One man’s tenacity is another’s foolish errand. What’s right and obvious to the man on the field may be inimical to the General who, possessing broader knowledge but not the danger, forms a different calculus. It’s largely a matter of point of view.
In this short “staff ride” we explore the decisions General William Howe and others faced in June 1775 to contemplate the line between what is prudent risk and reckless irresponsibility. For the sake of space, there are many aspects of the battle not discussed, leaders not talked about (Putnam and Warren to name just two) and events ignored or given short shrift. It’s a risk taken for the sake of a larger point.
As you read, keep in mind that boldness is usually seen as the correct choice once the smoke clears and you own the field, but hindsight is a luxury belonging to the critic. Commanders at each level must wrestle with the balance and decide before the outcome is known, and history is a harsh judge. Remember: You know how it’ll end. Howe and Prescott did not.
17 June 1775
The air was thick and foul with smoke. Thanks to His Majesty’s Navy, Charlestown was burning and its smoke and embers were mixing with the haze from the Navy’s active bombardment.
It was early afternoon and from his position on Morton’s Point General Howe could already see that he might need to adjust the plan drafted in Gage’s Boston headquarters just hours before. The concept of operations remained sound: fix and isolate the rebels defending from the Breed’s Hill redoubt, penetrate the extreme left of their position along the Mystic River, and storm the redoubt from its exposed flank. Yet the rebels seemed alert to his thinking and had filled in the gaps along their line. That narrow stretch of beach offering good cover for his Light Infantry’s rapid advance was now defended, as was the open terrain between Breed’s Hill and the beach.
While Howe thought back to the morning’s mission analysis and mentally rehearsed what adjustments he might need, he sent word back to Boston to ferry the reserve forces across the harbor. As noon settled into early afternoon, there was no sense of urgency; he’d attack when he was ready.
The confident General arrived only days earlier, coming from England accompanied by Generals Henry Clinton and Johnny Burgoyne. They came to “assist” General Thomas Gage, the present Governor and military commander of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was axiomatic to the newcomers that victory against the rebels was only a matter of will. The incident of 19 April notwithstanding, their plan would teach these rebels not to challenge the authority of His Majesty’s government, or the King’s soldiers.
Gage, whose reputation suffered greatly after that botched raid to Concord, might have wondered about the difference between a fresh set of eyes and a patronizing lack of strategic understanding, but he offered no hints.
Roughly 600 yards away from Howe on Breed’s Hill, in a redoubt hastily constructed overnight, the colonists knew less of their own disposition than he. As dawn broke and the Royal Navy began its terrifying bombardment, the men on Breed’s Hill realized how precarious their position really was. Both flanks were exposed, and the Regulars might easily cut them off from the mainland. There were angry murmurs of betrayal and treason that went beyond the grousing of tired and hungry soldiers. After all, they were told they’d only be there for the night. They believed that other regiments would do the fighting, but with the Regulars forming on Morton’s Point it was becoming obvious they were on their own. Except for the personal example and calm demeanor of the redoubt’s commander, William Prescott, desertions would have been rampant.
Unlike Howe, Prescott’s view of the situation was unclear; he could see the conflagration in Charlestown, the gathering regiments on Morton’s Point, and the Royal Navy’s gunboats and ships slipping around his right flank, but he couldn’t get a clear picture of his own left flank.
He had visibility on his redoubt and a breastwork stretching about 300 yards out to his left, but the dropping terrain obscured his view down the hill. Prescott knew enough to know his position was vulnerable to flanking.
Fortunately for him, hundreds of colonists from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut also saw this gap, and on their own initiative they plugged it. John Stark’s New Hampshire regiment came as part of the reinforcements ordered by Ward and the Committee of Safety - they occupied and fortified the stretch of beach adjacent to the Mystic River. Thomas Knowlton’s Connecticut men were actually part of the redoubt’s force, and were ordered to provide security for a battery of guns sent to oppose Howe’s landing. Some of the gun crews deserted. Knowlton and his men did not. They occupied a rail fence between Stark’s men, and the breastwork near the redoubt. These were the militia forces Howe saw complicating his plan.
The land these forces were contesting is a narrow peninsula no larger than a 15-minute walk between any two points. Where it joins the mainland at the Charlestown neck it’s barely wider than the road. Its main advantage lay in the ridge that ran along its length, comprising first of Bunker’s Hill, and closer to Boston, Breed’s Hill.
Control of this ridge, and the Dorchester Heights several miles away and to the south of Boston, meant control of the city, the harbor, and the fate of this burgeoning rebellion. The colonists occupied the heights on the Charlestown peninsula because they’d learned through gossip that Gage intended to seize both of these strategic points before the end of June. Their occupation didn’t change Gage’s plan, it simply offered him the opportunity to humiliate the militia in the process.
