2) A Hill Too Far

Americans are not afraid of their heads, though very much afraid of their legs;
if you cover these, they will fight forever.

–Israel Putnam


It was nearly midnight then before Gridley had fairly traced his redoubt, a rough square eight rods–forty yards or so–to a side. With one corner pointing toward Copp’s Hill in Boston and its opposite toward Bunker Hill in its rear, the fort’s design would present strong fronts both down the grassy slope toward Moulton’s Point and southward toward Charlestown. The Charlestown face would be further strengthened by a V-shaped redan in its center. As the clocks of Boston counted twelve, Prescott’s thousand men hefted pick and shovel and made the stony soil of New England fly. If they needed any encouragement, there was plenty to be had courtesy of the British navy which was in position to open fire on the Americans the moment they were discovered. Riding their mooring chains on the Charles were his majesty’s ships Lively, Falcon, Symmetry, and Glasgow, mounting nearly eighty guns in all, with the ponderous 68-gun Somerset at anchor nearby off Hancock’s Wharf. But whatever these countrymen did not know about soldiering–and that was a very great deal–they knew all there was to know about ditching a meadow. As a comrade posted in Cambridge later wrote, the work was “careed… on with the utmost viger all night.” And it was well they did, for the summer solstice was less than a week off and sunrise came early–4:35 on that 17 June. In fact it was still a half-hour off when a lookout aboard the Lively caught sight of the works on Breed’s Hill, already as high as a man’s head. Without waiting for orders, her captain swung her broadside in the channel and ten of her twenty guns opened the battle for possession of Colonel Gridley’s fort.

For the raw troops in that fort there was sudden sound and fury, but no immediate damage, and then almost as suddenly as the storm had broken, there was silence again. Admiral Samuel Graves, awakened by the broadside, had sent a boat across to order the Lively to cease fire. In this lull Prescott, seeing in the first broad light of day how exposed both of the fort’s flanks were, set his men to digging once more, now on a line of breastworks stretching eastward fifty or sixty yards toward the Mystic. It wasn’t much, but it was all that could be done for the moment. As for the approach from the village, he would have to trust to the company posted there. General Gage, however, was quick to countermand the admiral and ordered the guns on every ship in the harbor to bear on Breed’s Hill–with those on Boston’s Copp’s Hill thrown into the roar for good measure.

Looking through his spyglass from the steeple of Christ Church, though, Gage could see, first, that his bombardment was more sound than fury at this point since the ships could not elevate their guns enough to bear effectively on the hill. Second, it was clear that the Americans were still digging like colliers. In fact the American command counted only one casualty in the first hours of the contest. About eight o’clock one Asa Pollard, a Billerica man from Bridge’s regiment, had his head torn off by a cannonball. Prescott, spattered with blood and brains, gave a blunt command: bury the man and continue entrenching. Pollard had lost his head, and that was that. Prescott would now see if his comrades would lose their nerve. Under fire for the first time and increasingly aware of their predicament, most were understandably shaken; all were hungry, thirsty, and ragged with a long night’s labor. One among them, Peter Brown, later admitted that he and his fellows in the ranks then believed that they “were brought there to be all slain,” and that “the treachery, oversight, or presumption in the conduct of [their] officers” were as much the cause of their peril as the British guns. Some men chose discretion over valor and slipped away. Most, seeing Prescott calmly climb the parapet and direct the work, remained. From Christ Church Gage too could see the officer on the parapet. By Gage’s side was Abijah Willard, a Boston Loyalist and, as it happened, Prescott’s own brother-in-law. With Gage’s glass, he identified Prescott for the general. Will he fight? Gage wanted to know. “I cannot answer for his men,” Willard answered, “but Prescott will fight you to the gates of hell.”

