"Gentleman Johnny's" eyewitness account of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Burgoyne, most likely addressing the letter to his father-in-law, the Earl of Derby is brutally frank in his description of the offensive. Three major generals—William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne—had arrived on 25 May 1775 to the shocking news that scarcely five weeks before, the rebellious farmers of Massachusetts had chased 1,800 of General Gage's best troops all the way from Concord to Charlestown Neck and across Boston. The next day the colonists sealed off the city and the siege of Boston commenced.
The three generals had urged General Gage, in his dual role of governor and military commander, to seize and fortify Dorchester Heights which would ensure British domination of the port and provide a base from which forces could attack the besieging American force from the South. By 13 June, however, the Committee of Safety learned (probably through careless talk by Burgoyne) that the British intended to occupy the heights five days later. During the night of the 16th, the Americans had thrown up a well-designed earthworks on Breed's Hill that was practically invulnerable to British cannon. Gage's adherence to the tradition of frontal attack instead of landing behind the Americans would cost him dearly, which Burgoyne alludes to in this letter.
"Our prospects on the side of the Enemy are gloomy. Enthusiasm, & a combination of artifice one side, perhaps mismanagement on the other & accident or both, have produced a crisis that my little read in history cannot parallel. The British Empire in America is overturned without great exertions on your side of the water. If the confederacy on this continent is general as I am inclined to believe it, & you determine to subdue it by arms, you must have recourse to Russia or Germany; such a pittance of troops as great Britain & Ireland can supply will only serve to protract the war, to incur fruitless expence, & insure disappointment. ... You will hear by these dispatches of a victory of our troops, & perhaps Government will be elated with the account. It is glorious to the troops, & important to the nation, inasmuch as the disgrace of the 19th of April is erased, & the superiority of the King's troops over a rebel army confirmed." But Bunker Hill showed the British, as Burgoyne aptly perceived, that they were in a for a real fight.
Burgoyne then mentions the death of Dr. Joseph Warren, who, inspite of having been commissioned a Major General, served as a volunteer private against the wishes of General Putnam during the first attack on Bunker Hill. "It is certain we had the odds of three or four to one to contend with, assisted with all that nature & art could do to give strength to a post, & inspired (I may so call it) with the fanaticism of a demegogue (Warren) who devoted himself at their head & fell accordingly." Taunting the British, Warren reportedly declared: "These fellows say we won't fight! By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!" He fought in the redoubt until out of ammunition, and remained until the British made their third and final assault on the hill to give time for the militia to escape. He was killed instantly by a musket ball in the head by a British officer who recognized him. His body was stripped of clothing and he was bayoneted until unrecognizable, and then shoved in a shallow ditch.
"But our victory has been bought by an uncommon loss of officers, some of them irreparable, & I fear the consequence will not answer the expectations that will be raised in England." Burgoyne mentions the death of Major Pitcairn, who commanded the Marines. His son carried his body out of the heat of battle and then returned to duty. The losses of the British were indeed grim. Out of Howe's force of 2,500, the casualties totaled 1,150, or about 45 percent. Officer casualties, as Burgoyne mentioned, were particularly high, and the losses within many grenadier and light infantry companies ran as high as a staggering 80 percent (Wood, Battles of the Revolutionary War 1775–1781, p. 32–33). That troops could sustain such loss of life and return to the attack says all that is needed about British courage and discipline (see also previous lot).
Modestly he leaves it to his wife to report his own small part in the action: "It is not having been my lot to be personally engaged further than in the superintendance of a cannonade I had leisure to observe & describe it & a complication of horrors rendered it the great scene that the imagination can conceive. For the time it was most animating; but the private sorrows that followed upon looking round the field have been more than ordinarily numerous & effecting."
In closing, Burgoyne hints at the imminence of his return. "I have mentioned a plan in my letters to the great & powerful, that may probably carry me home in the course of the ensuing Autumn. The enjoyment of your lordship's friendship will be among the principal pleasures of my return." Burgoyne sailed for England in November 1775, returning to North America the following June with reinforcements that helped Sir Guy Carleton drive the last Americans from Canada. As capable a general as he was, Burgoyne would surrender his 5,000 troops to Horatio Gates at Saratoga 17 October 1777.
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