On the night of June 16, 1775, a detail of American troops acting under orders from Artemas Ward moved out of their camp, carrying picks, shovels, and guns. They entrenched themselves on a rise located on Charleston Peninsula overlooking Boston. Their destination: Bunker Hill.
From this hill, the rebels could bombard the town and British ships in Boston Harbor. But Ward's men misunderstood his orders. They went to Breed's Hill by mistake and entrenched themselves there — closer to the British position.
Cannon for Breakfast
The next morning, the British were stunned to see Americans threatening them. In the 18th century, British military custom demanded that the British attack the Americans, even though the Americans were in a superior position militarily (the Americans had soldiers and cannons pointing down on the British).
Major General William Howe, leading the British forces, could have easily surrounded the Americans with his ships at sea, but instead chose to march his troops uphill. Howe might have believed that the Americans would retreat in the face of a smashing, head-on attack.
He was wrong.
His Majesty's ships opened fire on the Americans. Early in the afternoon, 28 barges of British soldiers crossed the Charles River and stormed the hills. The Americans waited until the British were within 15 paces, and then unleashed a bloody fusillade. Scores of British troops were killed or wounded; the rest retreated down the hill.
Again, the British rushed the hill in a second wave. And again they retreated, suffering a great number of casualties.
By the time the third wave of British charged the hill, the Americans were running low on ammunition. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The British eventually took the hill, but at a great cost. Of the 2,300 British soldiers who had gone through the ordeal, 1,054 were either killed or wounded.