Battle Analysis: The Battle of Bunker Hill
CPT Matthew J. BochenekAVC3 18-02
The American Revolutionary War had officially begun as the Battle of Lexington and Concord began. This was the first engagement of the war and turned out to be a strategic victory for the colonial army. As a result, the British forces were driven back to Boston, Massachusetts. The continental army looked to surround Boston and cut off supply and reduce combat power to the British military. General Howe and other British leadership knew how decisive it was to control the peninsula of Charlestown, that surrounded Boston. However, this peninsula which possessed two hill tops both Bunker and Breeds Hill, was currently in control by the Continental Army. This conflict progressed into the Battle of Bunker Hill. The rebel forces lost the peninsula and battle due to inconsistent Mission Command and Sustainment. Throughout this analysis the united colonies will be referred to the colonial army or rebels due to their unorganized current command structure. This analysis will summarize the battle through the levels of war, warfighting functions, principles of warfighting functions, and a conclusion.
Real estate was on the horizon and power over these lands were craved among worlds powers. The French and Indian War was over, with the result of a British victory. However, there was conflict in regard to colonial leadership and the British over representation over taxation. War was inevitable due to each sides interests and members of the continental army were up against a very critical, complex and audacious task. This was working to declare Independence against arguably the most powerful military in the world. Meanwhile, the French progressed into an Ally for the future United States of America despite any previous conflict over the French and Indian War. The French seen this as a potential course of action to weaken their rival country. In addition, the Native American tribes were against any action taking their territory, but had an interest to go against rebel forces in regard to the colonials who currently lived among their homeland.
The plan of the Americans was the simple defensive- to oppose the British as best as they could at every point. British Generals Howe and Gage knew the Boston Siege would continue if the colonials continue to control Bunker Hill. The British viewed this siege as embarrassing and it must end as quickly as possible. Colonial General Ward after analyzing potential enemy courses of action concluded that the areas around Boston needed to be defended. The strategic view was that the British must not get control of the Charlestown peninsula, which was located less than a mile northwest of Boston. Holding their position was high level purpose to quarantine the British forces and looking to strike their morale at the strategic level. Also, continuing to defend areas may result in increased support and acceptance from France to the colonies at the strategic level.
Operationally tactical actions needed to be coordinated to achieve that strategic purpose. This coordination involved an area defense around the areas surrounding Boston, so the enemy forces could not advance into friendly territory. The rebel’s intent was to hold the terrain for time in order to deny the enemy access to the peninsula and force them to retreat. General Howe and Gage both knew the Boston siege would continue if they were surrounded, and the colonial could even progress to indirect fire into city. The colonial militia conducted analysis and that analysis resulted in the peninsula of Charlestown needed to be defended to prevent a British advance. This analysis was concluded to an efficient spy system where they were all keenly aware of William Howe’s plan to break the siege of Boston.
The colonial forces in Massachusetts needed a leader to take command and build a hasty plan to deny the British from achieving a potential advance from Boston. The man was Colonel William Prescott who was a native from Pepperell, Massachusetts. He was now forty-three and fought prior as a lieutenant in the colonial regiments to help the British against the French in 1759. After his prior military experience he was offered a commission in the Royal Army but refused that honor and returned to farming. He had been known as a confident serious man who always carried himself in a military professional matter. Now Colonel Prescott with 1200 men had a challenging mission that could potentially have a significant effect operationally for both forces.
Tactually the objective was to establish and hold an area defense around the Charleston peninsula and deny the British forces access to any advancement. The
Royal Navy established a presence in the surrounding river that would greatly affect their position and protection. This peninsula had two distinct hill tops one named Bunker and the other was Breeds Hill, as one can see from the picture above. The summits of the two hills were a half mile apart, but the slopes were connected by a saddle between them which was more elevated then the rest of the peninsula. These two hill tops were very decisive in pertaining to military aspects of terrain. A long debate resulting in a decision to place the main work on Breeds Hill with supporting elements on Bunker Hill. This would keep the colonials in safe range from the Royal Navy and potential early warning with reaction time with the assault.
