For most of the hot afternoon of June 17, 1775, the distance between the American and British forces had been measured in hundreds of yards. The provincial army hunkered within their hastily constructed earthen fortifications atop Breed’s Hill in Charlestown and watched as the British Army inexorably advanced, steadily closing the distance between them. The provincial soldiers in the fort had repulsed the British twice already, by inflicting a devastating fire which rapidly thinned British ranks and engendered much consternation within British lines.
But finally, after approximately two hours of the hottest firefight many of the men had ever known, as the smoke from burning Charlestown billowed and the roar of cannon and musketry shattered the stillness of the Massachusetts countryside, the Americans’ ammunition was running precariously low. Though the redoubt’s earthen walls yet bristled with provincial musket barrels, and the Americans’ sweat-streaked faces still regarded the approaching British with unwavering determination, it would now be only a matter of time before British forces succeeded in entering the redoubt.
Present among the farmers and tradesmen in the fort was Doctor and Major General Joseph Warren.
Flouting the pleas of his friends not to go to Charlestown, Warren had arrived at the redoubt sometime during the afternoon. Despite his position as Chair of Committee of Safety and President of the Provincial Congress, and his new commission as a Major General in the provincial army, Warren took up arms at Bunker Hill as a volunteer soldier. He was likely in the redoubt along with about 150 provincial soldiers during the final British attempt to overrun the American fortifications.
Just days after the battle, British Lieutenant John Waller of the Royal Marines recounted the final moment when the British finally penetrated the redoubt. With American fire slackening due to the shortage of gunpowder, the British, with bayonets fixed, “mounted the Hedges without firing a Shot, and ran directly up the Talus, got into the Ditch and mounted the Parapet.”
The inevitable moment had arrived. Enraged British soldiers, frenzied from enduring two hours of devastating fire and a shocking casualty rate, surged over the walls of the redoubt, “driving bayonets into all whom opposed them.”
All afternoon, the provincial soldiers had been timing their fire according to distance, only firing when the British were within a certain range. But suddenly, with one mighty and final surge, the British closed the distance between themselves and the provincial army. Within the earthen walls of the redoubt, the two sides finally met in a terrible clash.
Lt. Waller continued, “I cannot pretend to describe the Horror of the Scene within the Redoubt when we enter'd it, 'twas streaming with Blood & strew'd with dead & dying Men the Soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the Brains of others.”
In another letter, Lt. Waller said, “Nothing could be more shocking than the carnage that followed the storming this work. We tumbled over the dead to get at the living, who were crowding out of the gorge of the redoubt, in order to form under the defences which they had prepared to cover their retreat.”
Provincial soldiers in the redoubt, out of gunpowder, time, and distance, wielded their muskets like clubs, bludgeoning any British soldier within their radius, and when the stocks broke, used the barrels. Men who had lost their muskets hurled stones.
Colonel Prescott ordered a retreat, and provincial soldiers fought their way through bayonet-wielding British soldiers to reach the exit at rear of the redoubt.
Some soldiers escaped. Lieutenant Amos Farnsworth remained in the redoubt until it was breached. “We within the intrenchment … sustained the Enemy’s Attacks with [g]reat Bravery and Resolution, killed and wounded great Numbers, and repulsed them several times; and after bearing for about 2 Hours, as severe and heavy a Fire as perhaps ever was known, and many having fired away all their Ammunition, and having no Reinforsement…we ware over-powered by Numbers and obliged to leave the Intrenchment retreating about Sunset, to a small Distance over Charlestown Neck. N.B. I Did not leave the Intrenchment until the Enemy got in.”
Private Peter Brown was in the redoubt when the British surged over the parapet. At the retreat, he “Jump'd over the wall and ran half a Mile, where balls flew like hail stones and Cannon roar'd like thunder.”
As Lt. Farnsworth ran, he was shot in the arm and a ball grazed his back, carrying away a chunk of flesh. “Oh the goodness of God in Preserving my life, althoe thay fell on my Right hand and on my left,” he later lamented in his journal, struggling to write with a wounded arm.
Private Brown, too, expressed wonder and gratitude that his life was somehow spared. “Oh may I never forget Gods distinguishing Mercy to me, in sparing my Life, when they fell on my right hand, and on my left, and close by me, they were to the eye of reason no more expos'd than myself.”
Dr. and Major General Joseph Warren likely escaped the redoubt, too. He was not as lucky as Farnsworth and Brown, however. At some point during the retreat, General Warren was shot in the head and killed.
Perhaps Warren was among the fallen brethren that Private Brown was thinking of when he wrote in a letter to his mother, “When the Arrows of death flew thick around me, I was preserv'd while others were suffer'd to fall a prey to our Cruel enemies.”
June 21, 1775 Letter from Lt. J. Waller to a Friend, Massachusetts Historical Society
June 25, 1775 Letter from Peter Brown to his Mother, Massachusetts Historical Society
Samuel Adams Drake, Bunker Hill: The Story Told in Letters from the Battle Field by British Officers Engaged (Boston: Nichols Hall,), 1875
Judge Prescott’s Account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1875-1876
Diary of Lt. Amos Farnsworth, Volume XII, 1897-1899