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On being joined by their second detachment, the British CHAP. III. troops, who were formed in two lines, advanced slowly under cover of a very heavy discharge of cannon and howitzers, frequently halting in order to allow their artillery time to demolish the works. While they were advancing, orders were given to set fire to Charlestown, a handsome village containing about five hundred houses, which flanked the line of march. The buildings were chiefly of wood, and the flames were quickly communicated so extensively, that almost the whole town was in one great blaze *.
It is not easy to conceive a more grand and a more awful spectacle than was now exhibited, nor a moment of more anxious expectation than that which was now presented. The scene of action was in full view of the heights of Boston, and of its neighbourhood, which were covered with spectators, taking deep and opposite interests in the events passing before them. The soldiers of the two hostile armies not on duty, the citizens of Boston, and the inhabitants of the adjacent country, all feeling emotions which set description at defiance, were witnesses of the majestic and tremendous scene.
The provincials permitted the enemy to approach unmolested within less than one hundred yards of their works, when they
*To justify this severe policy, it has been alleged that the houses afforded a cover to the Americans, who fired on the flank of the British columns advancing against Breed's Hill; but the truth of this assertion is denied by all the provincial accounts, which allege, with great probability, that the troops were withdrawn from the town under an apprehension that the enemy, after passing it, might suddenly turn upon them, and cut off their retreat,
CHAP. III. poured in upon them so deadly a fire of small arms that the
British line was totally broken, and fell back with precipitation towards the landing place. By the very great exertions of their officers they were rallied, and brought up to the charge; but were again driven back in confusion by the heavy and incessant fire from the works. General Howe is said to have been left at one time almost alone, and it is certain that very few officers about his person escaped unhurt.
The impression to be made by victory or defeat in this early stage of the war was deemed of the utmost consequence, and therefore very extraordinary exertions were made once more to rally the English. With great difficulty they were a third time led up to the works. The redoubt was now attacked on three sides at once, while some pieces of artillery, which had been brought to bear on the breast work, raked it from end to end. The cross fire too from the ships and floating batteries not only annoyed the works on Breed's Hill, but deterred any considerable reinforcements from passing into the peninsula, and coming to their assistance. The ammunition of the Americans was now so nearly exhausted, that they were no longer able to keep up the same incessant stream of fire which had twice repulsed the enemy; and, on this third attempt, the redoubt, the walls of which the English mounted with ease, was carried at the point of the bayonet. Yet the Americans, many of whom were without bayonets, are said to have maintained the contest with clubbed muskets till the redoubt was half filled with the king's troops.
The redoubt being lost, the breast work, which had been defended
defended with equal courage and obstinacy, was necessarily aban- CHAP. III: doned, and the very hazardous operation undertaken, of retreating, in the face of a victorious enemy, over Charlestown Neck; where they were exposed to the same cross fire from the Glasgow man of war, and two floating batteries, which had deterred the reinforcements ordered to their aid from coming to their assistance, and had probably prevented their receiving proper supplies of ammunition.
In this enterprize, about three thousand men, composing the flower of the British army, were engaged, and high encomiums were bestowed on the resolution they manifested. Their killed and wounded amounted, according to the returns of General Gage to one thousand and fifty-four, an immense proportion of the number engaged in the action. Notwithstanding the danger of their retreat over Charlestown Neck, the loss of the Americans was stated at only four hundred and fifty men, including the killed, wounded, and missing; among the former, was Doctor Warren, a gentleman greatly beloved and regretted, who fell just after the provincials began their retreat from the breast work.
The colonial force engaged in this action was stated through the country at fifteen hundred; by some it has been supposed to have amounted to four thousand.
Although the ground was lost, the Americans claimed the vic
tory. Their confidence in themselves was greatly increased; and it was universally asked, how many more such triumphs the British army could afford?
The enemy had been treated too roughly in the action to attempt further offensive operations, and they contented themselves with seizing and fortifying Bunker's Hill, which secured to them the peninsula of Charlestown, in which, however, they remained as closely blockaded, as in that of Boston.
The Americans were greatly elated by the intrepidity their raw troops had displayed, and the execution which had been done by them in this engagement. Their opinion of the superiority of veterans over men untrained to the duties of a soldier, sustained no inconsiderable diminution, and they fondly cherished the belief, that courage and dexterity in the use of fire-arms would bestow advantages amply compensating the want of discipline. Unfortunately for their country, this course of thinking was not confined to the soldiers. It seems to have extended to those who guided the public councils, and to have contributed to the adoption of a system which, more than once, brought the cause for which they had taken up arms to the brink of ruin. They did not distinguish sufficiently between the momentary efforts of a few brave men, brought together by a high sense of the injuries with which their country was threatened, and carried into action while under the influence of keen resentments, and continued suffering, and those steady persevering exertions, which must be necessary to bring so serious, and so important a contest to a happy termination. Nor did they examine with sufficient accuracy, nor allow sufficient influence, to several
striking circumstances attending the battle which had been CHAP. III. fought. It is not easy to read the accounts given of that action without being persuaded that had the Americans on Breed's Hill been supplied with ammunition and properly supported, had the reinforcements ordered to their assistance actually entered the peninsula, as soldiers in habits of obedience would have done, and displayed the same heroic courage which was exhibited by their countrymen engaged in defence of the works; the assailants must have been defeated, and the flower of the British army cut to pieces. It ought also to have been remarked, that, while the many were prevented by the danger which presented itself to them from executing the orders they had received, only the few, who were endowed with more than a usual portion of bravery, encountered that danger, and that it is not by the few, great victories are to be obtained or a country to be saved.
Amidst these preparations for war, the voice of peace was yet heard. Allegiance to the king was still acknowledged, and a lingering hope remained that an accommodation was not impossible. The petition voted to his majesty was full of professions of duty and attachment; and a letter to the people of England, in which they are conjured, by the endearing appellations of friends, countrymen, and brethren, to prevent the dissolution of "that connection, which the remembrance of former friendships, pride in the glorious achievements of common ancestors, and affection for the heirs of their virtues, had heretofore maintained." In all their addresses, they disclaimed the idea of independence, and professed themselves to consider a union with