Dramatic Revolutionary War-era map of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill

[James Murray, after Sayer & Bennett], Plan of the Town of Boston with the Attack on BUNKERS-HILL in the Peninsula of CHARLESTOWN, the 17th of June, 1775. Newcastle upon Tyne: T. Robson, [1778].
Engraving, 11 ½”h x 5 1/8”w at neat line margins, uncolored. Margins trimmed inside plate mark on three sides, two small patches to losses in upper margin, with loss of perhaps ½” of neat line at upper right.

A dramatic 1778 map of Boston, Charlestown and the Battle of Bunker Hill, published in an early English history of the ongoing American War of Independence.

The plan
The plan depicts all of Boston and Charlestown, with the Battle of Bunker Hill at its height.  Charlestown is in flames, the British are advancing on the American redoubt and the famous “rail fence,” and a British squadron on the Charles River and is Boston Harbor is pouring fire on the Americans. It is worth noting that on the plan the geography and topography of Charlestown are stripped down to allow space for depiction of key events of the battle. In particular, Bunker Hill is shown occupying a third of the Charlestown peninsula, with the American redoubt and scene of action at the Hill’s southern extremity. In reality, the events of the battle took place on Breed’s Hill, which is not shown on the plan but lay south and east of Bunker.

Boston proper is shown in considerable detail, highlighting landmarks such as Long Wharf, Beacon Hill, and Fort Hill, with an “Incampment [sic] of the [British] Regulars on the Common.” Three tables at the base of the plan name streets and list the town’s wards and no fewer than ten destructive fires in its long history. The then-geography of Boston is striking. At the time, the city was essentially an island linked to the mainland via a narrow causeway. Plan of the Town of Boston thus provides a kind of “baseline” from which to examine later images of the city, as it predates the extensive filling that created South Boston, Back Bay, and much of East Boston.

The plan appeared in the first volume of James Murray’s An Impartial History of the War in America (1778) and is based on an inset on Sayer and Bennett’s rare map of The Seat of War in New-England, published just three years earlier. Despite the title, Murray’s history is anything but impartial: He lays responsibility for the Revolution squarely on the (in his view) unjust and inept efforts of the government to impose taxation on the Colonies. For example, regarding resistance to the Stamp Tax, he writes: “Had the Americans . . . agreed by representation to the framing of [the Stamp Act], their present proceedings would have been traitorous and rebellious; but as all was done without their consent and contrary to the essential constitution of the empire, their conduct . . . cannot be lawfully pronounced treason or rebellion.” (v.1, p. 33)

The June 17, 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill was the first significant encounter of the Revolution after the opening hostilities at Lexington and Concord. If those first encounters furnished the colonists with impetus to mobilize against Great Britain, Bunker Hill rallied them and demonstrated to the British government that it faced a determined foe. It took the astonished British almost a year before they resumed the offensive against the rebelling colonists.

The battle occurred after the Americans fortified Breed’s Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula, south and east of Bunker Hill after which the event came to be named. This gave them command of much of the Inner Harbor, the entrance to the Charles River, and part of the city itself. Confident in their superiority, the British ferried troops across the river and attacked the American emplacement head on. The battle was horrific for both sides, and the British were stunned by the ferocity of the Americans’ defense and suffered more casualties than in any other encounter of the war. Ultimately however, the raw American militia were overwhelmed by a better-trained and -equipped enemy backed by artillery bombardment from three sides. Following the battle, the siege of Boston settled into a stalemate until March 1776, with the British force confined to the town and the Americans unwilling to risk an attack.

Boston Engineering Department, List of Maps of Boston, p. 63. Nebenzahl, Battle Plans of the American Revolution, #30. Sellers & Van Ee, Maps and Charts of North America and the West Indies, 1750-1889, #936.