Tentatively, slowly, out of the black, the distant specter assumed solidity. The lookout, 120 feet above the weather deck, urged his eyes to coax a shape from the shadows. Just before eight bells, he called down, “Officer of the watch. Fortifications on the hill!”  There was no need to wake Captain Fredrick Maitland.  Seeing surveyors on the hill yesterday afternoon,  he had expected the rebels to be so bold as to put cannon upon the heights. 
Having paced the deck for the last hour, the 45 year old promptly ordered the starboard guns of HMS Livey (above)  run out.  Moments later the 10 iron cannon began thundering, methodically throwing 9 pound balls a quarter of a mile toward the new rebel fort on the hill. It was about 4:00am, on Friday, 16 June, 1775, and the battle of Bunker Hill had begun.
Eighteen hours earlier, on Thursday, 15 June, 48 year old “competent and cautious” Artimis Ward, commander of the 15, 000 “Patriots” who had rushed to respond to Lexington and Concord, held a council of war. Initially Ward's volunteers had outnumbered the 4,000 red coats they had trapped in Boston. But for the last two weeks the colonists had been holding a tiger by the tail. British General Thomas Gage now commanded 13,000 of the best professional soldiers in the world. And with 120 warships and transports newly arrived in Boston Harbor, the British tiger could land soldiers anywhere along the 200 mile shoreline, faster then the patriots could concentrate to meet them.
The tail the patriots were holding was the road 40 miles south of Ward's headquarters in Cambridge, at the only land approach to Boston, the 120 foot wide Roxbury Neck. Watching over this narrow passage was the left wing of the colonial militia, commanded by 50 year old General (and Plymouth doctor) John Thomas. But a head on frontal attack by the British here to break out would be a blood bath. Instead the siege of Boston seemed certain to be decided by whoever held the high ground around the bay.
East of Roxbury, overlooking the south shore (above, left), was a swarm of 150 foot high drumlins labeled Dorchester Heights.  
And north of Boston, across the mouth of the Charles River, were 3 more drumlins. The first, adjacent to the abandoned community of Charlestown, was a 75 foot high mound reserved for grazing stock, called Breed's Hill. North and east of that rose a 110 foot elevation owned since 1720 by Ebeneezer Bunker. Smallest, at 35 feet, was Morton Point, at the southeast corner of the peninsula. None of these eminences were as yet occupied.
The Patriot council recognized it would be suicide to wait for the British to strike. So, as evening approached, Major General Israel Putnam, in command of the right wing of the Patriot army, ordered Colonel William Prescott (above) to lead 1,200 men through the narrow Charlestown neck and up Bunker Hill.
Overnight they were to construct an earthen fort on Bunker Hill. Everything went according to plan, until the 65 year old Captain Richard Gridley got a good look at the ground.
If he had been ten years younger Richard Gridley (above) would have been the American commander. But he turned down the offer because of his age and because, as he said, he had never “seen an army so overstocked with generals and so poorly provided with privates.” Instead he was commander of artillery and chief engineer. And before work had fairly begun on a fort on Bunker Hill, the old man urged Colonel Prescott move the entire operation to the reverse slope of the lower Breed's Hill.
This advance would give the Patriot cannon a clearer field of fire, placing their guns within range of the British fleet and of the battery atop the flat 50 foot high Copps Hill in Boston itself. And operating from the reverse slope, just eye level above the crest, the Patriots would be shielded from direct British return fire. Once these advantages had been pointed out to Prescott,  the work parties were moved forward to Breed's Hill. 
Following Gridley's instructions the men began digging a 130 foot long redoubt with 6 foot high walls, raised with soil from a trench dug to their front.  A wooden shooting platform was even installed. While Gridley returned to guide the artillery to the new position, Putnam pushed forward 500 additional infantry and an additional artillery battery to continue the battle line eastward along a fence at the southern foot of Bunkers Hill, to the banks of the Mystic River.
By 10:00 am there were 128 British cannon firing on the new fort, including heated shot from the 74 guns of the HMS Somerset, (above) which started fires in the abandoned buildings of Charlestown. 
