IWalked Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument
The Battle of Bunker Hill was one of the earliest skirmishes fought amongst the British and colonial forces during the American Revolution. The conflict began on June 13, 1775, when the Colonists learned that British soldiers were planning to attempt to occupy a series of hills located just outside the city of Boston. This would provide the British with a strong strategic position for any ensuing attacks. Aware of this risk, the Colonists decided to move first and 1,200 soldiers along with Colonel William Prescott began constructing an earthen redoubt (or wall) surrounding the peaks of Breed and Bunker Hill.
Upset over this turn of events, the British proceeded to attack the Colonists at approximately 3 p.m. on June 17, 1775. Curious onlookers climbed atop their rooftops to observe as a storm of over 2,000 British troops began an assault on Breed’s Hill (adjacent and about three-hundred yards south of Bunker Hill). The attack came from the direction of the steps to the Bunker Hill Memorial. As British soldiers began their trek up the hill, colonists waited patiently for their enemy to get increasingly closer so as to not waste valuable (and limited) amounts of gun powder and ammunition. Their instructions? The infamous battle call, “Don’t fire until you can see the whites of their eyes.”
After two failed attempts to reach the peak of the hill, the British were finally successful on their third try approximately two hours into the skirmish. The battle quickly transformed into one of hand-to-hand combat as the better-armed British utilized their bayonets to scatter the colonial forces from their perch. The Americans would be forced to cede Breed’s Hill and they retreated to nearby Cambridge to regroup.
Despite having lost the battle, the effort was a substantial moral victory for the young uprising colonies. British casualties outnumbered Americans by almost two to one. In all the British faced casualties and injuries of approximately 1,000 soldiers versus the Americans 450.
As to the Battle of Bunker Hill in the history books, it would forever be mislabeled due to a clerical error on a 1775 map. While sketching out the surrounding hills of Charlestown, a British mapmaker inadvertently transposed Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. Hence, as the events of that day on June 17, 1775 began to be documented it would become remembered as the Battle of Bunker Hill instead of the hill where the event actually transpired.
To commemorate the battle which provided colonists with the belief they could win a war with the British; a monument was proposed and approved in 1825. Fifteen acres of land was purchased surrounding Breed’s Hill in preparation for a yet-to-be-determined design. A design contest for the memorial ensued with an attached prize of $100. Approximately fifty designs were submitted for consideration. Chosen amongst these designs was an obelisk by a carver and builder named Solomon Willard. Willard was best recognized for the pediment he had carved atop the Boston Custom House and his ornate Ionic and Corinthian capitals on the Park Street Church. Construction began on the monument on June 17, 1825 when Marquis de Lafayette laid the cornerstone for the structure on the 50th anniversary of battle.
Completion of the Bunker Hill Monument would be a slow and trying process during its construction period of 1825 to 1843. Progress was continually halted due during this time frame due to lack funds. The first interruption occurred in 1838 when the initial funds for the project were depleted. To ensure progress continued on the monument, ten acres of the original fifteen purchased for the site were sold off. This proved sufficient for a few years; however, in 1840 further fund raising efforts were required to finalize the structure which was becoming a nuisance to locals due to its prolonged construction period. Charlestown residents actually began to raise their own funds to destroy the partially completed monument. However, the monument’s saving grace came through a bake sale hosted by Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale, who was already renowned in some circles as a famous songwriter (she authored “Mary Had A Little Lamb”) and also for her substantial influence on empowered leaders (she is also credited with convincing Abraham Lincoln to formally make Thanksgiving Day a national holiday), held a bake sale that would that be the envy of any organization attempting to raise funds. Through Hale’s efforts, $30,035.53 was able to be raised to aid in the completion of the structure.
Construction of one of the first monuments within the United States was a significant feat of engineering at the time. 6,700 tons of granite were required that had to be hauled in from nearby Quincy, MA. The first commercial railroad, appropriately labeled the Granite Railway, was built solely to assist in transporting the material to the site.
The Bunker Hill Memorial was formally completed on July 23, 1842 and dedicated on July 17. The memorial stands two-hundred twenty-one feet tall and features a 19th century lodge near its base. The top of memorial may be visited 9a.m.-4:30p.m. daily, however, visitors should note that there is no elevator to the top. To reach its peak, visitors must brave the 294 steps on the interior. From the top, wobbly-legged individuals will be treated to spectacular views from one of four windows within the top floor observatory.
Just at the base of the Bunker Hill Memorial is a statue dedicated to Colonel William Prescott who led the Colonial troops effort versus the British. He is often credited with having yelled the famous war cry of, “Don’t fire until you can see the whites of their eyes.” In truth, numerous individuals have been credited with this quote, although it does not take away from the efforts put forth by Colonel Prescott and his troops in 1775. The statue of the Colonel was created by William Wetmore Story. Story also created the Joseph Henry memorial situated outside of the Smithsonian Castle in Washington D.C.
If you wish to learn more about the Bunker Hill Memorial, a museum was opened on July 17, 2007, to provide a more comprehensive experience. The museum, located just across the street at 43 Monument Square, features many historical artifacts from the memorial’s inception until present day. The building in which the museum is housed is the former Charlestown Branch Library and its location may be confirmed via the words “Free for All” still etched along its façade. This declaration also speaks proudly to the required admission for the museum of which there is no fee to enter.
Address: 43 Monument Square,Boston,MA
Hours: Open daily (Mon-Sun)9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
IWalked Audio Tours To See This Site: Boston’s Freedom Trail. (Coming Summer 2012.)