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



 

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


Standing six feet tall and weighing over 250 pounds, American Colonel Henry Knox was hard to miss. General George 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.”



Photo Header Credit: The Evacuation of Boston (Photo Credit: Americana Corner)


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.


This Is Why We Stand: To the Last Drop of Blood: The Battle of Bunker Hill.


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.