Gage had in fact been aware of the American presence in Charlestown since well before daylight. Sir Henry Clinton had been up in the night, learned of the Rebel spadework on Breed’s Hill, and informed Gage of it. With this information, he also urged Gage to take immediate action: “a landing in two divisions at day brake.” Gage, however, perhaps reluctant to act without a fuller sense of American strength and intentions, chose to wait until the full light of day showed him more clearly what he was up against. Now having seen with his own eyes Prescott on the walls of the Breed’s Hill redoubt, apparently quite careless of British cannon fire, Gage called his triumvirate–Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne– together at his headquarters to draft a plan to dislodge him. Clinton was as urgent for action now as he had been a few hours earlier, and put a perfectly sound plan on the table. The Rebel work, as he later wrote, was clearly “incompleat[,] no flanks, neither picketted pallasaded or ditched.” Bring Graves’ floating batteries up to control the neck of the peninsula, he argued, and land strong forces both above and below the redoubt. With naval guns cutting off either the reinforcement or the retreat of the Americans, the Regulars would simply overwhelm the rabble between the pincers of two powerful forces. When Clinton later came to the high command himself, he would prove critically indecisive, but on this 17th day of June, he wanted to act with all dispatch. Today of course the decision was not Clinton’s to make.

As Gage turned Clinton’s recommendation over in his mind, General Howe weighed in with his view. Like Clinton’s, it was based on the very real vulnerability of the Rebel position. Breed’s Hill, he observed, was “open and of easy assent [sic] and in short would be easily carried” by frontal assault after a landing on the Charlestown shore. Two factors, one strategic and one psychological, no doubt figured in Howe’s argument. The strategic consideration was conventional military wisdom: never interpose a part of one’s own force between two enemy forces. At least on the map, Clinton’s proposed landing above Breed’s would put that force between Americans on the hill and others, in unknown strength, on the mainland. (And it was possible that a part of Gage’s army could be surrounded even as it attempted to surround the enemy.) The other factor was the continuing conviction on the part of the British that the Americans simply could not bear the full weight of British arms. They were, as one Briton put it, the “poorest mean spirited scoundrels that ever surely pretended to the dignity of rebellion.” Nor had the clash on Battle Road really changed the British mind about the fighting spirit of Americans. Ironically, it had in its way confirmed it, for at no time during that long day did the Americans show themselves willing to close with the Regulars for a stand-up fight. (None of the generals here gathered had been with Smith’s column when it broke in panic outside Lexington and was saved from destruction only by Percy’s sturdy square.) As Howe saw the situation, the provincials were in the open now and not concealed in ambush, the crude hilltop earthwork notwithstanding. And that apparently was enough to decide the matter. From Gage’s Province House headquarters the orders went out: the army would cross the Charles and drive the enemy from its hill at the point of the bayonet. Despite Clinton’s dissent, it would be the sort of stand-up fight the British said they wanted. It would not even be a fight precisely. Howe, writing to his brother, supposed that the provincials would simply be “removed” from their hilltop.

And whatever spirit or strength the Americans might or might not command, the force that Gage was assembling to drive them was formidable. By noon more than two thousand fighting men were on the move in full marching kit with three days’ rations in their haversacks. Boarding barges at Long Wharf were twenty companies of grenadiers and light infantry, ten of each, plus the 5th and 38th Regiments. Stepping smartly down Ship Street to board at the North Battery were the 52nd and 43rd Regiments along with the rest of the grenadiers and light infantry. As soon as these troops were landed at Moulton’s Point across the channel, the barges were to return for the 47th Regiment and Major Pitcairn’s 1st Battalion of Marines, the tactical reserve. As the senior major general, Howe commanded the invasion force, seconded by a capable brigadier, Robert Pigot. From the crest of Copp’s Hill Clinton and Burgoyne directed both the continuing bombardment of Breed’s Hill and the newly opened fire on General Thomas’ Roxbury lines. This fire against Thomas would hold the American right while Howe’s command crushed their left. An American who looked up from his digging on Breed’s Hill at high noon could not be much faulted for supposing he was about to be crushed either. Nearly thirty transports, loaded to the gunwales with the scarlet coats and glittering bayonets of disciplined professionals, were rowing steadily and surely towards him, while what seemed like every gun in the world was equally intent on his destruction. And if he thought about climbing down from his lonely hill at this point, British men-of-war were also pounding the narrow neck behind him that lead to home and safety. It was an awesome display of power to be sure.

