They affect to hold the army besieged?… they do not affect it,
they actually do besiege ye, in spite of your teeth!
–anonymous Whig, to John Burgoyne
In the spring of 1775, despite success on Battle Road and conquest in the north country, the people of America in Congress assembled were by no means united in purpose about this war that long, smoldering dissent and a chance spark on Lexington Green had set ablaze. (In fact, not even all the colonies were represented in Philadelphia since Georgia in the Deep South had yet to send an official delegation.) The mood of the people themselves up and down the colonies, however, was unquestionably warlike. A “phrenzy of revenge,” Thomas Jefferson noted in a letter, “seems to have seized all ranks of people” in Virginia. It was a “phrenzy” certainly incited by events in far-off Massachusetts Bay, but much inflamed by propaganda crafted by the artful pen of Sam Adams, a man of most “serpentine cunning” in the words of one Tory. Sent out over Joseph Warren’s signature and carried south on lathered horses, Adams’ account, as graphic as it was frankly false, described the “barbarous murders committed on our innocent brethren” at Lexington and Concord and denounced the “ministerial vengeance” wreaked upon women, children, and old men. So effective was Adams’ brutal tale that when it reached London, well ahead of Gage’s own very understated report, outraged Britons protested violently against the government’s American policy and vowed to aid their suffering American cousins.
A tall Virginia delegate, George Washington, though himself much distrustful of the passions of the common man, took to wearing his militia uniform to sessions of Congress. His mere appearance in Virginia’s buff and blue spoke a great deal more than the colonel did himself about his will to resist. Even John Dickinson, an open enemy of those who privately argued for American independence, both hoped for and despaired of reconciliation. Not so long ago his calm and reasoned Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania had argued for constitutional liberty safely within the British Empire. Now, in the face of what he regarded as “the butchery of unarmed Americans,” he grimly wondered on what ground reconciliation might be achieved. Still, as summer neared, Congress continued to talk about the possibility of peace with Great Britain, always mindful of France and Spain. These powers waited in the wings of this drama, and neither had abandoned its ideas about imperial dominion in America. But Congress would not be the first or last deliberative body to talk peace while preparing for war. On 14 June they voted to raise ten rifle companies from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. It was an exceedingly modest beginning to what would become the Continental Line.
But whatever these companies would or would not become in the shadowy future, they were of no value whatsoever just now in shaping events in Massachusetts. There four New England armies, in various stages of organization and tenuously under the direction of General Artemas Ward, still squared off against Thomas Gage’s Regulars unhappily besieged in Boston. In this stalemate an uneasy truce held sway. A gentlemen’s agreement between Dr. Warren and General Gage allowed Loyalist refugees from the countryside into the city and Whig refugees out. As for the Regulars, they were in no immediate danger of being overwhelmed by the “Army of Observation” opposite, or of being starved out so long as the British navy was at hand. But they were understandably dispirited: bloodied and driven into Boston by an armed rabble, they were badly fed, wretchedly housed, and vulnerable to diseases, smallpox in particular, far more deadly than musketry. Perhaps most galling to the spirit, they were also thus far mainly idle and unable to come to grips with the cause of their suffering. Such fighting as had taken place since the fateful 19th of April had been a series of very minor encounters in May. On Noodle’s Island and Hog Island, north and east of Boston, Rebels and redcoats skirmished over the livestock grazing there. In these marshy tussles the British shed some fresh blood without much fresh meat to show for it. (They lost into the bargain the schooner Diana, burnt to the waterline, when hard-driving Israel Putnam waded out with a gang of militiamen and boarded her himself.) As Gage himself admitted in a letter to Lord North dated 12 June, the “situation these wretches have taken in forming the blockade of this town is judicious and strong, being well intrenched where the situation requires it and with cannon.”
