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, August 15, 2013

The Lessons of Bunker Hill for Gen. Washington

In preparing my presentation on the Battle of Bunker Hill earlier this month, I nearly came to the conclusion that Gen. George Washington took two lessons, one good and one bad, from what he heard about that battle. By “nearly” I mean those thoughts occurred to me too late to articulate in my talk, so I’m throwing them out now.

The first lesson was the value of preparation. New England troops moved onto the Charlestown peninsula on the evening of 16 June 1775 in haste, fearing that the British army was about to make a similar move. As a result, there was a lot left to arrange.

Col. Richard Gridley, Col. William Prescott, and Gen. Israel Putnam spent significant time discussing which hill to fortify. None of Gridley’s American artillery units went onto the peninsula until the next morning; one company discovered its gunpowder cartridges wouldn’t fit inside its cannons. Several regiments came onto the field on 17 June, but Prescott and Putnam were frustrated at the lack of reinforcements for the redoubt, leaving the same men who had spent all night digging that fortification to defend it.

In contrast, Gen. Washington and his staff meticulously planned the move onto the Dorchester peninsula in March 1776. Geography and the frozen ground made that a bigger challenge, solved in part by Col. Rufus Putnam’s idea to use pre-fabricated fortifications to provide cover while the men dug in. But Washington also made sure the artillery was moved in the night and well supplied. Fresh troops came onto the peninsula before daybreak. The Continental troops on Dorchester heights were in much better position for a fight than the troops in Charlestown nine months before.

However, Washington also took the lesson from Bunker Hill that he should seek to draw the British army into a big battle so that the Continental soldiers could kill and wound a lot of them. Throughout the siege of Boston the new commander kept proposing ways to storm the British positions. Washington agreed to Gen. Artemas Ward’s Dorchester strategy only after all the other generals had voted against his own plan, and only because he hoped that the British would finally come out for the big battle he wanted.

When Gen. William Howe cut short his attack on Dorchester and instead sailed away, Washington wrote to a friend in Virginia, “I can scarce forbear lamenting the disappointment as we were prepared for them at all points.”

For the next two years Washington and some of his generals kept pursuing the Bunker Hill strategy, trying to draw Howe into a deadly attack. The American commander did get the big battles he wanted—at Brooklyn, at Harlem Heights and White Plains, at Brandywine. But of course Gen. Howe won those battles, and the big casualties were on the American side.

Not until the Valley Forge winter of 1777-78 did Gen. Washington drop his quest for a big, decisive battle and become what his new artillery commander Henry Knox called “our Fabian commander.” Washington never oversaw a battle like Bunker Hill, with such high numbers of the enemy killed and wounded, but he had finally realized he didn’t have to.


Anonymous said...

I think the carnage in Charlestown spooked Howe for the duration of the war. He had so many opportunities to crush us...

William H. Otis said...

J.L., you make a valid point about lessons learned - and war is no exception. The measure of your enemy can only be realized after you encounter them. Victory and/or defeat prime you for the next battle. Intelligence only offers you an idea of the resistance you can expect, but the actual battle experience is what forms the decision making process.

Even Gage wrote following Lexington and Concord - "If force is to be used at length, it must be a considerable one, and foreign troops must be hired, for to begin with small numbers will encourage resistance, and not terrify, and in the end cost more blood and treasure."

I guess you can't get it right 'till you get it wrong first. That's the learning process we all struggle with.

J. L. Bell said...

Many authors suggest that Gen. Howe might have been traumatized by his experience at Bunker Hill. All of his aides were killed or wounded, and of course he saw hundreds of soldiers fall.

According to that theory, Howe was reluctant to attack American fortified positions again unless he had many more troops. His tactical successes at Brooklyn and Brandywine, for example, came from going around the Americans.

Of course, Howe might not have needed trauma to learn not to attack fortified positions.

J. L. Bell said...

Gen. Gage is an interesting case because he was writing to his superiors in London about needing lots more troops, possibly including German mercenaries, back in the fall of 1774. They ignored his advice, thinking it alarmist, and ordered him to move against the Patriots. So he wasn't the one who needed to learn the lesson!

G. Lovely said...

"...—at Brooklyn, at Harlem Heights and White Plains, at Brandywine. But of course Gen. Howe won those battles..."

I'll grant you three of those wese American losses, but Harlem Heights was a much needed morale boosting victory, with a smaller force inflicting casualties on the British at a ratio of 10 to 1.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it's as true now, but in those days it was a tactical no-no to attack a fortified position.

I think London's response to Gage's request for more troops is a case in point of how out of touch they were with what was happening in Massachusetts, which may have doomed the British army from the start. Whether it was Boston, New York, Williamsburg, or Charleston, they were never able to maintain a large area of control beyond urban environments.

J. L. Bell said...

I see Harlem Heights as an attempt to recreate Bunker Hill which for a short time seemed successful: the Americans did inflict disproportionate casualties on the attacking British. But the subsequent battle at White Plains proved that triumph to be a mirage. (And the fight for Fort Washington, which the commander had to witness rather than oversee, was even worse.)

At Bunker Hill, the British gained control of Charlestown, a small peninsula with a narrow neck and no surviving infrastructure. At Harlem Heights, they secured control of Manhattan.