Any soldier or sailor will tell you that veteran experience can make all the difference in war. This has been true in all armies throughout time, including the American Revolution. The Battle of Bunker Hill was one of the first engagements as well as the first “traditional” military action of the conflict. The British “Redcoats,” widely regarded as the greatest army of the world at that time, only narrowly defeated the colonial forces. How did half-trained militiamen manage to hold out against the finest European troops until the colonial forces literally ran out of ammunition and were forced to retreat?
One of the greatest and most unrecognized factors in the colonial success was veteran leadership. While the average colonial soldier on the field at Bunker Hill was relatively inexperienced, his officers were not. Many of the officers had served as militia leaders for decades, including more than one veteran of the Seven Years’ War, fought twenty years before. The lessons these men brought back from their service in the last great colonial war were crucial to the rebel defense.
One of the most experienced officers on the field was Colonel William Prescott. He was a veteran of the 1755 and 1759 expeditions against Nova Scotia during the Seven Years’ War. He served with such distinction that he was offered a commission in the regular army, a rare honor for a colonial officer. Prescott declined, and returned home to Pepperell, Massachusetts. He was one of the most well-known and well-respected men in the entire state militia. After the Lexington alarm in April 1775, he and many of his men rushed to Boston to join the fight against the Regulars. When the rebels learned that General Thomas Gage, leader of the besieged British Army, planned to fortify Dorchester Heights to protect Boston Harbor, colonial leaders appointed Prescott to fortify Bunker Hill to head them off.
Prescott’s poise under fire kept his men at their posts during the Battle of Bunker Hill. The British advanced on the hill three times before the rebels were forced to disengage, while Prescott encouraged his men, praising them and impressing upon them that it would not be easy to defeat the British. His ability to think and plan in the midst of battle kept his men in the fight. During the second British advance, realizing that the redoubt was running low on ammunition, Prescott gave his men expert orders. He later wrote:
A less able commander, one unaccustomed to being under fire or leading soldiers, might not have been clear-headed enough to appraise his supplies and order his men to hold their fire, especially when the ferocity of their defense was so effective. That his men responded to his command attests to their faith in him as a leader.
The previous wartime experience of the Colonials also explains why they were eager to fight there in the first place. The militia leadership forced a showdown by fortifying Bunker Hill, knowing that Gage could not ignore a fortified enemy position that threatened his ships. This harked back to the 1758 Battle of Fort Ticonderoga, in which many of the colonial officers had served. At that engagement, determined French defenders held back a vastly superior British force. Despite outnumbering the French four to one, the English army was repulsed.
In that engagement, many of the units that led the British charge consisted of colonial troops. The provincials therefore had a front row seat to the importance of a strong fortification to a numerically inferior defensive force. The Colonials understood that a strong fortification stood a good chance of repulsing any advance. Knowing this, they took the British threat of occupying Dorchester seriously enough to preempt that move at Bunker Hill, and Prescott and his men worked through the night to make their own redoubt as strong as possible. The men continued working on it almost until the very minute the British advance began up the hill.
While it is true that the British technically won at Bunker Hill by taking the field, their victory was in name only. The colonials inflicted substantial damage on the British army, destroying many of General Gage’s best troops. Some units were so badly decimated that, in the aftermath of the battle, they could barely field any men at all. The British units along the Colonial left in particular suffered greatly, losing nearly seven out of ten men, and almost all of their officers. The Redcoats were so shaken that they rarely ventured out of Boston again before abandoning the city the following year.
If the colonial officers at Bunker Hill had been inexperienced, it is hard to believe that the outcome would have been the same. The military experience of the colonial veterans of the Seven Years’ War was one of the most influential and unrecognized factors in the course of the Battle of Bunker Hill.