The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775, during the Siege of Boston in the early stages of the American Revolutionary War. The battle is named after Bunker Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts, which was peripherally involved in the battle. It was the original objective of both the colonial and British troops, though the majority of combat took place on the adjacent hill which later became known as Breed’s Hill.
On June 13, 1775, the leaders of the colonial forces besieging Boston learned that the British were planning to send troops out from the city to fortify the unoccupied hills surrounding the city, which would give them control of Boston Harbor. In response, 1,200 colonial troops under the command of William Prescott stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. During the night, the colonists constructed a strong redoubt on Breed’s Hill, as well as smaller fortified lines across the Charlestown Peninsula.
By daybreak of June 17, the British became aware of the presence of colonial forces on the Peninsula and mounted an attack against them that day. Two assaults on the colonial positions were repulsed with significant British casualties; the third and final attack carried the redoubt after the defenders ran out of ammunition. The colonists retreated to Cambridge over Bunker Hill, leaving the British in control of the Peninsula.
The battle was a tactical, though somewhat Pyrrhic victory for the British, as it proved to be a sobering experience for them, involving many more casualties than the Americans had incurred, including a large number of officers. The battle had demonstrated that inexperienced militia were able to stand up to regular army troops in battle. Subsequently, the battle discouraged the British from any further frontal attacks against well defended front lines. American casualties were comparatively much fewer, although their losses included General Joseph Warren and Major Andrew McClary, the final casualty of the battle.
The battle led the British to adopt a more cautious planning and maneuver execution in future engagements, which was evident in the subsequent New York and New Jersey campaign, and arguably helped rather than hindered the American forces. Their new approach to battle was actually giving the Americans greater opportunity to retreat if defeat was imminent. The costly engagement also convinced the British of the need to hire substantial numbers of foreign mercenaries to bolster their strength in the face of the new and formidable Continental Army.
Boston, situated on a peninsula, was largely protected from close approach by the expanses of water surrounding it, which were dominated by British warships. In the aftermath of the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the colonial militia, a force of about 15,000 men, had surrounded the town, and effectively besieged it. Under the command of Artemas Ward, they controlled the only land access to Boston itself (the Roxbury Neck), but, lacking a navy, were unable to even contest British domination of the waters of the harbor. The British troops, a force of about 6,000 under the command of General Thomas Gage, occupied the city, and were able to be resupplied and reinforced by sea. In theory, they were thus able to remain in Boston indefinitely.
However, the land across the water from Boston contained a number of hills, which could be used to advantage. If the militia could obtain enough artillery pieces, these could be placed on the hills and used to bombard the city until the occupying army evacuated it or surrendered. It was with this in mind that the Knox Expedition, led by Henry Knox, later transported cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to the Boston area.
The Charlestown Peninsula, lying to the north of Boston, started from a short, narrow isthmus (known as the Charlestown Neck) at its northwest and extended about 1 mile (1.6 km) southeastward into Boston Harbor. Bunker Hill, with an elevation of 110 feet (34 m), lay at the northern end of the peninsula. Breed’s Hill, at a height of 62 feet (19 m), was more southerly and nearer to Boston. The town of Charlestown occupied flats at the southern end of the peninsula. At its closest approach, less than 1,000 feet (305 m) separated the Charlestown Peninsula from the Boston Peninsula, where Copp’s Hill was at about the same height as Breed’s Hill. While the British retreat from Concord had ended in Charlestown, General Gage, rather than immediately fortifying the hills on the peninsula, had withdrawn those troops to Boston the day after that battle, turning the entire Charlestown Peninsula into a no man’s land.
Throughout May, in response to orders from Gage requesting support, the British received reinforcements, until they reached a strength of about 6,000 men. On May 25, three generals arrived on HMS Cerberus: William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. Gage began planning with them to break out of the city, finalizing a plan on June 12. This plan began with the taking of the Dorchester Neck, fortifying the Dorchester Heights, and then marching on the colonial forces stationed in Roxbury. Once the southern flank had been secured, the Charlestown heights would be taken, and the forces in Cambridge driven away. The attack was set for June 18.
