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


If you haven't already, please read, To Banish the British: George Washington and the Siege of Boston - Part I, before diving into this part of the story.

On July 2, 1775, General George 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.

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.”

General George Washington. As the Philadelphia physician and Patriot Dr. Benjamin Rush put it, Washington "has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you could distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among 10,000 people." John Adams predicted that Washington would become "one of the most important characters in the world." (Photo Credit: Don Troiani)

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, though, 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, however, 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.”


1776 by David McCullough.

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's Mount Vernon: Appointment as Commander in Chief.

George Washington's Mount Vernon: Continental Army.

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: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner.


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