Across the Atlantic British enemies of the government’s American policy struck as soon as news of Boston besieged reached them. In Parliament William Pitt, powerful and eloquent Whig champion, gave a highly partisan spin to Gage’s very real military predicament in Boston: the British garrison, he fumed, was “an impotent general and a dishonoured army, trusting solely to the pickaxe and the spade for security against the just indignation of an injured and insulted people.” Elsewhere in London, another wit tossed off this satiric squib at Gage’s expense:
The saints, alas! have waxen strong;
In vain your fasts and godly song
To quell the rebel rout!
Within his lines skulks valiant Gage,
Like Yorick’s starling in a cage
He cries, “I can’t get out!”
In truth, the ministry had been brooding for quite some time about the capacity of their “mild general” in America to quell the Rebel rout. Gage had been calling for reinforcement for at least a year. Though not in the numbers he hoped for, troops had been dispatched from Halifax and Ireland even before the fighting at Lexington and Concord had made his need of them most urgent. They would eventually bring his strength up to something like ten thousand Regulars, but in their number were three more than Gage had expressly asked for: William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne, major generals all. It was impossible for Gage or anyone else to misunderstand their presence. The ministry was sending them to America to light a fire under Thomas Gage.
Thus, on a misty morning on the 25th of May, Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne sailed into Boston Harbor aboard the Cerberus, fittingly named, it would now appear, for the three-headed dog in classical myth who guarded the gates of hell. As far as Burgoyne was concerned, it was the auspicious arrival of a “triumverate of reputation.”Considerably less impressed was a London wag who wrote:
Behold the Cerberus, the Atlantic plough.
Her precious cargo, Burgoyne, Clinton, Howe.
Bow, wow, wow!
The Cerberus had sailed two days after Lexington had blown a political crisis up into a shooting war, and none of the three generals aboard her really knew what lay ahead. When a British sloop, Otter, came about in the harbor, Burgoyne himself hailed her for news and heard for the first time of the bloody business on Battle Road and that ten thousand colonials held Gage’s command at bay in Boston. It was astonishing news, but nothing to shake Burgoyne’s buoyant confidence. “What! Ten thousand peasants keep five thousand King’s troops shut up?” Burgoyne huffed. “Well, let us get in, and we’ll soon find elbowroom!” This spontaneous witticism Burgoyne would have opportunity to repent at leisure, for the derisive epithet “General Elbowroom” would follow him all through his service in America. Finally returning to Boston as a prisoner after his disaster at Saratoga in 1777, Burgoyne was saluted by the shrill voice of an old woman in the crowd that milled near Charlestown Ferry: “Make way, make way, the General is coming! Give him elbow room.” But as the fog lifted this May morning in ’75, there was no reason for the British to think that fresh troops and three of the nation’s best and brightest general officers would not make short work of this American uprising.
Though fifty-three years old, John Burgoyne was the most junior of the three major generals. A fine portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds shows him as he no doubt liked to see himself: a romantically handsome figure dominating the canvas with storm clouds roiling over his head and a sturdy line of battle in the background. His combat experience was creditable if limited. He fought in Portugal in the last French war and was much praised and petted for seizing Valencia at the head of the 16th Dragoons, “Burgoyne’s Light Horse.” In peace, a fortunate marriage had given him the wherewithal to relish London’s high life. Like many of his fellow aristocrats, he had a particular passion for gaming tables and, marriage notwithstanding, the company of beautiful women. He also fancied himself a playwright of some repute, and in fact, David Garrick had made a tidy little success of one of his plays, “Maid of the Oaks”. His nickname, “Gentleman Johnny,” however, came not from the drawing rooms, but from a humane–and daring–idea of his own devising: that the British enlisted man was in fact a man and not to be trained and disciplined “like spaniels with a stick.” Men and officers alike were happy to serve under him. Burgoyne’s own commitment to this American service, however, was hard to gauge exactly. Publicly, he was a passionate supporter in Parliament of the ministry’s get-tough American policy. As the trouble overseas reached a crisis, he had asked rather fulsomely: “Is there a man in England . . . who does not think the Parliamentary rights of Great Britain a cause to fight for–to bleed and die for?” Privately, however, Gentleman Johnny the gambler was hedging his bets against the odds of his own ambition. Even if Thomas Gage were recalled, he would remain third of three in Boston, and seeing little chance for glory there, wanted to be posted to command in New York. When his maneuvering for that post came to nothing, he wrangled (through Lord North) permission from George III to return to England in the fall if no important independent command came his way. It must have seemed to insiders at any rate less than complete devotion to the cause of Britain’s parliamentary rights in America.