On June 13, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was notified, by express messenger from the Committee of Safety in Exeter, New Hampshire, that a New Hampshire gentleman “of undoubted veracity” had, while visiting Boston, overheard the British commanders making plans to capture Dorchester and Charlestown. On June 15, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety decided that additional defenses needed to be erected. General Ward directed General Israel Putnam to set up defenses on the Charlestown Peninsula, specifically on Bunker Hill.
On the night of June 16, colonial Colonel William Prescott led about 1,200 men onto the peninsula in order to set up positions from which artillery fire could be directed into Boston. This force was made up of men from the regiments of Prescott, Putnam (the unit was commanded by Thomas Knowlton), James Frye, and Ebenezer Bridge. At first, Putnam, Prescott, and their engineer, Captain Richard Gridley, disagreed as to where they should locate their defense. Some work was performed on Bunker Hill, but Breed’s Hill was closer to Boston and viewed as being more defensible. Arguably against orders, they decided to build their primary redoubt there. Prescott and his men, using Gridley’s outline, began digging a square fortification about 130 feet (40 m) on a side with ditches and earthen walls. The walls of the redoubt were about 6 feet (1.8 m) high, with a wooden platform inside on which men could stand and fire over the walls.
The works on Breed’s Hill did not go unnoticed by the British. General Clinton, out on reconnaissance that night, was aware of them, and tried to convince Gage and Howe that they needed to prepare to attack the position at daylight. British sentries were also aware of the activity, but most apparently did not think it cause for alarm. Then, in the early predawn, around 4 a.m., a sentry on board HMS Lively spotted the new fortification, and notified her captain. Lively opened fire, temporarily halting the colonists’ work. Aboard his flagship HMS Somerset, Admiral Samuel Graves awoke, irritated by the gunfire that he had not ordered. He stopped it, only to have General Gage countermand his decision when he became fully aware of the situation in the morning. He ordered all 128 guns in the harbor, as well as batteries atop Copp’s Hill in Boston, to fire on the colonial position, which had relatively little effect. The rising sun also alerted Prescott to a significant problem with the location of the redoubt — it could easily be flanked on either side. He promptly ordered his men to begin constructing a breastwork running down the hill to the east, deciding he did not have the manpower to also build additional defenses to the west of the redoubt.
When the British generals met to discuss their options, General Clinton, who had urged an attack as early as possible, preferred an attack beginning from the Charlestown Neck that would cut off the colonists’ retreat, reducing the process of capturing the new redoubt to one of starving out its occupants. However, he was outvoted by the other three generals. Howe, who was the senior officer present and would lead the assault, was of the opinion that the hill was “open and easy of ascent and in short would be easily carried.” General Burgoyne concurred, arguing that the “untrained rabble” would be no match for their “trained troops”. Orders were then issued to prepare the expedition.
When General Gage surveyed the works from Boston with his staff, Loyalist Abijah Willard recognized his brother-in-law Colonel Prescott. “Will he fight?” asked Gage. “[A]s to his men, I cannot answer for them;” replied Willard, “but Colonel Prescott will fight you to the gates of hell.” Prescott lived up to Willard’s word, but his men were not so resolute. When the colonists suffered their first casualty, Asa Pollard of Billerica, a young private killed by cannon fire, Prescott gave orders to bury the man quickly and quietly, but a large group of men gave him a solemn funeral instead, with several deserting shortly thereafter.
It took six hours for the British to organize an infantry force and to gather up and inspect the men on parade. General Howe was to lead the major assault, drive around the colonial left flank, and take them from the rear. Brigadier General Robert Pigot on the British left flank would lead the direct assault on the redoubt, and Major John Pitcairn led the flank or reserve force. It took several trips in longboats to transport Howe’s initial forces (consisting of about 1,500 men) to the eastern corner of the peninsula, known as Moulton’s Point. By 2 p.m., Howe’s chosen force had landed. However, while crossing the river, Howe noted the large number of colonial troops on top of Bunker Hill. Believing these to be reinforcements, he immediately sent a message to Gage, requesting additional troops. He then ordered some of the light infantry to take a forward position along the eastern side of the peninsula, alerting the colonists to his intended course of action. The troops then sat down to eat while they waited for the reinforcements.
