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Battle of Breed’s Hill

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

June 17. –Last night a detachment from the camp at Cambridge, marched to Charlestown, and there took possession of Breed’s Hill, about half a mile from the ferry. Their intrenching tools not coming up in season, it was twelve o’clock before they began their work. At daylight this morning they were discovered from Boston, when the men-of-war at the ferry, the battery from Cop’s Hill, and the floating batteries, kept up a continual cannonading and bombarding, which fortunately did but little execution, although their intrenchments were very far from being completed. This continued till about two o’clock, when a large army, under the command of General Howe, landed in Charlestown, and after plundering it of all its valuable effects, set fire to it in ten different places. Then, dividing the army, part of it marched up in the front of the provincial intrenchments and began an attack at long shot; the other part marched round the town of Charlestown under cover of the smoke occasioned by the fire of the town. The provincial sentries discovered the regulars marching upon their left wing, and gave notice to the Connecticut forces posted there. Captain Knowlton, 1 of Ashford, with four hundred of said forces, immediately repaired to, and pulled up, a post and rail fence, and carrying the posts and rails to another fence, put them together for a breastwork. He then gave orders to the men not to fire until the enemy were got within fifteen rods, and then not till the word was given. The word being given, the regulars fell surprisingly; it was thought by spectators who stood at a distance that the provincials did great execution.

The action continued about two hours, when the regulars on the right wing were put into confusion and gave way. The Connecticut troops closely pursued them, and were on the point of pushing their bayonets, when orders were received from General Pomeroy, for those who had been in action for two hours to fall back, and their places to be supplied by fresh troops. These orders being mistaken for a direction to retreat, the troops on the right wing began a general retreat, which was handed to the left, the principal place of action, where Captains Knowlton, Chester, Clark, and Putnam, had forced the regulars to give way, and being warmly pursuing them, were, with difficulty, persuaded to retire; but the right wing by mistaking the orders having already retreated, the left, to avoid being encircled, were obliged to retreat with the main body. They retreated with precipitation across the causeway to Winter’s Hill, in which retreat they were exposed to the fire of the enemy from their shipping and floating batteries.

The provincials sustained their principal loss in passing the causeway. The regulars pursued the provincials to Winter’s Hill, where the latter being reinforced by General Putnam, renewed the battle, repulsed the regulars with great slaughter, and pursued them till they got under cover of their cannon on the shipping. The regulars then returned to Bunker’s Hill, and the provincials to Winter’s Hill, where they are now intrenching and erecting batteries.

In this action fell our worthy and much lamented friend, Doctor Warren, with as much glory as Wolfe, after performing many feats of bravery, and exhibiting a coolness and conduct which did honor to the judgment of his country in appointing him a few days before one of our major generals. 2

The number of regulars which first attacked the provincials, was not less than two thousand. The number of the provincials was only fifteen hundred, who, it is supposed would soon have gained a complete victory had it not been for the unhappy mistake already mentioned. The regulars were afterwards reinforced with a thousand men. It is uncertain how great a number of them were killed or wounded, but all agree that their loss is more than one thousand. General Howe says, “you may talk of your Mindens and Fontenoys, but I never saw nor heard of such a carnage in so short a time.” 3

General Howe on the Battle of Bunker Hill

1 Thomas Knowlton: –See Battle of Harlem Plains, September, 1776.
2 Joseph Warren was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on the eleventh of June, 1741. He graduated at Harvard College in 1759, and studied medicine under Dr. James Lloyd. Four days previous to the battle of Breed’s Hill, he received his commission as Major-General, and fell just as the retreat of the provincials commenced. —Gordon.
3 Gaines’ Mercury, July 3; Pennsylvania Packet, June 26. Another account of this battle is given by a gentleman in Providence, Rhode Island, to his friend in New York, as follows: –“On the evening of the 16th, Col. Putnam took possession of Bunker’s Hill with about two thousand men, and began an intrenchment, which they had made some progress in. At eight in the morning, a party of regulars landed at Charlestown, and fired the town in divers places. Under cover of the smoke, a body of about five thousand men marched up to our intrenchments, and made a furious and sudden attack; they were driven back three times; and when they were making the third attack, 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 to the trenches with fixed bayonets, and entered them; on which our people were ordered to retreat, which they did with all speed, till they got out of musket-shot. They then formed, but were not pursued. In the mean time six men-of-war and four floating batteries were brought up, and kept up a continual fire on the causeway that leads on to Charlestown. Our people retreated through the fire, but not without the loss of many of the men. The brave Doctor Warren is among the killed, and Colonel Gardner is wounded. We left six field-pieces on the hill. Our people are now intrenched on Pleasant Hill, within cannon shot of Bunker’s Hill. The loss of the King’s troops must be very considerable; the exact number we cannot tell. * Among the slain is Major Pitcairn. †

If our people had been supplied with ammunition they would have held possession most certainly. Our people are in high spirits, and are very earnest to put this matter on another trial.”Rivington’s Gazetteer, June 29.

* Of the regulars, two hundred and twenty-six were killed, and eight hundred and twenty wounded. Of the provincials, one hundred and thirty-nine were killed, and three hundred and fourteen missing.

† Lieutenant Pitcairn, son to Major, was standing by his father when that noble officer fell, and expired without uttering a word. He looked very wishfully at the lieutenant, who kneeled down and cried out, “My father is killed, I have lost my father.” This slackened the firing of the regulars for some minutes, many of the men echoing the words, “We have all lost a father.”– Upcott, iv. 818.