March 5, 1776 Head Fake

General Howe was stunned on awakening, to the morning of March 5.  The British garrison in Boston and the fleet in harbor, were now under the muzzles of Patriot guns.  “The rebels have done more in one night”, he said, “than my whole army would have done in a month.”

Over the night and the following day of April 18-19, 1775, individual British soldiers marched 36 miles or more, on a round-trip expedition from Boston.  Following the early morning battles at Lexington and Concord, armed colonial militia from as far away as Worcester swarmed over the column, forcing the regulars into a fighting retreat.

2b38d80b603c96328378781e9fb45c3dIn those days, Boston was a virtual island, connected to the mainland by a narrow “neck” of land.  More than 20,000 armed men converged from all over New England in the weeks that followed, gathering in buildings and encampments from Cambridge to Roxbury.

A man who should have gone into history among the top tier of American Founding Fathers, the future turncoat Benedict Arnold, arrived with Connecticut militia to support the siege.  Arnold informed the Massachusetts Committee of Safety that Fort Ticonderoga, located along the southern end of Lake Champlain in upstate New York, was bristling with cannon and other military stores.  Better yet, the place was lightly defended.

The committee commissioned Arnold a colonel on May 3, authorizing him to raise troops and lead a mission to capture the fort.  Seven days later, Colonel Arnold and militia forces from Connecticut and western Massachusetts in conjunction with Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys” captured the fort, and all its armaments.

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Flag flown by George Washington, during the siege of Boston

The Continental Congress created the Army that June, appointing General George Washington to lead it.  When General Washington took command of that army in July, it was a force with an average of nine rounds’ shot and powder, per man.  The British garrison occupying Boston, was effectively penned up by forces too weak to do anything about it.

The stalemate dragged on for months, when a 25-year-old bookseller came to General Washington with a plan. His name was Henry Knox.  Knox proposed a 300-mile, round trip slog into a New England winter, to retrieve the guns of Fort Ticonderoga:  brass and iron cannon, howitzers, and mortars.  59 pieces in all.  Washington’s advisors derided the idea as hopeless, but the General approved.

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Knox set out with a column of men in late November, 1775.  For nearly two months, he and his team wrestled 60 tons of cannons and other armaments by boat, animal & man-hauled sledges along roads little better than foot trails.  Across two barely frozen rivers, and through the forests and swamps of western Massachusetts, over the Berkshire mountains and on to Cambridge, historian Victor Brooks called it “one of the most stupendous feats of logistics”, of the age.

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It must have been a sight that January 24, when Knox returned at the head of that “Noble Train of Artillery”.

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Bunker Hill

For British military leadership in Boston, headed by General William Howe, the only option for resupply was by water, via Boston Harbor.  Both sides of the siege understood the strategic importance of the twin prominences overlooking the harbor, the hills of Charlestown to the north, and Dorchester heights to the south.  It’s why British forces had nearly spent themselves on Farmer Breed’s hillside that June, in an engagement that went into history as the battle of Bunker Hill.

With Howe’s forces in possession of the Charlestown peninsula, Washington had long considered occupying Dorchester Heights, but considered his forces too weak.  That changed with the guns of Ticonderoga.

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In the first days of March, Washington placed several heavy cannons at Lechmere’s Point and Cobble Hill in Cambridge, and on Lamb’s Dam in Roxbury.  The batteries opened fire on the night of March 2, and again on the following night and the night after that.  British attention thus diverted, American General John Thomas and a force of some 2,000 made plans to take the heights.

As the ground was frozen and digging impossible, fortifications and cannon placements were fashioned out of heavy 10′ timbers.  With the path to the top lined with hay bales to muffle their sounds, pre-built fortifications were manhandled to the top of Dorchester heights over the night of March 4-5, along with the bulk of Knox’ cannons.

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Boston as seen from Dorchester heights

General Howe was stunned on awakening, to the morning of March 5.  The British garrison in Boston and the fleet in harbor, were now under the muzzles of Patriot guns.  “The rebels have done more in one night”, he said, “than my whole army would have done in a month.”