Prescott, seeing the British preparations, called for reinforcements. Among the reinforcements were Joseph Warren, the popular young leader of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, and Seth Pomeroy, an aging Massachusetts militia leader. Both of these men held commissions of rank, but chose to serve as infantry. Prescott ordered the Connecticut men under Captain Knowlton to defend the left flank, where they used a crude dirt wall as a breastwork, and topped it with fence rails and hay. They also constructed three small v-shaped trenches between this dirt wall and Prescott’s breastwork. Troops that arrived to reinforce this flank position included about 200 men from the 1st and 3rd New Hampshire regiments, under Colonels John Stark and James Reed. Stark’s men, who did not arrive until after Howe landed his forces (and thus filled a gap in the defense that Howe could have taken advantage of, had he pressed his attack sooner), took positions along the breastwork on the northern end of the colonial position. When low tide opened a gap along the Mystic River to the north, they quickly extended the fence with a short stone wall to the water’s edge. Colonel Stark placed a stake about 100 feet (30 m) in front of the fence and ordered that no one fire until the regulars passed it. Just prior to the action, further reinforcements arrived, including portions of Massachusetts regiments of Colonels Brewer, Nixon, Woodbridge, Little, and Major Moore, as well as Callender’s company of artillery.
Behind the colonial lines, confusion reigned. Many units sent toward the action stopped before crossing the Charlestown Neck from Cambridge, which was under constant fire from gun batteries to the south. Others reached Bunker Hill, but then, uncertain about where to go from there, milled around. One commentator wrote of the scene that “it appears to me there never was more confusion and less command.” While General Putnam was on the scene attempting to direct affairs, unit commanders often misunderstood or disobeyed orders.
By 3 p.m., the British reinforcements, which included the 47th Foot and the 1st Marines, had arrived, and the British were ready to march. Brigadier General Pigot’s force, gathering just south of Charlestown village, were taking casualties from sniper fire, and Howe asked Admiral Graves for assistance in clearing out the snipers. Graves, who had planned for such a possibility, ordered incendiary shot fired into the village, and then sent a landing party to set fire to the town. The smoke billowing from Charlestown lent an almost surreal backdrop to the fighting, as the winds were such that the smoke was kept from the field of battle.
Pigot, commanding the 5th, 38th, 43rd, 47th, and 52nd regiments, as well as Major Pitcairn’s Marines, were to feint an assault on the redoubt. However, they continued to be harried by snipers in Charlestown, and Pigot, when he saw what happened to Howe’s advance, ordered a retreat.
General Howe led the light infantry companies and grenadiers in the assault on the American left flank, expecting an easy effort against Stark’s recently arrived troops. His light infantry were set along the narrow beach, in column, in order to turn the far left flank of the colonial position. The grenadiers were deployed in the middle. They lined up four deep and several hundred across. As the regulars closed, John Simpson, a New Hampshire man, prematurely fired, drawing an ineffective volley of return fire from the regulars. When the regulars finally closed within range, both sides opened fire. The colonists inflicted heavy casualties on the regulars, using the fence to steady and aim their muskets, and benefit from a modicum of cover. With this devastating barrage of musket fire, the regulars retreated in disarray, and the militia held their ground.
The regulars reformed on the field and marched out again. This time, Pigot was not to feint; he was to assault the redoubt, possibly without the assistance of Howe’s force. Howe, instead of marching against Stark’s position along the beach, marched instead against Knowlton’s position along the rail fence. The outcome of the second attack was much the same as the first. One British observer wrote, “Most of our Grenadiers and Light-infantry, the moment of presenting themselves lost three-fourths, and many nine-tenths, of their men. Some had only eight or nine men a company left …” Pigot did not fare any better in his attack on the redoubt, and again ordered a retreat. Meanwhile, in the rear of the colonial forces, confusion continued to reign. General Putnam tried, with only limited success, to send additional troops from Bunker Hill to Breed’s Hill to support the men in the redoubt and along the defensive lines.
