|This Week in History
March 14-20, 1776
General Washington Drives the British Out of Boston
On March 17, 1776, a British occupation force of 10,000 soldiers, accompanied by 1,100 Tories, was forced by Gen. George Washington and the newly-formed Continental Army to abandon the town of Boston. The American victory was due not to overwhelming force, which the Americans never possessed, but to careful planning, bold maneuvers and the creative abilities of individual officers and men.
When Washington arrived on July 2, 1775 in Cambridge, to take command of the New England militia and Minutemen who had gathered around British-occupied Boston, the prospect of defeating Britain's well-supplied professional army did not look promising. The Americans had only a handful of cannon, and an inventory of gunpowder supplies revealed that there were fewer than nine shots available per man.
Had the British known of Washington's lack of powder and cannons, they could have sent out major expeditions to scatter the surrounding army. But Washington kept the army's actual numbers and lack of supplies to himself, while launching initiatives to increase his firepower. To just a few intimates, he admitted that, "So far from my having an army of 20,000 men, well armed, I have been here with less than one-half of that number, including sick, furloughed, and on command; and those neither armed nor clothed as they should be. In short, my situation has been such, that I have been obliged to use art, to conceal it from my own officers."
But Congress and the American public were impatient with the seeming delay in attacking the British, and heavy pressure was being put on Washington to act immediately. "To have the eyes of the whole continent," said he, "fixed with anxious expectation of hearing of some great event, and to be restrained in every military operation for want of the necessary means of carrying it on, is not very pleasing, especially as the means used to conceal my weakness from the enemy, conceal it also from our friends, and add to their wonder."
One of Washington's biggest problems was that the enlistments of the "Eight Months Army" raised by New England after the battles of Lexington and Concord would expire in December. Congress responded to Washington's request for assistance by sending Benjamin Franklin and two other Congressmen to Cambridge for a planning meeting. Delegates from several New England colonies joined the group, and several days of deliberation resulted in preparations for founding the Continental Army on Jan. 1, 1776.
Artillery officer Henry Knox was dispatched to Lake Champlain to bring back the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga, which had been captured by American militia. When Knox and his men succeeded in hauling the cannon through winter snow and ice to Massachusetts, the existence of the much-needed artillery was kept secret from the British.
Meanwhile, in October, Gen. Thomas Gage was recalled to Britain, and the much more efficient Gen. William Howe became chief commander of the British Army in America. Howe immediately strengthened his defenses and sent out British Navy cruisers to harass the coastal towns of New England, hoping to force Washington to weaken his army by sending detachments to defend the seacoast. Portland, Maine was burned in October, and other towns soon followed.
But Washington was not fooled. Since the U.S. Navy had not yet been established, he encouraged the conversion of American ships to privateers. One ship in particular was directed to maintain a position off Boston Harbor, and it captured a British supply ship which contained heavy guns, mortars, and entrenching toolsjust what the Americans needed. Washington also had floating batteries constructed on the Charles River which could be used to lob shells into Boston when the American army attacked.
As winter progressed, Washington was chafing with impatience to "break up the nest" in Boston. He hoped to attack over the ice on the Charles River, but the winter was too mild. When the river finally froze over in February, his council of officers voted against the plan as being too dangerous. General Howe, meanwhile, felt secure in his beleaguered city, attending a series of plays and other amusements. He wrote to Lord Dartmouth that he had not the least apprehension of an attack from the rebels, and that he really wished that they would "attempt so rash a step, and quit their strong intrenchments." He was soon to get his wish.
When the Charles River attack was voted down, Washington determined to fortify Dorchester Heights, which overlooked Boston and its inner harbor, and which both Gage and Howe had neglected to occupy. He planned carefully, and for three nights, starting on March 2, the American cannon bombarded Boston from five locations around the outskirts of the city. Then, at 7:00, on the evening of March 4, two thousand American soldiers, with entrenching tools, silently made their way to Dorchester Heights. The 300 wagons and carts which followed them rolled on muffled wheels, while bales of hay piled along the route protected them from being seen or shot at by British sentries. Even when the troops began constructing redoubts and placing the cannon, the British sentries, diverted by the roaring cannonades, did not hear them.
General Washington came to supervise the work in person, aided by engineer Richard Gridley, who had designed the breastworks at the Battle of Bunker Hill. By dawn, the soldiers had constructed two redoubts armed with the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga. There were hundreds of barrels, filled with stones, positioned on the Heights for rolling down on potential attackers. At the base of the ridge were a line of strong abatis (pointed wooden stakes), cut from the trees in adjacent orchards.
A British officer wrote that, "This morning at daybreak we discovered two redoubts on Dorchester point, and two smaller ones on their flanks. They were all raised during the last night, with an expedition equal to that of the genii belonging to Aladdin's wonderful lamp. From these hills they command the whole town, so that we must drive them from their post, or desert the place." The amazed General Howe exclaimed that "The rebels have done more work in one night, than my whole army would have done in one month." Admiral Shuldham informed Howe that, "If they retain possession of the Heights, I cannot keep a ship in the harbor."
Washington knew there would be a British attack, and so he had prepared boats and floating batteries that would carry 4,000 American troops into Boston. Howe dispatched a picked force of 2,400 men by water to attack the Heights, but a severe storm blew some of them ashore and made it impossible for the British Navy to cover their movements. Heavy rains the next day also made an attack impossible, and Howe's council of war determined to evacuate, taking Boston's Tories and their families with them to Nova Scotia.
Howe sent a note to Washington via the Boston selectmen, threatening to burn the town if his troops were fired on while evacuating. As the Americans held their fire, however, Howe procrastinated, hoping that he would be reinforced from Britain. Washington did not rest on his accomplishmentshe planted a new battery overlooking the town and was ready to attack in case the British changed their minds. When Howe still occupied Boston on March 16, Washington gave an order to seize and fortify Nook's Hill, which was the closest hill to the city, and which then put the British completely at his mercy. Howe understood the message, and began loading his troop transports at 4:00 a.m. on March 17.
The news of the evacuation of Boston stunned the British Ministry. The Duke of Manchester told the House of Lords that, "The Army of Britain, equipped with every possible essential of war; a chosen army, with chosen officers, backed by the power of a mighty fleet, sent to correct revolted subjects; sent to chastise a resisting city; sent to assert Britain's authority;has, for many tedious months, been imprisoned within that town by the Provincial army; who, their watchful guards, permitted them no inlet to the country; who braved all their efforts and defied all their skill and ability in war could ever attempt. One way, indeed, of escape was left; the fleet is yet respected; to the fleet the army has recourse; and British generals, whose name never met with a blot of dishonor, are forced to quit that town which was the first object of the war, the immediate cause of hostilities, the place of arms which has cost this nation more than a million to defend."