As in so many other accounts of history, I find that the facts surrounding the Battle of Bunker Hill vary from source to source. It makes it difficult to share a single accurate account, try as I may.
On April 19, 1775, 700 British troops had marched to Lexington, Massachusetts to confiscate gun powder and other munitions stored there by American patriots. Alarms were sounded in Lexington before dawn, summoning the Minutemen and any other willing patriot. By the time the British troops arrived, Minuteman Captain John Parker had managed to assemble about 70 militias on the common green of the Lexington.
After seeing that they were outmanned 10 to 1 by the British, the Minutemen retreated. No one knows who fired the shot, but once it rang out, the green was filled with a thick cloud of musket smoke. The skirmish didn’t last long, but when the smoke wafted off the green, the Minutemen suffered 8 dead and 10 wounded. The British suffered 1 injury.
The British had control of most of Boston, but after Lexington, about 20,000 patriotic militiamen surrounded Boston, confining the British to within the city proper. However, the Charleston Peninsula was left largely unoccupied by both the British and patriots.
British General William Howe was dispatched with about 2,500 troops, to cross over the river and establish control of the peninsula before the patriots did. Word of the British plans leaked to the patriots and American General Artemas Ward was ordered to stop the British.
On the night of June 16, 1775, Ward took 1,500 troops and managed to cross over to the Charleston Peninsula undetected by the British and take up a defensive position on Bunker Hill.
Here is where accounts vary. Some accounts state that Ward intentionally chose to occupy Breed’s Hill, a shorter hill, instead of Bunker Hill. Other accounts say that they mistakenly occupied Breed’s Hill during the night and yet other reports say they occupied both hills.
For whatever the reason, Ward’s troops spent the night digging a fortification on top of Breed’s Hill. The fortification was about 160 feet long by 30 feet high. They also managed to construct fences and other obstacles on the side of the hill facing the Mystic River.
On this day, June 17, 1775, around 5am, British General Howe discovered Ward’s fortification on top of Breed’s Hill. Here again accounts vary as to when Howe’s troops attacked up the hill, but regardless of what time of day, they launched their first assault, expecting the patriots to quickly abandon their position and retreat.
Legend has it, as Howe’s forces advanced up the Hill, Ward told his patriot troops to hold their fire until they saw the whites of the enemy’s eyes. Few historians believe those were his words, but they do know that the patriots didn’t fire until the British troops were fairly close. The patriots open fire, inflicting heavy casualties to the British who hastily retreated back down the hill. Not long after, Howe launched a second assault on Breed’s Hill and again the patriots waited until they were close before firing and again inflicted heavy casualties to the British.
By now the patriots were very low on ammunition but continued to hold their ground. Howe was not giving up either and launched a third assault up the hill. The patriots waited to fire but quickly ran out of ammunition. Some of the patriots resorted to hand-to-hand combat as the rest of their troops retreated down the other side of the hill. Several reports state the majority of patriot casualties took place as they were retreating.
When the battle was over, the British gained possession of Breed and Bunker Hill along with the rest of the Charleston Peninsula. British losses amounted to 226 dead and 828 wounded compared to only 140 patriots dead and 271 wounded.
Even though the battle was a British victory, it was also a patriot victory in that they knew that they could face the British and inflict major damage on the enemy. The British also learned that they grossly underestimated the abilities of the patriots. Howe had expected to just march up and drive them off like they did at Lexington, but that was not the case.
Sources for the above includes: The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill; Bunker Hill; The Battle of Bunker Hill 1775; Battle of Bunker Hill Begins; The Battle of Bunker Hill; The Battle of Bunker Hill: Now We Are at War; The Battle of Bunker Hill; Battle of Bunker Hill; Today, April 19, 1775: The Shot Heard Around the World Was Fired.