The British rear was also in some disarray. Wounded soldiers that were mobile had made their way to the landing areas, and were being ferried back to Boston, and the wounded lying on the field of battle were the source of moans and cries of pain. General Howe, deciding that he would try again, sent word to General Clinton in Boston for additional troops. Clinton, who had watched the first two attacks, sent about 400 men from the 2nd Marines and the 63rd Foot, and then followed himself to help rally the troops. In addition to the new reserves, he also convinced about 200 of the wounded to form up for the third attack. During the interval between the second and third assaults, General Putnam continued trying to direct troops toward the action. Some companies, and leaderless groups of men, moved toward the action; others retreated. John Chester, a Connecticut captain, seeing an entire company in retreat, ordered his company to aim muskets at that company to halt its retreat; they turned about and headed back to the battlefield.
The third assault, concentrated on the redoubt (with only a feint on the colonists’ flank), was successful, although the colonists again poured musket fire into the British ranks, and it cost the life of Major Pitcairn. The defenders had run out of ammunition, reducing the battle to close combat. The British had the advantage once they entered the redoubt, as their troops were equipped with bayonets on their muskets while most of the colonists were not. Colonel Prescott, one of the last colonists to leave the redoubt, parried bayonet thrusts with his normally ceremonial sabre. It is during the retreat from the redoubt that Joseph Warren was killed.
The retreat of much of the colonial forces from the peninsula was made possible in part by the controlled retreat of the forces along the rail fence, led by John Stark and Thomas Knowlton, which prevented the encirclement of the hill. Their disciplined retreat, described by Burgoyne as “no flight; it was even covered with bravery and military skill”, was so effective that most of the wounded were saved; most of the prisoners taken by the British were mortally wounded. General Putnam attempted to reform the troops on Bunker Hill; however the flight of the colonial forces was so rapid that artillery pieces and entrenching tools had to be abandoned. The colonists suffered most of their casualties during the retreat on Bunker Hill. By 5 p.m., the colonists had retreated over the Charlestown Neck to fortified positions in Cambridge, and the British were in control of the peninsula.
The British had taken the ground but at a great loss; they had suffered 1,054 casualties (226 dead and 828 wounded), with a disproportionate number of these officers. The casualty count was the highest suffered by the British in any single encounter during the entire war. General Clinton, echoing Pyrrhus of Epirus, remarked in his diary that “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” British dead and wounded included 100 commissioned officers, a significant portion of the British officer corps in North America. Much of General Howe’s field staff was among the casualties. Major Pitcairn had been killed, and Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie fatally wounded. General Gage, in his report after the battle, reported the following officer casualties (listing lieutenants and above by name):
- 1 lieutenant colonel killed
- 2 majors killed, 3 wounded
- 7 captains killed, 27 wounded
- 9 lieutenants killed, 32 wounded
- 15 sergeants killed, 42 wounded
- 1 drummer killed, 12 wounded
The colonial losses were about 450, of whom 140 were killed. Most of the colonial losses came during the withdrawal. Major Andrew McClary was technically the highest ranking colonial officer to die in the battle; he was hit by cannon fire on Charlestown Neck, the last person to be killed in the battle. He was later commemorated by the dedication of Fort McClary in Kittery, Maine. A serious loss to the Patriot cause, however, was the death of Dr. Joseph Warren. He was the President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, and he had been appointed a Major General on June 14. His commission had not yet taken effect when he served as a volunteer private three days later at Bunker Hill. Only thirty men were captured by the British, most of them with grievous wounds; twenty died while held prisoner. The colonials also lost numerous shovels and other entrenching tools, as well as five out of the six cannon they had brought to the peninsula.
When news of the battle spread through the colonies, it was reported as a colonial loss, as the ground had been taken by the enemy, and significant casualties were incurred. George Washington, who was on his way to Boston as the new commander of the Continental Army, received news of the battle while in New York City. The report, which included casualty figures that were somewhat inaccurate, gave Washington hope that his army might prevail in the conflict.