Plans were laid for an immediate assault on the hill, as American reinforcements poured into the position.  By day’s end, Howe faced the dismal prospect of another Bunker Hill, this time against a force of 6,000 in possession of heavy artillery.

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Engraving depicts the British evacuation of Boston

A heavy snowstorm descended late in the day, interrupting British plans for the assault.  A few days later, Howe had thought better of it.  Washington received an unsigned note on March 8, informing him that the city would not be put to the torch, if the King’s Regulars were permitted to leave unmolested.

British forces departed Boston by sea on March 17 with about 1,000 civilian loyalists, resulting in a peculiar Massachusetts institution which exists to this day:  “Evacuation Day”.

It’s doubtful whether Washington possessed sufficient powder or shot for a sustained campaign, but British forces occupying Boston didn’t know that. The mere presence of those guns moved General Howe to weigh anchor and sail for Nova Scotia. The whole episode may have been one of the greatest head fakes, in all military history.

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January 24, 1776 A Noble Train of Artillery

It must have been a sight when that noble train of artillery entered Cambridge on this day in 1776. By March, Henry Knox’ cannon would be manhandled to the top of Dorchester Heights, resulting in the British evacuation of Boston and a peculiar Massachusetts institution which exists to this day, known as “Evacuation Day”: March 17.

The American Revolution began with the “Shot Heard Round the World” on the morning of April 19, 1775. Within days of the Battles at Lexington and Concord and the subsequent British withdrawal to Boston, over 20,000 men poured into Cambridge from all over New England. Abandoned Tory homes and the empty Christ Church became temporary barracks and field hospitals.  Even Harvard College shut down, its buildings becoming quarters for at least 1,600 Patriots.

127472-004-69EA7B31The Continental Congress appointed George Washington General of this “Army” on June 15, two days before the British assault on Farmer Breed’s hill. An action which took its name from that of a neighboring farmer, going into history as the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Shortly after his arrival in July, General Washington discovered that his army had enough gunpowder for nine rounds per man, and then they’d be done.

At the time, Boston was a virtual island, connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land.  British forces were effectively penned up in Boston, by a force too weak to do anything about it.

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Henry Knox

The stalemate dragged on for months, when a 25-year-old bookseller came to General Washington with a plan. His name was Henry Knox. His plan was a 300-mile, round trip slog into a New England winter, to retrieve the guns of Fort Ticonderoga.

Washington’s advisors derided the idea as hopeless, but the General approved. Henry Knox set out with a column of men on December 1.

Located on the New York banks of Lake Champlain, Fort Ticonderoga was captured by a small force led by Ethan Allen and Colonel Benedict Arnold, in May of that year. In it were brass and iron cannon, howitzers, and mortars, 59 pieces in all. Arriving on December 5, Knox and his men set about disassembling the artillery, making it ready for transport. A flotilla of flat bottom boats was scavenged from all over the countryside, the guns loaded and rowed the length of Lake George, arriving barely before the water began to freeze over.

colonel-knox-bringing-the-cannons-from-fort-ticonderoga (2)Local farmers were enlisted to help and by December 17, Knox was able to report to General Washington “I have had made forty two exceedingly strong sleds & have provided eighty yoke of oxen to drag them as far as Springfield where I shall get fresh cattle to carry them to camp. . . . I hope in 16 or 17 days to be able to present your Excellency a noble train of artillery.”

Bare ground prevented the sleds from moving until Christmas morning, when a heavy snow fell and the column set out for Albany. Two attempts to cross the Hudson River on January 5 each resulted in cannon being lost to the river, but finally Knox was able to write “Went on the ice about 8 o’clock in the morning & proceeded so carefully that before night we got over 23 sleds & were so lucky as to get the Cannon out of the River, owing to the assistance the good people of the City of Albany gave.”

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Continuing east, Knox and his men crossed into Massachusetts, over the Berkshires, and on to Springfield. With 80 fresh yoke of oxen, the 5,400lb sleds moved along much of what are modern-day Routes 9 and 20, passing through Brookfield, Spencer, Leicester, Worcester, Shrewsbury, Northborough, Marlborough, Southborough, Framingham, Wayland, Weston, Waltham, and Watertown.

