“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”
Today, June 17, is the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. While actually fought mostly on nearby Breed’s Hill, The battle is famous for the quote, attributed to Colonel William Prescott, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”
Battle of Bunker Hill: June 17, 1775
On June 17, some 2,200 British forces under the command of Major General William Howe (1729-1814) and Brigadier General Robert Pigot (1720-96) landed on the Charlestown Peninsula then marched to Breed’s Hill. As the British advanced in columns against the Americans, Prescott, in an effort to conserve the Americans’ limited supply of ammunition, reportedly told his men, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” When the Redcoats were within several dozen yards, the Americans let loose with a lethal barrage of musket fire, throwing the British into retreat.
After re-forming their lines, the British attacked again, with much the same result. Prescott’s men were now low on ammunition, though, and when the Redcoats went up the hill for a third time, they reached the redoubts and engaged the Americans in hand-to-hand combat. The outnumbered Americans were forced to retreat. However, by the end of the engagement, the Patriots’ gunfire had cut down some 1,000 enemy troops, with more than 200 killed and more than 800 wounded. More than 100 Americans perished, while more than 300 others were wounded.
Battle of Bunker Hill: Legacy
The British had won the so-called Battle of Bunker Hill, and Breed’s Hill and the Charlestown Peninsula fell firmly under British control. Despite losing their strategic positions, the battle was a significant morale-builder for the inexperienced Americans, convincing them that patriotic dedication could overcome superior British military might. Additionally, the high price of victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill made the British realize that the war with the colonies would be long, tough and costly.