The 20 gun Glasgow and the 16 gun sloop Falcon in the Charles River concentrated their fire on the Breed's Hill redoubt, as did the 8 gun sloop Spitfire and the four 24 pound cannon in the Admiral's Battery, which shared Copp's Hill with the graves of early Puritan settlers (above). By now Captain Maitland had maneuvered the HMS Lively to the north, to rake the Charlestown Neck, to discourage reinforcements from trying to reach the new battle line.
One of the 1,200 Patriots in the Breed's Hill redoubt explained, “fatigued by our labor, having no sleep the night before, very little to eat, no drink but rum...The danger we were in made us think there was treachery, and that we were brought there to be all slain.” In fact only one unfortunate private was killed, Asa Pollard, who was standing just beyond the walls, was decapitated by a British cannon ball. Colonel Prescott ordered his body quickly buried. Instead, his friends gave him a brief funeral service, after which several of the mourners promptly deserted.
By noon the fires in Charlestown had engulfed most of the buildings and converted the church steeples into “great pyramids of fire.” At about the same time, 2 batteries, each consisting of a pair of 6 pound guns, reached the Patriot redoubt. 
They were commanded by 27 year old Boston lawyer Captain John Callender, and 44 year old Captain Samuel “Patty” Gridley, son of Captain Richard Gridley.  Upon unlimbering, the artillerymen discovered no openings had been provided for their cannons. After desperately digging by hand at the wall, Gridley rashly pushed his barrels up to the earth walls and fired two or three shots, until an opening was forced. It was a terrible waste of powder.
Sam Gridley then tried counter battery fire on Copps hill. Observed a British officer at the receiving end, “ shot went through an old house, another through a fence, and the rest stuck in the face of (Copp's) hill.” Sam Gridley was so disgusted with his men's performance, he inspired Colonel Prescott to send the battery to the left wing of the line.  Meanwhile, Captain Callendar had finished digging the embrasures for his cannon, and awaited the British assault.
The 2,500 red coats began landing at Morton Point about 2:00 p.m,  under a hot sun.  A committee of the House of Commons would later described the ground which lay between the British troops and the Patriot defenses, as. “....owned by a great number of different people...(and) was intersected by a vast number of fences…" And these were not the ancient, well tended fields of Europe. The waist high grass hid an obstacle course of marches, stone walls, fences, hedges, gullies and animal burrows.
Each red coat soldier would have to stumble over these unanticipated barriers while carrying a 60 pound back pack,  as if they expected to march all the way to Concord.
The British commander on the spot was 46 year old General William Howe, (above) who was about to display his “absurd and destructive confidence".  He was convinced the homespun militia would run at his soldiers' approach. So Howe threw his men directly at the Patriots. The gunners aboard the British ships were forced to halt their fire as the red line stumbled toward the fence line.
Howe sent 5 regiments in a feint to the right, toward the redoubt on Breed's Hill. But as Lieutenant John Waller, adjutant to the First Royal Marine Battalion, explained, “...when we came immediately under the work, we were checked by the severe fire... We were now in confusion, after being broke several times in getting over the rails...” 
At the same time the main assault, four deep and several hundred yards wide, marched over the hidden maze toward the hastily assembled fence line at the foot of Bunker Hill.
From Copps Hill Major General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne noted, “Howe's corps ascending the hill in the face of entrenchments, and in a very disadvantageous ground, was much engaged...”  Two Patriot batteries, “Patty” Gridley's and the two guns under Captain Samuel Trevett, threw shell after shell into the British line. No Patriot leader said anything about “whites of their eyes”, but one officer had placed a stake 100 paces in front of the fence, telling his men to not fire until the red coats passed it.
 The British paused to fire an ineffective volley before reaching the stake, again expecting the Patriots to run. When the they did not, the regulars lowered their bayonets and advanced. Almost instantly the Patriots loosed a devastating volley. 
In Colonel Prescott's simple report, “...the Enemy advanced within 30 yards when we gave them such a hot fire, that they were obliged to retire nearly 150 yards...” Meaning, out of range. as one British officer remembered, “Most of our Grenadiers and Light-infantry (companies)...lost three-fourths, and many nine-tenths, of their men. Some (companies) had only eight or nine men...left …" More importantly, the Patriots aimed at the officers. While the smooth bore muskets were not accurate, the toll among the officers was heavy. The British regulars fell back.
