The Irish at the Battle of Bunker Hill: "Don't shoot until you see the white's of their eyes!" (2024)

On this day, June 17, 1775, the American nation came of age. The Battle of Bunker Hill, one of the most significant clashes of the American Revolutionary War against the British Empire, was fought, and in center stage, were the Fighting Irish. This is the story of the battle and the story of the Irish who fought so bravely this day

Historical legacy

In the years after this pivotal battle, contemporary historians would try to erase the Irish from the ranks of the American militia who fought so bravely 244 years ago. Attempts were made to paint a picture of a militia who were “wholly English” and of English origin. However, the names of the dead from the battle tell a different story ie. Casey, Collins, Flynn, and McGrath.

This battle shaped the entire Revolutionary War conflict that followed. When the American nation rose up to throw off the shackles of King George III and his oppressive regime. The British generals expected the “untrained rabble” of the American militia to offer little resistance to the trained and experienced British Army regulars.

Bloodied after this encounter, the English had to rethink their entire approach to the Revolutionary War against the American militia. Although, the Battle of Bunker Hill was a victory for the British. It was very much a pyrrhic victory. British General Clinton, writing in his diary, would later state “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to the British dominion in America”.

The battle commences

This bloody battle unfolded in three stages. The American militia had constructed a redoubt (fort) on Breed’s Hill. The strategic goal of the militia was to frustrate the British Army in this fight for Boston Harbor. The first wave of British Army regulars advance in a frontal assault on Breed’s Hill. They weren’t expecting heavy resistance. The militia held firm though and fought like men possessed.

The first wave of the British was turned back in a disorderly retreat. Leaving hundreds of British dead and wounded behind on the battlefield.

Steadying themselves, their officers throw the British troops into the battle again. This time, as the Redcoats advance over their dead and wounded comrades. They find themselves bloodied by the militia once again. They retreat again in a disorderly manner unbecoming of an experienced and trained army.

After regrouping for a second time, the final assault on the redoubt meets a militia who, tired and out of ammunition, without bayonets for their rifles are finally forced into an orderly retreat. The British take Bunker Hill.

Indeed, the retreat is so orderly that the militia has time to gather many of their wounded comrades from the battlefield before falling back.

The Irish at the Battle of Bunker Hill: "Don't shoot until you see the white's of their eyes!" (1)

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The aftermath

Left to count their casualties, who numbered over 1,000, the British were left licking their wounds. Slowly coming to the realization that the American militia, though inexperienced, would be a force to be reckoned with in the war to come. The British Army took pains to avoid full-frontal assaults on their enemy and leaned more heavily on Hessian mercenaries from this point onwards.

The militia contained seven native Irish officers and dozens of Irish-American officers. At least 26 native Irishmen had given their lives for American freedom on this day.

Many Irish had been “press-ganged” into service by the British Army and transported to the colonies to fight for the British against their countrymen. These men quickly “deserted” their oppressors' Army and made a common cause with their new nation’s Army instead, joining the American militia to fight.

Although the British put a bounty on the heads of these soldiers, many who fought at Bunker Hill refused to change their names. Instead they fought proudly after signing up under their birth names. These men had no intention of being captured by the British during the battle. Their only wish was to fight to the death and never be captured under any circ*mstances.

Why did the Irish fight?

The Irishmen who fought and gave their lives on the battlefield yearned for freedom. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The price of these freedoms? Payment in blood.

Although the new American nation was still only an idea carried in the heart of the American people, it became clear to Americans everywhere that if the nation was to stand a chance against the world’s biggest Empire old animosities had to be put aside.

The divide-and-conquer tactics used by the powerful against the dispossessed since time immemorial. To set minorities at each other’s throats and rule by fear. These political tactics had to be assigned to the ash heap of history.

A new nation would need a new constitution. The First Amendment of the US Constitution would enshrine those rights for American citizens. Irish, English, German no more. Now all were American.

Sweet, music to the ears of the Irish; who had fought for liberty, freedom and dignity for hundreds of years and were only too happy to pay freedom’s bill with their lives.

* Dara Burke is a local storyteller and true Cork rebel. When he’s not helping guests experience the real ‘Rebel City’ on his Rebel City Tour of Cork, featuring local food, local drink, and exciting Rebel tales, he’s creating guides of things to do in Cork. Join him on his exciting Cork walking tour to immerse yourself in real Cork culture and make the most of your time in the city.

Sources:

  • Clinton, p. 19. General Clinton's remark is an echoing of Pyrrhus of Epirus's original sentiment after the Battle of Heraclea, "one more such victory and the cause is lost".
  • Hubbard, Robert Ernest. Major General Israel Putnam: Hero of the American Revolution, pp. 85–87, McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina, 2017. ISBN 978-1-4766-6453-8.
  • Lewis, John E., ed. The Mammoth Book of How it Happened “don’t shoot till you see the white’s of their eyes”. London: Robinson, 1998. Print. P. 179
  • O'Brien, Michael J. (1968). The Irish at Bunker Hill: Evidence of Irish Participation in the Battle of 17 June 1775. Irish University Press. ISBN 9780716505020.

This article was submitted to the IrishCentral contributors network by a member of the global Irish community. To become an IrishCentral contributor click here.

The Irish at the Battle of Bunker Hill: "Don't shoot until you see the white's of their eyes!" (2024)

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