The tactics came into execution on how to design a battle plan to deny the British from an avenue of approach from their amphibious arrival. Colonel Prescott realized after quick analysis that he had less than twenty-four hours to develop a plan to hold off the best military of the world with limited men and sustainment. He decided to build defensive positions around the terrain at the tops of the hill, “dig men dig, dig for your lives” he meant every word of it. His men worked all through the night with limited rest and sustainment to meet their commander’s intentions. The defensive fortifications were set now the colonial detachment waited for both the enemy and reinforcements.
The next morning, the Royal Navy became aware of the fortifications and began firing in the direction of them. Shortly after 1530 local time the British Army landed on the peninsula with intentions to breach rebel forces and take their territory. The battle lasted two hours and the rebel fortifications became extremely effective. The colonial forces held off two British assaults onto both Breeds and Bunker Hill. Colonel Prescott became aware adequate reinforcements were neither arriving as planned nor sustainment and gave the order to not fire until you see the white of their eyes. This was due to the fact that every single bullet mattered for it was limited and they had very minor artillery support. The defensive positions were very effective, and they caught the British with both surprise and great audacity from the rebels. The British retreated and formed another formation looking to both flank Breeds Hill and pushed towards Bunker Hill. Colonel Prescott knew this event was decisive and if they could hold the British off one more time, they may capture the Royals military will to fight that day on 17 June 1775.
The final assault began, and the colonial forces become almost completely physically combat effective due to both lack of ammunitions, gunpowder and even bayonets. The British possessed both and began to advance. Colonel Prescott after fighting very tactfully and desire shouted the order to retreat. The colonial army on the peninsula fell back and retreated leaving their former area of operations, that was now occupied by the British forces. The British forces did not conduct a pursuit following the rebels retreat, but instead seized the peninsula.
This was considered a British victory due to the fact that the colonial army’s defense fell, and they were driven off the peninsula. However, the British forces suffered a significant number of casualties and the feeling that this would be a quick war became more distant. In less than two hours British casualties numbered at 1054 and American casualties were 450. One quarter of the number of British officers that died in the American Revolution were from this single battle. Most of the losses from the colonial army came from the retreat after the third assault. This was a tactical loss due to the territory lost from the opposing force. These series of early tactical actions really established both the rebel’s presence and what they required to accomplish the mission. Operationally this was a slight negative, but it proved the colonial army if synchronized can defeat the British in future conflicts. Strategically the colonial army started creating positive relationships with the French that will play a significant role further in the American Revolutionary War.
Analysis per Warfighting Function
Analyzing the six United States Army’s warfighting functions, one can correlate the ultimate result per Colonel Prescott’s force. These six group of tasks and systems united by a common purpose that commanders use to accomplish the missions. First, Intelligence helped create the understanding of the enemy forces time of attack as well as a most likely avenue of approach. Colonel Prescott used this information to select Breeds Hill and other battle positions to oppose the British. Also, he used this collection of intelligence from scouts to develop a hasty timeline on when to begin creating these positions. The intelligence helped facilitate rebel forces with a strong start; however as the situation progressed this process weakened. Eventually the British adapted and penetrated the area defense successfully.
The protection really became significant when the British Royal Navy was not consistent or effective as planned. The rebel forces were not only protected by terrain, but range which really preserved their force at the start of the conflict. Also, the fortified positions around Breeds Hill helped create surprise and mitigate vulnerability. Colonel Prescott really understood protection and that reflected in the lower amount of losses the colonial forces faced. He even checked the solidity of the wall until he was satisfied. The only negative on the protection analysis was a gap in defense along the rail fence which covered Colonel Prescott’s left flank and was the first place of likely contact from the enemy.
The rebel forces had very little indirect fires capability and was not integrated into the execution phase. The artillery pieces were used and positioned to help deliver fire support against advancing British forces. The utilization of more indirect fire capabilities could have not only been extremely lethal but could have disrupted the landing British forces on the peninsula. The colonial forces did have plenty of rifles and their utilization of direct fires was a pure success against the first two British frontal assaults. However, having more direct and indirect fires could have affected their lethality later in the execution phase of the fight and degraded the enemies’ combat power significantly.
