“A Pyrrhic Victory”: BC Alum Presents on The Battle of Bunker Hill

Brian Cummins, BC ’82, provided an expansive description of the Battle of Bunker Hill in a virtual presentation on March 18. 

“Tensions boiled over in February 1774 when the crown and parliament declared that the Massachusetts colony would be an open rebellion, precipitated by the dumping of the tea in Boston Harbor,” Cummins said. “From the crown’s perspective, they could no longer stand colonial opposition, and they decided to take action.” 

Cummins said the British troops, led by Generals Thomas Gage, Samuel Graves, Henry Clinton, and William Howe, decided to pump rebel forces out of Charlestown, crushing them in Cambridge while they were retreating.

This intel was leaked to the colonists, led by Col. William Prescott, Israel Putnam, Joseph Warren, and John Stark. Cummins said the night before the attack they decided to dig a redoubt—a small fort—on Breed’s Hill, a smaller hill near Bunker Hill. But, the colonists were discovered by a navy warship.

“The captain immediately calls for general quarters, and he begins to rain cannon fire on the redoubt,” Cummins said. “He is soon joined in by the other British ships which are also anchored in the harbor.”

Cummins said the British forces initially gained the upper hand by firebombing Charlestown, where colonial snipers had fired on British ships off the coast of the peninsula.

“It was a rather hot day, but the air was very mild and there wasn’t much of a breeze,” Cummins said. “So as the dark smoke lifted up into the air, it hung over the whole battlefield like a shroud.”

The tide would change, however, when the Royal Welch Fusiliers, an elite infantry division, advanced up the beach toward Stark’s men. 

“Disaster strikes almost immediately,” Cummins said. “ … About 50 paces from Stark’s reinforced line, they are hit with these multiple, incredible volleys of rifle fire. The British troops are just falling down one on top of each other … as if a wax candle was pushed into a red hot iron plate.”

 Unaware of the enormous British casualties on the beach, Cummins said Howe and Robert Pigot began a main attack toward Stark’s men, only for their troops to be further slaughtered by the colonists before having to retreat. 

Prescott’s numbers drastically reduced due to casualties and desertion, and he was unable to convince Putnam to send in reinforcements. Prescott’s men, who were low on ammunition, were overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught of British forces.

“The British heavy infantry was never noted for their marksmanship, but they were noted for their skill with the bayonet,” Cummins said. “ … British troops poured into the redoubt, fighting hand to hand and taking no prisoners, murdering everybody.”

After suffering enormous casualties, Cummins said the colonists retreated as the British finally captured Bunker Hill.

“Clinton finds Howe and says ‘Let’s continue the attack, we’ll pursue them,’” Cummins said. “But Howe, looking at all the carnage, shakes his head and says ‘My orders were to take this hill, and I’ve taken this hill.’”

Cummins explained that although the British won the battle, it was a pyrrhic victory—the costs overshadowed the gains. With 40 percent of British forces becoming casualties, it was a hefty price to pay for one hill.

Although the colonists had been defeated, the Battle of Bunker Hill showed them that they could fight evenly with the best armies of the time, and it greatly encouraged their future efforts.

At the end of his presentation, Cummins said a piece of this battle is immortalized in Boston College—a stained glass window in Bapst Library depicting Charles James Fox, a British statesman who criticized the king for the British losses sustained during the battle and advocated for colonial rights.

“If you go into Bapst Library, into the second alcove at Gargan Hall … you will see our stalwart advocate in parliament, Charles Fox, who would give his speeches in parliament wearing a blue coat, signifying his unity with the colonies,” Cummins said.

Featured Image by Stephen Mooney / For The Heights

March 31, 2021