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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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Fighting for Freedom: The Battle of Bunker Hill

The Massachusetts colony played a prominent role in the development of the British colonization of the New World. As early as the 1600s, European countries recognized Boston Harbor because of its natural protection from the rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean, its abundant cod fishing (hence the name Cape Cod), and its depth which allowed easy passage for large merchant ships. Boston became prosperous as the gateway for trade between Europe and Britain's 13 colonies.

There were British governors in each of the 13 colonies, and even though the colonists were loyal British citizens, Parliament prohibited them from having their own legal representatives in the British court system. For 100 years, this imbalance prevailed, eventually causing strains between the crown and the colonists.

During this period of time, the French government also claimed North American territories. ln the mid-1700s, England and France engaged in disputes over land in the Ohio River Valley which resulted in the so-called French and Indian War. The conflict on the American continent was relatively short. However, it continued on in Europe and became known as the Seven Years War. England prevailed but at great cost to their treasury, causing King George lll to begin heavily taxing the colonies as a way to rebuild his coffers.

Boston, the seat of government for the Massachusetts colony, was ruled by the British governor, Thomas Gage. Along with collecting taxes, he allowed his troops to harass citizens on the streets, in their businesses, and in their homes while denying them any legal recourse.

There were a few members of the British Parliament who were sympathetic to their American cousins. Isaac Barre, an independent-minded lrishman, warned that the government's unfair treatment of the British citizens living in the colonies "has caused the blood of these sons of liberty to recoil within them." The name, Sons of Liberty, was quickly adopted by a group of prominent Boston civic leaders who had taken up the mantle as defenders of colonial rights.

Governor Gage's tax burdens stirred the attention of the Sons of Liberty, and their response was the famous Boston Tea Party raid in 1773.

ln an effort to disarm the colonists, Gage's British troops provoked armed confrontations with the colonists at Lexington and Concord in April, 775.Two months later, when John Parker and his generals were informed that the British were now preparing to take full control of the Boston Harbor and the cities of Boston and Charlestown, they knew they must take action.

As a counter-offensive, Parker dispatched a contingent of Minutemen, led by General William Prescott, to prevent the British from succeeding in their hostile takeover. With little time to prepare, General Prescott was given a poorly drawn map for directions to Bunker Hill. Consequently, marching in the cover of darkness, the misdrawn map directed the 1,200 militiamen to Breeds Hill, situated in front of Bunker Hill.

Reaching the top of the hill, Prescott had his men work through the rest of the night digging trenches and erecting a 160 x 30-foot earthen structure to serve as a fort for their upcoming encounter with the British forces.

As the morning sun rose on June 17, 1775, General Prescott realized their encampment on Breeds Hill put them in full view of the British command posts in Boston. They expected to clash with British ground troops, but on Breeds Hill, they were also exposed to cannon fire from the British warships anchored in the Boston Harbor.

Confident that they would defeat the colonial forces, the British commanders, nonetheless, found it remarkable that the rebels were able to build such a sizeable barricade in just one night.

The militiamen had had no sleep, food, or water because the hoped-for reinforcements had not yet arrived by the time the British shelling began. A detailed account of the Bunker/Breeds Hill battle is preserved in a letter from a New Hampshire militiaman Peter Brown to his mother: "There [was] a matter of 40 barges full of Regulars coming over to us...they fired [cannons] from their ships till about 2 o'clock...it is supposed there were about 3,000 of them and about 700 of us left not deserted, besides 500 reinforcements...they landed and fronted before us and formed themselves in an oblong square...and after they were well formed they advanced towards us, but they found a choakly mouthful of us."

Earlier in the Spring of 1775, Patrick Henry addressed the Virginia Assembly on the Rights of the Colonies, stating, "Gentlemen may cry, 'Peace, Peace,' but there is no peace, ... The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? ... ls life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"

Among the Assembly members in attendance that day were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and six other future signers of the Declaration of lndependence. At the time of the signing, in 1775, George Washington was on the battlefield as the newly appointed Commander of the Continental Army.

As Patrick Henry's speech spread throughout the colonies, it had a profound effect on the beleaguered colonists in Massachusetts. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, the militiamen knew they were not only fighting for their lives but also so that their families might live in a country free from tyranny.

Among the 700 colonial militiamen fighting the British forces was 24-year-old Salem Poor. His parents had been brought to Massachusetts as slaves and worked on the farm of John and Rebecca Poor. ln the industrial and farming communities in the northern colonies, slaves and European indentured servants customarily worked for a period of time in exchange for their expenses. Once they fulfilled their obligations, they became free citizens.

ln the aftermath of the battle, Salem Poor was cited as "behaving like an experienced officer" and as "a brave and valiant soldier." His military record shows that he enlisted in the Continental Army and fought in the battles at Saratoga, New York, Monmouth, New Jersey, and was among the survivors of the brutal winter encampment at Valley Forge. Poor was honorably discharged in March of 1780. 

When the members of the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in May 1776, Massachusetts was represented by Samuel Adams, his cousin, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry, ad John Hancock, the latter of whom was elected to be the President of the Congress. Fifty-six Representatives pledged 'their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor'when they signed lhe Declaration of lndependence.