Commanders and Chaplains of the American Revolution Part 3

The Commanders and Chaplains of the American Revolution

Part Three: Prelude to Bunker Hill

While the Continental Congress in Philadelphia was debating on the formation of a national army, who should command it, and the possibility of a peaceful settlement with King George III, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress received word on June 13th, 1775, that the British were planning an attack to break out of Boston on June 18th.  The British plan, reported by “a gentleman [spy] from New Hampshire,” called for the occupation of the Charlestown peninsula whose hills overlooked Boston Harbor where the British fleet was anchored. 1
On June 15th the Massachusetts Provincial Congress ordered Major General Artemas Ward, who was in nominal command of the four militia groups around Boston, to fortify the Charlestown peninsula. Ward was concerned that if he sent too many troops to the peninsula, the British might attack elsewhere, so he ordered Major General Israel Putnam to take four regiments totaling 1,200 militia, supported by one company of artillery, to construct the hasty fortifications.2
Meanwhile, unaware of the developing situation in Boston, the Continental Congress voted on June 14th to establish a national army3.  The next day they directed General George Washington, newly promoted, to take command of the troops at Cambridge. Since it took a week for an express rider to reach Philadelphia, most of the delegates would not hear of the impending battle at Boston until it was over. Washington himself was informed when he reached New York City.
At the Charlestown peninsula, General Ward ordered General Putnam to take tactical command of the small force with the promise of reinforcements from the rest of the 16,000 militia if Putnam needed them. Putnam, aware of the time it would take for reinforcements to reach the patriots, sent Colonel William Prescott forward to construct a redoubt on Breed’s Hill just southeast of Bunker Hill. Prescott would then direct any battle from the redoubt, supported by more troops on each flank.
Prescott’s deployment of his available forces created what was called later “an L-shaped ambush.” Although Prescott gave most of the tactical orders, he was ranked by Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, who had been promoted to the state rank of Major General two days before. Warren, however, elected to stay with the troops in the redoubt since Prescott had more military experience.

[1] Richard Ketchum, Decisive Day: The Battle of Bunker Hill (New York: Owl Books, 1999),      p. 47.

[2] After the Boston Tea Party the Sons of Liberty had smuggled four brass cannon out of the armory in Boston. These four 3-pound cannon (firing balls that weighed three pounds) supported the militia line at Breed’s Hill. One of them, named “The Adams” has been preserved in the Bunker Hill Battlefield Lodge. “Historic Cannon on Display,” The Boston Globe, April 7, 2005.

[3] The birthday of the United States Army.