James Abercrombie, much lamented victim of Friendly Fire at Bunker Hill


June 14, 2017
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


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Bunker Hill is one of the best-known battles of the American Revolution, recognized by name even among those who know little about the war.[1] In spite of this recognition, many important facts of the battle are overshadowed by misconceptions and romantic images. Undeniably, it was a British victory won at a cost so great that it improved the American cause and diminished that of the British. This fact has caused popular history to present the battle as an example of British ineptitude and American prowess. Among the misconceptions are that the British made an overconfident frontal assault on a fortified position, that their soldiers marched into fire encumbered by heavy knapsacks, that superior American marksmanship greatly influenced the flow of the battle, and even that an African American named Salem Poor personally killed the senior British officer to fall in the fight. Like much popular history of the war, many of these perceptions change or evaporate completely when weighed against first-hand accounts.

That the British made a frontal assault on a fortified position cannot be disputed. Widely overlooked, however, is the fact that this frontal assault was more an accident of war than an intentional, tactical blunder. Understanding this is critical for appreciating British tactical doctrine throughout the war. The commander of the attack, Gen. Sir William Howe, won repeated victories later in the war with bold and decisive flanking movements. Often this is seen as a response to the massive casualties taken at Bunker Hill. In fact, the Bunker Hill redoubt was also intended to be taken by a flanking maneuver, the first and last of Howe’s to go awry.

The fortifications on Bunker Hill were erected hastily on the night of June 16-17, 1775 by an American army that had encircled the British garrison in Boston since hostilities began openly in April. When dawn brought the American redoubt into view, British commanders knew that swift action was necessary. Besides the threat the redoubt posed to Boston, it was also an aggressive display of American initiative requiring a decisive response. There was little doubt that the position could be taken. In spite of having been roughly handled during the retreat from Concord on April 19, British officers and soldiers had little regard for American military capability. While the state of training of the Boston garrison is debatable, the British military system was sufficiently refined and the personnel sufficiently experienced to constitute a formidable fighting force. They were keenly aware that their opponents were haphazardly brought together, poorly supplied and just learning how to establish their own organization. Regardless of any deficiencies in the British army, there was no reason to doubt its superiority.

The speed with which the redoubt was constructed may have emboldened the attackers. Although well-positioned, it was not yet strong enough to be impenetrable. Digging a wide, deep ditch and piling the earth behind it to form a rampart created a formidable obstacle, but it was far from a refined military fortification. It could be stormed, albeit at a cost. The system of rail fencing extending from the left side of the redoubt down to the shore was even more feeble but nonetheless provided some shelter for its defenders. Howe, a cost-conscious commander, saw the best approach as getting behind the fortifications to compromise their strength and prevent reinforcement. Because Bunker Hill was the summit of a peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land, the works should have been easy to isolate and then reduce either by siege or by storm depending on the defenders’ fortitude.

That the fort had to be flanked and enveloped was obvious; the problem was how to get men behind it. At a council of war, senior British officers discussed options of which two came to the forefront. The most tactically effective approach was to land men behind the redoubt to secure the neck. The logistical drawback was that this required a lengthy trip in rowboats from Boston. After a first wave of troops landed, they would have to stand their ground with no support or avenue of retreat for a long time before the boats could return with a second wave. This made the venture risky, but certainly not impossible. The alternative was to ferry the troops the shortest distance from Boston to Charlestown neck. This put the assault force in front of the American fortifications, but out of musket range. It also allowed them to be reinforced quickly.

Among those who favored the plan of landing behind the redoubt, in spite of the dangers, was Lt.-Col. James Abercrombie. He was an officer in the 22nd Regiment of Foot, Lt.-Gen. Thomas Gage’s own regiment. The 22nd had only recently been ordered to America and was still at sea on June 17, but Abercrombie had arrived early to work on Gage’s staff. Gage wanted his experience with the people and war fighting conditions in America. Abercrombie was the same age as George Washington and had served in the French and Indian war on the staff of his “friend and relation” Gen. James Abercromby at the abortive assault on Fort Ticonderoga in 1757.[2] The following year he was appointed aide-de-camp to Gen. Jeffrey Amherst. This service gave him invaluable experience with warfare in America and brought him into contact with many men who by 1775 held positions of influence on both sides of the conflict.

