To Banish the British: George Washington and the Siege of Boston
General George Washington was wide awake. His faithful wife Martha rested peacefully by his side, but the commander in chief of the Continental Army had too many worries to sleep. His thoughts carried him far from his bedroom in the stunning three story mansion that served as his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Only a short distance away, Washington’s ragtag soldiers struggled to warm themselves as they maintained their positions along the American line surrounding British-held Boston. Despite month after month of work and toil, the opening of the year 1776 found Washington and his men no closer to wresting control of the town from the Redcoats. In fact, the siege of Boston had developed into a stalemate. To make matters worse, Washington’s army was undermanned, under-equipped, and undersupplied. In his distress, Washington admitted to a friend, “Few people know the predicament we are in.” The American Revolution was still in its infancy, and Washington knew that failure at this crucial hour could be fatal to the cause. Someway, somehow, with the men gathered around him, he had to find a way to turn the tide at Boston and achieve a desperately needed American victory.
Life had been more simple for George Washington only a short time earlier. Before stepping forward to lead the American military effort against the British, he had gloried in his life as a gentleman Virginia farmer. The mansion on his Mount Vernon estate overlooking the shimmering blue waters of the Potomac River was not merely his home, it was the centerpiece of his paradise. Washington would rise each day beside Martha, enjoy a routine breakfast of corn cakes, tea, and honey, and then ride nearly 20 miles to oversee all the happenings across his five farms that made up the Mount Vernon plantation. He loved studying and putting new farming methods into practice. In fact, Washington was such a dedicated student and had such an eye for detail that he was able to calculate that a bushel of Timothy seeds included on average 3,410,000 individual kernels. Between his work and the endless stream of visitors that showed up at his door-one historian calculates that the Washington’s entertained no fewer than 1,700 guests in the seven years before 1775 alone, George Washington was a busy man. He did, however, still find time to indulge in a few hobbies, a favorite of which was fox hunting. All of this was part of an ideal life for Washington, one which got turned upside down by a series of storm clouds that began to gather over Great Britain’s 13 American colonies starting in 1763.
Great Britain had originally established its 13 American colonies during the 17th century. With their expansive geography and fertile lands, these colonies added to the vast might that constituted the British Empire. Like his fellow colonists who called these North American lands home, George Washington prided himself on being a freeborn Englishman. As a young man, it was his earnest wish to earn a royal commission in the British Army. Though that commission was never offered to him, it was not from showing lackluster ability as a soldier. Washington distinguished himself as a war hero while serving with the British and leading the Virginia Regiment in the French and Indian War, a conflict that saw the empires of Great Britain and France vying for control of North America. This showdown became part of a global wide struggle, extending to Europe, where it was known as the Seven Years’ war, and also included fighting in the Caribbean, the Philippines, India, and Africa. In the end, Great Britain emerged victorious. Among the conditions of the Treaty of Paris, France ceded the majority of its North American land to Great Britain. The bounty for the British did not end there. Great Britain also walked away with massive territorial gains in Canada and most of the land east of the Mississippi River. As historian Francis Parkman put it, “Half the continent had changed hands at the scratch of a pen.”
A famous portrait by Charles Willson Peale of George Washington as colonel of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Although the British Empire emerged from the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War stronger than ever, the conflict left Great Britain with an enormous war debt. By 1763, the national debt stood at an all-time high of £140 million, which would amount to more than $30 billion today. With Indian uprisings threatening the American frontier in the wake of the war, more money would also need to be spent to maintain troops in those areas. Since their own citizens were already taxed so heavily, King George III and the British government looked to their American colonies for a solution, enacting a series of tariffs and taxes on them in order to financially recover. In the British mind, these seemed like reasonable policies, especially since the colonists had benefited from British protection in the French and Indian War and had been forced to sacrifice little themselves. “That [was] not the case,” however, according to Benjamin Franklin. A Philadelphia printer, writer, scientist, and inventor, Franklin was the most famous man from the American colonies. Although a strong supporter of the British Empire, he argued before the House of Commons in London that the colonies had “raised, clothed, and paid, during the last war, 25,000 men and spent many millions”; the colonists had also fought and sacrificed beside their British brethren in three previous wars against the French in North America.
Benjamin Franklin was not the only one who took issue with Great Britain’s stance toward the American colonies. Along with other disagreements such as territorial disputes, these tariffs and tax measures created a firestorm among the colonists. For most of their history, the British had largely left the American colonies to govern themselves through their own elected assemblies. Under this system, if a colonist was unhappy with a representative’s actions, they could hold them accountable with their vote. British Parliament on the other hand lacked any American representation. That is why when the British bypassed the colonist’s elected assemblies and taxed them directly, men like George Washington considered it “a direful attack upon their liberties.”