Movement and maneuver played a significant role in both planning and execution. The rebel forces planned fortified positions and were an extreme advantage over the enemy. They chose high ground on Breeds Hill to position forces. However, they suffered a potential vital gap in coverage where the British could have cut them in half. The peninsula is connected by a narrow piece of land and if the British would have strategically blocked this land they would have cut the colonials in half. During the battle the colonial forces really only maneuvered when they retreated. This was easily predicted by the British leadership, and they knew where and how to employ their forces in order to breach the rebel forces.
Sustainment is viewed as one of the main contributors leading the colonial forces retreat. They eventually lacked the support and services which reflected in their endurance. The rebel forces worked thirty-six hours straight with little to no food and no class one or five resupply. Ultimately the rebel forces had zero ammunitions left to defend British forces on the third assault. At close quarters, having few bayonets of our own, the rebels were no match for the disciplined regulars.This was not forecasted, and the rebel leadership emphasized the significance of ammunition usage. Rebel forces were unable to maintain operations to accomplish the mission.
Most importantly, Colonel Prescott’s mission command across the force played a vital role. The colonial forces seemed to know their mission on defending the peninsula. However, there were two commanders on the field that day Prescott and Putnam. This balance of command really effected the orders and who was giving them. Colonel Prescott did have subordinate commanders, such as John Stark, show great disciplined initiative along the rail fence in defending the gap which proved to be vital. In addition, he had a strong presence and had it not been for Colonel Prescott there would have been no fight. Colonel Prescott did fail to integrate other warfighting functions such as sustainment into battle which impacted them significantly. Also, he failed to communicate his status of his force to higher headquarters efficiently which could have brought in reinforcement and added mass prior to the third assault.
Lastly, the higher headquarters were not organized or unified. The colonial forces would not be unified until after the Battle of Bunker Hill when Continental Congress put George Washington in command. This shows the unorganized structure that continued to proceed downward. This really effected the shared understanding which could have enabled other resources at this decisive time. Also, wouldn’t this raise any questions as to who exactly at this moment was controlling these functions in higher headquarters?
Mission Command Principles
1. Build Cohesive Teams Through Mutual Trust. The battle plans and time to react were minimized greatly. The unorganized colonial forces knew who their enemy was and the ground they had to hold. A majority of the soldiers knew or have heard of their commander, Colonel Prescott. His prior experience and productive past reflected a lot of trust in his unit he was commanding. He had little to no time to build his team and enhance those relationships. He mainly relied on trust, for he had no time to develop this principal.
Although Prescott earned a strong and military productive past, trust must be earned and maintained. He spent the little time he had preparing their battle positions for the probable British assault. A few soldiers even withdrew well prior to the start of the battle. Also, some even questioned who was in charge with Colonel Prescott and General Putnam giving orders. He created little shared confidence through his actions just prior and during the battle. He constantly walked the lines with no fear, but not all could see this or value these actions. If Colonel Prescott was able to enhance this principle, then it would have affected trust among the small army. Fewer soldiers would have withdrawn prior to the fight potentially and there would have been no question of authority.
2. Colonel Prescott was able to create shared understanding. The task was simple, and the stage was set. An area defense was the tactic used to potentially deny the enemy access to the peninsula. The fact that men spent a great deal of time building defensive battle position really reflects this principal. Prescott knew building these positions and class five consumption would dictate if they would accomplish their mission. Soldiers would not have spent the amount of labor they did if this purpose wasn’t stated. In addition, soldiers wouldn’t have waited until the British were well within range to engage to spare ammunition.
3. Provide a clear commanders intent and 4. Exercise disciplined initiative. Strategically the colonial forces were fighting a defensive war. As stated prior the soldiers knew their mission on defending the peninsula. Whether there was a formal briefing or not, one can see that the force acted within this guidance. Thomas Knowlton showed great disciplined initiative when he noticed a significant gap in the rail fence line and commanded his company to complete the defensive line. This was reflected in rebel success at the start of the battle while Knowlton was acting in the absence of orders with no communication to Prescott.
