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[Detail] An accurate map of North America.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Comparing Sources

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, provides a good example of how maps in The American Revolution and Its Era collection can enhance student analysis and interpretation of historical events. The map at the left shows Boston harbor in 1775. The text that follows is a description of the action near Boston on June 17 taken from a letter written by General John Burgoyne to his nephew Lord Stanley (it is part of the detail at the bottom of the map).

"Boston is a peninsula, joined to the main land only by a narrow neck, which on the first troubles Gen. Gage fortified; arms of the sea, and the harbour, surround the rest: on the other side one of these arms, to the North, is Charles-Town (or rather was, for it is now rubbish), and over it a large hill, which is also, like Boston, a peninsula: to the South of the town is a still larger scope of ground, containing three hills, joining also to the main by a tongue of land, and called Dorchester Neck: the heights as above described, both North and South, (in the soldier's phrase) command the town, that is, give an opportunity of erecting batteries above any that you can make against them, and consequently are much more advantageous. It was absolutely necessary we should make ourselves masters of these heights, and we proposed to begin with Dorchester, because from particular situation of batteries and shipping (too long to describe, and unintelligible to you if I did) it would evidently be effected without any considerable loss: every thing was accordingly disposed; my two colleagues and myself (who by the bye, have never differed in one jot of military sentiment) had, in concert with Gen. Gage, formed the plan: Howe was to land the transports on one point, Clinton in the center, and I was to cannonade from the Causeway, or the Neck; each to take advantage of circumstances: the operations must have been very easy: this was to have been executed on the 18th. On the 17th, at dawn of day, we found the enemy had pushed intrenchments with great diligence, during the night, on the heights of Charles-Town, and we evidently saw that every hour gave them fresh strength; it therefore became necessary to alter our plan, and attack on that side. . . .

Howe's disposition was exceeding soldier-like; in my opinion it was perfect. As his first arm advanced up the hill, they met with a thousand impediments from strong fences, and were much exposed. They were also exceedingly hurt by musquetry from Charles-Town, though Clinton and I did not perceive it, till Howe sent us word by a boat, and desired us to set fire to the town, which was immediately done. We threw a parcel of shells, and the whole was instantly in flames. Our battery afterwards kept an incessant fire on the heights: it was seconded by a number of frigates, floating batteries, and one ship of the line.

And now ensued one of the greatest scenes of war that can be conceived: if we look to the height, Howe's corps ascending the hill in the face of entrenchments, and in a very disadvantageous ground, was much engaged; and to the left the enemy pouring in fresh troops by thousands, over the land; and in the arm of the sea our ships and floating batteries cannonading them; strait before us a large and noble town in one great blaze . . . the hills round the country covered with spectators; the enemy all anxious suspence; the roar of cannon, mortars, and musquetry . . . to fill the ear; the storm of redoubts . . . to fill the eye; and the reflection that perhaps a defeat was a final loss to the British empire in America, to fill the mind; made the whole a picture and a complication of horror and importance beyond any thing that ever came to my lot to be witness to. . . . the day ended with glory, and the success was most important, considering the ascendancy it gave the regular troops; but the loss was uncommon in officers for the numbers engaged. . . ."

From: A Plan of the battle, on Bunkers Hill fought on the 17th of June 1775, by an officer on the spot.

Drawing on both the map and the letter, do the following:

  • Summarize the information contained on the map. Summarize the information gleaned from Burgoyne's letter.
  • Compare what you learned from the map with Burgoyne's description of the battle. How does one source help you interpret the other?
  • Compare both with the account of Bunker Hill in your textbook. How are these accounts similar or different?
  • What are the advantages of the two primary sources? What are their disadvantages? What are the advantages of the secondary source? What are its disadvantages?