Over the following years, the relationship between Great Britain and its American colonies steadily grew more tenuous. As colonial resistance intensified in response to the repressive tax measures placed upon them, the British reacted to the unrest by sending in troops to enforce the laws. Both sides dug in. Many colonists refused to yield to “taxation without representation” and the British were steadfast in their attempts to assert their control over the colonies. The uneasy stillness was finally broken by the crash of musketry when British soldiers and American militiamen clashed at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775.
“Stand your ground,” said Captain John Parker to his 77 Minutemen as they stared down the Redcoats at the small town of Lexington, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775. “Don’t fire unless fired upon,” Parker continued, “But if they want to have a war, let it begin here.” (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
At one point during the years of bitter tension between Great Britain and the American colonies, George Washington had written that if it became necessary to “maintain the liberty which we have derived from our Ancestors,” Americans must not “hesitate a moment to use a-ms [Washington refrained from using the treasonous word arms here] in defense of” their freedom. Washington carried those convictions with him when he traveled to Philadelphia as a member of Virginia’s delegation to the Second Continental Congress in May 1775. Washington said little during the ensuing congressional sessions, but he listened intensely as his fellow delegates debated what should be done now that hostilities had commenced with Great Britain. With the first blood drawn by the British at Lexington and Concord, some believed that the colonies must unite together and form a collective defense. Others blamed the British government for all the troubles that had befallen the colonies and insisted on reconciliation with the mother country by turning to Great Britain’s King George III. Those in favor of reconciliation got what they desired with the authorization of an “Olive Branch Petition” to the British monarch. It was also decided that Congress would adopt the militia forces currently surrounding British-held Boston, raise additional troops, and form them all into an army of the United Colonies, which later became known as the Continental Army. The new army needed a leader and Massachusetts delegate John Adams “had no hesitation” about who that leader should be.
Standing 6 feet 3 inches tall, and weighing about 225 pounds, the broad shouldered, muscular, George Washington wore his buff and blue military uniform during the congressional sessions in Philadelphia. It was Washington’s signal to his fellow delegates that Virginia was ready to fight, and that if he was personally called upon, he was willing to step forward and lead troops in the field. That call came when John Adams nominated Washington as commander in chief of the army on June 14. Not only did Washington have a reputation as a soldier from his time in the French and Indian War, but as a Virginian, he was also seen as an ideal candidate who both the northern and southern colonies could rally behind. One delegate described Washington as “no harum-scarum, ranting, swearing fellow, but sober, steady, and calm.” He was elected unanimously the morning after his nomination. On June 16, Washington stood before the men who had placed so much trust in his hands and accepted the command. In his humble acceptance speech, he stated, “I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I [am] honored with.” Washington also refused to take a $500 monthly salary; as a man of duty, he would not serve the cause for personal profit. Before setting out for Boston to take charge of his army, General Washington fired off a letter to his wife Martha back at Mount Vernon. He explained that despite his reluctance to leave her and their family, as well as his fear that the responsibility of leading the army was too great for his “capacity,” the command had fallen on his shoulders nonetheless. He gave Martha his love and added, “But, as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this service, I shall hope the undertaking of it, is designed to answer some good purpose.”
On July 2, 1775, General Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and officially began to command his army. He was told that his total force numbered around 20,000 men, but the actual number was not known for certain. As historian David McCullough adds, “No count had been taken until [Washington] made it a first order of business.” It took more than a week for the commander in chief to learn that he actually had only 16,000 troops. Due to illness, men lacking weapons, and others being away from camp, fewer than 14,000 of those troops were actually fit for duty.
General George Washington arriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts to take command of his army on July 2, 1775. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
From the very beginning, Washington made a powerful impression on his army. Sporting an impeccable uniform and wearing a light blue ribbon across his chest, he dressed the part and carried himself with the unmistakable bearing of a leader. As General Nathanael Greene wrote, “His Excellency General Washington has arrived amongst us, universally admired. Joy was visible on every countenance.” Word even traveled to London that Washington was such a striking figure that, “Not a king in Europe but would look like a valet de chamber [a manservant who acted as a personal attendant to a nobleman] by his side.”
