Henderson Island - Latitude 24.22 S - Longitude 128.19 W

Battle of Bunker Hill


The Battle of Bunker's Hill actually took place on Breed's Hill. The patriot forces had learned of British plans to fortify Bunker's Hill. On June 16, 1775, under cover of darkness, 1200 patriots threw up earthwork fortifications on Breed's Hill. It may have been that they really didn't know that they weren't on Bunker's Hill, or that Breed's Hill was more defensible, but they did fortify the wrong hill.

The British commanding officer, General Gage, upon seeing fortification's in the morning that weren't there the night before, ordered the British ships in the Charles to open fire. The earthworks were soundly made and the British were forced to send troops to the hill. 28 barges of Redcoats, led by General William Howe, hit the shores of the hill that afternoon, and expected an easy victory.

The rebels were both better armed and better organized than the British hoped. Israel Putnam, leader of the rebel troops, shouted his famous battle cry: Don't shoot 'til you see the whites of their eyes!

The second Marine battalion took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill, where Major Pitcairn was commander of the final assault on Colonel Prescott's redoubt. In the summer heat he led his Marines - including his son, Thomas (age 19), a Lieutenant, on foot up the hill for the final assault. While advancing, they crossed another line of infantry, who were being pushed back by heavy rebel fire. Pitcairn told them to "Break and let the Marines through!", and is said to have threatened to "bayonet the buggers" if they would not get out of the Marines' way! He waved his sword and urged his men on: "Now, for the glory of the Marines!"

A musket ball struck Major Pitcairn in the breast and he fell into the arms of his son Lt. Thomas Pitcairn. This musket ball is believed to have been fired by Peter Salem (1750?-1816), a black American who was born a slave in nearby Framingham Massachusetts. According to one story, the colonial troops were near defeat, when Major Pitcairn ordered them to surrender. Salem then stepped forward and shot Pitcairn. The British were temporarily stunned, and the Americans were able to retreat. Another story tells that Salem took aim at Major Pitcairn as he was rallying the British troops and shot him through the head. The major fell dead just as he was shouting to his men: the day is ours. Peter Salem is said to have also participated at Lexington and Concord, and that he recognised Pitcairn from these events. Though the Peter Salem story is widely cited, there have been other claimants who professed to have shot Pitcairn.

Detail of Trumbull's painting of Warren's death:
Peter Salem.

Pitcairn's son, Lieutenant Thomas Pitcairn, carried his wounded father out of the line of fire to the water's edge, before returning to the battle. "I have lost my father!" he said. "We have all lost a father!" some of the Marines responded. A boat took Pitcairn back to Boston. He was put to bed in a house on Prince Street. He was fully conscious but guessed his chances were poor. With stoic courage - and without anaesthetics - he faced the 18 th century soldiers' most feared enemy - the 18 th century doctor. The army surgeons were overworked because of the heavy casualties, so General Gage, anxious to save an officer he greatly valued, had sent his own physician, young Dr. Thomas Kast, to tend him. Firmly but courteously, Pitcairn told the doctor not to touch him until he had put his affairs in order. Only then did he agree to have his wound examined. But when Dr. Kast pulled Pitcairn's waistcoat away from his chest, he suffered a massive hemorrhage. Although the bullet was removed and his wound dressed, he died a couple of hours later. He was 52. The fatal musket ball and his uniform buttons were returned to his wife and children.

Detail of Trumbull's painting of Warren's death:
Pitcairn being carried off the field by his own son, and another man.

This was the first major Battle of what would become the Revolutionary War. Although the patriot forces did lose the hill, they lost only 441 men compared to the British losses of 1,054. One Sixth of all British officers killed in the Revolutionary War die here. The Continental Congress had appointed Geroge Washington commander in chief of the American forces two days prior to the battle, and although Washington soon departed Philadelphia to take command of the patriot forces, he arrived in Boston after the battle. The British reaction to the loss of British life, particulary officers like Pitcairn, at Bunker Hill helped Washington to realize the impact of British military losses on their political and military plans. This became the dominant element of Washington's military strategy throughout the war.

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