Colonel Prescott knew he couldn’t be everywhere on the battlefield or give guidance for every contingency. They were facing a world power and executing with minimal planning time. His intent was clear across his formation. This gave his subordinate commanders like Knowlton, the limits and purpose to act on. The British would have been successful in the early stages of this battle without Colonel Prescott’s clear commander’s intent.
5. Colonel Prescott really lacked some vital parts of the operational framework in Use Mission Orders. Even though a clear commanders intent was accomplished the orders process was not adequate. Prescott was either confused about his orders or decided on his own to interpret those orders loosely. In regard to the whole operation from mission to sustainment their seemed to be some confusion from higher headquarters. As one can see from the quote, Prescott was confused and acted on his own understanding. He made his intent clear; however there was confusion with higher headquarters.
The priorities and resources were not adequate to support the longevity of the battle. This showed on the final assault when the rebel forces were completely out of ammunition. In addition, a lot of time was thrown away when leaders of the expedition argued over their objective. This time allocated could have been used to shape the operational orders. The violation of the one-thirds, two-thirds rule really impacted the full directives and resources for the battle. The proper orders were given as far the intent and mission. However, priorities and resources lacked and that was clearly reflect in the later stages of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
6. Colonel Prescott had to Accept Prudent Risk to increase chances of mission accomplishment. A lot of exposure and endurance was put at risk to fortify their positions. The men had been awake for thirty-six hours and worked the last sixteen hours. Prescott really accepted the risks of his men’s performance, endurance and will with this action. He may have assumed reinforcements would come; however that was not the case. He took advantage of the opportunity and determined the risk in comparison to the enemy force that was on the horizon.
An additional situation where Prescott accepted risk was the risk of being heard from the British Royal Navy as they worked through the night. Prescott was nervous that the sound might attract unwanted attention. This was regarding a shovel striking a rock may be heard by the British. This could have started an early assault on their position which was not ready to be defended yet. However, Prescott accepted this risk due to his assumption that the British would not fire blindly to the sound. This risk positively played out and the defensive positions were near full mission capability near sunrise.
Lastly, the greatest risk accepted was the potential for no resupply or reinforcements. As the battle began the message was sent out on the need for sustainment. The supplies that did get sent over were consumed by the troops on Bunker Hill. No troops wanted to cross the peninsula neck and deliver any sustainment to the colonial force on Breeds Hill prior to the third assault. Colonel Prescott tried to preserve his supplies through close engagement and consumption. It was inevitable that they would be out of sustainment at some point as the British kept re-engaging. This was a gamble that Prescott took and unfortunately arguable was the difference between mission success and failure. This was a pure hazard to his force that forced Colonel Prescott to give the command to retreat.
The Battle of Bunker Hill was considered a loss in the early stages of the American Revolution against the British. This was due to flaws in Mission Command which would have enabled other warfighting functions to guide the commanders and soldiers. Further, the soldiers would have had adequate sustainment to potentially hold their ground and complete the mission. Colonel Prescott did, however, have effective results in some dimensions of the battlefield. His early combat success really reflected Colonel Prescott’s initiative despite the unorganized mission command at the start of the war, but the rebels could not sustain themselves logistically and they were soon overmatched. The continental army lost to the British forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill due to degraded mission command thus enabling sustainment through all phases of the operation.
ADP 6-0: Mission Command. Department of the Army. Washington, DC, 2012.
ADRP 3-0: Unified Land Operations. Department of the Army. Washington, DC, 2017.
Beatrice, Rebecca B. “British and American Strategies in the Revolutionary War.” History of Massachusetts, July 28, 2017. Accessed April 26, 2018. http://historyofmassachusetts.org/revolutionary-war-strategies/.
Fleming, Thomas J. Now We Are Enemies; The Story of Bunker Hill. Franklin TN; American History Press, 2010.
Kurtz, Henry. “Bunker Hill, 1775 A Dear Bought Victory.” EBSCOhost. September 1, 1975. Accessed May 6, 2018. http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail.
Lockhart, Paul Douglas. The Whites of Their Eyes.” New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Mcgill, Sara Ann. “Battle of Bunker Hill.” EBSCOhost. August 1, 2017. Accessed April 21, 2018. http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail.
Morrissey, Brendan. Boston, 1775 The Shot Heard Around the World.”Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.