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To Banish the British: George Washington and the Siege of Boston - Part I



 

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.”



Sources


1776 by David McCullough.


Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.


American Battlefield Trust: 10 Facts - The French and Indian War.


American Battlefield Trust: Setting the Stage for Revolution.


American Battlefield Trust: Siege of Boston.


American Battlefield Trust: The Guns of Ticonderoga.


George Washington and the Founding of a Nation by Albert Marrin.


George Washington's Leadership Lessons by James C. Rees.


George Washington's Mount Vernon: Appointment as Commander in Chief.


George Washington's Mount Vernon: Continental Army.


History.com: 10 Things You May Not Know About the French and Indian War.


The American Revolution: A History by Gordon S. Wood.


This Is Why We Stand: Forged Under Fire: Washington the Warrior and the French & Indian War.


Thomas Paine: Crusader for Liberty by Albert Marrin.


U.S. Army Center of Military History: Washington Takes Command of Continental Army in 1775.


Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.


Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.


Washington: Lessons in Leadership (Great Generals) by Gerald M. Carbone.


Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner.