Redcoats, Patriots and Bunker Hill Essay

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As the winter of 1783 drew near, the last of the British troops sailed from New York leaving behind an independent nation. A land destined to be the richest and most powerful state in the galaxy of nations.

It is possible that some of the redcoats marching into the dreary ship that cold November day had attacked Bunker Hill eight years ago, and stared at astonishment at the hail of bullets coming their way from the muskets of the patriots. The British had gone on to win the battle but at enormous cost, losing more than half their men.

It was supposed to have been an easy battle. Their superiors, the officers of the most powerful army on earth had thought that they would overwhelm the enemy and had opted for a frontal assault, only to see their men mowed down repeatedly by a thinking and able enemy.

The Battle of Bunker Hill has been enveloped in hagiography by every American historian as a victory in defeat, an American Dunkirk and as one of the first military engagements of the war of independence. It is all this and much more. Its importance in shaping history also lies in the two crucial mental victories it gave to the American troops. First, it changed forever the stereotypical image of the Patriots being a rag tag bunch of homegrown militia who could function adequately only under the competent and trained officers of the British army. Second, it brought immense pride to the Patriots and served as a rallying cry, a force mobiliser for the many engagements that were to happen in the next eight years.

The British were confident of their military prowess and with good reason. They had fought the French all over the world in The Seven Years war, which lasted from 1756 to 1763 and lock(ed) horns (with them) on every continent where the two had outposts. (Allan, T., P 100)  They had mobilized troops effectively over vast distances, achieved tremendous expertise in military logistics and training and won brilliant battles. The firepower and strength of their navy enabled them to blockade ports and intercept supplies. Canada and Florida had come to them from the French and the Spanish after the Treaty of Paris and British hegemony extended over huge tracts of the inhabited world. The world was theirs to rule and they were a truly awesome military power.

The Patriots were in their eyes a motley group of undisciplined part time soldiers, made up of planters, traders and frontiersmen with very little knowledge of arms and the mechanics of warfare. In America, the colonists had fought alongside the redcoats against the French and the Spanish in The Seven Years War but always under the command of British officers. In fact, they had been badly mauled when the Indians of the Northwest went on the warpath in 1763, and had turned in desperation to the British for succor. The colonial militia was unable to master them, and in the end it was British regulars who put down the uprising. (Allan, T., P 101)

Many of the militia had joined only for personal advancement. As Lieutenant Scott, a Bunker Hill veteran was to say later I lived in a country town; ¦ I was very ambitious ¦ I was asked to enlist as a private soldier; ¦ I offered to enlist upon having a lieutenants commission, which was granted. I imagined myself now in a way of promotion if my captain was killed; I should rise in rank, and should still have a chance to rise higher. These, sir were the only motives of my entering into the service; for as to the dispute between Great Britain and the colonies, I know nothing of it (Sommers, R.J.)

Thus, notwithstanding the small setbacks on their way to Boston, a very confident British army looked ready to overrun Boston in the summer of 1775. As the British ships began to arrive with troops ready for battle, Major General John Burgoyne was to remark What! Ten Thousand peasants keep 5000 kings troops shut up! Well, let us get in and well soon find elbow room. (Allan, T., P 107)

General Thomas Gage, the British Commander in Chief, shared this brashness. A few days before the battle, he had written to say, They will undoubtedly be lions whilst we are lambs, but if we take the resolute path they will undoubtedly prove very meek. (Allan, T., P 108)

As day broke on June 17, 1775, about 1200 ill equipped and under trained American soldiers were readied on Breeds Hill to face the advancing redcoats. As thousands of people watched from the top of churches and houses in nearby Boston, 2500 British troops, supported by heavy cannon fire from the ships attacked the American barricades at three in the afternoon.. The patriots, under the command of Colonel William Prescott let the British come right up the hill before opening fire, practically from where they could see the whites of their enemys eyes (Battle of Breeds Hill/Bunker Hill) Casualties were heavy and the redcoats retreated in consternation.

The battle lasted for nearly three hours before American ammunition ran out. The British had to make three charges before they could take the defenses on the hill. The last charge was at bayonet point with the heavily outnumbered Americans fighting with rifle butts and rocks until they were ordered to retreat. One of the last to leave the American lines was, General Joseph Warren. The hero lingered only to lose his life with a gunshot in the temple.

The cost to the British was terrible. The hollow victory lost them a thousand men including many officers; nearly forty percent of their total force. The militia lost four hundred.

 The British then went on to capture both the hills and Charleston was cannon balled until it burnt to the ground.

After Bunker Hill, a chastened Thomas Gage wrote, They showed a conduct and spirit against us they never showed against the French, and everybody has judged them from their former appearance and behavior. (Allan, T., P 108)

The British would never forget Bunker Hill. It was the pushover that never was, the small dune on the outskirts of Boston where the Americans proved they could fight. The fighting was to continue for six more years during which time redcoats and patriots were to engage in battle as north as Quebec and as south as South Carolina. Most of the fighting however continued in the broad vicinity of Bunker Hill, on the seaboard between Philadelphia and Boston.

At last, on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed and Britain recognized the independence of its American possessions. The war that had started at Bunker Hill, in the summer of 1775 finally ended. The infant nation stretched from Georgia in the south to the Great Sea in the north, from the Mississippi in the West to the Atlantic in the East.

The Bunker Hill Monument stands on Breeds Hill, in an overdeveloped area in Boston. There is no hint or sign of the redcoats or the patriots who volleyed and bayoneted here more than two hundred years ago.

Works Cited

Allan, T., ed., Winds of Revolution, History of the World 1700-1800, Time Life Books, (1990), ISBN 07954 0984 8

Battle of Breeds Hill/Bunker Hill, Military Science, WPI, (2004), 21 June 2006,

Sommers, Richard J. Ambition. Parameters 30.4 (2000): 171. Questia. 21 June 2006 .


Allan, T., ed., Winds of Revolution, History of the World 1700-1800, Time Life Books, (1990), ISBN 07954 0984 8

Bailyn, B., The Battle of Bunker Hill The Massachusetts Historical Society, (2003), 21 June 2006,

Battle of Breeds Hill/Bunker Hill, Military Science, WPI, (2004), 21 June 2006,

Battle of Bunker Hill 1775, (2004), 21 June 2006,

Beard, James Franklin. Cooper and the Revolutionary Mythos. Early American Literature 11.1 (1976): 84-104. Questia. 21 June 2006 .

Sommers, Richard J. Ambition. Parameters 30.4 (2000): 171. Questia. 21 June 2006 .

Webster, Daniel. Daniel Websters First Bunker Hill Oration. New York: American Book Company, 1910. Questia. 21 June 2006 .

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