The Massachusetts Committee of Safety, seeking to repeat the sort of propaganda victory it won following the battles at Lexington and Concord, commissioned a report of the battle to send to England. Their report, however, did not reach England before Gage’s official account arrived on July 20. His report unsurprisingly caused friction and argument between the Tories and the Whigs, but the casualty counts alarmed the military establishment, and forced many to rethink their views of colonial military capability. King George’s attitude toward the colonies hardened, and the news may have contributed to his rejection of the Continental Congress’ Olive Branch Petition, the last substantive political attempt at reconciliation. Sir James Adolphus Oughton, part of the Tory majority, wrote to Lord Dartmouth of the colonies, “the sooner they are made to Taste Distress the sooner will [Crown control over them] be produced, and the Effusion of Blood be put a stop to.” About a month after receiving Gage’s report the Proclamation of Rebellion would be issued in response; this hardening of the British position would also lead to a hardening of previously weak support for the rebellion, especially in the southern colonies, in favor of independence.
Gage’s report had a more direct effect on his own career. His dismissal from office was decided just three days after his report was received, although General Howe did not replace him until October 1775. Gage wrote another report to the British Cabinet, in which he repeated earlier warnings that “a large army must at length be employed to reduce these people”, that would require “the hiring of foreign troops”.
The famous order “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” was popularized in stories about the battle of Bunker Hill. It is uncertain as to who said it there, since various histories, including eyewitness accounts, attribute it to Putnam, Stark, Prescott, or Gridley, and it may have been said first by one, and repeated by the others. It was also not an original statement. The idea dates originally to the general-king Gustavus Adolphus (1594–1632) who gave standing orders to his musketeers: “never to give fire, till they could see their own image in the pupil of their enemy’s eye”. Gustavus Adolphus’s military teachings were widely admired and imitated and caused this saying to be often repeated. It was used by General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, when his troops defeated Montcalm’s army on September 13, 1759. The earliest similar quote came from the Battle of Dettingen on June 27, 1743, where Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw warned his Regiment, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, not to fire until they could “see the white of their e’en.” The phrase was also used by Prince Charles of Prussia in 1745, and repeated in 1755 by Frederick the Great, and may have been mentioned in histories the colonial military leaders were familiar with. Whether or not it was actually said in this battle, it was clear that the colonial military leadership were regularly reminding their troops to hold their fire until the moment when it would have the greatest effect, especially in situations where their ammunition would be limited.
John Trumbull’s painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill was created as an allegorical depiction of the battle and Warren’s death, not as an actual pictorial recording of the event. The painting shows a number of participants in the battle including a British officer, John Small, among those who stormed the redoubt, yet came to be the one holding the mortally wounded Warren and preventing a fellow redcoat from bayoneting him. He was friends of Putnam and Trumbull. Warren, an influential Massachusetts physician and politician, had been commissioned as a general but he served in the battle as a volunteer private. He was killed during or shortly after the storming of the redoubt atop Breed’s Hill by British troops. Other central figures include Andrew McClary who was the last man to fall in the battle.
The central focus of the painting is Warren’s body, dressed in white, and John Small, a British major, dressed in a scarlet uniform (holding a sword in his left hand). Small, who had served with colonial general Israel Putnam during the French and Indian War, is shown preventing a fellow British soldier from bayoneting Warren. Trumbull wanted to express the poignancy in the conflict of men who had earlier served together. On the far right of the painting is a colonial officer, Thomas Grosvenor, with a black man holding a musket behind him. The black man was long thought to be Peter Salem, a freed slave who served in the cause of American independence. Later research identified him as a slave belonging to Grosvenor.
The foreground is littered with bodies from both sides of the conflict, and the background includes clusters of colonial and British troops carrying flags. Boston Harbor is also visible in the distance. The sky is partially obscured by smoke rising from Charlestown, which had been torched by the British.
In describing the painting for a catalogue of his works, Trumbull explained why he chose to emphasize the British Major Small’s role, saying that Small, whom he had met in London, “was equally distinguished by acts of humanity and kindness to his enemies, as by bravery and fidelity to the cause he served.”
