals will suffer memory loss, while others will “remember” events that never occurred. These symptoms nearly always overlap. So someone with tunnel vision may see objects in startling, swollen detail—such as shell casings apparently the size of beer cans—swimming within their narrow field of vision while being oblivious to all else.

Weirdly, too, combat can turn men into supermen, or so they think. More than half of respondents to a detailed questionnaire on their physical changes during shooting events said they experienced a sense of increased strength or a potent adrenaline rush.6 Some, as a result, become impervious to pain. At Bunker Hill, the British captain Edward Drewe was so enraged by fighting that he was shot three times (thigh, foot, and shoulder), dislocated his shoulder, and received two serious contusions before he finally fell—but he survived. Others may not even realize they’ve been wounded. Abel Potter, for instance, was bayoneted in the leg but was shocked to discover later that his “boot was filled with blood.” David Holbrook of Massachusetts was not only bayoneted (also in the leg) but “thump[ed] on the head” by a musket and yet felt fine until he almost lost consciousness through loss of blood. Interestingly, it was only some time after they had left combat that these men noticed the flow of their own blood. In high-stress environments, the body restricts the blood supply to the extremities in order to ensure the core functionality of the heart, lungs, and other major organs. Owing to vasoconstriction, then, a soldier may be wounded in the arm or leg without bleeding much; ironically, once the external danger recedes, the risk to life increases as the wound reopens.

Even when they remain unscathed, soldiers experience a host of powerful physiological effects in combat. Whereas a normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 80 beats per minute, hormonal or fear-induced pulse spikes allow individuals to reach their optimal combat-performance level—complex motor skills, visual reaction times, and cognitive reaction times hit their peak, though fine motor skills have deteriorated—between 115 and 145 bpm. They may feel as if they are gods.

Nevertheless, if stress levels continue to rise, so do heart rates. Between about 150 and 175 bpm, mental and physical abilities begin to deteriorate and their ability to process cognitive information and to use logical reasoning to act quickly, effectively, and decisively on that data plummets. Researchers have found that the deficits on performance at this stage are greater than for major alcohol intoxication, drug sedation, or clinical hypoglycemia (low blood glucose). Understandably, for many soldiers the heady combination of elevated heart rates, adrenaline surges, and a euphoric sense of invulnerability makes war feel great. For some, the experience becomes narcotically addictive, as any hallucinogenic, dreamlike state would be.

Above 175 bpm, however, individuals regress to infantilism or animal instinct. Soldiers engage in submissive behavior and lose control over their bowels or bladders. They will tend to freeze, torn between the desires to fight and flee. Headlong, unstoppable, unthinking flight frequently results but if they plunge ahead, their gross motor skills—used in charging or running—are at their zenith and may cause them to carry a position, though this condition renders soldiers useless for any task other than overwhelming an enemy.

The ambiguity, fragmentation, and distortion that come with combat should raise suspicions about the “official version” of what happened during any given battle. It certainly does for Bunker Hill, where accounts continue to insist that at the redoubt, the British were repulsed twice by the Americans before launching a third successful assault that swept away the defenders. We first read of this interpretation in a missive from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to the Continental Congress dated June 20—just three days after the battle. Accordingly, the Committee of Safety’s official report—the one communicated to His Majesty’s Government in London five weeks later, on July 25—observed that there were two failed assaults followed by a third, triumphant attack. In Britain, the press followed this line in their reports of the battle—a remarkable instance of newspapers printing a story essentially dictated by the enemy, one that has proved amaz ingly resilient over the centuries. Small wonder, perhaps: The battle of Bunker Hill, seen this way, appears to have been a rationally organized, straightforward affair with discernible lines, precise movements, and three meticulous attacks.

Yet it was not nearly so clear and easily comprehensible to those who participated in it. Militiamen and soldiers alike were much vaguer on what happened. Said Sergeant Thomas Boynton, who was in the redoubt, after the enemy “came within gun shot we fired, and then ensued a very hot engagement. After a number of shots passed, the enemy retreated, and we ceased our fire for a few minutes. They advanced again, and we began a hot fire for a short time.” His chief, Prescott, told John Adams that “the enemy advanced and fired very hotly on the fort, and meeting with a warm reception, there was a very smart firing on both sides. After a considerable time, finding our ammunition was almost spent, I commanded a cessation till the enemy advanced within thirty yards, when we gave them such a hot fire that they were obliged to retire nearly one hundred and fifty yards before they could rally and come again to the attack.” On the other side, Captain Charles Stuart observed that “our men, astonished at the heat of their fire, retreated from the Fort, but were rallied by the courage and intrepidity of their officers, and renewed the charge again and again till they conquered.”

