Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill which took place 30 miles south of here on June 17, 1775. We are fast approaching the semiquincentennial (or 250th anniversary) of this event so there will be more attention paid to it in the coming years.
Before considering the details of this battle, I find it helpful to review the chronology of (some of) the early engagements of the Revolutionary War:
- April 19, 1775 – Fight at Lexington and Concord
- May 10, 1775 – Benedict Arnold & Ethan Allen capture Fort Ticonderoga
- June 17, 1775 – Battle of Bunker Hill
- December 31, 1775 – Benedict Arnold & Richard Montgomery attack Quebec City
- January 1776 – Henry Knox arrives outside of Boston with cannon from Ticonderoga
- March 17, 1776 – After Washington’s troops fortify Dorchester Heights, the British evacuate Boston.
Although Lowell was not founded as a town until 1826, the area that became Lowell was inhabited in 1775 by many farmers and merchants who were members of the local militia companies. Some were veterans of the French and Indian War (1754-1763).
On the morning of April 19, 1775, the firing at Concord’s North Bridge could be heard here in what was then part of Chelmsford which was just 14 miles away. The local militia companies formed up and moved out. Many participated in the fighting as the British retreated back to Boston that day. The same militia companies remained on duty on the outskirts of Boston and fought at Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.
The Americans precipitated the battle by occupying and fortifying the high ground of Charlestown’s Bunker and Breeds Hills on the evening of June 16/17. These strategic heights had been left unoccupied and the colonists learned or suspected that the British had imminent plans to cross the Charles River from Boston and emplace troops on the two hills.
When the British awoke on the morning of June 17 and acknowledged the threat these new fortifications posed to their base in Boston, they immediately organized an attack on the American position. Although the actions at Lexington, Concord, and the retreat back to Boston had been deadly, there had been large scale confrontation between the British Army and the American militia. Consequently, as they prepared to attack on June 17, the British commanders believed that the untrained militia would immediately flee in the face of the advancing British troops. The British commanders were wrong.
The British, led by General William Howe (no relation), landed on the Charlestown peninsula on the morning of the 17th, took half the day to get organized, and then attacked the dug-in Americans three times. Each time they were repulsed with heavy casualties until the colonists ran out of ammunition and were overrun. The victory was costly for the British who suffered more than 1000 casualties (228 killed and 800 wounded). The Americans suffered significant casualties but far fewer than the British, and most of the American troops were able to retreat to safety.
The real impact of Bunker Hill occurred months later when the news of the heavy casualties finally reached England. Many who saw Lexington and Concord as an unfortunate misunderstanding and who were working for reconciliation, abandoned all hope of a peaceful and fast resolution of the conflict and resolved themselves to a long and costly fight.