American Revolution/Ticonderoga and Bunker Hill

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Capture of Fort Ticonderoga[edit | edit source]

Concerns[edit | edit source]

Even before shooting in the American Revolutionary War started, American Revolutionaries were concerned about Fort Ticonderoga. The fort was a valuable asset for several reasons. First of all, within its walls were a number of cannons and massive artillery, something the Americans had in short supply. Secondly, the fort was situated in the strategically important Lake Champlain valley, the route between the rebellious Thirteen Colonies and the British-controlled Canadian provinces. After the war began at the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the Americans decided to seize the fort before it could be reinforced by the British, who might then use the fort to stage attacks on the American rear. It is unclear who first proposed capturing the fort: the idea has been credited to John Brown, Benedict Arnold, and Ethan Allen, among others.

The Capture[edit | edit source]

Two independent expeditions to capture Ticonderoga—one out of Massachusetts and the other from Connecticut—were organized. At Cambridge, Massachusetts, Benedict Arnold told the Massachusetts Committee of Safety about the cannon and other military stores at the lightly defended fort. On May 3, 1775, the Committee gave Arnold a colonel's commission and authorized him to command a secret mission to capture the fort.

Ethan Allen demanding the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga

Meanwhile, in Hartford, Connecticut, Silas Deane and others had organized an expedition of their own. Ethan Allen assembled over 100 of his Green Mountain Boys, about 50 men were raised by James Easton at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and an additional 20 men from Connecticut volunteered. This force of about 170 gathered on May 7 at Castleton, Vermont. Ethan Allen was elected colonel, with Easton and Seth Warner as his lieutenants. Samuel Herrick was sent to Skenesboro and Asa Douglas to Panton with detachments to secure boats. Meanwhile, Captain Noah Phelps reconnoitered the fort disguised as a peddler. He saw that the fort walls were in a dilapidated condition and learned from the garrison commander that the British soldiers' gunpowder was wet. He returned and reported these facts to Ethan Allen.

On May 9, Benedict Arnold arrived in Castleton and insisted that he was taking command of the operation, based on his orders and commission from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. Many of the Green Mountain Boys objected, insisting that they would go home rather than serve under anyone but Ethan Allen. Arnold and Allen worked out an agreement, but no documented evidence exists about what the terms of the agreement were. According to Arnold, he was given joint command of the operation.

One guard tried to stop the invaders by firing a shot, but the musket flashed in the pan. The only injury was to one American, who was slightly injured by a sentry with a bayonet.

Crown Point and Fort St. Johns[edit | edit source]

Seth Warner marched a detachment up the lake shore and captured nearby Fort Crown Point, garrisoned by only nine men. On May 12, Allen sent the prisoners to Connecticut's Governor Jonathan Trumbull noting that "I make you a present of a Major, a Captain, and two Lieutenants of the regular Establishment of George the Third."

Arnold took a small schooner and several bateaux from Skenesboro north with 50 volunteers. On May 18, they seized another garrison at Fort St. Johns along with the Enterprise, a seventy ton sloop. Aware that several companies were stationed twelve miles (19 km) down river at Chambly, they loaded the more valuable captured supplies and cannon, burned the boats they could not take and returned to Crown Point.

Benedict Arnold

Ethan Allen and his men returned home. Benedict Arnold remained with some Connecticut replacements in command at Ticonderoga. At first the Continental Congress wanted the men and forts returned to the British, but on May 31 they bowed to pressure from Massachusetts and Connecticut and agreed to keep them. Connecticut sent a regiment under Colonel Benjamin Hinman to hold Ticonderoga. When Arnold learned that he was second to Hinman, he resigned his Connecticut commission and went home.

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

Although Fort Ticonderoga was no longer an important military post, its capture had several important results. Because rebel control of the area meant that overland communications and supply lines between British forces in Quebec and Boston were severed, British war planners in London made an adjustment to their command structure. Command of British forces in North America, previously under a single commander, was divided into two commands. Sir Guy Carleton was given independent command of forces in Quebec, while General William Howe was appointed Commander-in-Chief of forces along the Atlantic coast, an arrangement that had worked well between Generals Wolfe and Amherst in the Seven Years' War. In this war, however, cooperation between the two forces would prove to be problematic and would play a role in the failure of the Saratoga campaign in 1777.

Bunker Hill[edit | edit source]

British Strategy[edit | edit source]

Boston, being on a peninsula, was largely protected from close approach by the expanses of water surrounding it, dominated by British warships. With the troops in the city able to be resupplied and reinforced by sea, a simple "strangulation" siege could be very protracted, and might be ultimately unsuccessful. Were the besieging Continentals able to bombard the city, on the other hand, the progress of the ongoing siege could be greatly hastened. If a position could be taken (and fortified) close to the city, an artillery bombardment could be begun.

