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.
The British paused at the foot of the walls, fearful that the defenders were reserving their main broadside for a point-blank massacre. But then, said one American, “one of our people imprudently spoke aloud that their powder was all gone, which being heard by some of the regular officers, they encouraged their men to march up [the parapet] with fixed bayonets.”
It may have been a sergeant of the 63rd’s Grenadiers, or perhaps a Lieutenant Richardson, who was the first to mount the parapet and shout “Victory!” Elsewhere, Lieutenant Waller clambered to the top while a captain and lieutenant fell next to him. It was now, he mourned to a friend, that “poor Ellis,” “Archy Campbell,” and “Shea” were killed and “Chudleigh, Ragg, and Dyer” wounded. Across from him, he saw that “three captains of the 52nd”—Nicholas Addison, William Davison, and George Smith—“were killed on the parapet,” as well as “others I knew nothing of.”
Even as their chances of turning back the assault were inexorably declining, the Americans were giving as good as they got. When “a British officer mounted the embankment, and cried out to his soldiers to ‘rush on, as the fort was their own,’ ” Phinehas Whitney shouted “ ‘let him have it,’ and he fell into the entrenchment.” Ensign Studholme Brownrigg of the 38th was so astounded by the tenacity of the defenders that he thought there were 3,000 of them. Another officer told his friend in England that at this point he honestly believed that he and his men would end up as nothing more than “food for gunpowder.” “They advanced towards us in order to swallow us up,” the redoubt’s young Peter Brown later proudly told his mother, “but they found a choaky mouthful of us.”
Finally, noticing that the British were placing their muskets on top of the wall as they scrambled on top, Prescott bawled, “Take their guns away—twitch ’em away! And you that can handle stones, seize ’em and knock about!” Isaac Glynney picked up a few and pelted the invaders while others fired at whoever was in front of them. Ebenezer Bancroft “was loading my gun the last time, just withdrawing the ramrod,” when “an officer sprang over the breastwork in front of me and presented his piece. I threw away the rammer which was in my hand, and instantly placed the muzzle of my gun against his right shoulder, a little below the collar-bone, and fired, and he fell into the trench.”
Prescott later maintained that he could have held the position “with the handful of men under his command, if he had been supplied with ammunition.” He believed the enemy “would not have rallied, if they had been again repulsed” by a good couple of volleys. Perhaps so, but this is immaterial, given that by now the militiamen were almost out of ammunition. Though the conventional narrative of the battle, in order to magnify for patriotic and cultural reasons the disparity between the modest yeomen-militia and the superior, tyrannical foe they faced, has emphasized that the Americans had been short from the very start, in fact most men were initially more than adequately equipped. Or more precisely, they had sufficient ammunition for an ordinary firefight, but they exhausted their supplies when Bunker Hill proved an extraordinary one.
“Each individual was furnished with one quarter of a pound of powder in a horn, one flint, and lead sufficient to make fifteen charges either of ball or buck shot,” attested James Wilkinson.61 It has naturally been assumed that these officially distributed fifteen rounds were all that was obtainable, yet in fact the amount of available ammunition was highly variable by province. Thus, the troops in some Connecticut regiments received eighteen rounds apiece even as Lieutenant Thomas Grosvenor’s company enjoyed no less than “one pound of gunpowder and forty-eight balls” per man. On the other hand, Colonel Brewer’s Massachusetts regiment initially had to make do with just five rounds.
Moreover, the ammunition supply was not static. The walking wounded were employed to hurriedly pare and scrape dead men’s ammunition down to roughly compatible sizes for the varying barrel calibers and hand them out so that none went to waste. And ammunition could be pooled: Aaron Smith later said that “a man at his side, a negro, [was] so crippled by a shot in the leg that he could not rise up to discharge his gun, but could load and re-load, which he continued to do, both Smith’s and his own, and then hand them to Smith to fire, until their ammunition was expended.”