While George Washington was the picture perfect soldier in his dress and manner, most of the men under his command hardly looked like soldiers at all. Lacking formal uniforms, troops wore tattered clothing ranging from heavy homespun coats to shirts and whatever other articles of clothing they had. As McCullough writes, the men “looked more like farmers in from the fields than soldiers." McCullough adds, “It was the first American army and an army of everyone, men of every shape and size and makeup, different colors, different nationalities, different ways of talking, and all degrees of physical condition.” Some of those soldiers were mere boys of 15 years old or less. As a whole, they were unaccustomed to the rigors of professional military life. Important policies for maintaining the health of an army such as digging proper latrines were foreign to them. As a result, their camps were exceedingly dirty and the smells that emanated from them were anything but pleasant. One of Washington’s primary tasks was to transform these men that the British dismissed as “ragamuffins” and a “rabble in arms” into true soldiers. For him, instilling order and discipline were key ingredients to making that happen. As the commander in chief put it, “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak and esteem to all.”
In addition to turning these citizen-soldiers into a professional army, Washington also needed to focus his attention on capturing Boston from the British. Upon his arrival, the Americans controlled the land around Boston, occupying most of the nearby hills and manning a roughly ten mile line that stretched from the Mystic River to the northeast and extending to Roxbury to the south. Although the British were confined to Boston, they had strongly fortified the town, held other strong defensive pieces of ground including Bunker Hill, and had control of the sea, which was their lifeline for supplies and reinforcements. The cannon on British warships anchored in the harbor and on floating batteries were also deadly elements that menaced the Americans at all times.
At first, Washington’s opposing commander in Boston was British General Thomas Gage; the two had actually served together 20 years earlier in the French and Indian War. It was estimated that Gage had approximately 11,500 troops under his command. In reality, though, there were only around 7,000 Redcoats in Boston, roughly half the number in the American army. They were a part of the mightiest war-machine in the world, equipped with the best training and the finest weaponry available.
Although thousands of Boston’s civilians had fled earlier, around 4,000 civilians remained in the town, at least half of whom were women and children. Even though life under siege became incredibly difficult, with the British Army in Boston, the town represented a safe haven for those colonists who remained loyal to the British Crown. General Gage, and later his successor, General William Howe, assumed responsibility for the safety of those Loyalists.
In order to banish the British from Boston, George Washington had to direct a successful siege. However, as McCullough points out, “there was not one trained engineer” within the entire American army. It was a daunting reminder that Washington’s army truly needed to be built up from ground zero. As one historian adds, when the Second Continental Congress had authorized the fielding of an army and put Washington in charge of it, “There were no established protocols for exercising coordinated authority, for supplying and feeding the troops, for transportation, or any other of the myriad tasks necessary for a field army.” As the commander in chief, it was up to Washington to find solutions to all of these problems and many more. At the end of his first month in command, for example, Washington learned there was only enough gunpowder in the army’s stores for nine rounds per man. As Washington biographer Gerald M. Carbone adds, “By contrast, the British soldiers were then carrying 60 bullets per man.” Washington was so stunned by the lack of gunpowder at his army’s disposal that he “did not utter a word for half an hour,” according to Brigadier General John Sullivan.
Despite the enormity of the tasks before him, Washington did not waver in his duty, pushing himself hard every day and seeing to every detail of his army. Whether designing and implementing a new system of uniforms, issuing orders for latrines to be dug and kitchens to be swept, organizing troops into coherent fighting units, seeking solutions to alleviate the problems of supply, and so much more, Washington did it all. Day after day, he would ride his lines and tackle a new set of problems, never losing sight of the enemy in Boston that was barley a mile away.
Since his arrival, George Washington had strongly desired to order an attack against Boston, but he also shared the fears of his fellow officers that a British attack against their raw, under-equipped army was imminent. As Washington wrote to Virginia Congressman Richard Henry Lee, “Between you and me I think we are in an exceeding dangerous situation.” Given all they were up against, the commander in chief and his generals initially agreed that they would keep the army on a defensive footing. By September 1775, however, Washington was thinking in aggressive terms once again. Part of his confidence stemmed from the completion of his army’s defensive lines. As the British had learned earlier that summer when they marched out of Boston to assault American troops entrenched along the hilly pastures north of the town, even a “rabble in arms” with good ground was not a foe to be taken lightly. The British succeeded in winning the field at the Battle of Bunker Hill, but suffered over 1,000 casualties in a bloody victory that Thomas Gage admitted resulted in losses “greater than we can bear.” Washington believed that the scaring experience from Bunker Hill would make the Redcoats extremely wary of attacking his army’s completed defensive line. No longer fearful of a ruinous enemy assault, he was eager to send his own troops forward and bring the siege of Boston to an end once and for all.