The Charlestown Peninsula started from a short, narrow isthmus at its northwest, extending about one mile (1,600 meters) southeastward into Boston Harbor. Bunker Hill is an elevation (110 feet or 34 meters) at the north of the peninsula and Breed's Hill, at a height of 62 feet (19 meters), is more southerly and nearer to Boston. The town of Charlestown occupied the flats at the southern end of the peninsula. At its closest approach, less than 1,000 feet (300 meters) separated Charlestown Peninsula from the Boston Peninsula, specifically an area occupied by Copp's Hill at about the same height as Breed's Hill. Both sides seem to have realized Charlestown's importance at about the same time.

American Defenses[edit | edit source]

On the night of June 16–17, Colonial Colonel William Prescott led 1,500 men onto the peninsula in order to set up positions from which artillery fire could be directed into Boston as part of the siege of that city. At first, Putnam, Prescott, and their engineering officer, Captain Richard Gridley, disagreed as to where they should locate their defense. Initial work was performed on Bunker Hill, but Breed's Hill was closer to Boston and viewed as being more defensible, and they decided to build their primary redoubt there. Prescott and his men, using Gridley's outline, began digging a fortification 160 feet (50 m) long and 80 feet (25 m) wide with ditches and earthen walls. They added ditch and dike extensions toward the Charles River on their right and began reinforcing a fence running to their left.

The American defenses.

The Battle[edit | edit source]

In the early predawn, around 4 a.m., a sentry on board HMS Lively spotted the new fortification. Lively opened fire, temporarily halting the Colonists' work. Aboard his flagship HMS Somerset, Admiral Samuel Graves awoke irritated by the gunfire which he had not ordered. He stopped it, only to reverse his decision when he got on deck and saw the works. He ordered all 128 guns in the harbor to fire on the Colonists' position, but the broadsides proved largely ineffective since the guns could not be elevated enough to reach the fortifications.

It took almost six hours to organize an infantry force and to gather up and inspect the men on parade. General Howe was to lead the major assault, drive around the Colonist's left flank, and take them from the rear. Brigadier General Robert Pigot on the British left flank would lead the direct assault on the redoubt. Major John Pitcairn led the flank or reserve force. It took several trips in longboats to transport Howe's forces to the eastern corner of the peninsula, known as Moulton's Hill. On a warm day, with wool tunics and full field packs of about 60 pounds (27 kg), the British were finally ready by about 2 p.m.

The British Attack.

The Colonists, seeing this activity, had also called for reinforcements. Troops reinforcing the forward positions included the 1st and 3rd New Hampshire regiments of 200 men, under Colonels John Stark and James Reed (both later became generals). Stark's men took positions along the fence on the north end of the Colonist's position. When low tide opened a gap along the Mystic River along the northeast of the peninsula, they quickly extended the fence with a short stone wall to the north ending at the water's edge on a small beach. Gridley or Stark placed a stake about 100 feet (30 m) in front of the fence and ordered that no one fire until the regulars passed it. Private (later Major) John Simpson, however, disobeyed and fired as soon as he had a clear shot, thus starting the battle. The battle of Bunker Hill, had begun.

General Howe detached both the light infantry companies and grenadiers of all the regiments available. Along the narrow beach, the far right flank of the Colonist position, Howe set his light infantry. They lined up four across and several hundred deep, led by officers in scarlet red jackets. Behind the crude stone wall stood Stark's men. In the middle of the British lines, to attack the rail fence between the beach and redoubt stood Reed's men and the remainder of Stark's New Hampshire regiment. To oppose them, Howe assembled all the flank companies of grenadiers in the first line, supported by the 5th and 52nd Regiments' line companies. The attack on the redoubt itself was led by Brigadier General Robert Pigot, commanding the 38th and 43rd line companies, along with the Marines.

Prescott had been steadily losing men. He lost very few to the bombardment but assigned ten volunteers to carry the wounded to the rear. Others took advantage of the confusion to join the withdrawal. Two generals did join Prescott's force, but both declined command and simply fought as individuals. By the time the battle had started, 1,400 defenders faced 2,600 regulars.

The continued British Attack.

The first assaults on the fence line and the redoubt were met with massed fire at close range and repulsed, with heavy British losses. The reserve, gathering just north of the town, was also taking casualties from rifle fire in the town. Howe's men reformed on the field and made a second unsuccessful attack at the wall.

In the third British assault the reserves were included and both flanks concentrated on the redoubt. This attack was successful. The defenders had run out of ammunition, reducing the battle to close combat. The British had the advantage here as their troops were equipped with bayonets on their muskets but most of the Colonists did not have them.

The British advance, and the Colonists' withdrawal, swept through the entire peninsula, including Bunker Hill as well as Breed's Hill. However, under Putnam, the Colonists were quickly in new positions on the mainland. Coupled with the exhaustion of Howe's troops, there was little chance of advancing on Cambridge and breaking the siege.

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

The British had taken the ground but at a great loss; 1,054 were shot (226 dead and 828 wounded), and a disproportionate number of these were officers. The Colonial losses were only about 450, of whom 140 were killed (including Joseph Warren), and 30 captured (20 of whom died later as POWs). Most Colonial losses came during the withdrawal. Major Andrew McClary was the highest ranking Colonial officer to die in the battle (also reportedly the last casualty).

Afterwards, British General Henry Clinton remarked in his diary that "A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America."