J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

What Do We Call the Battle of Bunker Hill?

It’s common in discussions of the Battle of Bunker Hill for someone to add, “Actually, it was fought on Breed’s Hill.” This is often said with the slightly smug, know-it-all tone associated with history blogs like this one. (See examples here.)

The Breed’s Hill label is arguably true (and arguably false—as I’ll get to in a moment). But why does the different name matter, besides offering the pleasure of showing you know more than the average bear? After all, names are conventions, and our standard names for historical events aren’t necessarily the most accurate.

For instance, Bostonians were calling the shootings on King Street on 5 Mar 1770 a “Horrid Massacre” within weeks after the event; that phrase is in the title of the town’s official report on the incident. Friends of the royal government avoided such language; their response to the Boston report referred to the “Unhappy Disturbance.” Clearly the word “massacre” had political ramifications, but it’s nonetheless become our standard term for the event.

What about the night of 16 Dec 1773, when Bostonians dumped tea into their harbor? For decades locals referred to that as “the destruction of the tea.” Then in 1826 Josiah Wyeth of Cincinnati started to speak of the “Boston Tea Party.” Prof. Ben Carp of Tufts made me notice how New Englanders first adopted that term to refer to the actors, not the action, as in “Nicholas Campbell...made one of the celebrated Tea Party in Boston harbor” (Connecticut Courant, 31 July 1826). After two books based on the memories of George R. T. Hewes used “Tea Party” in their titles, the new name stuck and became our standard term for the event.

There are similar quibbles possible with the names of other Revolutionary events:

  • New England’s “Powder Alarm” of 1774 and New York’s “Battle of Golden Hill” in 1770 got their names from historians many years later.
  • The “Battle of Lexington and Concord” took place in many other towns as well, with the worst fighting in Menotomy, now called Arlington.
  • The “Battle of Bennington” not only didn’t take place in Bennington, it didn’t even take place in Vermont.
So what might be the most accurate period term for the location of the battle on 17 June 1775? Did people of that time use “Bunker Hill” or “Breed’s Hill” more often? I searched for the different phrases in late 1775 in the Early American Newspapers database, and the answer is:

The database included 4 mentions of “Breed’s Hill,” 23 mentions of “Bunker Hill,” and a whopping 52 uses of “Bunker’s Hill.”

Furthermore, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s official report on the fighting, dated 5 July 1775, referred to “the battle of Charlestown.” That name emphasized the nearly total destruction of the town by British artillery to deprive provincials of cover, rather than the farmland where most of the actual killing took place.

Nevertheless, I call this fight the “Battle of Bunker Hill,” letting convention justify dropping the apostrophe-s. As for Bunker versus Breed’s, that’s a distinction with little difference. Breed’s Hill wasn’t so much a separate hill as a rise along the slope from the water to the top of Bunker Hill. As the newspaper showed, few people wrote of Breed’s Hill as a site of its own. There were provincial forces on both Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill, though men at the first location did most (but not all) of the fighting. And at the end of the day the British military took both prominences, making Bunker Hill their fortified outpost for the rest of the siege.

In only one way might the distinction between Bunker’s Hill and Breed’s Hill really matter. And I’ll discuss that tomorrow.

(Incidentally, if you see the famous Howard Pyle painting above, showing lines of British soldiers marching up Bunker Hill, grab it. According to the F.B.I.’s art theft website, it was stolen from the Delaware Art Museum in 2001.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The link to the FPI page appears to have been changed to:


-Chris the Woburnite