Abercrombie had been following the rising tensions in America closely while serving with his regiment in Great Britain, and he made many comments in his letters. On March 14, 1774 he wrote from Dublin, “I dare say the Americans behaviour give Administration much uneasiness, it requires mature Deliberation to determine what is best to be done.”[3] On March 21, “the most probable conjecture is to Block up the Ports untill they pay for the Tea & acknowledge the Right the British Parliament … Pray how did the six American apples Eat there were so many on the tree.”[4] On March 26, “I am vastly pleased to find by a Pamphlet sent me from the Admiralty, that Wedderbourn has painted Mr Franklin in true Colours.  if he was hanged it would be doing Justice to both Countrys, & had I the power, none of his breed should have any imployment under the Crown.”[5] On April 3, “You arrived in good time to lend the bostonians a Cat with nine tails, & to hear the D of Richmond argue in their favor, its said they have Committed greater Outrages if so inflict a double punishment for if they are spared the more insolent they will be.”[6] A letter the following week commented on the military buildup in Boston, including several regiments sent that spring from Great Britain, and that General Gage, the 22nd Regiment’s colonel, having been appointed military governor of the Massachusetts colony, would arrive before them:

By the Orders issued there is to be a Jubilee Camp at Boston Consisting of eight Regts, & all Officers to attend, tis a pitty they sent of my Colonel so soon, as he might have made a Triumphal entry to His Govt at the head of such a chosen Band  the General at their Head and Earl Percy in the Rear, By the appointment of such chosen Men, they surely only intend making Game of the Bostonians

It is reported here that Our Acquaintance Lt Col Charles Lee set out [fast?] for Boston the moment he heard there was a probability of an insurrection there.  As Gage and he are intimately acquainted they possibly may settle every thing Amicably.[7]

Another letter four days later indicated doubt in Gage’s suitability for the command: “If the Bostonians are to be Chastized, why the Deuce did they send out my Colonel, if there is any disturbance He will abdicate His Government, but I forgot the Gallant Percy is his Second.”[8] Some months later, he wrote directly to Gage, expressing sympathy for his having been appointed to an untenable situation:

Of all the troublesome employments, that could possibly have been thought of, they could not have desired a more disagreable One than the present you are engaged in, tho’ I have not the ear of a Minister or the Correspondance of the Great, yet I am pleased to hear your Conduct hitherto is verry agreable to Administration.  The Colonies are in Such a ferment that I am afraid their frenzy will carry them too far.  I am extreamly sorry that you are so situated, for little honor or Credit is to be got, but your All is at Stake.  If you succeed in bringing about a reconciliation the Cockpit plume themselves; if force to force is necessary it may rediculously be called a Massacre and tho’ you have done duty in both Capacitys as Civil & Military Commander, yet your Name may be unjustly execrated.[9]

Abercrombie arrived in Boston on April 23, just four days after hostilities had broken out. With armed Americans flocking to the towns surrounding Boston, the situation was fluid and the future unclear. Abercrombie set to work establishing defenses for Boston. In a matter of days he was confident that he had put the town “in perfect security.” Being nonetheless prevailed upon to erect artillery batteries that he considered “contra la luna,” he “resignd [his] charge as Engineer not choosing to be laugh’d at.”[10] The following day he noted in a letter to a friend in New York, “Parties run as high as ever they did in Cromwels time, & was there not a Red Coat in the Country they would Cut one anothers throats.”[11]

On May 3 Abercrombie was appointed adjutant general and began gathering intelligence, among other military matters. A few days later he shared some thoughts with Gen. Sir Jeffrey Amherst, under whom he had served in the previous war:

to tell the truth I have never advised a General Sortie as I really detest the thoughts of a Civil War, and am satisfied the Country within Six miles of this will suffer as much from the ravages of their own people, as if we had laid it waste, another reason, Connecticut & Providence have sent Deputies from their Assemblies to intreat the General to suspend hostilities hoping all matters may be accommodated … the Deputies and many of the Principal people have waited on me.  If I do not flatter myself too much, I imagine I have done more good with my tongue than I could have perform’d with my Sword, yet if the Phrenzy of the people still continue they will find it is not rusty in the Scabbard.

