Bunker Hill Battle in Seacoast NH
NEW HAMPSHIRE TROOPS had been in the area around
Boston since the day after the confrontation at
Lexington and Concord. Although many had returned
to their homes when they realized the fighting
was over, greater numbers had "stood fast" to be
formed into loosely defined regiments under their
elected leaders John Stark, James Reed and Enoch
Now, in June of 1775, this motley collection
of "rabble in arms," loosely disciplined, ill equipped
and unsure of their fighting capabilities, was about
to confront the cream of the British fighting forces.
Col. Stark had
been given command of the First New Hampshire
Regiment, while James Reed and Enoch Poor led the
Second and Third. Stark, by virtue of both his
reputation and personality, commanded 12 companies.
Reed and Poor commanded ten each, but Poor and
his regiment remained in New Hampshire.
About six p.m. on the evening of June 16,
troops from Massachusetts and Connecticut marched
from Cambridge to occupy Breeds Hill, over looking
Boston harbor. Bunker Hill had been their destination
according to orders, but the other hill seemed to
offer a better position for fighting, and it was
selected as the site of fortifications.
Under the directions of Col. William Prescott,
the soldiers constructed a redan or arrow-shaped
redoubt. They finished shortly before dawn and had
rested only a short time before their work was discovered
by the British, one of whose ships, HMS Lively, opened
fire from the harbor.
With the daylight, Prescott could see that
both his flanks were unprotected and the soldiers
began working again, especially on the left. At least
one man was killed by the naval firing, and others,
tired and hungry, began to have apprehensions about
Behind the redoubt, the rebel position was
rimmed by a 600-foot rail fence which sloped toward
the Mystic River. It was defended by Capt. Knowlton
and 200 Connecticut militia. In the empty space between
the redoubt and the fence, six pieces of artillery
had been placed, but were rendered useless by lack
of proper ammunition. Knowlton's men quickly did
what they could. They gathered hay, dismantling the
neat cocks and piles of the first mowing of the season.
With this they "upholstered" the fence as best they
Prescott was sensitive to the tenuousness
of his position. He sent a messenger to Gen. Ward
for much needed supplies and reinforcements. Shortly
after noon, a contingent of New Hampshire troops
from Stark's regiment arrived under Lt. Col. Wyman.
They were detailed to fill in gaps in the redoubt
at the top of the hill. New Hampshire regiments under
the commands of Col. Stark and Col. Reed were also
summoned from Medford.
Our Troops Arrive
As the New Hampshire troops approached Charlestown
Neck, they encountered two regiments which had been
halted by bar and chain shot, accurately delivered
by the guns of the British ships and barges. At this
point, Maj. Andrew McClary requested that the New
Hampshire regiments be allowed to pass.
Henry Dearborn's company was first in
the order of march. He was walking beside Stark
and suggested they quicken the pace. Stark fixed
him with a steely gaze and replied. "Dearborn,
one fresh man in action is worth ten fatigued
ones," and continued his slow, deliberate gait.
One of the regiments which had been halted
was Reed's. It immediately fell in behind Stark's
troops, with Lt. Col. Gilman in command, Reed being
away sick. The soldiers followed the open road up
over the grassy knoll of Bunker Hill, where they
encountered Israel Putnam and his Connecticut troops.
Upon reaching the top of the hill, Stark issued orders
to take up one of two fences which ran parallel with
the river and to stuff hay between the rails. He
also ordered the construction of a low, short, stone
wall between the end of the rail fence and the edge
of the Mystic River. When Reed's men arrived, they
took positions to Knowlton's left and began to fortify
the fence in a similar manner. Stark positioned his
troops to Reed's left strengthening Prescott's left
On the British side of the river, the decision
to mount a frontal assault in the "best traditions
of the European battlefield" had already been made.
It was assumed, of course, that the rebel troops
consisted universally of "scoundrels" and "cowards" who
would flee after the first bayonet charge. The logistics
of mounting an amphibious assault were tricky, however,
so although the decision was made quickly, considerable
time elapsed between it and the actual attack.
From the vantage point of Bunker Hill, raw
American troops were treated to an unfolding diorama
as 28 barges of disciplined figures arrayed in brilliant
color glided rhythmically toward Morton's Point.
Flashing oars, polished brass field pieces, oiled
metal, gleaming match boxes reflected the warm June
sun. In command of this awesome symmetry was Gen.
Howe. On landing, he immediately sent back for additional
troops and allowed his men to break ranks for a late
In the American camp. raw recruits faced
the coming reality of battle. Bells began to peal
in Charlestown and drums beat in assembly and alarm.
