The Battle of Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle
Gotta love those redcoats, mechanically marching in neatly aligned ranks into the slaughtering fire of rebel marksmen hidden behind earthworks. This is the iconic image of the Battle of Bunker Hill, painted by Howard Pyle in 1897. Rendered over 100 years after the fact, we’d expect a few issue with the painting; none of us was there to witness what the battle actually looked like, but surviving eyewitness accounts give a pretty good indication that it didn’t look nearly as orderly – or mindless – as Pyle depicts.
There can be no doubt that the professional British soldiers who took part in the assault were well trained and highly experienced. Pyle seems to show the right side of the British force which was composed of grenadier companies from regiments in the Boston garrison – among the tallest, hardiest, most experienced and reliable men in each regiment. They were certainly capable of marching in close, straight lines, but they were also smart enough to know better. Granted, the grenadiers had suffered heavy casualties the previous April while marching to Concord and back, but new men had been brought in from their regiments to refill the ranks, and policy was strict about selecting only appropriately experienced men. The initial purpose of their march up the hill was as a feint while fast-moving troops turned the American flank along the beach, but that flank attack was thwarted, leaving the grenadiers to make a frontal assault.
The key to such an attack was speed, but here that was impossible; fences, brick kilns, enclosures and other obstructions impeded progress. The fences could not be quickly broken down, so the grenadiers had to climb over each one. Howard Pyle’s neat, straight ranks, had they existed at the base of the hill, quickly deteriorated into men struggling to make their way forward over obstacles in the face of heavy fire. Every bit as brave and determined as Pyle’s painting, but not nearly as tactically foolhardy.
In addition to the rigidly straight lines moving over smooth unimpeded ground, the formation shown by Pyle is inaccurate. Although the standard training manual used by the British called for three-rank formations (that is, three rows of soldiers) in close order, practical conditions in America led to the adaptation of two ranks with wider spacing between the men – ideal for moving over the type of uneven ground and obstacles at Bunker Hill. Experienced men, well trained in close order drill, could maintain good order in these looser, more flexible formations that were already in use when this early-war battle occurred.
As for those drummers, an integral part of the army, there’s doubt as to whether they played marching cadences in battle. While the sound of the drum was impressive for marching parties of troops around Boston streets, there is much evidence that drums were used only for relaying signals on the battlefield, and sometimes were not used at all.
There’s no point in being snarky about the accuracy of the soldiers’ clothing; Pyle’s uniforms exhibit a curious mix of features from the 1770s through the 1820s, but, hey, he wasn’t a military historian and he gets the general point across. One prominent detail, however, is highly misleading: those huge heavy knapsacks. Although British soldiers did use knapsacks (that didn’t look anything like Pyle’s), they didn’t wear them on that day. Why would they? The knapsack carried nice things like spare shoes, shirts and socks, great for a long campaign but silly to lug along when attacking a fort only a mile away from your barracks. In preparation for the assault, General Howe explicitly ordered the troops to march with only “with their Arms, Ammunition, Blankets, and provisions;” the latter two items because he correctly anticipated that they’d spend the night camped under the stars after the attack. Knapsacks remained behind in barracks like they usually did, to be brought up later in wagons when an encampment was firmly established. Pyle can’t be blamed too heavily, though; authors have for years written that British troops hauled their knapsacks up Bunker Hill, one even doing so after presenting the order to carry only blankets.
For all that, it’s a nice enough painting, as long as you’re not using it to get a good impression of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
 Ages and experience of British grenadiers is discerned by compiling information from regimental muster rolls, WO 12, and soldiers’ discharges, WO 97, WO 119 and WO 121, all British National Archives, Kew, England.
 The error appears as early as 1794 when Charles Stedman wrote that the troops were “encumbered with three days provisions, their knapsacks on their backs” and estimated their total burden at 125 pounds. Although Stedman served in America (but not at Bunker Hill) and is in many ways reliable, his estimate of the soldier’s burden is nearly twice other estimates for a fully loaded soldier – and the men at Bunker Hill were not fully loaded. Charles Stedman, The History of the Origin, Progress and Termination of the American War (London, 1794), 128. The author who presented the order but then mentioned knapsacks is Harold Murdock, Bunker Hill Notes and Queries (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927), 14, 27.