Sir Henry Clinton was, as it happened, American-born. The accident of his birth in 1738, however, had not visibly nourished in the man any special sympathy for Americans (though long after the Revolution he would insist that he “was not a volunteer in that war”). The only son of a British admiral, he had been soldiering since he bought a lieutenant’s commission in the 2nd Foot Guards at thirteen. He campaigned on the continent in the Seven Years’ War without particular distinction but had risen nonetheless to the rank of major general by his thirty-fourth year. Next to the ruddy and expansive Burgoyne, Clinton seemed bland, a short, secretive, round-faced man soft with middle age. Not without a measure of self-awareness, Clinton characterized himself as a “shy bitch.” His fellow officers found him intelligent and capable, a soldier of promise despite a deep-grained habit of resenting superiors and mistrusting comrades. The combination of searching suspicion of his brother officers and self-doubt under responsibility would later lead him to grief, but he was a trained professional of long experience. On the face of things, he must have seemed more than a match for the “mushroom generals” springing up in New England.
Senior to both Burgoyne and Clinton, Sir William Howe was by anyone’s measure the ablest and most battle-tested of the three, but his politics were most problematic. His combat record was first-rate. As a lieutenant colonel commanding a well-drilled regiment, he played an active part in British victories at Louisbourg, Belle Isle, and Havana. His finest hour had come on a dark September night in 1759. James Wolfe called on Howe to lead the detachment that crossed the St. Lawrence and scaled the Heights of Abraham at Quebec, a prelude to Britain’s greatest triumph in North America. His reputation for cool-headed courage under fire was honestly earned. In the fighting before Quebec, for example, he had torn off his coat and stood his part on the firing line, helping to beat off a determined French attack. Wolfe himself believed the king had no finer soldier than Billy Howe in his service. At forty-six, he was a big, darkly handsome man and still a powerful presence despite an equally powerful appetite for long nights of wine, women, and games of chance. He had intelligence and energy, no doubt, and was in his way a child of fortune, thought to be an illegitimate grandson of the first George and certainly accepted by the present George as a cousin.
Along with his older brother, the admiral Richard “Black Dick” Howe, the general had a special connection to America by way of the eldest Howe brother. George Augustus, third Viscount Howe had been killed in Abercromby’s failure against the French at Fort Ticonderoga. So devoted were the Yankee militiamen who served with George Howe that they later raised a monument to him in Westminster Abbey, testifying to the “affection their officers and soldiers bore to his command.” It may be, as one student of the Revolution has suggested, that King George sent Howe to America at least in part because he hoped that Americans’ old affection for the Howe name might serve to bring about a reconciliation before matters there were completely out of hand. If so, George, never an astute politician, was turning a blind eye to Howe’s firmly Whig stance on the question. He stood for Parliament from Nottingham in ’74, assuring his constituents that he would neither support an aggressive policy toward the colonies nor accept a command there. When the king’s appointment came, Howe was compelled to answer the understandable indignation of the voters. He “could not refuse,” he explained with awkward sincerity, “without incurring the odious name of backwardness to serve my country in time of distress.” Knowing Whigs in Parliament, however, nodded slyly at one another when they heard the news. Billy Howe, they believed, would do the Americans no harm.