The array of so much power took time. Howe had held for a landing on Moulton’s Point, and that meant, at least as far as Howe was concerned, waiting for an incoming tide. Apparently, neither Howe nor anyone else in the British camp remembered that the assault force might have landed dry-shod at the Charlestown wharves at any time. But since high tide was not until three o’clock, the first wave of Regulars did not get ashore at the point until one. If this was a miscalculation on Howe’s part, it was also an opportunity for the Americans to do something about their own miscalculations. As the British gunboats maneuvered closer to the American position and intensified their fire, Prescott was obliged to admit that he would need help to hold his hill. About mid-morning therefore he told Major John Brooks to take an artillery horse and ride to Ward in Cambridge for reinforcement. Young Brooks would survive the imminent battle and many more to become governor of the State of Massachusetts in 1816. Unfortunately for Brooks just now, though, the artillerymen had urgent need of that horseflesh. Under the command of Captain Samuel Gridley, old Gridley’s younger son, they had fired a few shots vaguely in the direction of Copp’s Hill and were even now using those horses to beat a hasty retreat from Breed’s Hill. This was about all the action Gridley’s less-than-noble scions would see this day; Scarbourough, the elder son, never even crossed to Charlestown in the first place.

So on to Cambridge went Brooks on “shank’s mare” (afoot), only to meet on the road Israel Putnam making his second ride to Charlestown that morning. Old Put was coming from Cambridge where he had already persuaded Ward to send part of John Stark’s New Hampshire regiment down from Medford to Prescott’s support, and Brooks was hard on his heels with a request for more. These were only two of the countless urgent demands (and conflicting advice) pressed on Ward this day. With his gall stones acting up in addition to his manifold other troubles, Ward was wrestling with this fundamental problem: how to hold a hill in Charlestown (that he didn’t want to fight for in the first place) without losing his army entire right here in Cambridge. Even Putnam who had been on the scene in Charlestown wasn’t sure the main British effort would be there. Indeed, there was no compelling reason for Ward to think the gunfire there was not a feint to cover a drive in force over Boston Neck. With no clear sense of what was unfolding in Charlestown and no staff or command system in any case, Ward in the end chose what he believed to be prudence. As the day wore on, he would eventually order nine Massachusetts regiments and two New Hampshire outfits to Prescott’s relief. In the prevailing confusion, however, none of these would reach the field entirely in one piece and four Massachusetts regiments would never have a hand in the fight at all. Still worried about what might fall on his right, Ward ordered Putnam’s own regiment (under his second-in-command, Experience Storrs) to march away from Charlestown, to Fort Number 1 just below Cambridge. Should Thomas be overrun in Roxbury, these men would at least be in position to contest a crossing of the Charles from that quarter. If this was prudence, it was the prudence of half-measures–which are sometimes most imprudent.

As one witness wrote to Sam Adams after the battle, the plain fact was that “there never was less command and more confusion” than in the American camp. “No one appeared to have any but Col. Prescott.” And as pressing and vexing as Prescott’s problem was, it was in its way simpler than Ward’s: Prescott would have to make his fight here and now with the men he had plus the bits and pieces of reinforcements that Ward was sending. (And that depended on whether he could manage to keep them from leaving the field in a mob–and not by two’s and three’s and squads as some had already done.) The command system of the British army, meanwhile, was by long discipline sure and responsive. Once ashore on the peninsula with the second wave, though, its field commander, Sir William Howe, was not immediately certain exactly what he wanted to do with this gathering host. The Regulars had begun disembarking about one, and not long after Howe had them formed up in line of battle, apparently intending an immediate assault. Then, seeing from Morton’s Hill the Rebel works in progress, Howe paused to study them. The troops on hand Howe ordered to break ranks and eat their mid-day meal. While they ate, reinforcements–the 1st Marines and the 47th Foot–would be landed between Moulton’s Point and the village.

