The Battle of Bunker Hill (Breed's Hill)

Statue of Israel Putnam in Bushnell Park, in front of the Connecticut State Capitol (Designed by J.Q.A. Ward, 1874)

At this hour- nearly three o'clock in the afternoon -about three thousand British troops had landed on the Charlestown peninsula. With intense excitement the Americans watched the brilliant battalions of Grenadiers and Light Infantry forming on Moulton's Point into two divisions. The Grenadiers, the tallest and finest-looking men in the British army, who could be distinguished also by their high caps and other peculiarities in dress, were to lead in the attack. Soon the redoubled roar of artillery told that the ranks of veterans had been put in motion for the general assault. Presently the defenders of the rail-fence could see, through the smoke, the right wing of the enemy's force approaching slowly and steadily to drive them from their position and to cut off the retreat of the men in the redoubt, against which the left wing was advancing.

Putnam Prepares Troops

Putnam was all activity, riding up and down just behind the soldiers at the fence who rested their deadly weapons on the top rail and awaited with excited eagerness the order to fire. Says Reuben Kemp, one of this number:

"General Putnam seemed to have the ordering of things. He charged the men not to fire until the enemy came close to the works, and then to take good aim, and make every shot kill a man, and he told one officer to see that this order was obeyed."

Philip Johnson relates of Putnam: "I distinctly heard him say, 'Men, you are all marksmen - don't one of you fire until you see the white of their eyes.'" Other words of Putnam were repeated along the line by Knowlton and Reed and Stark to the men whose fingers were so impatient to pull the waiting trigger:

"Powder is scarce and must not be wasted." "Fire low." "Take aim at the waistbands." "You are all marksmen and could kill a squirrel at a hundred yards." "Reserve your fire and the enemy will all be destroyed." "Aim at the handsome coats." "Pick off the commanders."

Positions of British and American Troops

While the soldiers awaited the nearer approach of the British, Captains Gridley and Callender were ordered to return the enemy's fire with their field pieces. The former officer found difficulty in discharing his cannon, and on a plea that "nothing could be done with them," left the post, and most of his artillery company followed his example.

"General Putnam came to one of the pieces near which I stood," says Ezra Runnels, one of the men who did not desert, "and furiously inquired where our officers were. On being told our cartridges were too big and that the pieces could not be loaded, he swore, and said they could be loaded; taking cartridge he broke it open, and loaded the pieces with a ladle, which were discharged; and assisted us in loading two or three times in that manner."

The guns, however, were soon disabled and were drawn to the rear. Callender, too, retreated in great haste with his cannon, but on reaching Bunker Hill he met Putnam, who, according to the contemporaneous account,

"ordered the officer to stop and go back; he replied he had no cartridges; the General dismounted and examined his boxes, and found a considerable number of cartridges, upon which he ordered him back; he refused, until the General threatened him with immediate death, upon which he returned."

But Callender did not remain long this second time at the post. "His men," asserts Colonel Swett, "were disgusted with a part of the service they did not understand, most of them had muskets and mingled with the infantry, the pieces were entirely deserted, and the captain relinquished them." Putnam, on returning from Bunker Hill, whither he had gone to bring on some of the men who were entrenching there, came upon the abandoned cannon "at the foot of the hill." He demanded of the soldiers in the vicinity where the gunners were and was told that they had scattered. Captain John Ford's company of Bridge's regiment happened to be passing by and Putnam called upon them to draw the guns to the front.

"Our men utterly refused," declares a member of the company, "and said they had no knowledge of the use of artillery, and that they were ready to fight with their own arms. Captain Ford then addressed the company in a very animated, patriotic and brave strain, which is characteristic of the man; the company then seized the drag-ropes and soon drew them to the railfence, according to my recollection about half the distance from the redoubt on Breed's Hill to Mystic River."

Putnam Now Directed in Person the Discharges.

"He pointed the cannon himself," says Swett; "the balls took effect on the enemy, and one case of canister made a lane through them. With wonderful courage, however, the enemy closed their ranks, and coolly marched on to the attack."