Artist John Trumbull was in the colonial army camp at Roxbury, Massachusetts, on June 17, 1775, the day of the Battle of Bunker Hill. He watched the battle unfold through field glasses, and later decided to depict one of its central events. Joseph Warren, a Massachusetts politician and member of the colony’s Committee of Safety, volunteered to serve under Colonel William Prescott in the defense of the redoubt which the colonists had constructed on top of Breed’s Hill. This redoubt was the target of three British attacks, of which the first two were repulsed. The third attack succeeded, in part because the defenders had run out of ammunition. Warren was struck by a musket or pistol ball during the evacuation of the redoubt, and killed instantly.
The painting is an iconic image of the American Revolution. Trumbull painted several versions, including the one held by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (dated between 1815 and 1831). This was commissioned by the Warren family and passed down through the family before being acquired by the museum. Another, larger version (dated 1834) is held by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Trumbull sold the engraving rights for the Bunker Hill painting and The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775, which resulted in a highly successful subscription release that greatly enhanced his career.
The Bunker Hill Monument is an obelisk that stands 221 feet (67 m) high on Breed’s Hill. On June 17, 1825, the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, the cornerstone of the monument was laid by the Marquis de Lafayette and an address delivered by Daniel Webster. When Lafayette died, he was buried next to his wife at the Cimetière de Picpus under soil from Bunker Hill, which his son Georges sprinkled over him. The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge was specifically designed to evoke this monument. There is also a statue of William Prescott showing him calming his men down.
The National Park Service operates a museum dedicated to the battle near the monument, which is part of the Boston National Historical Park. A cyclorama of the battle was added in 2007 when the museum was renovated.
In nearby Cambridge, a small granite monument just north of Harvard Yard bears this inscription: “Here assembled on the night of June 16, 1775, 1200 Continental troops under command of Colonel Prescott. After prayer by President Langdon, they marched to Bunker Hill.” Samuel Langdon, a Congregational minister, was Harvard’s 11th president. Another small monument nearby marks the location of the Committee of Safety, which had become the Patriots’ provisional government as Tories left Cambridge. These monuments are on the lawn to the west of Harvard’s Littaeur Center, which is itself to the west of Harvard’s huge Science Center.
Bunker Hill Day, observed every June 17, is a legal holiday in Suffolk County, Massachusetts (which includes the city of Boston), as well as Somerville in Middlesex County. Prospect Hill, site of colonial fortifications overlooking the Charlestown Neck, is now in Somerville, which was previously part of Charlestown. State institutions in Massachusetts (such as public institutions of higher education) in Boston also celebrate the holiday. However, the state’s FY2011 budget requires that all state and municipal offices in Suffolk County be open on Bunker Hill Day and Evacuation Day.
On June 16 and 17, 1875, the centennial of the battle was celebrated with a military parade and a reception featuring notable speakers, among them General William Tecumseh Sherman and Vice President Henry Wilson. It was attended by dignitaries from across the country. Celebratory events also marked the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) in 1925 and the bicentennial in 1975.
Over the years the Battle of Bunker Hill has been commemorated on four postage stamps released by the United States Post Office Department and the U.S. Postal Service. The first was a 2½-cent gray blue stamp issued on June 17, 1959, depicting the Bunker Hill Monument and the flag used by New England in 1775 (Scott #1034). It was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on the rotary press and perforated 11 x 10½. A coil version was released September 9, 1959, perforated 10 vertically (Scott #1056). These were part of the Liberty series of definitive stamps which replaced the 1938 Presidential series. This patriotic set of stamps honors guardians of freedom throughout U.S. history. Eighteenth century America is represented by Revolutionary War heroes and statesmen such as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Henry, Jay, and Revere. Leaders of the 19th century including Monroe, Lincoln, Lee, Harrison, and Susan B. Anthony make an appearance while the 20th century is represented by Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and General Pershing. The Liberty Series also features famous locations important to America’s democratic history, such as Bunker Hill, Independence Hall, and the Alamo.