Words cannot express the animosity that subsists between the Whigs and the Tories, the latter are but few, yet they reciprocally wish the ruin of each other.

You must remember the kind of Arms the Provincials had last War.  I have seen some thousands of those they have now, as bright as ours & Bayonets fixt, yet I am certain We shall never come to les Armes blanche.

I dare say Fools will exhibit this Seige on the Stage.[12]

On May 18 he was fired upon while taking soundings from a boat in one of the rivers adjacent to Boston, prompting an officer in the garrison to write that “I don’t hear that he has been as found of reconnoitring since.”[13] Other intelligence gathering activities were more traditional: “Our intelligence is bad, but one of the fair Sex told me some days since, that Seven of their heaviest Cannon she saw at Dedham nine miles from this on their way back to Providence.  & that the Men begin to refuse to take paper money in lieu of pay.  I am sure the Damsel does not deceive me for I pay her in Sterling.”[14] On May 28 he brought a couple of artillery pieces to reinforce a detachment on Noddles Island. After driving some American troops off this small island in Boston harbor the British force withdrew, leaving the cattle grazing there to be seized by the Americans on the 29th.[15] In spite of Abercrombie’s prior staff experience in America, General Gage decided that Abercrombie’s “talents were mistaken” in the roll of Adjutant General; Abercrombie was a fighter. On June 4 he was given an appointment that was “more to his wishes, and in a way more adapted to his genius:” command of a battalion of grenadiers.[16]

At this time in the war, the established strength of a British regiment was about 440 non-commissioned officers and private men, divided equally into ten companies. Two of these companies were composed of experienced and reliable men, one called the light infantry and one called the grenadiers. In very general terms, light infantry were intended for rapid movement and skirmishing while grenadiers were intended for shock and assault; in practice, both were employed for rapid movements to gain tactical advantage. Although grenadiers had ceased to throw hand grenades decades earlier, their uniforms retained some of the trappings of this specialty, while those of the light infantry were adapted for fast movement. The common practice was to detach each of these companies from their regiments and form them into grenadier and light infantry battalions, typically of eight to twelve companies each, which would be first into battle. Each regiment’s remaining eight companies, called battalion companies, continued to operate as an entity.

This methodology led to the grenadiers and light infantry being employed on the expedition to Lexington and Concord in April. They were roughly handled that day, but the casualties were quickly replaced by drafting qualified men with at least a year’s experience from the battalion companies into the grenadiers and light infantry; wounded grenadiers and light infantry men were sent to battalion companies.[17] When Lieutenant Colonel Abercombie took command of the grenadier battalion, he took responsibility of an organization of men who were capable but who had only recently begun working together. Prior to the formation of the battalion on June 4, the grenadiers had formed together only once for the April 19 expedition. Since then the companies were adapting to the new men appointed to replace casualties; as late as June 12 transfers were still being made.[18] The light infantry battalion was in a similar state. In spite of these challenges, Abercrombie had sufficient confidence to favor landing on Charleston Neck behind the American redoubt. This was the type of duty that grenadiers and light infantry were designed for, and Abercrombie must have believed that his new charges were equal to the task. He wrote to a colleague, “If the War was with Spain or France I should have been proud of the Command, but I do not like such fine fellows should be Shott at by such Rascals.”[19]

The British general staff chose to take the more conservative approach, one which used the grenadiers in a more traditional manner. All the troops would take the shortest route to the peninsula and form in front of, but out of range of, the American works. The grenadiers would advance on the American works while the light infantry rapidly made their way around the flank, to the right of the grenadiers. The grenadiers would not assault the works immediately, but occupy the defenders while the light infantry invested their rear, attacking only when the enemy was thrown into confusion. It was a sound plan based on good military principles.[20]