Even so, let us assume that on average each militiaman arrived on the field with fifteen rounds. Few before Bunker Hill had imagined that men could blaze through so much ammunition in a single brief encounter: That number was judged by American commanders as more than sufficient and at the time was counted as a needlessly lavish distribution. George Washington, for his part, believed that between twelve and fifteen rounds per man could last for an entire months-long campaign, while the British, less parsimonious, regarded sixty as enough for a season of several battles—but they expected a lot to be left over for the following year.
In the event, Jesse Lukens reckoned that at Bunker Hill alone he and his comrades had each fired about sixty rounds, and Josiah Cleaveland remembered that he “fired 40 cartridges; borrowed 3 more.” Another Bunker Hill soldier boasted that “he discharged his piece more than thirty times,” while Nathaniel Rice of East Sudbury claimed that he fired his musket twenty-six times and another militiaman “seventeen times at our unnatural enemies.” Still others “fired at the enemy twenty times, some thirty, and some till their guns were so heated, that they dared not to charge them any more.” Even accounting for the men’s exaggerations and erroneous recollections, judging by the amount of ammunition used relative to the smallness of the battlefield, the brevity of the battle, and the limited number of participants, Bunker Hill featured perhaps the heaviest, fiercest combat of the eighteenth century.
But finally run out of rounds the militias did—heralding the inevitable collapse of the redoubt. Throughout the battle, the Americans had wisely avoided close-quarters combat in favor of shooting from afar, but during the struggles for fixed defenses bayonets came into their own. This was a British specialty, and the opportunity they had panged for all day. As General Burgoyne advised, against enemies who placed “their whole dependence in intrenchments and [firearms,] it will be our glory, and our preservation to storm when possible.” When confronted by such obstacles as walls and breastworks, he was implying, it was more sensible to risk one’s life charging them than to lose it waiting to be picked off by distant musketry.
After the battle, angry participants would allege that it was “barbarous to let men be obliged to oppose bayonets with only gun barrels.” In an enclosed area, like the redoubt, soldiers thrusting bayonets for ward would herd defenders toward a wall or corner by impaling or pricking them with the steel points. The writhing and flailing bodies could then be used as a kind of bulldozer to push deeper into the crowd of other defenders and cram them into a still more constricted space for easier killing.
For their part, the militiamen “began to knock the guns [with bayonets] aside—to spring on ’em with stones—to give ’em heavy punches, feeling that they must sell their lives there,” said Maynard. The Americans tore muskets away from their British owners and “for a moment we had a pretty good time: We hit ’em … with their own guns. We took about 30 of their guns, I should think.” One of Lieutenant Webb’s militiamen, Edward Brown, “sprang, seized a regular’s gun, took it from him and killed him on the spot.”
Nevertheless, the weight of the British had the advantage, and the Americans fell back. For Waller, “nothing could be more shocking than the carnage that followed the storming of this work. We tumbled over the dead to get at the living, who were crowding out of the gorge of the redoubt.” The “gorge” to which he referred was the exit that Prescott had prudently left clear. Acknowledging that his militiamen had done all they could, he sounded a general retreat. Most gratefully took up the offer. There was nothing dishonorable in their decision; these men were exhausted. Unlike the British, who had enjoyed a sound night’s sleep and a hot breakfast, Prescott’s defenders had been awake since early Friday morning, nearly thirty-six hours before. After a busy day in camp, they had marched to the peninsula and spent the night building the redoubt with barely a morsel or gulp to sustain them. In the morning they had been under prolonged artillery fire and, of course, for most of Saturday afternoon, they were fighting for their lives. Ravenous, thirsty, disoriented, scared, dusty, outnumbered, the Americans could hold out no longer.
For his part, Peter Brown “jumped over the walls and ran half a mile, where balls flew like hailstones and cannon roared like thunder,” while David How remembered that after his friend was shot right next to him, he grabbed his musket, “let fly” at a looming redcoat, and fled for the rear. Meanwhile, to cover them, Prescott and a band of diehards heroically defended the gateway to Bunker Hill, the Neck, and safety.