Artemis Ward understood this. As the nearest thing the colonists had to a commanding general, he knew that Gage and his formidable Army might just as easily strike the Dorchester Heights first, or Cambridge where the bulk of his army sat. Ward’s uncertainty, driven by sparse information and intelligence, required him to maintain a large reserve. The forces and supplies he designated for Charlestown, and the reinforcements ordered by the Committee of Safety over his objections, were all he could spare. Ward was right to be worried. An attack on Cambridge might be fatal to his Army and the entire cause.
Many on the Colonist’s side wondered whether Ward was too cautious, but no one on the British side appeared to ask the same of Gage as he authorized the direct assault on Charlestown. In fact, Gage contemptuously rejected any plan that gave the militia any credibility or respect. It’s interesting to note that neither the Professionals in the British Army, or the amateurs from the various New England militias had done any terrain analysis. There were few maps, and any reconnaissance missions were individual efforts largely ignored by planners. Most of the British officers still believed that the colonists would not stand firm and that a sophisticated operation was overly cautious.
None of this strategic posturing mattered to the tactical leaders staring down at the better part of the British forces in Boston. They were convinced that more regiments were available, and that Gage had no intention of striking out anywhere but here. They were angry Ward was holding any forces in reserve.
They might have been even angrier had they realized how many regiments were proving the British assessment correct. Hundreds of men were sitting just on the other side of the Charlestown neck, or even closer on Bunker’s Hill, but refused to come forward either due to fear or the effective Royal Navy gunboat fire enfilading Charlestown neck.
At 1500 hours, and despite some nagging issues with his artillery not being ready, Howe elected to attack as planned. To Howe, this was a prudent risk. Howe reasoned (as most officers in the British Army did) that these undisciplined militia could not withstand a charge from his professionals. He didn’t need to see the men crouching in fear near the neck to know they were there - he’d served with militia forces before.
In cases like these, knowing what defines discipline matters. A healthy disrespect for authority and a ragtag appearance may invite contempt by some, but consider that Stark and his men spent the hours before the battle carefully melting down and recasting ball to ensure that every man - no matter the caliber of his musket - was prepared.
They also thought about firing discipline, specifically placing aiming stakes out in front of their positions with admonitions to hold their fire until the Regulars crossed these imaginary lines. They took advantage of the natural terrain, using ditches, rocks, fences, and even cut grass to provide cover and concealment.
Undisciplined, indeed. These were hard men used to adversity, and they knew the difference between hard work and make-work. As his regiments stepped off shortly before 1500 hours, Howe did not see that his decisions were based on a faulty premise.
Nevertheless, what a terrible sight it must have been to Knowlton, Stark, and Prescott. Howe’s 2,300 men, including the elite Grenadiers and the finest light infantry in the world, were arrayed across the fields before them in precise lines and perfectly turned out uniforms and kits.
Staring down the hill, many in the militia’s line were tormented by the sight. They were out on a limb and they knew it. Most men only see a small slice of any battle and tend to exaggerate the conditions from their point of view, but here enough of the soldiers had experience from the French and Indian War to realize their positions were tenuous at best. They were isolated by the terrain, hamstrung by the lack of communications, and couldn’t synchronize or coordinate their actions. Howe had the luxury of choosing when and where to strike.
His regiments would rely on the standard British tactics of the day, which was to exploit the initiative with the cold steel 17-inch bayonet, not the .75 caliber musket ball. It meant having the nerve to get well within the 60-yard range of your enemy and after firing a volley, advancing at a run to deny your enemy the seconds he needed to reload.
The militia had no bayonets, no standard firearm, and no practice loading while under attack, but they did have stonewalls, fences, and earthen berms for protection. This made them confident, and as the fast moving light infantry got within the designated range, Stark’s men held firm, and opened fire.
Howe knew at once that his plan was in jeopardy as scores of men, including many of his aides and officers, were cut down or scrambled out of musket range. The fire from the rebel lines was devastating and his attack, particularly the decisive effort along the beach, had been stopped cold.
He also learned that the supporting attack commanded by General Pigot, the “fixing” force aimed at the redoubt, was so harassed by sharpshooters hiding amongst the rubble in Charlestown that they hardly had any effect at all. Not that it mattered given the colonist’s own lack of coordination - their redoubt was for all intensive purposes “fixed” no matter what Howe did.
In his assessment, Howe either did not see this or saw no reason to adjust his plan. After regrouping his main assault forces in mere minutes, he pressed forward again in roughly the same array. The only difference this time was that he saw the gap between the breastwork and the rail fence as his penetration point.
The terrain on the Charlestown peninsula was not as open as it appeared from afar, and just as the colonists used its ruts, stones, and fences to an advantage, the swamps and obstacles hidden by the tall grass conspired to bog down Howe’s artillery, and slow his men down making them vulnerable to the colonist’s withering fire.
