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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Monday, June 17, 2019

Refighting Bunker Hill with the Angry Staff Officer

This is the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. For an overview of the action this year, I’m pointing to the Angry Staff Officer’s article “Warfighter: Bunker Hill.”

It sets aside the mysteries, ambiguities, and evidence that historians focus on, and also applies modern military terms to the situation in 1775. Here’s a taste:
On the night of June 16, Col. [William] Prescott with chief engineer Richard Gridley and about 500 men crossed Charlestown Neck and occupied Breed’s Hill. Equipped with survivability equipment, they began construction of a fighting position on the height of the crest. During the night, ISR assets on the Royal Navy ships in the harbor spotted the movement and called for fire on the hill. Rounds began to impact, but the guns soon fell silent: Admiral Richard [sic—Samuel] Graves had been awoken by the firing and ordered the men to cease fire. Working all night, the Patriots dug a substantial fortification on Breed’s Hill with earthworks and firing platforms. When the sun rose, the British found that the height had been seized and fortified.

During the morning hours, more men arrived on the neck and began improving the fighting positions. An earthen trench was constructed down the left side of the redoubt. Just behind it, the New Hampshire and Connecticut troops constructed additional defenses extending to the left using log fences and stone walls to erect a position that ran down the slope towards the Mystic River. Between the fence and the trench, pioneers dug three v-shaped trenches to tie in the trench and the fence. This still left the extreme left vulnerable to flanking parties moving along the coast, so Col. [John] Stark led a detachment down the bluff to the river and emplaced a series of rock walls in depth. He then placed detachments of marksmen behind each wall, with strict fire control measures. He drove a stake forty yards in front of this position, with instructions for his men to aim at the enemy’s feet; this compensated for the natural rise of the musket and would place their fire center mass.

Arrayed across the dominant heights, the Patriot forces overlooked the key terrain where the British would have conduct an amphibious landing. Between this beach and the heights lay a series of swamps and rail fences that served as natural obstacles that would disrupt British movement and maneuver.

Secondary fighting positions were constructed on Bunker Hill to the rear of Breed’s Hill to serve as a fallback position for Patriot forces should they be forced to retrograde.

Fires

With their navy, the British brought significant fires dominance to the battlefield. Naval gunfire began again in the early morning hours of June 17 to suppress the Patriot lines. Over 100 guns were brought to bear on the enemy lines. This sustained fire was also meant to disrupt Patriot movement, but the natural lay of the land allowed Patriots to maneuver their forces in relative safety. In the afternoon, the British landed 12 pound and 6 pound batteries on the beach to provide additional suppressive fire.

The Patriots had four guns in position between the Connecticut and Massachusetts troops, but their gunners abandoned the field prior to the battle and so negated the majority of effects of the guns.

Sustainment

The British were forced to move all supplies via boat across the river, slowing their rate of supply and reinforcement significantly. The 6 pounder battery commander neglected to conduct a precombat inspection prior to deployment and found to their chagrin that their caissons were filled with 12 pound shot rather than 6 pound shot. This denied General [William] Howe his mobile fire support that he was counting on for close in fires.

On the Patriot side, they were already dangerously short of gunpowder. Each soldier had only about 30-40 rounds of ammunition. Lack of an overall field commander meant that there was no one individual tasked with overseeing logistics from the assembly area to the forward line of troops. This oversight would play an outsized role in the coming fight.
Now that we’ve reviewed the big picture, I’ll get into the smaller stories and questions.

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