Unlike with other famous battles that occurred throughout America's history, the victor of the Battle of Bunker Hill did not receive the majority of the spoils. While the Union's victory over Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg effectively guaranteed a pro-Union outcome to the Civil War, the Crown's victory over colonial forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill had the opposite effect: it proved that the predominately untrained American "rebels" were worthy opponents of the professional, battle-hardened British regulars.
The technical answer to the Bunker Hill question, however, is that the British won the day. By the evening of June 17, 1775, British soldiers had successfully driven the colonial forces from their position atop Breed's Hill, which lay to the north of Bunker Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The Americans retreated toward Cambridge, and the British -- as was their plan -- took control of the hills of Charlestown. These hills were a vital strategic asset, as they overlooked both the City of Boston and Boston Harbor.
When colonial forces learned of the British plan to occupy Charlestown, Colonel William Prescott had originally led 1,200 Massachusetts and Connecticut soldiers in an effort to fortify Bunker Hill, which was the area's highest peak. However, Prescott instead decided to fortify Breed's Hill, which had a lower elevation and was closer to Boston. Starting on the evening of June 16, the Americans worked through the night building a massive, six-foot-tall earthen fortress. Even before the fighting began, British General William Howe was clearly impressed with the Americans' capabilities. "The rebels have done more work in one night than my army would have done in one month," he exclaimed on the morning of June 17.
The Battle of Bunker Hill began with the British bombarding colonial forces with cannon fire from ships offshore. However, in the afternoon, General Howe ordered his army of "Redcoats" to march up Breed's Hill and attack. "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," was the order given to colonial troops as they watched the British regulars advance on their position.
The Americans repelled the first assault, but the British swiftly regrouped and once again charged Breed's Hill. This second assault proved as ineffective as the first and the British incurred heavy losses. For a brief period, the colonial forces may have thought that they would be triumphant. But a lack of discipline, a lack of supplies and a lack of reinforcements would ultimately lead to a British victory. On the third and final charge of the battle, the British broke through the earthen fortress and drove out the colonial forces.
While the Battle of Bunker Hill resulted in a technical victory for the British, the Americans earned an important symbolic victory. The well-trained British suffered more than a thousand casualties, while the predominately untrained Americans lost approximately 500. Clearly shaken by the unanticipated resourcefulness and gallantry of the colonial forces, the British would make no further military advances outside Boston for nearly a year.
For the British, the Battle of Bunker Hill showed that the "rebel" threat was not something to be taken lightly. For the Americans, the battle proved that the "Redcoats," despite their superior organization and combat training, were not an invincible force. In comparison to the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, which had signaled the beginning of the American Revolution two months earlier, the Battle of Bunker Hill put any hope of peaceful reconciliation to rest.
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