With the plan in place, embarkation orders given at 10 AM on June 17 that were characteristic of almost every tactical movement of the war:

The ten oldest companies of Grenadiers and the ten oldest companies of light Infantry, (exclusive of the Regiments lately landed) the 5th and 38th Regiments, to parade half after eleven o’Clock, with their Arms, Ammunition, Blankets, and provisions ordered to be cooked this morning, they will march by files to the long wharf.[21]

The mistaken image of British soldiers marching up Bunker Hill laden with knapsacks seems to have begun with one of the first British histories of the war, published in 1794. Charles Stedman, who served in America but was not at Bunker Hill, wrote that the troops were “encumbered with three days provisions, their knapsacks on their backs” and estimated their total burden at 125 pounds.[22] Even if knapsacks had been carried, other contemporary accounts estimate the British soldier’s full load of knapsack, blanket, provisions, and arms at about sixty pounds,[23] and the embarkation order makes it clear that knapsacks weren’t carried. A later author who expressly intended to rectify misconceptions about the battle repeated the error, going so far as to present the embarkation order but then suggest that the British troops were “in heavy marching order, each man encumbered with a superfluous weight estimated at nearly one hundred pounds.”[24] Stedman’s error has been reinforced by historians who have taken descriptions of especially harsh campaigns to be representative of the typical mode of operation.[25] Troops from the Boston garrison had indeed gone on marches into the countryside in “heavy marching order” on occasion, but these excursions were to develop the fitness of the soldiers, not achieve military objectives.[26]

The grenadiers and light infantry were the first to land on Charleston Neck at a point out of American musketry range. Here they formed, the grenadiers into a line facing the rail-fence breastwork that extended from the redoubt down to the shore, the light infantry into a column for their advance along the beach to the right. Two regiments formed on the left facing the redoubt. While the grenadiers advanced with deliberate slowness as a distraction, the light infantry trotted along the beach. It was expected that the narrow beach would provide an avenue around the end of the breastwork. Unknown to the attackers, the Americans had constructed a barrier across the beach and manned it. The British navy had no ships or floating batteries positioned to bear on this location, leaving the defenders unmolested as the light infantry approached. The hail of fire from the barricade inflicted heavy casualties on the head of the British column, and the confines of the beach with water on the right and an embankment on the left afforded no alternative to retreat. This check was the undoing of British plans and the remainder of the action was conducted extemporaneously.

It is not clearly exactly when the grenadiers became aware of the failure of the flanking movement, but they fatefully continued their advance towards the breastworks. Progress was perilously slow, not because of “superfluous weight” or rigid marching, but because of a series of fences, brick kilns, enclosures and other obstructions. The fences could not be quickly broken down, so the grenadiers had to climb over each one. This prevented the rapid advance they would normally have maintained in the face of an enemy. But the slow and irregular advance brought about a danger even greater than hostile fire. The battered light infantry battalion, having withdrawn from the barricade on the beach, reformed into a line near their initial staging area. The shape of the coastline put them behind the advancing grenadier battalion. From this disadvantageous position they opened fire. The distance was too great to have any material effect on the enemy, but the impact on the grenadier battalion was disastrous.

This friendly fire incident is occasionally mentioned by historians, but the importance of it is largely overlooked. It calls into question not only British discipline at this early stage of the war, but also American marksmanship. The disproportionate casualties in this battle are sometimes used as evidence of the effectiveness of American firepower. That some of the casualties were inflicted by friendly fire means that American musketry was that much less lethal. In a letter dated three days after the battle, Abercrombie indicated that “our Light Infantry killed many of the Grends.” After ordering them to desist, the friendly fire abated for eight or ten minutes, but then the light infantry “gave me a plumper & killed two officers & 3 private.”[27] He used the vernacular “plumper” to refer to a volley of lead.[28] We have no precise figures on the total number of friendly fire casualties. Looking only at Abercrombie’s description of the volley that killed five men, we can estimate the proportion of wounded at around twenty based on the overall casualty figures for the battle of 226 dead and 828 wounded. Abercrombie implies that more were struck previously, and there may have been other casualties of which he was not aware. Of particular importance was that the grenadiers’ commander, Abercrombie himself, was among the wounded.