These recollections all describe intervals of waiting interrupted sporadically by “hot” or “smart” bouts of firing comprising “a number” of shots back and forth. Prescott at one point managed to orchestrate a volley when the British were thirty yards away, but aside from an initial organized line advance, there does not appear to be a succession of distinct attacks and retreats in formation, only multiple bursts of piecemeal rallies and advances in, as we shall see, various locations.

The “charges” alluded to by Captain Stuart were made in fact by small knots of men gamely attempting to keep the line but failing. Some took cover, others opportunistically rushed ahead ten yards while the defenders were reloading, and still more stumbled backward before recovering and moving forward again. The soldiers did not uniformly move as one but followed a ragged, ad hoc combination of keeping up, keeping down, keeping back, and above all, keeping moving. This is the reality of close combat with small arms, then as now.

The nitty-gritty details of Pigot’s assault emerge more clearly if we ignore the official version and focus instead on the random snippets of what participants saw and experienced. Thus, once the British landed and began forming up for the initial attack, Prescott—a more conventional commander than Stark—followed Putnam’s directions and ordered his defenders to reserve their first fire. He even became “indignant” when a few miscreants did not toe the line. Prescott “threatened to shoot any man who disobeyed; his lieutenant-colonel, Robinson, sprang upon the top of the works and knocked up the leveled muskets.”

In the meantime, the 1st Marines and the 47th, 38th, and 43rd Regiments had found that the upwardly sloping ground before them, like that stretching ahead of Howe’s Grenadiers, was covered with “rails, hedges, and stone walls,” according to Lieutenant John Waller. Here, however, they were at least told to “shelter ourselves by laying on the grass” as they waited to climb the obstacles. Still, once they surmounted them they persisted in marching “rather slowly, but with a confident, imposing air.”

This attitude did not last long. The problem of fire control yet again proved the Achilles heel of the British. According to Isaac Glynney, the British first formed up and “marchd on towards us [and] as soon as they Came within gun Shot they Begun to fire upon us.” We should assume that “within gun shot” range means roughly 100 yards away—way too far to have inflicted any significant hits on the protected militiamen. In some places, conversely, Prescott’s threats held true. Referring to his company commanders, “our officers,” said Glynney, “thinking it more Proper to Reserve our fire we with Held till they Came within four or five Rods [between 22 and 27.5 yards, or 66–82 feet] of us[. T]hen we were Orderd to fire which we Did.” But in many other spots along the wall, the militiamen opened up as they wished, as Prescott acknowledged in his letter to Adams. He was not altogether happy about it, noting archly that “after a considerable time … our ammunition was almost spent,” thanks to all the enthusiastic free firing.

Part of the problem, of course, was that Prescott could not be everywhere at once, especially as the attacks occurred at unpredictable times and varying speeds on opposite sides of the redoubt. To the south, the 1st Marines and the three battered regular regiments were already struggling, but to the north, Howe inadvertently came to Pigot’s rescue when elements of the Grenadiers, the 5th, and the 52nd swerved to avoid the rail-fence fire and ran toward the rough breastwork that was connected to the redoubt. Prescott was now under attack on two flanks.

Only now, belatedly, did the British artillery come into its own. Mired in mud, too distant to threaten the rail fence, and low on suitable ammunition, these cannon were coincidentally close to the outlying American defenses. Dragged at great cost into position—two captains, one lieutenant, a sergeant, and eight privates were wounded in the process—the guns raked the breastwork with grapeshot to open a path for the beleaguered Grenadiers and their support. The Americans stationed outside the redoubt’s walls now began to incur heavy losses as they fled the breastwork. Of Lieutenant Thomas Grosvenor’s “own immediate command of thirty men and one subaltern, there were eleven killed and wounded; among the latter was myself, though not so severely as to prevent my retiring.”

