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A Brief History of the Battle of Bunker Hill

On June 17, 1775, the Battle of Bunker Hill took place in Charlestown, Massachusetts, just across the harbor from Boston. While it was only the third battle of the Revolutionary War--a war that would last eight years--there would never be a bloodier one. More men died in this battle than any other and many of them were British soldiers.

Despite its name, the Battle of Bunker Hill actually took place on a shorter incline, Breed’s Hill. Colonial militia were instructed to build a redoubt on the highest point in Charlestown (Bunker Hill) for a defensive position. With no moon that night, they couldn’t see well and built instead on the 70-foot tall Breed’s Hill. This unwittingly put the colonists in an offensive position and British general, William Howe, felt he must respond.

The burning of Charlestown. Credit: Library of Congress

Prior to attacking the hill on June 17, 1775, British forces set fire to much of Charlestown. They then led three charges up the hill and were pushed back the first two times. The colonists had to retreat during the third assault and the British ultimately won the battle. The number of dead and wounded British soldiers hardly made the battle worth it. The British suffered a near 50% casualty rate! The colonists had less than half of the casualties of the British.

One devastating colonial fatality was Joseph Warren, a thirty-four-year-old doctor and key rebel leader. When Samuel Adams and John Hancock went to the Continental Congresses in Philadelphia in 1775, Warren was the one to keep an eye on Boston. And it was Warren who sent Paul Revere on his famous midnight ride. After the battle, Warren's body was identified by Revere, who recognized the false teeth he had made for Warren, becoming one of the first known examples of dental forensics in U.S. history.

Today, you can visit the battlefield--the last stop on the Freedom Trail--and see its massive monument. If you're adventurous, you can climb the 294 steps to the top. It is a tight, spiral staircase, but the views from the top are pretty spectacular and worth it, if confined spaces don't bother you too much. There is also a free museum across the street from the battlefield. We recommend going to the second floor and seeing the battle diorama.

Lastly, because we love historic sites AND historic taverns, before you leave Charlestown, we recommend visiting Warren Tavern, just a short walk away. It's named after Joseph Warren, who died in the Battle of Bunker Hill. For more on its history, get our ebook and check out this blog post.

And if you want more info about the battle and revolutionary Boston, check out our founder's book, Boston in the American Revolution: A Town Versus an Empire.


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