There are several possible explanations for the light infantry firing into their own men. While the light infantry was composed of trusted and experienced men, several years of peace may have diminished their discipline and operational readiness. Certainly some of the men were not completely familiar with their officers or comrades, having been recently transferred into the light infantry to recruit losses sustained on April 19. The withering fire that they’d received from the barricade threw them into confusion and inflicted significant casualties, further diminishing their organization. Perhaps some of the soldiers were overly determined to inflict punishment on the rebels that had handled them so roughly in April and again this day. One officer wrote that although they rallied after being pushed back from the barricade they were “in such consternation that they fired at random, and unfortunately killed several of their officers.”[29] Regardless of the reason, their fire may have been more instrumental than that of the Americans in breaking the assault by the grenadiers. After the action Abercrombie wrote that “Our men must be drilled before they are Carryed to action again.”[30]

The muddled assault on the America works was repulsed with heavy losses caused by the confluence of several factors: the favorable high-ground position of the defenders that afforded both protection and an open field of fire, the obstructions that prevented a rapid British advance, the friendly fire that added to British casualties and confusion, the inability of the British to bring significant artillery fire on the fort. Deficiencies in British battle readiness and overconfidence that the defense would be weak may have also contributed. A final British assault, better organized and more suited to the situation, overwhelmed the defenders who were by this time low on ammunition. Given the difficulties that they’d faced, the British military regarded it as a triumph of arms. But if the concept of a pyrrhic victory had not already been known, it would have been established by the battle of Bunker Hill. About half of the British officers and soldiers who landed at the foot of the hill that afternoon were killed or wounded.[31]

Lt.-Col. James Abercrombie had been shot through the middle of the right thigh and was out of the action. No account of his removal from the battlefield has been found, and we do not know if he was there to see the British forces finally carry the day. He was keenly aware of the cost, however, and echoed the sentiments of many of his fellow officers when he wrote that “a few of such Victories would Ruin the army.”[32] His wound did not appear fatal; General Howe went so far as to call it “only a flesh wound.”[33] But there was a complication. The shot that came from behind had hit Abercombie “with such power from its proximity, as to force a pen case which he had in his side pocket, along with it into his thigh, from the lodgment of the ball it could readily be extracted – but part of the pen case being got so far it baffled the art of the surgeons.”[34] In addition, he was “said to have been in a very bad habit of body.”[35] Three days after the battle he wrote that “all the Doctrs agree that wound Looks well but it has not Begun to desist yet,” but he was nonetheless in such a state of convalescence that he dictated the letter to his servant.[36] In spite of the good prognosis, the wound proved fatal.

On June 22 James Abercrombie died. Because the official casualty list sent to the War Office and subsequently widely published included the regiment to which each officer belonged, the 22nd Regiment is often presented as having been in the battle. The regiment, dispersed in several transport ships, actually arrived piecemeal during the next four weeks.[37] In keeping with army tradition, Abercrombie’s military effects were sold at auction in the encampment on Boston Common on August 11, where a junior officer in the regiment whose baggage had been captured purchased some of the goods.[38] Abercrombie’s servant, a soldier named James Grant, was discharged from the army and carried a trunk containing personal effects back to Great Britain.[39] Abercrombie’s will was proved in London on October 17.[40] Abercrombie was the highest-ranking officer to die as a result of the battle. Although he was “much lamented” at the time,[41] memory of his loss has been eclipsed by the death of Major John Pitcairn, probably because of that officer’s roll in the events of April 19.