Weighed down with 125 pounds of gear and equipment, British troops advanced uphill to assault the American defenses at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. The raw American militiamen fought back ferociously and beat back two British assaults. Once their ammunition ran out, though, they were unable to fend off a third British attack and retreated. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It wasn’t just his sense of the enemy’s mindset that made Washington so eager to attack that September. Winter came early in colonial New England and Washington had grave reason to worry about that. Not only did his men lack winter clothes and blankets, but they would also need to build barracks and gather thousands of cords of wood in order to survive the cold months if the siege dragged on that long. As worrisome as those factors were, the greatest cause of concern for Washington was that the enlistments of nearly all his men would expire on the first day of 1776. As Carbone explains, from Washington’s point of view, this meant that if his army was “still attempting to hold lines outside Boston in January, they’d have to recruit and train an entirely new force within easy shot of the enemy, an impossible task.” It was for all these reasons and more that General Washington signaled his desire to launch an offensive to his generals. Still cautious themselves, though, his generals unanimously concluded that “it was not expedient to make the attempt.” To Washington’s great frustration, the siege would have to drag on.
As the calendar turned to October, a change in command took place over in Boston. British General Thomas Gage sailed for home that month. Command thus shifted to General William Howe, a storied soldier who belonged to one of England’s most eminent families. Like his opposing commander on the American side, Howe had also distinguished himself as a great hero during the French and Indian War. His brother, Admiral Richard Howe, was considered one of the best naval commanders of the age. During the years of mounting tensions between Great Britain and the American colonies, Howe and his brother were sympathetic to the American colonists. As historian David Hackett Fisher explains, William Howe thought that the Crown “had pushed its American policy too far, that the entire British army could not conquer America, and that he would refuse a command there.” As men of duty, however, the brothers reluctantly agreed to serve after King George III personally asked them to go to America. As William himself explained it, “My going thither was not of my seeking. I was ordered, and could not refuse. . . . Every man’s private feelings ought to give way to the service of the public.”
As one British soldier described the scene in Boston, “We are entirely blocked up . . . like birds in a cage.” Another bemoaned that the town was nothing but “melancholy, disease, and death.” Food was so scarce that one British leader described his men as resembling skeletons. This was the atmosphere that General Howe found himself presiding over. With conditions as they were, offensive operations based out of Boston were not ideal. Proving George Washington right, Howe had no desire to send his troops against the American lines in what would surly be a repeat of the slaughter he had witnessed at Bunker Hill earlier that June. In fact, the British commander and his staff agreed that the British should abandon Boston and make New York the primary “seat of war.” Although it would have been ideal to make such a move before the onset of winter, Howe did not yet have the amount of ships required to transport his army and the hundreds of Loyalists in the town who also needed to be evacuated. He thus set his eyes on the spring as the ideal time to make his departure. In the meantime, Howe anticipated little trouble from the enemy. “We are not under the least apprehension of an attack on this place from the rebels by surprise or otherwise,” reported Howe to London. All that remained for Howe was to ride out the quiet New England winter with elegant dinners, gambling, and quality time with his mistress. The only scenario that would necessitate British action was if the Americans made an attempt to seize Dorchester Heights, a commanding ridge south of Boston that overlooked the town and its harbor. In the event of such a move, Howe declared, “We must go at it with our whole force.”
British General William Howe. An unquestionably brave soldier, Howe had led the British offensive at the Battle of Bunker Hill earlier that June. During that clash, Howe had vowed to his men that he would not ask them "to go a step further than where I go myself," and proved that as he personally led them forward in the face of murderous levels of American fire. After one particularly devastating volley from the American lines, Howe was the only man in the British front line still standing. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The idea of fortifying Dorchester Heights had not escaped American attention. Proposals to seize the high ground had previously been made at Washington’s council of war meetings, but no definitive plan of action had come to fruition. Although placing cannon atop Dorchester Heights would make the British position in Boston untenable, Washington simply lacked the firepower to make such a move. The few light guns in his army’s possession did not have the range to reach the town. Given this reality, General Howe and the British might have rested easy. As the Redcoats would soon learn, though, because of one young American soldier and his bold idea, the tide at Boston was about to turn in favor of the “Rebels.”
