The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill

Nathaniel Philbrick takes on one of the Revolutionary War’s most famous and least understood battles

John Trumball's The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, 17 June, 1775. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
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The intimate ferocity of this face-to-face combat is even more striking today, in an era of drones, tanks and long-range missiles. At the Bunker Hill Museum, Philbrick studies a diorama of the battle alongside Patrick Jennings, a park ranger who served as an infantryman and combat historian for the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This was almost a pool-table battlefield,” Jennings observes of the miniature soldiers crowded on a verdant field. “The British were boxed in by the terrain and the Americans didn’t have much maneuverability, either. It’s a close-range brawl.”

However, there’s no evidence that Col. Israel Putnam told his men to hold their fire until they saw “the whites” of the enemies’ eyes. The writer Parson Weems invented this incident decades later, along with other fictions such as George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. In reality, the Americans opened fire at about 50 yards, much too distant to see anyone’s eyes. One colonel did tell his men to wait until they could see the splash guards—called half-gaiters—that British soldiers wore around their calves. But as Philbrick notes, “‘Don’t fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters’ just doesn’t have the same ring.” So the Weems version endured, making it into textbooks and even into the video game Assassin’s Creed.

The Bunker Hill Monument also has an odd history. The cornerstone was laid in 1825, with Daniel Webster addressing a crowd of 100,000. Backers built one of the first railways in the nation to tote eight-ton granite blocks from a quarry south of Boston. But money ran out. So Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor and author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” rescued the project by organizing a “Ladies’ Fair” that raised $30,000. The monument was finally dedicated in 1843, with the now-aged Daniel Webster returning to speak again.

Over time, Brahmin Charlestown turned Irish and working class, and the monument featured in gritty crime movies like The Town, directed by Ben Affleck (who has also acquired the movie rights to Philbrick’s book). But today the obelisk stands amid renovated townhouses, and the small park surrounding it is popular with exercise classes and leisure-seekers. “You’ll be talking to visitors about the horrible battle that took place here,” says park ranger Merrill Kohlhofer, “and all around you are sunbathers and Frisbee players and people walking their dogs.” Firemen also visit, to train for climbing tall buildings by scaling the 221-foot monument.

Philbrick is drawn to a different feature of the park: a statue of what he calls the “wild man” and neglected hero of revolutionary Boston, Dr. Joseph Warren. The physician led the rebel underground and became major general of the colonial army in the lead-up to Bunker Hill. A flamboyant man, he addressed 5,000 Bostonians clad in a toga and went into the Bunker Hill battle wearing a silk-fringed waistcoat and silver buttons, “like Lord Falkland, in his wedding suit.” But he refused to assume command, fighting as an ordinary soldier and dying from a bullet in the face during the final assault. Warren’s stripped body was later identified on the basis of his false teeth, which had been crafted by Paul Revere. He left behind a fiancée (one of his patients) and a mistress he’d recently impregnated.

“Warren was young, charismatic, a risk-taker—a man made for revolution,” Philbrick says. “Things were changing by the day and he embraced that.” In death, Warren became the Revolution’s first martyr, though he’s little remembered by most Americans today.


Before leaving Charlestown, Philbrick seeks out one other site. In 1775, when Americans marched past Bunker Hill and fortified Breed’s instead, a British map compounded the confusion by mixing up the two hills as well. Over time, the name Breed’s melted away and the battle became indelibly linked to Bunker. But what of the hill that originally bore that name?

It’s visible from the Bunker Hill Monument: a taller, steeper hill 600 yards away. But Charlestown’s narrow, one-way streets keep carrying Philbrick in the wrong direction. After 15 minutes of circling his destination he finally finds a way up. “It’s a pity the Americans didn’t fortify this hill,” he quips, “the British would never have found it.”

It’s now crowned by a church, on Bunker Hill Street, and a sign says the church was established in 1859, “On the Top of Bunker Hill.” The church’s business manager, Joan Rae, says the same. “This is Bunker Hill. That other hill’s not. It’s Breed’s.” To locals like Rae, perhaps, but not to visitors or even to Google Maps. Tap in “Bunker Hill Charlestown” and you’ll be directed to...that other hill. To Philbrick, this enduring confusion is emblematic of the Bunker Hill story. “The whole thing’s a screw-up,” he says. “The Americans fortify the wrong hill, this forces a fight no one planned, the battle itself is an ugly and confused mess. And it ends with a British victory that’s also a defeat.”


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