The battle of Bunker Hill influenced subsequent actions, at least during the 1776 campaign, but not in the ways that are often described. Bunker Hill was a failure of execution, not of planning, and subsequent successful British flanking movements were the result of better execution rather than changed doctrine. The heavy casualties gave the neophyte American army a tremendous morale boost but also caused them to rely on fixed positions at several engagements, a reliance that proved fatal at Brooklyn in August 1776, Kipp’s Bay in September 1776, and other actions early in the war. The slow British advance up the slopes was not due to staid discipline and unnecessary burdens, and the signature of British infantry movements for the rest of the war was rapidity. The battle that is often used to characterize the tactical aspects of the war was in fact an anomaly that was not intended and not repeated.


[1] This article refers to the scene of the action as Bunker Hill. The American redoubt was actually on a secondary eminence on the slope of Bunker Hill facing Boston, called Breed’s Hill. Although semantically accurate, the battle was not referred to as Breed’s Hill in contemporary accounts nor in most modern histories.

[2] Lt. Col. James Abercrombie’s parentage is not clear. He was certainly related to several other Abercrombies in the military. His will cites the general to whom most of his estate was bequeathed as his “friend and relation” without specifying the relationship. Some sources incorrectly state that the general and the lieutenant-colonel were the same man.

[3] James Abercrombie to the Earl of Loudoun, March 14, 1774, Mount Stuart, Rothsay, Isle of Bute, Scotland.

[4] Abercrombie to Loudoun, March 21, 1774, Mount Stuart, Rothsay, Isle of Bute, Scotland.

[5] Abercrombie to Loudoun, March 26, 1774, Mount Stuart, Rothsay, Isle of Bute, Scotland.

[6] Abercrombie to Loudoun, April 4, 1774, Mount Stuart, Rothsay, Isle of Bute, Scotland.

[7] Abercrombie to Loudoun, April 10, 1774, Mount Stuart, Rothsay, Isle of Bute, Scotland.

[8] Abercrombie to Loudoun, April 14, 1774, Mount Stuart, Rothsay, Isle of Bute, Scotland.

[9] Abercrombie to Thomas Gage, September 21, 1774, Thomas Gage Mss., W. L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, MI.

[10] James Abercrombie to Sir Jeffrey Amherst, May 7. 1775. Amherst Mss, U1350 080/1, Center for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, Kent, England.

[11] Abercrombie to Cadwallader Colden, May 2, 1775, Library of Congress.

[12] Abercrombie to Amherst, May 7. 1775.

[13] The British in Boston: the Diary of Lt. John Barker, Elizabeth Ellery Dana, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924), 48.

[14] Abercrombie to Amherst, June 7, 1775. Amherst Mss, U1350 080/2, Center for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, Kent, England.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Thomas Gage to Secretary at War Barrington, September 28, 1775, in “Private Correspondence of Barrington and Gage,” Sources of American Independence: Selected Manuscripts from the William L. Clements Library , Howard H. Peckham, ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 139.

[17] Muster rolls, 23rd Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3960 and 38th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/5171, The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey.

[18] General Orders, America. WO 36/1, 106; muster rolls, 38th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/5171, The National Archives.

[19] Abercrombie to the Earl of Eglinton, June 5, 1775, GD3/5/1101, National Library of Scotland.

[20] Harold Murdock, Bunker Hill Notes and Queries (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927), 22-25. Although deficient in many points of detail, this is one of the first histories to accurately present the British strategy based on primary sources.

[21] General Orders, America. WO 36/1, 108-109.

[22] Charles Stedman, The History of the Origin, Progress and Termination of the American War (London, 1794), 128.

[23] John Burgoyne, A State of The Expedition From Canada, as Laid Before The House of Commons, by Lieutenant‑general Burgoyne, and Verified by Evidence; with a Collection of Authentic Documents, And Additions Of Many Circumstances Which Were Prevented From Appearing Before The House By The Prorogation Of Parliament… (London, 1780), 148.

[24] Murdock, Bunker Hill Notes and Queries, 27. The embarkation orders are given on page 14 of the same source.