General Howe had accompanied the assault and was uninjured, although his body servant had been killed. He immediately ordered the units reformed, and within ten minutes the line of lobster backs  were again advancing toward the fence line and the fort. Again the Patriots held their fire until the line drew close. Neither side wavered. The red coats, marching past their wounded and dying comrades, kept advancing. The Patriots remained steadfast, even though their ammunition was running low. 
Another volley from the Patriots, and again the regulars broke and ran to the rear. At last General Howe called for a pause and ordered up reinforcements.
In the pause which followed the second British repulse, the gunners in both Callender and Gridley's batteries broke and ran, despite Prescott's best efforts to bring them back. In the end the brave Prescott was reduced to scrounging from the abandoned artillery ammunition for powder to distribute to his infantrymen. He sent increasingly desperate pleas for more ammunition to the rear, but with HMS Lively still selling Charlestown neck, no one was willing to order men to carry supplies forward. 
While the British wounded were being evacuated, 400 fresh troops were landed. But they milled about Morton Point, until 47 year old Major General Sir Henry Clinton., "...without waiting for orders, (threw) himself into a boat to head them." 
General Clinton (above) gathered the reinforcements and got them organized for the third assault.  This time they would ignore Bunker's Hill. Instead every man would advance up Breed's Hill toward the redoubt.
As the red lines began a third advance, this time up Breed's Hill, 65 year old Richard Gridley organized a scratch crew to man the one cannon his son had left behind, and continued to blast shells into the British line until he  was wounded in the thigh. His gunners carried the old man out of the redoubt just as Lieutenant Waller and the remnants of his Royal Marines came over the breastworks. And here, the Patriot's lack of bayonets was revealed. 
This time there was no fusillade of Patriot muskets. They were out of ammunition. Waller said his men, “drove their bayonets into all that opposed them... We tumbled over the dead to get at the living...” 
And he later wrote to a friend that inside the redoubt “...(it was) streaming with blood and strewed with dead and dying. Many of the (British) soldiers (were) stabbing some and dashing out the brains of others...)”
In his official report, Colonel Prescott told the same story. “Our ammunition being nearly exhausted....the enemy being numerous...began....(to) enter the fort with their bayonets, we (were) obliged to retreat....We kept the fort about one hour and twenty minutes after the attack with small arms...” The lobsters had carried the day.
Royal Marine John Waller estimated the cost. “We had...I suppose, upon the whole... killed and wounded, from 800 to 1000 men.” His was pretty close. Officially the British lost 19 officers killed and 62 wounded – 207 soldiers killed and 766 wounded – for a total of 1,054 casualties –almost 50% of the British troops engaged. The British force was in no condition to push across the Charlestown Neck, head-on into the muzzles of even more Patriot muskets and cannon. 
But more importantly, over 100 British commissioned officers had been killed or wounded, leaving a psychic wound so great the commanders in Boston never recovered enough to dare to occupy the still empty Dorchester Heights.  It was not until 9 months later that the Patriots seized those heights, and occupied them with heavy cannon, forcing the British evacuation of Boston. That deep, almost mortal psychological wound would even cause the man who witnessed the bloody victory, Johnny Burgoyne,  to hesitate 2 years later at Saratoga, ensuring the British defeat there.
Major Waller could not imagine that such damage had been done by less than “... 5000 to 7000 men”. In fact the Patriots had numbered just about half the British force, and in face of 180 naval cannon. Patriot losses were 15 killed, 305 wounded and just 30 captured – about 44% of their force. And all of those captured were wounded – most badly enough that 2/3rd of them died shortly there after.
In most battles the highest casualties are suffered in retreat, and the last Patriot was killed at about 5:00 p.m.  Major Andrew McClary was cut down by the cannon aboard the HMS Lively as the Patriots were filtering into new fortifications, blocking the Charlestown neck. Johnny Burgoyne noted this withdraw was " flight; it was even covered with bravery and military skill...” The Patriots - the Americans - had not run at the sight of British red coats, or even British bayonets.  Even in  retreat they had showed enough military discipline to impress the British army..   
After Bunker Hill, Henry Clinton would note what Thomas Gage had noted after Lexington and Concord - “...a few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.”   One of the Patriots, a young Massachusetts farmer named Peter Brown, wrote to his mother after the battle. “...tho' we were but few in number, and suffered to be defeated by our enemy, yet we were preserved...”.  And at the beginning of the war, that was the most important thing.
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