When Howe, Burgoyne, and Clinton settled into Boston and reviewed the situation with Gage, they were obliged to agree that, jesting aside, the British urgently needed elbowroom of some kind. By the first part of June, a reorganized colonial army ringed the Boston peninsula roughly thus: the right wing under John Thomas was posted at Roxbury and fronted with field guns both narrow Boston Neck and the Dorchester peninsula on the extreme right; the center under Artemas Ward at Cambridge stretched from the Charles River north to Prospect Hill and was supported by three forts and such guns as the colonials could bring to bear; the left wing was the responsibility of New Hampshire, John Stark’s regiment across the Mystic at Medford and, nearer to hand, James Reed’s hugging Charlestown just below the point where the roads from Cambridge and Medford joined and crossed the vulnerable neck. In his Cambridge headquarters, General Ward’s sense of the real troop strength holding these lines was not a great deal clearer than General Gage’s since one day’s report never agreed with the next’s. But he must have had something like 15,000, roughly half of these “eight-months’ men” immediately under arms, the rest militia in the countryside prepared to hustle to the front in the face of an emergency.
When and if such an emergency would arise was not clear to anyone, and Ward’s inertia thus far was the particular source of dismay to the colonial citizen-soldiers. Restless under military discipline, they had, by their lights, signed on to fight redcoats, not to dig everlasting ditches across the water from the British lion at bay. Of course, Gage’s inertia was at least equally dismaying to both his own command and Loyalist New England. Nor was the “triumverate of reputation” slow to write home to report that Gage was, also in Burgoyne’s words, “unequal to his present situation.” Only “a genius of the very first class,” Burgoyne added, would be equal to so grave a responsibility. If the powers across the sea (he did not need to add) believed him to be that first-class genius, so much the better for the honor of Great Britain–and of course for John Burgoyne. Nor was Gentleman Johnny quite done puffing. In June he prevailed on Gage to issue a proclamation. Published on the 12th, it declared martial law in Boston (more or less irrelevant in a city already in the grip of two armies) and offered pardons to all offending Rebels but Sam Adams and John Hancock (which might have meant something to the Rebels if they were of a mind to be pardoned, which they were not). In sum, the proclamation was John Burgoyne’s wind sent forth in Thomas Gage’s name. It mocked the “infatuated multitudes” of rebellious Yankees, who “with a preposterous parade of military arrangement, affected to hold the Army besieged.” In fact the siege was, at least for the moment, not at all preposterous. When the text reached London, Whigs were quick to see Burgoyne’s hand in it and roundly jeered. As one spat: “They affect to hold the army besieged… they do not affect it, they actually do besiege ye, in spite of your teeth; and the next time you write to your friends, say in plain English that the Americans effected the siege.” It was a little lesson on the verbs “affect” and “effect” worthy of Dr. Johnson. But more than semantics were at issue here. Failing to intimidate the Americans or hearten the Regulars and Loyalists, the proclamation pushed the British inevitably toward decisive action. Of course, it didn’t take three major generals and a windy speech to convince Tommy Gage that he was unlikely to restore royal governance in the province by outcamping the enemy.
Nor did it take a military genius to see that the key to breaking out of (or for that matter into) Boston was control of the high ground surrounding the citadel in the bay. On Dorchester to the south were Nook’s Hill on the peninsula’s western point and two knobby hills known as Dorchester Heights eastward. To the north on Charlestown peninsula were Bunker Hill at the neck and a lesser height, Breed’s Hill, nearest Boston’s north end. Heavy guns in Rebel hands posted on Dorchester or Charlestown or both would make Boston a very hot place for the British to hold at all. (Fortunately for the British, Ward did not have those guns, and even if he had them, he lacked the powder to sustain a bombardment that might drive the redcoats out.) British guns on the same ground would of course be an effective first step in prying loose the Rebels’ present hold on the city. To that end, Gage called his generals to a council of war, and in short order they agreed to a plan of action. The first strike would move south against Dorchester, seize the Heights, and establish two redoubts to control the causeway. With the neck secure, Regulars would drive the Rebels from Roxbury at the point of the bayonet, breaking the American right there and threatening their center at Cambridge. This accomplished, the British would turn north to Charlestown, seize and hold Bunker Hill, and force the neck. From that point, they could either outfight or outflank the Rebels from Cambridge. “I suppose the Rebels will move from Cambridge,” General Howe wrote confidently to Admiral Howe on 12 June, “and that we shall take and keep possession of it.” The Dorchester attack was set for 18 June.
