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Hibernian Chronicle 226 years ago: the Battle of Bunker Hill

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Two hundred twenty-six years ago this week, on June 17, 1775, the American colonists fought the Battle of Bunker Hill in Charlestown, Mass. Although the colonials lost the battle that day, their impressive performance proved a major morale boost for the patriot cause. Among the men who fought and died in this the bloodiest battle of the Revolutionary War were hundreds of Irish and Irish-American soldiers and officers. One, a colonel named John Stark, would emerge as one of the heroes of the day.

The Battle of Bunker Hill (it actually took place on nearby Breed’s Hill) was the first major engagement between American and British forces following the "shot heard ’round the world" at Lexington and Concord in April 1875. The British were attempting to lay siege to Boston. The outmanned and outgunned rebels were determined to stop them.

The opposing forces camped near each other for weeks leading up to the battle. Dozens of Irish-born soldiers in the British army took advantage of this situation and crossed over to the American side. Many had been forced into army service by "press gangs" that roamed the port towns of Ireland. Others had volunteered like so many before them (and after), seeing in military service an opportunity to see the world and advance socially. But the discrimination and brutality they experienced in the service of the king convinced many that a better future was to be had in casting their lot with the other side. Many changed their names to avoid certain execution if captured in battle. According to one account, Dublin-born John Carroll refused to do so. "No I’ll keep my own name," he quipped. "They’ll be welcome to hang what’s left of me when they get me."

Most of the American force, however, were not British deserters. According to the indefatigable historian Michael O’Brien in his book "The Irish at Bunker Hill," the rebel force counted among its officers 21 men of Irish heritage. At least six were Irish-born — Maj. John Goffe, Lt. Thomas McLaughlin, and Capts. Andrew Browne, David Cowden, Daniel Flood, and Hugh McClellan. Among the American militiamen who took the field that day, another 269 were Irish-born. Together with countless more descendants of Irish immigrants, they made up a significant portion (perhaps 700 or more) of the 1,200 total soldiers.

Aware of the British intention to take the hills of Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston, the colonists determined to get there first. On June 16, the day before the battle, the patriot force under William Prescott occupied and fortified Breed’s Hill. One of the men in charge of supervising the building of fortifications was Fr. John Martin. Born in Ireland, he’d come to Rhode Island in 1771. Four years later, he accompanied Rhode Island militiamen to the defense of Boston and ended up on Breed’s Hill, where he helped the preparations and later cared for the wounded.

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Interestingly, much of the gunpowder the colonials carried came courtesy of an Irish American named John Sullivan. Back in December 1774, his successful raid on Fort William and Mary in New Hampshire netted a large supply of gunpowder that eventually made its was to Boston. As it turned out, the patriots would need every bit of it.

The next morning British ships shelled the hill before landing of 2,000 troops. Under General Pigot, they stormed up the hill but were met but volley after volley of rebel fire. Before long the hill was littered with the bodies of killed and wounded British soldiers.

A key figure in keeping the American line solid during the repeated British assaults was John Stark. Born in Londonderry, N.H., in 1728 to Irish immigrant parents, he spent much of his life in the military, gaining invaluable experience in the French and Indian Wars. When the Battle of Bunker Hill began, he rushed his force of 1,000 men to the scene from a mile away, providing vital reinforcements and inspiring leadership. He rallied his men with the famed words "live free or die, for death is not the worst of evils," a slogan which lives on today as the state motto of New Hampshire. He would later achieve even greater glory at the Battle Bennington in 1777.

But inspiring words were no substitute for bullets and when the Americans ran out of ammunition, they were forced to retreat. Although they lost the battle, they inflicted a heavy toll on their enemy. The British suffered over 1,000 killed and wounded, compared to approximately 450 Americans killed and wounded. Thus did the Battle of Bunker Hill prove to be a morale booster for the patriot cause and an unwelcome jolt of reality for the British.

"[T]hese Rebels," noted British General Thomas Gage, "are not the despicable rabble too many of us have supposed."

The American Revolution had only begun. Ahead lay eight more years of warfare until independence was won. Following the war’s conclusion, Lord Mountjoy rose in Parliament to offer his assessment of why England lost the conflict:

"America was lost through the Irish emigrants. . . . I have been assured on the best authority that the Irish language was commonly spoken in the American ranks."

While certainly an exaggeration, Mountjoy’s words contained an important truth — that Irish and Irish-American soldiers played a key role in the winning of America’s independence, at Bunker Hill and in many thereafter.

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

June 13, 1795: Theobald Wolfe Tone sets sail for America to raise money and support for the United Irishmen cause.

June 14, 1690: King William arrives in Ireland seeking to defeat James II.

June 16, 1904: James Joyce takes a job as a teacher at the Clifton School in Dalkey. He will later use June 16, 1904 as the setting for his monumental work, "Ulysses."

HIBERNIAN BIRTHDATES

June 13, 1865: Writer William Butler Yeats is born in Dublin.

June 14, 1906: Photographer Margaret Bourke-White is born in the Bronx, N.Y.

June 19, 1881: James "Jimmy" Walker, mayor of New York (1925-1932), is born in New York.

Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.

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