It was the first British success of the day. Seizing upon it, Howe adapted his plan. No longer was the rail fence his primary objective. Instead, he ordered the Lights to continue to hold their ground there as a feint to draw off militia fire while the Grenadiers, 5th, and 52nd exploited their position. According to a rather surprised Henry Dearborn, who had been expecting a renewed assault at the fence, “only a few small detached parties again advanced, which kept up a distant, ineffectual, scattering fire.” All the action now switched to the redoubt.

Howe was also optimistic that reinforcements from Boston would soon arrive. General Clinton, who had been impatiently cooling his heels in the city, had taken the opportunity to “embark 2 marines [2nd Marines] and another batt[alio]n”—the 63rd—and ordered them to sail to the peninsula as quickly as possible. Clinton himself did not wait for the 63rd and the 2nd Marines to finish boarding; he raced for the battlefield in his own boat and “landed under fire” on the beach near the redoubt. Once there, Clinton roused “all the guards and such wounded men as could follow which to their honour were many and advanced in column.”

As best we can make out, to the south the British were creeping forward and had made it to around 30 yards from the redoubt. As Clinton indicates, the redcoats were no longer in a hidebound line formation but had organized into much more mobile columns that were surging closer and closer. Prescott husbanded his men on the wall and urged them to hold fire. When he gave the word, as Isaac Glynney wrote, “we Shoed [showed] them yankey Play & Drove them Back again[.]” There was probably another volley of sorts a little later, when the British reached a distance of ten yards. By now, wrote Prescott, “the ground in front of the [redoubt was] covered with dead and wounded, some lying within a few yards.” A man inside the redoubt noted that “it was surprising how they would step over their dead bodies, as though they had been logs of wood.” As losses mounted, the British columns naturally dissolved into small groups of men spread out and taking cover where they could.

It was becoming evident that this was the beginning of the end. Prescott was now so short of ammunition that he ordered any remaining shells for his cannon broken open and their precious grains of powder distributed. More alarmingly still, his little army was shriveling, not through death or dismemberment but by desertion. Scores of militiamen had made themselves discreetly scarce by means of the gap, or exit, at the northwestern side of the redoubt. Prescott’s force by now may have amounted to just 150 men.

The only good news was that the reinforcements General Ward had sent from Cambridge had by now arrived at the Neck or were standing atop Bunker Hill. Yet some were balking from entering the fray. Amos Farnsworth in the redoubt was annoyed to see “a great body of men near by” who were doing nothing to help. Others, noticed Captain Chester, were being too helpful: “Frequently twenty men round a wounded man, retreating, when not more than three or four could touch him to advantage.” Colonel Gerrish’s regiment, for instance, was not budging from its safe spot, but his deputy, a Dane named Christian Febiger, roused enough men to form a useful detachment and led them into battle. While heading toward the redoubt with his unit, Chester met “with a considerable company, who was going off rank and file”; he “ordered my men to make ready. They immediately cocked, and declared that if I ordered would fire. Upon that [the other company] stopped short, tried to excuse themselves,” and complied with Chester’s instruction to follow him to the redoubt. Thanks to the influx of fresh men (and the not entirely voluntary additions commandeered by Chester), Prescott’s outpost was able to hold out for some time longer.

Inside, nevertheless, the situation was growing ever more precarious. The British, too, had received reinforcements and were obviously girding themselves for a renewed attack. The militiamen were each grappling with the dilemma of staying or going. Wrote Captain Bancroft, “Our men turned their heads every minute to look on the one side for their fellow soldiers … and on the other to see a sight to most of them new, a veteran enemy marching on firmly to the attack, directly in their front. It was an awful moment.”

Their spirits remained halfheartedly hearty (“We are ready for the redcoats again!” they cheered, with one eye on the exit). In preparation for the final struggle, Prescott “directed the few [of his men] who had bayonets to be stationed at the points most likely to be scaled” around the redoubt. Then came, remembered Bancroft, “the very crisis of the day, the moment on which every thing depended.” As more and more of the men decided to sneak toward the rear, he accompanied Prescott to harangue them. Prescott’s unflappable assurance and his towering reputation momentarily held them in check. He did not order the defenders to stay—that was no way to motivate a militiaman—but he earnestly pleaded with them to hold fast the line for a short time, if only for the sake of honor, before promising to allow the faithful to go in peace.

