The Debunker: Was There A Battle On Bunker Hill?

by Ken Jennings

July is the season of barbecues and coolers full of watermelon and supermarket-brand soda. In the United States, at least, it all happens in the service of the nation’s birthday. On the 4th day of this month, Americans celebrate 236 years of independence from their British oppressors, who wanted them to pay taxes on stamps or spell the word “color” with an extra ‘u’ or something. But, as leading political figures occasionally remind us, a lot of what we think we know about the nation’s Founding Fathers is actually a load of hooey. Let Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings give you liberty from all the misinformation before you run for office yourself and make one of these red-white-and-bloopers.

Independence Myth #3: The Colonials Beat the Redcoats in a Fight to Control Bunker Hill.

In the midst of the colonial troops’ 1775 siege of Boston, their generals learned that the British were planning on moving troops to the nearby Charlestown Peninsula. In reply, the Americans moved to occupy two hills north of the city. The plan was to build an earthen emplacement atop Bunker Hill before sunrise on June 17. The resulting battle would be the first large-scale clash of the American Revolution, and still looms large in the nation’s founding myth. But...


The problem with the story is that the Battle of Bunker Hill didn’t take place on Bunker Hill. When the sun rose on June 17, it became clear that, despite Colonel William Prescott’s initial orders, the colonials’ earthworks had in fact been built not on Bunker Hill, but on the next hilltop over, called Breed’s Hill. It’s never been clear exactly what happened here—were the battle maps wrong? Did someone realize Breed’s Hill was the better location and call an audible? Or did the colonials just get lost in the dark? No one knows, but as a result of the last-minute change of venue, most of the next day’s fighting took place on Breed’s Hill. The action didn’t move to Bunker Hill until late in the afternoon, when the colonists were forced to retreat from their position.

That’s right: the colonists retreated. This fondly-remembered American military exploit was actually a tactical defeat for our guys (though British losses were so heavy that their general wrote in his diary that “a few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America”). The other thing you probably know about the battle—the famous order not to fire “until you see the whites of their eyes”—is also factually shaky, since eyewitness accounts credit four different colonial officers with the order. But if someone spoke those words atop Bunker—er, Breed’s—Hill, it wasn’t original. Even in 1775, the “whites of their eyes” thing was a military cliché dating back at least thirty years.

Yeesh. There’s so much wrong here that you’d almost think the word “debunker” came from the name of Bunker Hill. Maybe I should rename this column “The De-Breed’s.”

Quick Quiz: “Sammy Takes Bunker Hill” is one name for the famous 1972 guest appearance of Sammy Davis, Jr. on what sitcom?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Illustration: "View of the Attack on Bunker's Hill with the Burning of Charlestown" by Lodge (1783).