In the end, however, the British were beaten to the punch, forced to make their move not into Dorchester but into Charlestown, and not on their own terms but on the Americans’. In part events were shaped by two accidents of military intelligence. First, Britain’s chief spy in the American camp, Dr. Benjamin Church, had been sent by the Massachusetts Committee of Safety off to Philadelphia with dispatches for the Continental Congress, closing for the time-being Thomas Gage’s window on American plans. (Church’s long betrayal of the cause he professed would not be discovered until the end of September.) Second, word of Gage’s own plans had reached the American camp by way of a New Hampshire man, unknown to history but held by the committee to be “a gentleman of undoubted veracity.” He had got wind of the British move in Boston, possibly at John Burgoyne’s own table, reported it to the New Hampshire Committee of Safety, who in turn reported same to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. On 15 June that body met, initially to consider its response to the “late extraordinary Proclamation of General Gage.” It is well to remember that real possibilities for peace remained if men of vision and flexibility might seize them. But awareness of Gage’s plans for an attack on 18 June, just three days off, spurred the committee to action. By unanimous resolution, it recommended to the council of war in Cambridge that “Bunker’s Hill, in Charlestown, be securely kept and defended; and also some one hill or hills on Dorchester Neck be likewise Secured.”
This resolution for “the Security of this Colony” thrust the responsibility once more on Artemas Ward. He was in sum a capable and careful administrator, but with no staff to speak of and no reliable chain of command he was nearly overwhelmed by the business of raising and maintaining an army at all, let alone risking it in battle. Like Gage, he huddled with his generals. Brigadier Israel Putnam, whose aggressive energy in the field was never questioned though his judgment in council often was, urged an immediate move on both Dorchester Heights and Bunker Hill in Charlestown. The proposal to seize the high ground in Dorchester went nowhere: John Thomas in Roxbury said frankly that he was ill-prepared to take aggressive action from that quarter. But perhaps to Ward’s surprise, perhaps even to his dismay, the proposal to fortify and hold Bunker Hill was supported by three men of cool-headed judgment. Colonel William Prescott, thoughtful and well-born commander of a Massachusetts regiment, had served with such unflappable skill at Louisburg that he had been offered (and had refused) a commission in a British regiment. Seth Pomeroy of Connecticut was likewise a respected veteran of the French wars; though nearing seventy, he had plenty of fight left in him as he would soon show. Dr. Warren, the aristocrat with the common touch, had already shown on Battle Road both a capacity for leadership and a combative spirit.
Thus on Friday, 16 June, it was decided: Colonel Prescott would lead a detachment out of Cambridge to seize and fortify Bunker Hill that very night. Three Massachusetts regiments, Prescott’s own plus James Frye’s and Ebeneezer Bridge’s, a little more than a thousand men in all, would be the heart of the strike force. These would be strengthened by 200 Connecticut men under Captain Thomas Knowlton and a small company of New Hampshire men. The redoubt itself was to be built under the direction of the aging but highly capable chief engineer and artilleryman, Colonel Richard Gridley, a man who had once hauled cannon for General Wolfe up the sheer face of the Heights of Abraham. He was seconded by his elder son, Major Scarborough Gridley, who would lead his father’s artillery battalion. In all this Ward was improvising–and improvising against his own better judgment. It was a pitifully small force to send into Charlestown, half-equipped and badly armed, but at the same time he was unwilling to risk more. Nor did the plan provide for reinforcement should the foray blow up into a pitched battle or for retreat should the force be overwhelmed. If Dr. Warren had reservations about the decision, they would go to the grave with him tomorrow in the redoubt on Breed’s Hill. That battleground likewise was not part of General Ward’s plan.