The British Grenadiers were advancing directly in front, while the Light Infantry, in order to turn the extreme left of the American force, moved along the shore of the Mystic River. When the enemy were seen deploying into line, a few of the men at the railfence could not resist the temptation to fire their muskets without orders. Instantly the General left the cannon and hastened to the spot.

"General Putnam appeared to be very angry," narrates Private Reuben Kemp, "and passed along the lines quickly with his sword drawn, and threatened to stab any man that fired without orders.
"The enemy kept firing as they advanced, and when they had got pretty near the works, we were all ordered to take good aim and fire. All this time General Putnam was constantly passing backwards and forwards, from right to left, telling us the day was our own if we would only stick to it."

Although the British, in a patriot officer's words, "fired their heaviest volleys of musketry with admirable coolness and regularity" their aim was too high, and consequently "almost every ball passed harmlessly over the Americans." The royal troops were about eight rods distant when the Provincials, breathless and intent, received the "fatal order." The blaze which poured upon the King's ranks was no less withering than that which had already strewed the ground in front of the redoubt with the dead and wounded. Another murderous discharge burst forth from the fence and, as the enemy recoiled in confusion, many of the Americans, being sharpshooters, picked out the British officers and exclaimed, "There! See that officer! Let us have a shot at him!" and then two or three would fire at the same time. Like the division which was on, the retreat before Prescott and his men at the redoubt, this wing of the British army, after attempting to make a stand, was obliged to give way. On seeing the assailants retire, the Americans set up a shout, and some of them leaped over the fence with the intention of pursuing the enemy, but they were restrained by their officers.

While the "huzza of victory reechoed through the American line," Putnam, confident that another attack would soon be made, rode to Bunker Hill and to the rear of it to urge on reinforcements. At the farther end of Charlestown Neck were gathered troops who dared not cross the isthmus on account of the cannonballs that raked it.

Putnam Entreats, Threatens, and Encourages Troops

"Putnam flew to the spot," chronicles Swett, "to overcome their fears and hurry them on before the enemy returned. He entreated, threatened, and encouraged them; lashing his horse with the flat of his sword, he rode backward and forward across the Neck, through the hottest fire, to convince them there was no danger. The balls, however, threw up clouds of dust about him, and the soldiers were perfectly convinced that he was invulnerable, but not equally conscious of being so themselves. Some of these troops, however, ventured over."

Putnam now started for the front with the men whom he had succeeded in getting across the Neck. On his way he tried to rally the reinforcements which had already reached Bunker Hill.

The men were disorganised and dispersed on the west side of the hill, and were covered by the summit from the fire. Putnam ordered them on to the lines.

"He entreated and threatened them," says Swett, "and some of the most cowardly he knocked down with his sword, but all in vain. The men complained they had not their officers; he offered to lead them on himself, but [they pleaded as an excuse for not following him that] 'the cannon were deserted they stood no chance without them.' The battle indeed appeared here in all its horrors. The British musketry fired high and took effect on this elevated hill and it was completely exposed to the combined fire from the ships, batteries, and fieldpieces."

British Second Assault

The British, under cover of their artillery, were advancing for the second assault. Putnam hastened forward to the rail-fence. Beyond the redoubt the flames were rising over Charlestown, which had been set on fire by shells thrown from Copp's Hill and by a party of marines who had landed from the Somerset warship. Fortunately the wind drove away the huge clouds of smoke and gave the Americans a full view the approaching enemy. The British marched in the same order as in the first attack; their left wing was moving towards the redoubt and its earth breastwork, their right wing was coming on towards the rail fence. The assailants were keeping up a steady fire as they advanced, but, behind the defenses, the Americans had orders to reserve their fire until the columns should come even nearer than before, "I saw General Putnam," states a Connecticut private who was at the rustic breastwork of green grass, "riding along the whole line and crying out, stick to your posts, men and do your duty'; he was greatly exposed." When at length the redcoats were only six rods away, a sheet of fire belched from the fence with such fearful precision that whole platoons of the British were swept down. "General Putnam encouraged us very much," relates a soldier, Samuel Jones, "and rode up and down behind us; his horse was all of a lather, and the battle was going on very hotly at the time."

The above article is taken from the book Israel Putnam, Pioneer, Ranger, and Major-General by William Farrand Livingston, The Knickerbocker Press, 1901.

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