June 17, 1775 “Those fellows say we won’t fight. By heavens, I hope I shall wade up to my knees in blood” - Dr. Joseph Warren, Colonial leader June 16, 1775 – the night before the battle
From Boston at night, those in town can see the campfires sparkling like fireflies on the surrounding hills. For nearly twelve hours the Americans work non-stop building their main fortification on Breed's Hill which lay at the foot of Bunker Hill to the north. A Reverend comes to the spot where they are working and says a prayer for them in which he asks God to allow them to “die well”.
June 17, 1775 – Morning
At daybreak on the 17th gazing through the morning fog, British General Howe is astonished to see a six-foot high earthwork (defensive barrier) that seemingly has appeared overnight. He knows that the leader of the colonial troops on the hill is Prescott and so he asks his aid standing next to him if Prescott will fight. “Prescott will fight you to the gates of Hell”, responds the aid. General Howe’s aid happens to be Prescott’s brother in law.
British cannons immediately open fire from the ships offshore and are firing red hot cannon balls and animal carcasses but the patriots continue work on the entrenchments. Prescott walks back and forth on top of the defensive barrier in full view of the British. As cannon balls whiz past him he encourages and jokes with his men.
The sun is shining from a cloudless sky a little past noon when a British force of 1500 men land on Charlestown Heights in Massachusetts. Their objective: a surprise attack to take away the threat posed by "rebel" cannons on the hills overlooking Boston.
The British landing on the beaches is unopposed, and the first thing they do once they are on the beach is eat lunch.
General Howe orders his troops to advance and open fire. As the British (who are carrying 125 pounds in their packs) move forward, the Americans remain silent and do not fire. "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," is the order passed along the lines.
Once the British are within 30 yards of the colonial line, the word "FIRE!" is shouted, and the British soldiers are mowed down and shattered, and they retreat to the foot of the hill.
Howe rallies his troops and attacks a 2nd time with the same crushing results. At this point, Howe is shocked. He is standing on the beach among the dead and dying soldiers. Not to be discouraged, Howe rallies his men a third time, and orders them to use only their bayonets. After a desperate hand-to-hand struggle, the Americans are driven out.
In that final assault American General Joseph Warren and British Major John Pitcairn are killed. On the rebel side there are about 270 casualties with about 140 killed. Most of these are during the retreat. On the British side the losses are staggering. Out of 2400 total men who fight, there are 1054 casualties. 92 officers are hit. Every one of General Howe’s 12 staff officers is killed.
Following the earlier skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill was significant in that it overruled any real hope of conciliation. The outcome of the battle rallied the colonies and moved Congress to take action. Bunker Hill showed the Americans that the British were not invincible. It showed the British Government that the "rebels" were a serious opponent, that "the mightiest army in all of Europe" had a real fight on its hands.