The scene became one heaving, bloody bedlam amid the swirling dust and smoke—so thick and dark that men had to feel their way to an exit.76 With bayonets bent and muzzles dipped in gore, the British thrust ahead, delayed only by Prescott’s paladins, who swung their cutlasses and employed muskets as makeshift poles to parry the enemy’s bayonets. Another particularly effective method was to “club” a musket: holding it by the muzzle and swinging it with force at a head or face, often shivering to pieces their wooden stocks. In general during such melees, men do not tackle each other individually but instead lunge or swing at, hit or cut anyone nearby not instantly recognizable as an ally. When two men do come to blows, the resulting fight is rarely a thing of choreographed beauty; it is all flailing fists and clumsy rebuffs and desperate slashes.
Understandably, then, for this stage in an infantry action, that of hand-to-hand combat, it is rare to find coherent or authoritative accounts of what happened. As it is probably the most exhilarating, terrifying, animalistic, anarchic, primitive experience of all, this mode of fighting is more prone to memory blackouts, disjointed recollections, and sensory kaleidoscoping than even conventional combat. Descriptions of what happened are accordingly sparse, but we are fortunate in possessing a few vivid snapshots of what the final moments in the redoubt were like.
Israel Potter and some comrades had “to fight our way through a very considerable body of the enemy, with clubbed muskets,” in order to escape. Fortunately, Potter had brought a cutlass, with which he parried a sword slash at his head by an officer. The point of the latter’s blade cut his right arm near the elbow, but Potter managed to make “one well-directed stroke” that almost severed the other’s arm. Captain Bancroft, meanwhile, had “a severe struggle to escape out of the fort.” Holding “my gun broadwise before my face,” he “rushed upon” the redcoats in the way “and at first bore some of them down, but I soon lost my gun.” Now disarmed, he “leaped upon the heads of the throng in the gateway and fortunately struck my head upon the head of a soldier, who settled down under me, so that I came with my feet to the ground.” Immediately, “a blow was aimed at me, with the butt of a gun, which missed my head but gave me a severe contusion on the right shoulder. Numbers were trying to seize me by the arms but I broke from them, and with my elbows and knees cleared the way so that at length I got through the crowd.” There was now just one man standing between Bancroft and life, “and the thought struck me that he might kill me after I had passed him.” So, “as I ran by him I struck him a blow across the throat with the side of my hand. I saw his mouth open, and I have not seen him since.”
Once the majority of militiamen had fled, the ground, said Lieutenant Waller of the Marines, was “streaming with blood and strewed with dead and dying men.” At least thirty Americans had been bayoneted or killed in the fort during the fighting, but now “the soldiers [were] stabbing some and dashing out the brains of others.” It “was a sight too dreadful for me to dwell any longer on.”
As many of the wounded as possible had been borne away by their friends, but some thirty-six or thirty-seven were left behind, including Colonel Parker and two or three other officers. Some of these, if we rely on Waller, were later murdered in the redoubt. We can be quite sure, as well, that all the victims were Americans, for killing takes time and possession of the field, and the fleeing militiamen had neither.
Such is the savagery of hand-to-hand combat that it is hard to leash one’s intense emotions, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the fighting. It is then that the overwhelming majority of slayings occur of prisoners and the wounded, not days or even hours later, when passions have cooled. At Bunker Hill, the British repeatedly bashed in the skulls of the wounded—or the already dead—with the butts of the muskets and ran them through multiple times with bayonets. We see this kind of frenzied “overkill” erupting among victors in any number of past battles. To take one example, in England, at Towton in 1461, there was a fierce clash between the Lancastrian and Yorkist forces during the Wars of the Roses. Recently excavated skeletons reveal that out of twenty-eight skulls, fully twenty-seven bore multiple wounds—nearly all inflicted after the killing stroke on the first or second blow. Some men had been hit up to thirteen times. One typical victim received five strokes from a bladed weapon to the left front side of his head, followed by another powerful down-to-up slash from behind that left a wide horizontal gash. With the corpse lying face up, one of the soldiers then delivered a massive blow with a heavy sword that cleaved open his face diagonally from the left eye to the right jaw, severing most of his throat at the same time. As at Bunker Hill, not only did these manic attacks occur once the victim was already dead but also after the main fighting was over and the perpetrators were no longer in danger.