Bancroft, who was convinced nothing could be done to stem the rising panic, was so amazed by the speech he claimed to recall it verbatim nearly half a century later. Prescott entreated his listeners “that they must not go off, that if they did all would go; that it would disgrace us to leave at the bare sight of the enemy the work we had been all night throwing up, that we had no expectation of being able to hold our ground, but we wanted to give them a warm reception, and retreat.”

Reassured that they were not expected to sacrifice themselves as a futile gesture to salvage American honor, the men returned to their posts—Amos Farnsworth proudly recorded that subsequently “I did not leave the intrenchment until the enemy got in”—after which Prescott told all to hoard their ammunition and prepare for one last point-blank broadside before they could escape to the rear.

In the meantime, according to Abel Parker, the colonel “ordered the men from one side to the other, in order to defend that part which was pressed hardest by the enemy,” while bellowing (added Bancroft) that they were “to take particular notice of the fine coats and to aim as low as the waistband, and not to fire till ordered.”

Given the contradictions in the various accounts, which side of the redoubt was being “pressed hardest” at that moment is hard to say. What is incontrovertible is that the British now had the bit between their teeth and were pressing hard on both flanks.

To the south and under “a very heavy and severe fire,” Lieutenant John Waller of the 1st Marines and his men were “checked … but did not retreat an inch” as they approached the redoubt’s walls. Nearby, however, the situation was fast unraveling. The Marine commander, Major John Pitcairn, was shot and severely wounded while “rallying the dispersed British troops” (according to the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap in 1787), who were, in Waller’s words, “jumbled” and “in confusion” and “half mad” near the foot of the redoubt’s earthen walls. Since Pitcairn (claimed the Rev. Dr. John Eliot) “received four balls in his body,” his shooting was a collective one by diverse hands. Pitcairn, no doubt wearing a “fine coat,” would certainly have made a tempting target for any of the militiamen guarding the walls, but the number of wounds he suffered gives some indication of the ferocity of the fighting taking place. (Major John Tupper of the 2nd Marines would report to the Admiralty that Pitcairn “died about two or three hours later,” after being transported to Boston.)

With Pitcairn incapacitated, Captain Stephen Ellis assumed command of the remnants of the 1st Marines near the wall. It was do or die. “Had we stopped there much longer, the enemy would have picked us all off,” Lieutenant Waller told his brother, so he rushed to form “the two companies on our right” while begging “Colonel Nesbitt, of the 47th, to form on our left, in order that we might advance with our bayonets to the parapet. I ran from right to left, and stopped our men from firing; while this was doing, and when we had got in tolerable order, we rushed on, leaped the ditch, and climbed the parapet, under a most sore and heavy fire.”

On the opposite side, the Grenadiers, the 5th, and the 52nd were mounting their own push toward the redoubt wall and were also making headway despite heavy losses among their officers. Among them was Major Williams of the 52nd, who after being wounded was left to lie there bleeding out because his juniors, said Ensign Martin Hunter, refused to leave cover for fear of being shot. Perhaps he might still have done the right thing, Hunter admitted, but Williams “was not a very great favorite [with me], as he had obliged me to sell a pony that I had bought for seven and sixpence.” (The major would die in a Boston hospital of his wound.)

Captain George Harris was more fortunate. Upon his being shot in the head, Lieutenant Francis Rawdon ordered four men to rush Harris to safety despite the captain’s murmuring, “For God’s sake, let me die in peace.” So hot was the American fire—perhaps the sight of a killable officer attracted it—that two of his escorts were wounded and a third killed (thus bearing out Hunter’s reluctance to lend aid). Meanwhile, as his men roared, “Push on, push on,” Rawdon was impressed that the Americans kept up their shooting until “we were within ten yards of them.” Indeed, “there are few instances of regular troops defending a redoubt till the enemy were in the very ditch of it,” but Rawdon saw “several [Americans] pop their heads up [over the wall] and fire even after some of our men were upon them.”