Two stamps were issued in 1968 noting the Battle of Bunker Hill. On July 4, 1968, a single 6-cent stamp portraying the “Bunker Hill Flag, 1775” was released as part of the 10-stamp Historic Flags commemorative set (Scott #1351). While there was no official flag of New England, common designs include a plain colored field (usually red) with a pine tree in the canton. Pinus strobus, the eastern white pine, is the most common symbol of New England and most often represents that tree’s former importance in shipbuilding and New England’s maritime culture. Most New England flags were based on the red or blue naval ensign of the Royal Navy which featured St George’s Cross in the canton. The ensign was used at both the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies. Puritans in New England led by Roger Williams objected to the use of a Christian cross on their flag and flew a red flag with a plain white canton for a time.
The new flag first appeared in 1634 in Salem, Massachusetts, but some considered it to be an act of rebellion against England. Opinion was sought from England, and the cross was retained on crown property such as Castle Island, Massachusetts. The crossless flags became popular in New England, and militia companies designed unique patterns on their flags. In 1665, the Royal Commissioners recommended that all ships and militia companies be ordered to fly “the true colours of England, by which they may be knowne to be his majesties legittmate subjects.” Nevertheless, some crossless flags were still in use as late as 1680.
New Englanders continued to look for ways to represent their country, however. In 1684, the town of Newbury, Massachusetts changed to a green flag, though retaining the Cross of St. George. A pine tree was added to some flags during the reign of King James II, possibly inspired by the pine-tree shilling which was minted in Massachusetts. In 1707, a proclamation was issued that all merchant vessels fly the red ensign with the British Union Flag in the canton. To ensure compliance, a woodcut was published in the Boston News-Letter on January 26, 1707, which was also the first illustration printed in an American newspaper.
Some controversy exists concerning which flag flew at the Battle of Bunker Hill. An officer of the Royal Marines reported that no flags were used by the Americans. John Trumbull used a red flag with a pine tree in his 1786 painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775. However, he later painted another version of this painting for the family of the fallen general which depicts a blue flag. Another variation commonly used to represent the battle has a blue flag with a white canton, the canton quartered with St. George’s Cross and a tree as depicted on Scott #1351.
According to author Boleslaw Mastai, the blue field was due to an error in a wood engraving which caused confusion among painters, although it might also have been inspired by the Blue Ensign of the Royal Navy. This could have been caused by incorrect “hatching”, whereby parallel lines represent heraldic tinctures or colors; horizontal lines represent “blue,” while vertical ones represent “red.” However, Benson John Lossing writes in Field Book of the Revolution that he interviewed the daughter of a Bunker Hill veteran who told her25 5/8 x 37 5/8 in. (65.1 x 95.6 cm) framed: 32 1/4 x 44 1/2 x 3 in. (81.92 x 113.03 x 7.62 cm) that he hoisted a blue flag on Breed’s Hill prior to the battle. Regardless of its authenticity, the blue variation has become a symbol of the Battle of Bunker Hill and also of Charlestown, Boston, the neighborhood encompassing Bunker and Breed’s hills.
On October 18, 1968, a 6-cent commemorative honoring the artist John Trumbull was placed on sale at New Haven, Connecticut. The design depicts some detail from the 1786 version of The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775, held in the collection of the Gallery of Fine Arts at Yale University. The stamp was printed in muted tones of yellow and red, applied by offset, with black added by the Giori press. A portion from the lower right corner of the painting is featured portraying Lieutenant Grosvenor, wearing yellow breeches, white blouse, dark jacket, and dark plumed hat, holding a sword in his left hand because his right hand had received a wound. Peter Salem, in red breeches, stands behind the officer. He holds a flintlock aloft. In the background is the haze of battle, with smoke rising over Boston Harbor.
Finally, a 10-cent Battle of Bunker Hill commemorative stamp was first placed on sale at Charlestown, Massachusetts, on June 17, 1975 (Scott #1564). The stamp commemorates the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill and depicts a portion of the detail from Trumbull’s painting left of center. Bradbury Thompson designed the stamp, which was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing using the photogravure method and issued in sheets of forty, perforated 11. There were 139,928,000 copies of the stamps issued.