If this was prudence on Billy Howe’s part, it was once more an opportunity for the Americans. As both Howe and Prescott could clearly see, the American left was acutely vulnerable. Prescott’s breastwork now ran from the corner of the redoubt northeast into boggy ground a hundred yards away, just short of the road that led to Bunker Hill in the rear. There remained, however, three hundred yards of open country between that point and the Mystic shore. Accordingly, Prescott sent Thomas Knowlton with his two hundred Connecticut men off to extend the line in that direction. Knowlton, improvising like every other American that day, now took up a line that Prescott may not have actually intended. Parallel to but two hundred yards behind the original breastwork, Knowlton found, as one of his junior officers later wrote, “a fence half of stone and two rayles of wood. Here nature had formed something of a breast-work, or else there had been a ditch many years agone.” From another fence nearby Knowlton’s men fetched additional rails, and with stones, brushwood, hay, and any other rubbish that came to hand, they threw up another two hundred yards of breastwork, running nearly but not quite to the bluff above the Mystic shore. Old Israel Putnam had seen as much fighting as any man on the American side of Breed’s Hill. “Americans,” he believed, “are not afraid of their heads, though very much afraid of their legs; if you cover these, they will fight forever.” Under cover of these flimsy works, Old Put’s conviction was about to be tested.

Two crucial holes remained in the American left. One was the gap between the end of Prescott’s breastwork and the beginning of Knowlton’s rail fence two hundred yards to the rear. Who actually thought to defend this ground will never be known from this distance, but someone–quite probably old Gridley–got men busy with the spade once more. Here they dug a series of three arrow-shaped fleches, one behind the other, facing the Mystic and fronting the road to Bunker Hill. The other gap ran from Knowlton’s left-most man to the water’s edge. Though Prescott could not know it, the men to fill this gap were even now tramping down the road from Medford. These were stubborn and self-reliant New Hampshire men: Colonel James Reed’s outfit and the rest of Stark’s regiment with the old Indian fighter himself in the lead. But what Stark saw when he reached Charlestown Neck was not a pretty sight. Admiral Graves had swung two floating batteries around just south of the neck, and with the Symmetry now laying off south of the village, British guns were giving the narrow passage onto the peninsula a fearful pounding. Two of the Massachusetts regiments Ward had already called on were still on the mainland unwilling to cross under that fire. Stark, however, was undeterred and crossed with the whole body of New Hampshire men. There is nothing like artillery fire to hurry a man along, and the column was moving briskly enough. One of Stark’s subordinates in fact thought more speed very much the order of the day. No, Stark answered cooly, “One fresh man in action is worth ten fatigued ones.” Once across the neck, Stark encountered more confusion on Bunker Hill (where Putnam was trying to sort out a milling mob), and marched on smartly to Breed’s Hill. This they reached precisely in time to file off to the left and extend Knowlton’s rail fence to the Mystic bluff. Eight feet or so below the bluff was a narrow strip of beach. Here Stark had his men throw up a stone wall and posted them behind it three deep. The American line, manned now by some 1,500 muskets, ran all the way from the hilltop fort to the Mystic River: redoubt, breastwork, fleches, rail fence, and stone wall at the water’s edge. Having done what he could to defend his left, there was little more Prescott could now do about his right. All that lay in that direction were four companies from as many regiments, three posted in the village now and the fourth at the southern foot of Breed’s Hill itself. But as fate and Billy Howe would have it, the British were resolved to crush Prescott’s left with a head-on assault, roll up his line, and overwhelm the redoubt flank and rear.