Standing six feet tall and weighing over 250 pounds, American Colonel Henry Knox was hard to miss. General Washington had met the 25 year old earlier that July and walked away impressed with this native Bostonian. A former bookstore owner, Knox had a strong passion for artillery. Not only did he devour books on gunnery and tactics, but he had also been training in artillery with his local militia since the age of 18. Although a committed Patriot, Knox’s wife, Lucy, came from a family that remained fiercely loyal to the British Crown. Her family objected to their marriage, but once they had tied the knot, Lucy’s father arranged for his new son-in-law to be offered a commission in the British army, a prestigious position many young men would have given almost anything for. Knox, however, declined the offer. When events came to a head after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Knox and Lucy donned disguises and slipped out of Boston. After relocating his wife to safety, Knox reported for service and took his place among the American forces gathered around Boston.
As he studied the enemy holed up in the town he called home, Henry Knox understood it was going to take more firepower to banish the British from Boston. He also had an idea about where he might get that artillery from. Back in May 1775, Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain in northern New York had been snatched from the British, courtesy of the daring exploits of a small American force led by Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen. Perhaps even more valuable than the fort itself was the 78 cannon, six mortars, and three howitzers held there. With that captured artillery still sitting there in the fall of 1775, Knox proposed to lead a force to Ticonderoga, grab the guns, and bring them back to Boston. It was a daunting task that would require his party to transport thousands of pounds of heavy artillery over brutal, winter-affected terrain. Despite the difficulty, Knox was confident he could accomplish the mission. Washington put his faith in the young colonel and approved the operation. By November 16, Knox and his party were off to get the guns of Fort Ticonderoga.
While Henry Knox undertook his adventure, back in the American lines around Boston, the weight of responsibility on George Washington’s shoulders became heavier to bear than ever before. With the enlistments of most of his current force about to expire, the commander in chief had enlisted only 3,500 troops for the new year of 1776. Washington pleaded with the men destined for home to stay with the army. With families of their own to return to and look after, however, less than a third of those troops ended up reenlisting. As Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner adds, “On New Years Eve so many of the troops went home that all the blockading defenses could not be manned.” This exodus in the face of the enemy might have spelled disaster for the American army if Massachusetts and New Hampshire militia units had not arrived to plug the gaps. Overburdened with these difficulties and countless others, Washington despaired in a letter to a friend: “Could I have foreseen what I have and am like to experience, no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept this command.” Not even the arrival of his faithful wife Martha at his headquarters in December could put Washington’s mind at ease. Between his army’s condition and the failure of a separate American force to capture British-held Quebec in Canada, as 1775 drew to a close, American fighting fortunes appeared very grim.
General George Washington at Dorchester Heights during the Siege of Boston. As James Warren, the president of the Massachusetts Congress, wrote about the commander in chief, "I pity our poor general, who has a greater burden on his shoulders and more difficulties to struggle with than I think should fall to the share of so good a man.... I see he is fatigued and worried." (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When British soldiers observed the Americans raising a new flag above their lines on New Years Day 1776, they thought it was a sign that the “Rebels” were surrendering. The timing seemed to be fitting, especially after copies of King George III’s latest speech had recently arrived from London. They believed the Americans must have been scared to their senses after reading the king’s vow to send 30,000 fresh troops in the spring to completely crush the rebellion. Far from being intimidated by the British monarch’s words, however, his threats and charges only made American soldiers and leaders more determined than ever to fight. That very same month, Thomas Paine published what historian Gordon S. Wood describes as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire Revolutionary Era….” In Common Sense, Paine labeled the king a “Royal Brute” and powerfully argued why America should immediately declare independence from Great Britain. “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” wrote Paine. “Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation.” After the king’s threats and Paine’s inspiring message that Americans had it in their “power to begin the world over again,” the soldiers of the Continental Army began to see their cause in greater terms. Washington even advised Congress to notify Great Britain that “if nothing else could satisfy a tyrant and his diabolical ministry, we are determined to shake off all connections with a state so unjust and unnatural.” With thoughts of independence taking hold in the hearts and minds of his fellow Patriots, General Washington’s desire to attack Boston only grew stronger. A shining victory now would do wonders for the American cause.
While the opening of 1776 found George Washington in a state of grave despondency, his greatest attribute as a commander was his refusal to give up, no matter how bad circumstances looked. As he had written to a fellow general earlier that summer: “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.” Those were the words that he lived by, and his fortitude soon paid off. In late January, Henry Knox and his party returned to Boston at last with “a noble train of artillery.” Using sleds pulled by horses and oxen, they had successfully transported 59 of the best guns from Fort Ticonderoga across 300 miles of snowy trails, frozen streams, and steep hills. The commander in chief awarded Knox for his incredible leadership, placing him in command of the army’s artillery.
