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Plymouth Rock Foundation’s E-News – June, 2012
by Dr. Paul Jehle, Executive Director

Lessons from Bunker Hill

June 17 is “Bunker Hill” Day in Massachusetts.  Recently, there has been a battle as to whether State workers get it off as a holiday, though it is not observed State-wide for anyone else.  The battle over State paid holidays is significant, but it distracts us from real lessons of patriotism, valor and Christian conviction.  It is unfortunate that what our forefathers fought for was the liberty to provide for ourselves, yet today we fight over preserving entitlements for public servants.  It is a symptom of where we are as a nation.

            Let us take a moment to peel back the pages of history to remember a few lessons from that day in 1775.  After the battles of Lexington and Concord in April, Colonial Militia (about 15,000) came from town after town to surround the British in Boston.  Since the geography of Boston has changed since that day, it is important to note that Boston itself was on a small peninsula of land.  Across a short body of water another peninsula had Charlestown at its tip.  On this peninsula there were three hills named Moulton, Breed and Bunker.  The Colonial Committee of Safety had overheard the British talking about taking possession of Charlestown and this entire peninsula.

            Colonel Prescott then brought 1,200 men to begin the work of putting up defenses against a British assault.  Though work initially started on Bunker Hill, as the map here demonstrates, they thought Breed’s Hill was more defensible and closer to the British assault from the water.  Thus, though the initial plan was to defend Bunker Hill, the actual battle took place on Breed’s Hill.  When the British saw the colonists working to defend the Hill on the night of June 16, they began a bombardment.  In the morning, the bombardment continued, with little effect.  However, Prescott saw they could be flanked and sent Militia units to defend the flanking positions, knowing they could be surrounded without a route of retreat.

When Elbridge Gerry saw Joseph Warren, Chairman of the Committee of Safety, arriving, he told him he was too important to expose his life to harm.  Warren replied “it is pleasant and becoming to die for one’s country.”  Warren was the author of the Suffolk Resolves, the legal papers of interposition declaring that the King had violated the Constitution and resistance under authority was legitimate.  He was also the second major-general of Massachusetts forces.  Warren was thus perceived as the one who should take command, and Putnam and Prescott said they would take his orders.  He replied “I come as a volunteer.”  Such character of service is what we need today if we are to recover our liberties and stand on conviction of principle.

The colonial militia put up their defenses, desiring to avenge their brethren already killed at Lexington and Concord.  More than three thousand British began to land, while the colonists may have had fifteen hundred.  The British set Charlestown on fire, but this simply set aflame the hearts of the colonists to defend their liberties.  Due to the lack of ammunition and the danger of being over-run, Prescott ordered the men to hold their fire “until you see the whites of their eyes.”   The first assault up the hill was thwarted, and the British retreated.  The hearts of the colonists now knew, with God on their side, farmers could defeat soldiers!

But the British weren’t done.  However, their second assault was also thwarted, and they retreated with their dead lying everywhere along the hill.  They reported that their divisions sent to flank the redoubt were met with such resistance that only a few of each division were still alive.  The British were now fueled by their pride.  They despised the colonists, and especially their religion.  They had burned the church in Charlestown, and the smoke, providentially, had blown right in their eyes as they ascended the hill – the wind suddenly changing.  The third charge was massive, and the colonists had little ammunition left and only 50 bayonets, while the British fixed their bayonets for the charge.  When they did, the colonists were overrun but the danger was to maintain a route of escape.

            Once the signal for retreat had been given, it was the Militia units sent to the flanks that covered the retreat, along with two key providential events.  Major John Pitcairn shouted “the day is ours” but as he took the hill he was killed by African-American Peter Salem.  The British were so stunned that they temporarily paused, allowing many colonists to retreat.  The second was Joseph Warren being shot in the head.  Though the British rejoiced, knowing whom they had killed; the Americans protected his body - thus allowing more to escape.  What has been lost to history, but captured in John Trumbull’s painting, is that Peter Salem, a freed African-American slave, was the hero of the battle.  The British had 1,054 killed or wounded, while the Americans 450.  “We’ll sell any hill at this price” said the colonists.

            So what lessons can we learn from Bunker Hill?  First, we must have discipline and resist our enemies in submission to God.  Second, though the battle was lost, it was the pivotal inspiration for the rest of the War.  Though we may lose battles in today’s culture war, we must persevere.  As Ward, one of the American officers noted as a result of the battle, “we shall finally come off victorious, and triumph over the enemies of freedom in America.”  May this be true today as we fight spiritually and then in every practical way possible to preserve our liberties.