By nine o’clock on 16 June Prescott’s column was assembled in Cambridge, paused for a dram of rum and a benediction, and stepped out for Charlestown in the sultry darkness. That the column was in fact headed for Charlestown only Prescott knew. All the men in the ranks really knew was what rum and prayer could tell them: they must be marching into harm’s way. It was not in truth a very imposing military spectacle. They were dressed in farmers’ homespun small-clothes, as one witness remembered, in “colors as various as the barks of oak, sumach and other trees of our hills and swamps could make them.” As for arms, the men carried equally various relics of a century of imperial conflict in America–English, French, and Spanish arms of every weight and caliber. Seth Pomeroy, for example, shouldered the musket he had made himself and carried at Louisburg thirty years before. If the arms were old, though, the men were green. Some veterans there were among them, but many a fresh-fledged junior officer carried a sword very recently hammered out by the village smithy, tempered but untried. More important, there was hardly a bayonet in the column, very much the business end of eighteenth-century warfare. When Prescott reached Charlestown Neck, he met Israel Putnam waiting with wagons carrying the gear to be used in fortifying Bunker Hill. Along with picks and shovels, the wagons carried gabions (wicker baskets to be filled with dirt) and fascines (bundles of brushwood to strengthen earthworks). Plenty of food, water, powder, and ball should have been in these wagons as well, but no one at Ward’s headquarters had made arrangements for these most basic of provisions. The column stepped off once more and crossed the neck onto the peninsula. If any of the men in the ranks were inclined to consider omens at this point, a grim sight a quarter-mile ahead was well worth considering. There on a gallows still hung in chains the mummified body of a black man named Mark, convicted of murdering his master in September of 1755. Hard by, his accomplice, Phillis, had been burned at the stake. Those now marching in the cause of liberty were passing a gruesome memento mori: the terrible end of two slaves who rose against their master in the time of George II.
Prescott of course had no time for brooding over the ghosts of another generation. He sent a company straightaway into Charlestown (now all but deserted) to keep a sharp eye on the British across the water and hiked on himself to Bunker Hill. Here the British engineer Montressor had dug his redan back in April when the Concord column had come limping home, and here Prescott’s orders called on him to dig in. But instead of going immediately to work with the spade, Prescott paused to confer with Gridley, his engineer, and Putnam, his second-in-command. Little is known with certainty about this council, but it must have focused on the terrain of the peninsula. Six months later Montressor returned to make a survey of Charlestown showing in fine detail what the three Americans could see in outline even in the dark. This peninsula between the Mystic and the Charles was a rough triangle, a mile long and nowhere more than half-a-mile wide, its apex at the neck and its base closest to Boston. In addition to the narrow neck (sometimes under water at high tide) its key features were three hills: Bunker Hill at 110 feet, nearest to the neck and hugging the Mystic side; Breed’s Hill in the middle at 75 feet; and Morton’s Hill, a 35-foot knob at the southeast corner. From the comfortable distance of more than two centuries and not in the hot haste of that June night, it is easy to say that the logical place to fortify was precisely where Prescott stood. American cannon here would front approaches from both rivers and the mainland, and British guns, both naval and those posted on Copp’s Hill in Boston, would have a hard time reaching the position effectively. (Gage himself might have second-guessed his decision to abandon the hill in the first place.) It is possible that the three Americans believed that Bunker Hill on which they stood was actually Breed’s Hill, or it may be that combative Old Put, knowing very well which was which, urged Prescott to dig in on Breed’s Hill for no other reason than it was 600 yards closer to the enemy. In any case, Prescott gave the order: a small detachment would remain on Bunker Hill, but the main body would go on to Breed’s Hill, so named for the farmer who grazed his cattle there in more peaceful times. The battle that was about to blow up there, however, would forever bear the name of Bunker Hill, which Prescott’s men left behind them in the dark.