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quality posts: 17 Private Messages WootBot


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 or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

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


quality posts: 0 Private Messages mctpjh

All in the Family. He didn't take Bunker Hill either, he took Edith's chair.


quality posts: 0 Private Messages capeelf

Breed's Hill Bunker Hill - the government employees in Boston really don't care as long as they get a paid holiday out of it.


quality posts: 2 Private Messages rickseiden

It was only a matter of time before the De-Bunker took on Bunker Hill.


quality posts: 1 Private Messages dufus2506

It wasn't really the first major clash of the Rev War either. First there was the Battle of Lexington, then Concord (of course) then, after the siege began, there was the Battle of Chelsea Creek.

It wasn't a huge battle with lots of soldiers, but it lasted all day, and the British lost a ship (HMS Diana) during the fighting.

Though largely forgotten, this battle preceeds the battle of Bunker Hill by about a month, and was the second battle of the Revolutionary War.


quality posts: 6 Private Messages rayray099

Boy KJ you're just educating us all over the place. I always want to go blabbing what I've learned after reading, but instead I quietly wait for the appropriate time to blow minds. Because I'm a lady!


quality posts: 1 Private Messages dsdonaghy

I was in the Navy and assigned to USS Bunker Hill (CG-52), and the running joke used to be that we were manning a ship named for a battle we lost. Never felt too good about it, except when you'd look across the pier and see ships like the Antietam, named after a battle wherein we essentially kicked our own ass.

To feel better, I prefered to think we were carrying on the legacy of USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), which was a pretty accomplished carrier during WWII


quality posts: 2 Private Messages ishoplive

Independence in America!!!


quality posts: 9 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

Correct, "Sammy Takes Bunker Hill" was an All in the Family. Although I did discover that that's only what the episode was called for home video its original airing, it's just called "Sammy's Visit." THAT'S NOT AS FUNNY!


quality posts: 15 Private Messages SESteve
mctpjh wrote:All in the Family. He didn't take Bunker Hill either, he took Edith's chair.

I have a recollection of him sitting in Archie's chair and Archie being too star-struck to call him on it. But I probably haven't seen that since it originally aired so I might have erred.