Had the British found Prescott among the wounded, there can be little doubt of his awful fate. However, quite astoundingly—almost as much so as Howe’s miraculous survival—the colonel escaped from the maelstrom with nothing worse than a coat rent by several bayonet slashes and a ripped waistcoat. One of his men remembered that Prescott “did not run, but stepped long, with his sword up” throughout. One can only speculate that the British did not focus all their energies upon killing him because Prescott was dressed as an ordinary farmer and did not stand out.
The refugees from the redoubt had exchanged one hell for another. As they ran toward Bunker Hill, the British followed and shot at them from behind. A large number of men who had escaped relatively unscathed from the melee now fell, more severely wounded. Israel Potter, for instance, who had so far received only that “slight cut” from an officer’s sword, now suffered two hits, one in the hip and the other in his left ankle.
The retreat could easily have turned into a rout had a mixed bag of companies and a few packets of militiamen not rapidly set up a rough line to cover those men streaming their way. Captain Chester’s Nutmeggers, as well as the units headed by James Clark and William Coit, plus a hodgepodge of companies from Colonel Moses Little’s and Colonel Thomas Gardner’s regiments banded together on the south slope of Bunker Hill, looking toward Breed’s. They took positions “just by a poor stone fence, two or three feet high, and very thin, so that the bullets came through.” “Here we lost our regularity,” wrote Chester, with “every man loading and firing as fast as he could. As near as I could guess, we fought standing about six minutes.” His lieutenant affirmed that that they held back the British with “a brisk fire from our small-arms.”
General Clinton appealed to Howe, who was still shaken by the debacle at the rail fence, to let him chase and catch the militiamen before they could exit the peninsula. He would have only minutes to regain the initiative. “All was in confusion,” Clinton noted. “Officers told me that they could not command their men and I never saw so great a want of order.” Howe allowed him to take whatever troops he could round up and try to flank the troops on Bunker Hill—a plan that held out the possibility of severing the disrupted Americans from the Neck. Clinton ran with his men to the abandoned fort, ordered Lieutenant Colonel John Gunning to “remain in the redoubt with 100 with positive orders to keep it, and took with me all the rest” toward the thin American line.
Clinton’s boldness might have paid off had the militias utterly collapsed in panic, but on Bunker Hill the initial chaos was instead subsiding into an orderly withdrawal across the Neck. Small groups of militiamen paused to shoot at Clinton’s troops to cover others moving to the rear, until they in turn were relieved and fell back. Lieutenant Rawdon acknowledged that the Americans maintained “a running fight from one fence, or wall, to another, till we entirely drove them off the peninsula.” General Burgoyne agreed, saying “the retreat was no flight; it was even covered with bravery and military skill.”
It was a hard fight. Colonel Gardner was mortally wounded and, according to a neighbor, Colonel Little “narrowly escaped with his life, as two men were killed one on each side of him, and he came to the camp all bespattered with blood.” And of Captain Nathaniel Warner’s twenty-three-man company, no fewer than seventeen were killed and wounded.90 Robert Steele, a drummer boy, was told to go fetch two quarts of rum and a pail of water to succor the twice-hit Major Willard Moore and other injured militiamen. The beverages, perhaps unsurprisingly, “went very quick,” he wrote.
The British could see wounded men being carried from the field under fire. Among those who made it across the Neck was a Peterborough, New Hampshire, sergeant named McAlister—a Scotsman who had deserted the British army some years before; he had been shot “in the face and side of the neck, the ball having entered the mouth, and coming out one-half in the back of the neck and the other half in the mouth.” He was rescued by a comrade who, knowing his fate as a deserter should he be captured, threw him across his back and brought him to safety. Another man, John Barker, saw his friend Captain Benjamin Farnum fall wounded. Ignoring the oncoming British, Barker hauled Farnum across his shoulders, told him to hold on for dear life, and ran to safety, mumbling to himself, “The Regulars sha’n’t have Ben.” In 1829, aged eighty-three, Farnum had the honor of becoming the last captain at Bunker Hill still alive, though he was somewhat lamed by the two musket balls in his thigh.