It was approaching three o’clock when Stark’s men laid the last of their stone wall on the Mystic shore. Across the meadow in the sweltering heat Billy Howe was getting his attacking columns in motion, some 2,200 fighting men in all, drilled and disciplined. To the waiting Americans, they must have made an impressive and fearful sight. They wore the traditional scarlet coats, tricked up with bright facings and brass buttons, and crossed with broad white belts from which bayonets hung. As smart as the British soldier looked in full kit, however, it was no kind of gear to do battle in. The whole outfit was tightly cut, from high stiff collar to knee breeches and gaiters, thoroughly ill-designed for anything as athletic as combat. In addition, the redcoat carried a full pack with blankets and three days’ bread and meat. A contemporary account reckoned that the redcoat carried 125 pounds of gear into battle on his back. Though this estimate is clearly too high, he would have to carry this day at least fifty or sixty pounds across the swale before him and up Breed’s Hill beyond. Of course, it was not the parade-ground style of the British host that made American hearts race. It was the sight of the Brown Bess musket in so many capable hands.

Four-and-half feet long and weighing ten pounds, this .75 caliber flintlock smoothbore had been the standard arm of the British army for a century. Indeed, a soldier’s enlistment had come to be known as “marrying Brown Bess.” As a weapon of war, however, the Brown Bess (so-called for its brown oxidized barrel) had at least two important drawbacks. First, it was complicated to load, requiring nine separate operations, and second, it was profoundly difficult to hit anything with it. Its effective range was not more than a hundred yards. “As to firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket,” one Briton said, “you may just as well fire at the moon and have the same hopes of hitting your object.” True enough, but it should also be said that this fact mattered not one bit, for marksmanship was no part of the redcoat’s endless training. Given the limits of the smoothbore musket, the tactical idea was savagely simple: form a regiment in line of battle three ranks deep, close with the enemy as tightly as possible, and then deliver massed volley fire. Loading and firing by the numbers, a well-drilled line could deliver fifteen volleys in about four minutes. This was firepower as the eighteenth century understood it, and it was sufficiently deadly when directed against an enemy line similarly massed. Both battefield experience and some fairly primitive field tests pointed to the same grim statistic: at fifty yards half of the balls fired hurt somebody across the way. Nor was this musketry the deadliest dimension of the British regiment in battle. Having closed to within fifty yards of the enemy line and delivered a series of volleys, the redcoats drove home their attack with the bayonet: a foot-and-a-half of cold steel. It was disciplined brutality, and it had made Great Britain’s infantry top dog in the European pack.

To make assurance doubly sure, Sir William Howe intended to strike his hardest blow with his toughest troops. Convinced that the American left was its most vulnerable point, he would send his light infantry companies in column directly down the narrow defile of the Mystic shore to overwhelm Stark’s New Hampshire men. Above the light infantry and on their left would march the grenadier companies, supported by the 5th and 52nd Regiments, in two heavy lines of battle. Together they would strike Knowlton’s command behind the rail fence. When this stretch of the American line broke, the attackers would wheel left to take the redoubt flank and rear. Brigadier Robert Pigot would lead Howe’s equally formidable left wing: it consisted of the rest of the light infantry and grenadiers, three companies each, plus the 38th, 43rd, 47th, and the 1st Marines. The flank companies with the 38th and 43rd would attack directly up the slope of Breed’s Hill against Prescott’s breastwork and the east face of the redoubt; the Marines and the 47th were to slide to their left and attack the redoubt’s south face. If all went well on the British right, however, Pigot’s command would have to do little more than hold the Rebels on their front. Still, Howe would take no unnecessary risks with his left wing. When the Marines stepped off toward Breed’s, they would be exposed to musketry from Charlestown on their own left. Indeed, Rebels posted there had been banging away from that quarter for some time now, though they had not done much damage thus far. And they would do no damage at all as far as Billy Howe was concerned. Accordingly, he ordered Admiral Graves and the Copp’s Hill batteries to send red-hot balls into the village to drive the Americans out. While those incendiaries were hurtling toward the village, a landing party put the eastern end of it to the torch. Before long the handsome little village was a pillar of smoke and a pillar of fire. We saw, wrote one witness, “the fire and the sword, all the horrors of war raging.” The horror on Breed’s Hill, however, was just beginning.

BORN IN BATTLE: The American Revolution Text II. THEY WOULD NOT FLINCH 2) A Hill Too Far