Commanders and Chaplains of the American Revolution Part 3

Prescott’s orders were to construct a redoubt on Bunker Hill, but General Putnam favored Breed’s Hill. Although Breed’s Hill was lower—seventy-five feet tall as opposed to Bunker Hill at one hundred ten feet—it was closer to Boston Harbor and might elicit a response from the British. After a brief discussion, and perhaps a rank check, Putnam’s choice was selected.10

A Choice for the British

Early in the morning of June 17th a British patrol reported seeing fortifications on Breed’s Hill. British warships, including the HMS Lively, a 20-gun sloop, began to bombard the site with little effect. General Thomas Gage awoke at about the same time, got dressed, and summoned his senior commanders for talks. Major General William Howe, who had twenty years of service in the army and who had led the English to victory at Quebec during the French and Indian War, was selected to lead a frontal attack on the patriot positions. Major General Sir Henry Clinton, perhaps the best strategist in the group, suggested an immediate and bloodless dispatch of a naval-land force to seize Charlestown Neck and thereby cut off the rebels from their reinforcements.11  Major General John Burgoyne, just arrived from London, waited on his superior officer’s opinion.
General Gage, still smarting from the disaster at Concord, decided to proceed with a direct assault. Gage wanted to establish the “idea that trained troops are invincible against any numbers or any position of undisciplined rabble.”12   Gage’s decision was not finalized until four hours after dawn. Five hours later the first British regulars stepped ashore after they had eaten breakfast.
As the morning ebbed away, the Americans dug additional trenches. General Ward saw no evidence that Gage was planning a feint, so he brought up two additional regiments of New Hampshire troops and four additional Massachusetts regiments to augment the 1200 militia already in place.
Since discipline seems to have trumped common sense, the British soldiers were deployed with full packs and in bright red uniforms. The hay had not been cut in front of Breed’s Hill, so their march into battle was impeded by fences and knee-high grass. British artillery received cannon balls, but they were the wrong diameter. The attack had to proceed anyway, with General Howe and his staff present just behind the third rank.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, p. 53.

[12] John Shy, “Thomas Gage: Weak Link of the Empire,” in George A. Billias, ed., George Washington’s Opponents (New York, 1969), p. 30.