It took roughly ten weeks for Henry Knox and his party to transport the 59 guns they had taken from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston. In total, the load of weapons weighted some 60 tons, or 120,000 pounds. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With his brand new arsenal, Washington finally had the tools he needed to take action. That February, the commander in chief and his officers ironed out a plan. During a single, swift night of work, American troops were to haul cannon up to Dorchester Heights and transform it into a strongpoint. This move would be so threatening to the British position in Boston that they would be compelled to march out and assault the site. When the Redcoats did so, the next phase of the American strategy would spring into motion. With the British focused on dislodging the Americans from Dorchester Heights, a force of 4,000 American troops would assault Boston itself.
After an intense period of preparation, gathering men, gunpowder, wagons, carts, 800 oxen, and more, General Washington was ready to make his opening move. On the night of Saturday, March 2, the ace of the American artillery, Henry Knox, was ordered to begin a bombardment of Boston. The Americans worked their guns hard, firing at intervals up through the night of Monday, March 4. The entire barrage was bait, intended to provoke the British to fire in return and drawing their attention away from Dorchester Heights. The plan worked like a charm, clearing the way for approximately 3,000 of Washington’s soldiers to stealthily fortify the heights under the cover of darkness. All through the night of March 4, Washington moved among his men on horseback as they worked with their teams of oxen to haul pre-built fortifications, cannon, and other supplies atop the high ground. By 3 a.m., their work was done. Dorchester Heights was turned into a strongly fortified position, bristling with 20 pieces of artillery. As the soldiers who had worked so hard throughout the night retired for some rest, a fresh force of troops moved up to man the new position. The Americans were ready for a fight.
At first light the following morning, General Howe and his fellow officers looked up to find themselves staring down the barrels of the American guns atop Dorchester Heights. Howe was so awestruck by what his opponents had accomplished that he exclaimed, “My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months.” In response to this great hazard, Howe prepared to strike back, mobilizing his troops for an attack against Dorchester Heights. Sticking to his plan, General Washington awaited that development, readying his own troops to invade Boston once the Redcoats moved against Dorchester. As it turned out, however, Mother Nature ruled there was to be no further action. A tremendous storm sprang up that night, bringing with it wind that “blew almost a hurricane.” Under these conditions, the British attack plans were scrapped.
As the weather continued to worsen, giving the Americans more time to strengthen their new strongpoint, General Howe knew there was only one thing left to do. On the morning of March 6, he gave the order for his army and fleet “to prepare for the evacuation of the town.” Over the ensuing days, American troops looked on from the hills around Boston as the Redcoats scrambled to leave. George Washington observed streets full of “great movements and confusion among the troops night and day . . . in hurrying down their cannon, artillery, and other stores to the wharves with utmost precipitation.” The British also sent word that they would spare Boston from destruction so long as the Americans allowed them to leave in peace. Washington allowed them to do so. On March 17, Howe’s fleet of 120 ships, which were crammed with more than 11,000 troops and Loyalist civilians fleeing the “Rebels,” sailed away from Boston at last. They were bound for refuge in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
General Howe and his troops leaving Boston on March 17, 1776. To this day, Bostonians continue to commemorate March 17 each year as "Evacuation Day." (Photo Credit: SalinaBakerAuthor.com)
After nearly eight and a half months of sweat, sacrifice, and struggle, a triumphant George Washington rode into a liberated Boston on March 18. In taking measure of this accomplishment, he wrote to his brother, “No man perhaps since the first institution of armies ever commanded one under more difficult circumstances than I have done….” He went on to describe the innumerable challenges he had faced in order to build and sustain the American army, all while conducting a siege of a strongly fortified town that was held by troops belonging to the mightiest military-machine in the world. At times, all had seemed lost, but with the help of men like Henry Knox and countless others who faithfully soldiered on in the face of every kind of hardship, a great victory had been won.
George Washington was crowned with laurels for guiding his army to victory at Boston. Harvard College awarded him an honorary degree. The Continental Congress ordered a gold medal struck in his honor. Mothers even began to name their newborn sons after him. Optimism was in the air and spirits were high, but as Washington knew, the fight against the British was far from over. The next chapter of the war would bring the commander in chief and his men even greater difficulties than they had faced at Boston. As time would show, 1776 was destined to be the year that would “try men’s souls.”
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