[25] For example, in the last stages of Burgoyne’s 1777 campaign soldiers were forced to carry their knapsacks adding to the overall hardship, but a contemporary account of this presents it as a contrast to conditions earlier in the campaign when wagons or boats transported the knapsacks. Don N. Hagist, A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution. (Baraboo, WI: Ballindalloch Press, 2005), xxxv, 42.

[26] Frederick Mackenzie, The Diary of Frederick Mackenzie (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), 13.

[27] Abercrombie to Amherst, June 20, 1775. Amherst Mss, U1350 080/3, Center for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, Kent, England.

[28] “To plump; to strike or shoot. He pulled out his pops and plumped him; he drew out his pistols and shot him.” Francis Gross, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Eric Partridge, ed. (New York: Dorset Press, 1992), 265.

[29] Edinburgh Advertiser, August 11, 1775.

[30] Abercrombie to Amherst, June 20, 1775.

[31] The British officially reported 226 killed and 828 wounded out of some 2200 troops engaged.

[32] Abercrombie to Amherst, June 20, 1775.

[33] Correspondence of King George III, Vol. 3. John Fortescue, ed. (New York: McMillan & Co., 1927), 223.

[34] Edinburgh Advertiser, August 18, 1775.

[35] Correspondence of King George III, 223.

[36] Abercrombie to Amherst, June 20, 1775.

[37] The first of ten transports carrying the 22nd, 40th, 44th and 45th Regiments arrived in Boston on June 28, the last on July 19. “Stephen Kemble’s Journals,” Collections of the New York Historical Society for the year 1883 (New York: New York Historical Society, 1884), 45-49.

[38] Baggage belonging to Lt. Arthur French was capture when a ship inadvertently put into Philadelphia after hostilities began. Minutes of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, August 12, 1775, in Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 1. William Bell Clark, ed. (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1964), 1125-1126; General Sir William Howe’s Orderly Book, B. F. Stevens, ed. (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1970), 65; Agent’s ledgers, 22nd Regiment of Foot, Lloyds Bank Archives, London.

[39] Earl of Loudon to James Robertson, August 5, 1775, GD172/2576, National Archive of Scotland.

[40] Agent’s ledgers, 22nd Regiment of Foot.

[41] Edinburgh Advertiser, August 11, 1775.


  • A great ,well written and argued analysis and another demonstration of the need to consider primary sources from both sides of a battle, which is a critical deficiency of many 19th Century historical accounts which form the myths you bust.

    Another reason the British command did not want to land men on Charlestown Neck is that they could be surrounded by being caught between rebel forces on Bunker Hill and potential forces coming from Cambridge.

    Lastly, coordination between the British Army and Navy was never very good. If the Navy would have supported the light infantry assault on the beach, the British could have won an easier victory. Unfortunately for the British, this is one lesson they did not learn and vexed them at Brooklyn and Yorktown.

  • my understanding was that Howe chose a largely frontal assault, rather than encirclement because he simply did not have enough men , if he had split his force the attack would have surely failed

    1. Your understanding is accurate in a sense, John, but it wasn’t the number of men that limited Howe, it was the number of boats. He could only land part of his force at one time, and leave them on the Charlestown peninsula to wait for the boats to return to Boston, collect the rest of his troops, and return to the landing site. He could either land behind the American works, exposing those troops to American forces on the peninsula and on the mainland, for a extended period while the boats made a long journey; or, he could land in front of the American works but safely out of their range, to wait while the boats made a short journey for the rest of his force.
      Once all of the troops were ashore in front of the works, he did split his force, sending part of them along the beach with the intention of turning the American flank – and that attack did fail.

      1. thanks for your reply, that’s interesting. I agree Howe was hampered with all kinds of problems like the lack of boats available which limited his options. I seem to remember reading about a conversation between Howe and Clinton regarding the tactics for the assault, apologies I cannot remember the source. Clinton argued strongly to land part of the force further down the charleston neck to cut off the defenders. I believe Howe and Burgoyne argued that the entire force should be concentrated in the frontal assault which was necessary due to the fact Howe could not bring a greater proponderence of men to bear for the battle and that splitting his force would be “dangerous”

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