Thanks to the American refusal to abandon their comrades, only thirty-one prisoners were eventually taken by the British, many of whom were severely injured. Most lay in the redoubt, but others would have fallen along the line of retreat. None were treated with much gentleness. Hit in the hip, a Mr. Frost had “crept in among the British wounded,” presumably for warmth, companionship, or in hopes that someone would take pity on him and help him. Unfortunately, when he was found, the soldiers threatened to run him through if he did not get up. “But I was too stiff to move,” so “they hauled me about till I became more limber,” and he was taken to Boston. Bill Scott suffered a fractured leg early in the fighting and would be shot another four times over the next few hours. Waking from unconsciousness and bleeding from “nine orifices” (entry and exit wounds, presumably), he discovered a British soldier looming over him. The redcoat demanded to know why he should not execute him, to which Bill, now beyond caring, replied, “I am in your power and you can do with me as you please.” The soldier was pleased to but a passing officer stopped him and took Scott prisoner. Left out overnight, the militiaman was trundled onto a wagon and transported to Boston for treatment the following day. Like Frost, he was later evacuated to Halifax in Canada (and, like Frost, escaped a year later). They were the lucky ones: By September, just ten of the wounded prisoners were still alive.
There were even some uninjured Americans trapped on the peninsula, who hid as best they could, but by the early evening they were emerging—armed, scared, and dangerous, as Lieutenant John Dutton of the 38th would find out. Suffering from gout, he had left his company to change his stockings and was warned by his orderly that two men were approaching. The orderly thought it prudent to fall back, but Dutton laughed off the suggestion, supposing that “they were coming to surrender and give up their arms.” But “his incredulity proved fatal to him [when] they lodged the contents of their muskets in the bodies of the hard-fated lieutenant and servant, notwithstanding that the King’s Troops were within fifty yards of him when he lost his life, and some of the Light Infantry quite close to him.” The Americans were killed a few minutes later. Dutton and his luckless servant were the last British casualties of the bloody day.
Meanwhile, noticing that knots of militiamen were holed up in some houses on the Neck, Clinton urgently requested Howe to permit him to take some game Light and Grenadier companies to pursue them once they were flushed out by artillery. “I knew it would be a complete finishing to a great though dear bought victory”—another such, he admitted, “would have ruined us”—but, he sadly noted, “my scheme was not approved.”
Howe was probably right. There was no point in continuing the battle. It was getting dark, and his soldiers would have found it impossible to force their way across the Neck, let alone to continue on to face Ward’s forces in Cambridge. It would have been hard attritional fighting every step of the way, for, as Burgoyne reported, all the Americans had done was proceed “no farther than to the next hill [Winter Hill], where a new post was taken, new intrenchments instantly begun.”
The British troops, also, were exhausted, a result of the typical crash after a lengthy bout of combat. The burn-off of adrenaline causes soldiers intense fatigue and helps explain why even victorious commanders can find it difficult to execute a knockout blow against a weakened opponent in the closing moments of an engagement. At Bunker Hill, officers often spoke of their men, even in victory and no matter how high their spirits before the battle, to be “weak and outdone,” “very dull,” “confused,” and “discouraged and beat out” immediately following it.
Soldiers who have not yet fully purged adrenaline from their system tend to suffer from jitters—a hallmark of insomnia.102 As the sky darkened over the peninsula, any number of men found themselves unable to sleep. One such was Martin Hunter of the 52nd, who never could forget “the night of the 17th of June” as he vainly sought restfulness. “The cries of the wounded of the enemy … and the recollection of the loss of so many friends was a very trying scene for so young a soldier.” On the other side, John Trumbull felt “that night was a fearful breaking in for [the] young soldiers” surrounded by such a scene “of military magnificence and ruin.”
For most of those present that day, the battle of Bunker Hill was over. For the wounded, it was as if it had never ended.