Even as his regiments tried to respond with a volley of their own, the delay only cost him more men. (Not to mention that firing accurately uphill at men behind cover is far harder than it looks, so the gesture was largely in vain.)
His second attempt to press the attack failed as horribly as the first, so he pulled back to regroup and think. He might accomplish his mission with another assault, but he had to judge whether it was worth the cost.
The colonists were also of mixed minds now. Jubilant at their initial successes, they also knew they were running low on powder and ball. A few considered the possibility of risking a charge. If they ran down at the Regulars while they were so clearly in disarray, they might break Howe’s will, but with no means to coordinate or control such an aggressive effort, it never evolved beyond isolated acts of defiance. Their collective thinking seemed to center more on the hope that Howe would call off the attack, that he would concede the field to the militia.
When Howe pulled back this second time, some thought that’s exactly what he planned to do. At times such as these, emotions matter. Pride, anger, or despondency can grip a soldier and cloud clear thinking. Sometimes this is healthy as leaders don’t spend lives to assuage pride, but often it’s debilitating. If Howe wrestled with any doubt, he did not give in to his emotions. We know that he assessed the ground as a professional warrior and decided that another attempt was not a gamble – it was a prudent risk.
He thought about reviving one of the morning’s rejected plans, bringing the Navy and forces up around the Mystic to enfilade the hill and cut them off from the mainland, but the tides were now working against him. The Navy option was off the table.
There’s a fine line between boldness and slaughter. Sizing up the enemy’s strength or your own is not always a deliberate act. It’s intuitive, and based on years of experience reading men and complex situations. Howe would likely sense more than see his next move, and his instinct told him to press home the attack. Then, as now, his options to mitigate the obvious risks included accepting a smaller reserve, pushing a faster assault, or distributing the operation to cover more avenues to approach. Essentially, he opted for all three.
With his artillery problems sorted out, and with fresh reinforcements arriving, he decided this time to shift the main effort to his left flank, the colonist’s right flank where the redoubt stood, and with his guns simply isolate and hold the men along the rail fence and beach. The plan worked, and this final push succeeded in forcing the militia from their strong point.
The withdrawal was not a rout. The colonists made Howe’s regiments pay dearly for every foot of ground, and only began to give ground when they were down to their last rounds. Most of the regiments displaced, as if on cue, in a disciplined and orderly fashion from the fence line, breastwork, and redoubt.
The militia still might have won the day. They had the forces and materials sitting not more than 600 yards away, some on Bunker’s Hill and some just across the neck, to meet this last British assault and potentially crush Howe. They never saw the opportunity, or never took the risk.
The whole action took about an hour, and the British suffered dearly with more than 1,000 killed or wounded to the militia’s 400, but at sunset they held the ground.
Tactically, the British won.
It would be nearly a year before the British would strike out again. In April the newly designated Continental Army, now commanded by General George Washington, brought guns captured from Fort Ticonderoga (an astounding feat of logistics and engineering) and occupied the Dorchester Heights. Their subsequent bombardment forced Howe (now in command but probably much more sympathetic to his colleague, Thomas Gage) to order an attack.
Perhaps it was the specter of Charlestown, or the truly awful weather on the day of the planned operation, but Howe called off his plans and on 17 March 1776, he evacuated Boston and sailed for Canada.
Strategically, the British lost.
Lessons for Discussion
Educating leaders to identify and seize opportunity when the outcomes are uncertain and the stakes are high is not easy. While today’s doctrine provides guidance on what is prudent and what is reckless, the conformity of day-to-day military life may resonate louder. We need tougher conversations about expectations.
Stark acted without orders. Knowlton didn’t follow his. Prescott hardly gave any - except for the men in his direct line-of-sight, he left the battlefield to chance. Although Howe’s plan wasn’t nearly as unimaginative or ignorant as often portrayed (bullocks lined up for slaughter) he did accept casualty rates of nearly 50 percent for the sake of his orders, and his tactical victory enabled a strategic defeat. Today’s leader should wonder what actions they’d take given the same circumstances.
Mission Command is about knowing when to change the task to fit the purpose. Preparing for it requires a culture that not only tolerates mistakes, it rewards them. From point of view and perception to experience and background, we each see what is prudent, what is ethical, what is risk, differently. We mock reflective belts, the phrase “next slide, please,” and countless other examples of nannysim because it’s gallows humor. Too many leaders see a risk averse organization at odds with what they and their people are expected to do, and lash out in frustration. Perhaps you can’t change the system, but you can drive the conversation with OPD or NCOPD where you are in control. Study what happened in Boston in 1775 and discuss with your team what it takes to truly underwrite mistakes and shape the culture Mission Command requires.
Four excellent USMA maps of the Battle of Bunker Hill