Col. Stark saw his opportunity to deliver a ". .
. short animated address" and was rewarded with three
rousing cheers for courage.
By now, the British had begun to use the
incendiary cannon balls. Charlestown was in flames!
It was mid-afternoon and the moment of truth had
come for both sides. The Patriots-many dirty, hungry
and tired, and all tense and expectant- awaited the
onslaught of the famed British war machine.
Along the beach and through the swamp on
their left, Howe's 5th, 2nd and Grenadiers moved
forward in disciplined ranks. The assault was spearheaded
by Gen. Pigot with the 38th, 43rd and Grenadiers,
and on the other flank the 47th and the Royal Marines.
As cannons ceased firing, rebels peering over the
breastwork could hear hardware clanking against marching
legs, the crackling of uncontrolled fires in Charlestown
and the pounding of their own hearts and temples.
Muffled orders to fire startled many back to reality
and the knowledge that the enemy was now less than
50 feet away. The order to fire rang out.
The murderous effect of the rebels' fusillade
along the Mystic River front is well described by
Richard M. Ketchum in his book, Decisive Day: The
Battle for Bunker Hill (Doubleday): . . . a row of
dull musket barrels leveled along the stone wall,
a nasal New England voice twanged and the wall disappeared
in a sheet of flame and oily b1ack smoke. The blurt
of fire tore apart the leeding ranks of Fuseliers
and as the rows behind closed up they were shattered
by the violent hail of bullets. Officers fell, men
spun around and dropped headlong into the shallow
water, and the column stopped, recoiled, then came
on again. The King's own regiment showing through
the broken Fuseliers clambering over the dead and
wounded only to be met with that withering fire from
the wall. Officers' voices shouted hoarsely through
the din, ordering the men forward, but with each
advance the men in the lead simply melted away, falling
grotesquely and piling up the awful carnage on the
narrow heach until there was nothing to do but turn
back. The British stormed again, but with that attempt
came another deadly failure.
Howe was, by this time, almost entirely bereft
of officers. The 35th regiment, for example.
had only six men left, and no leadership. He looked
for an opening and decided to attack the space
between the redoubt and the fence, using 400 reinforcements
recently arrived from Boston. The rebels tried
to repulse the attack by firing nails, having used
up their supply of powder and shot. They even threw
rocks in an attempt to dislodge the long rows of
Brown Besses which marched steadily onward. Finally,
they were forced to retreat. Knowlton, Stark and
Reed protected the withdrawal, sustaining heavier
losses than before. The pullback was orderly, with
only 31 Colonials falling into the hands of the
British. By 5:30 the battle for Bunker Hill was
One thousand fifty-four of the 2300 British
who had greeted the day with confidence and whole
bodies would never do so again. On the American side,
estimates have varied. George Washington, for example,
has left us the number 450 dead, missing and wounded.
New Hampshire regiments reported 74 wounded and 19
missing In any event, it was a Pyrrhic victory for
the British, for on that afternoon something died
in the cream of the British soldiery.
Much has been written of the heroism demonstrated
by the men of Massachusetts at the Battle for Bunker
Hill, but New Hampshire's role in that great Patriot
undertaking has been minimized or at least under-publicized.
More than 100 men from New Hampshire were in Col.
Prescott's Massachusetts Regiment, for example, including
a company of 59 men under Capt. Dow from Hollis.
The manifest of Col. Reed's regiment dated June 14,
1775, two days before the battle, lists 637 men of
whom 448 were fit for duty. A similar document dated
July 2, 1775 indicates that Col. Stark drew rations
for 679 men. Adding the 60 from Stark's regiment
who fell at Bunker Hill, we arrive at the impressive
total of 739. While we probably will never know the
exact number of New Hampshiremen who served at Bunker
Hill, it is reasonable to assume the figure is somewhere
in the neighborhood of 1000-1300, virtually all the
men New Hampshire had available. In any event, the
New Hampshire contingent outnumbered the combined
totals of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The Rev. Increase N. Tarbox, in his life
of Gen. Putnam, wrote, "We have the full conviction
that the time will come when the whole nation will
give the honors of the battle of Bunker Hill largely
to the common soldiers of New Hampshire who more
than any other men, fought it....''
By Anne and Charles Eastman, Jr.
Originally published in "NH: Years of Revolution," Profiles
Publications and the NH Bicentennial Commision, 1976.
Reprinted by permission of the authors.
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