A Triumphant Defeat

It was on 17 June 1775 that the two-month old American Revolution first proved that it could more than match the might of the British Empire. It would be more than a year before independence was declared, but the hot war was in full play when British and American forces met on Breed’s Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Boston. For the Americans, there would be no turning back.

We have come to know the battle as “Bunker Hill,” that small rise being the more well-known landmark, but the fortified American position was atop the somewhat lower, nearby Breed’s Hill. The relatively small American force was well entrenched atop the hill, having spent the night of June 16/17 building barricades and digging in, but the British figured it would be a simple matter to dislodge them. The British had a more than five-to-one superiority over the Americans, and conventional military wisdom of that era held that a three-to-one superiority would be sufficient to take a fortified position. British pride, and their underestimation of the rebel troops, would not permit them to simply lay siege to the Colonials and starve them out. In hindsight, that might have been the more intelligent course of action.

The British – 5,000 Regular Army troops led by unusually skilled and experienced generals – were sure that they could handily defeat a “ragtag mob of Colonials.” They had not expected the American troops to be so disciplined, and they were not prepared for the excellent marksmanship. When the first British assault was launched at the American position, American General William Preston is famously said to have ordered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” As the redcoats came closer and closer, they grew more and more confident that the rebels had lost their nerve. Finally, at nearly point-blank range, the Americans opened with a fusillade of musket fire that shattered the British line, forcing them to withdraw, leaving more than 110 soldiers dead. The Americans hardly lost a man in that first engagement.

The British mounted a second assault which was also repulsed, but by the time the third British assault was underway, the Americans were running low on powder and bullets. At last the British overwhelmed the American position in a vicious hand-to-hand fight, and the Yankees retreated from the battlefield, ceding the all-important high-ground to the redcoats. The Battle of Bunker Hill was thus a significant defeat for the American war effort. Yet it remains a much-celebrated battle to this day. By any standards the British won: they had gained a clear tactical victory, driving the rebels from the field; they had gained a crucial strategic advantage as well, being left in control of heights overlooking Boston from which they could control access to the city. But the British victory was certainly a Pyrrhic victory – a victory that costs more than it is worth – for they had lost over 1,100 men compared to the Americans’ loss of fewer than 400. This “victory” was among the deadliest, costliest battles the British fought in the entire Revolutionary War. “Another victory such as this and we are ruined.” But it was the Americans who actually gained the most from this battle, for they had shown themselves, and the British, and, indeed, the whole of the watching world, that American troops could take on the mighty British Army and give better than they got. They could fight the war, and they could win it.

It is odd to note that during the protracted and fierce struggle of the American Revolution, the Americans won very few major victories. There were Washington’s successes at Trenton and Princeton in 1776, the all-important victory at Saratoga in 1777, Cowpens in 1781, and, of course the final triumph over Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown. But on the whole, the forces of the United States tended to come off the losers in pitched battles. Yet they won the war, a fact for which I am deeply grateful.

The British had to gain a smashing victory if they were to emerge from the conflict as the winners, but the Americans merely had to keep from being utterly defeated. Washington was brilliantly successful in recognizing and taking advantage of this fact. So long as the Continental Army was in the field, Britain could not win. By the time Cornwallis capitulated at Yorktown, the British government had grown weary of a long, enormously expensive war of attrition, and so initiated negotiations. Thus a new nation was fully born, and it started not with a rousing victory, but an inspiring defeat.

In the 19th century, Bostonians raised a monument to the battle, a squat, rough-hewn stone obelisk that dominates the Charlestown skyline even today. A few years ago, a new highway bridge into the heart of Old Boston was opened. It is the latest word in modern design: a stunning cable-stay bridge of remarkable grace and lightness. In June of 2005 I had the opportunity to drive over it as I headed into Logan Airport at 5:30 in the morning. The dawn was already well underway, and the sunlight on that bridge made for a striking scene. And then I noticed something that I had not observed when I had crossed it late at night a few days earlier: the two towers of the bridge are capped with concrete obelisks which echo the lines of the Bunker Hill Monument. The old blends with the very newest, and a long-ago triumphant loss is still remembered and honored, just as it should be.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I always say that, next to a battle lost,
the greatest misery is a battle gained.

— Wellington, “Recollections”