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It must have been a sight when that noble train of artillery entered Cambridge on this day in 1776. By March, Henry Knox’ cannon would be manhandled to the top of Dorchester Heights, resulting in the British evacuation of Boston and a peculiar Massachusetts institution which exists to this day, known as “Evacuation Day”: March 17.

It is doubtful whether Washington possessed sufficient powder or shot for a sustained campaign, but British forces occupying Boston didn’t know that. The mere presence of those guns moved British General Howe to weigh anchor and sail for Nova Scotia, but that must be a story for another day.

June 17, 1775 Bunker Hill

“On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.” – Dr. Joseph Warren

Charlestown, Massachusetts occupies a hilly peninsula to the north of Boston, at the point where the Mystic River meets the Charles. Like Boston itself, much of what is now Charlestown was once Boston Harbor.  In 1775 the town was a virtual island, joined to the mainland only by a thin “neck” of land.

Thousands of Patriot Militia poured into the area following the April battles of Lexington and Concord, hemming in the British who controlled Boston and its surrounding waterways.Bunker Hill, 2

Reinforced and provisioned from the sea over which the Crown held undisputed control, British forces under General Sir Thomas Gage could theoretically remained in Boston, indefinitely.

The elevation of Breed’s and Bunker’s Hill across the river, changed that calculation.  Should colonial forces obtain artillery of their own, they would be able to rain down hell on British forces bottled up in Boston.  It was just this scenario that led Henry Knox into a New England winter later that year, to retrieve the guns of Fort Ticonderoga.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress received word on the 13th that the British planned to break out of Boston within the week, taking the high ground of Dorchester Heights to the south and Charlestown to the north. Major General Israel Putnam was directed to set up defenses on Bunker Hill, on the northwest end of the Charlestown peninsula.

Colonel William Prescott led about 1,200 men onto the peninsula on the night of the 16th. Some work was performed on the hill which gives the battle its name, but it was farmer Ephraim Breed’s land to the southeast, which offered the more defensible hill from which to defend the peninsula.Bunker_Hill_by_Pyle

Shovels could be heard throughout the night.  The sun rose on June 17 to reveal a 130′ defensive breastwork across Breed’s hill. Major General William Howe was astonished. “The rebels,” he said, “have done more work in one night than my whole army would have done in one month.”

The warship HMS Lively opened fire on the redoubt shortly after 4am, with little effect on the earthworks. 128 guns joined in as the morning bore on, including incendiary shot which set fire to the town. Militia continued to reinforce the high ground throughout the morning hours, as Regulars commanded by General Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot crossed the Charles River and assembled for the assault.

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First Assault

The British line advanced up Breed’s Hill twice that afternoon, Patriot fire decimating their number and driving survivors back down the hill to reform and try again. Militia supplies of powder and shot began to give out as the British advanced up the hill for the third assault.

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”. The quote is attributed to Prescott, but the order seems to have originated with General Putnam and passed along by Prescott, Seth Pomeroy, John Stark, and others, in a desperate attempt to conserve ammunition.

Finally, there was nothing left with which to oppose the British bayonets.  The Militia was forced to retreat.

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Second Assault

Most of the colonists’ casualties occurred at this time, including Boston physician and President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, Dr. Joseph Warren.  Dr. Warren had been appointed Major General on June 14, but the commission had not arrived as of yet.  On this day, he fought as a private soldier. He had been  but the commission had not yet taken effect.

Two months before the battle, Dr. Warren had spoken to his men. “On you depend the fortunes of America”, he said. “You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”

Act worthy of yourselves.  That they did.

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Final Attack

The Battle of Bunker Hill ended in victory for the British, in that they held the ground when the fighting was over. It was a Pyrrhic victory. Howe lost 226 killed and 828 wounded, over a third of their number and more than twice those of the Militia.

One Eighth of all the British officers killed in the Revolution, died on Ephraim Breed’s Hill. General Henry Clinton wrote afterward, of the battle:  “A few more such victories” he said, “would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America”.