Skip to comments.Patience, Organization, Brilliance... and a Victory on the Heights
Posted on 03/04/2012 9:23:53 PM PST by jfd1776
By March 4, 1776, the American forces had been stationed outside Boston for nearly a year.
British soldiers had been there longer. For eight long years, Boston had effectively been under martial law. Ever since the Massachusetts House had objected to the Townshend Acts in 1868, the British forces who arrived that October were a constant fixture around town, a continual reminder that to King George III, the colonists those of Boston, at any rate were prisoners in their own city. They may have thought they had the rights of free Englishmen, but Englands monarch thought otherwise.
After the events of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the British fell back to Boston, and the Provincial Congress ordered American troops called up to meet them there on April 23 (the order was for 13,600 troops, though all troop strengths varied widely from month to month throughout the war, for many reasons both good and bad). There were skirmishes the battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, for example but for the most part, the Boston area maintained a nervous peace for the year, though both sides knew in their hearts the time would come.
Backseat drivers on both sides second-guessed their leadership for waiting. British officers thought their generals timid (their king agreed); the Americans knew they had good reason, but they were still getting plenty restless.
Horatio Gates provided wise and cautious leadership for the poorly equipped forces for those first few months when Washington arrived, the new commander in chief went into shock at the troops lack of readiness. We had less than 10,000 lbs of gunpowder, for example enough for only about nine rounds per man. With those supplies, when battle finally came, it had better be a short battle!
So we waited. The primary occupation of the leadership on both sides, for months and months, seemed to be to look at each other with spyglasses, as loyalist Peter Oliver summed up the year. But if the well-equipped British had little excuse for failing to act, the Americans had splendid reasons: with time, we might gain more gunpowder, more soldiers, more training hours. But most important, a certain, somewhat secret, utterly impossible quest might succeed.
The Genius of Henry Knox:
Bookseller Henry Knox had offered his services to General Washington at the age of 25, with no military experience or training at all, only years of spending his time at work studying the volumes of military history that filled his stores shelves.
Those studies came in handy when his first major assignment came through. Earlier in 1775, Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen had conquered Fort Ticonderoga for its treasure trove of artillery, but they left it there for someone else to transport. Henry Knox proposed his plan to Washington, and he got the okay. He set out on November 17 with a small squad for support, and arrived at the fort on December 5. He and his staff started building sleds and mounting the cannon for transport, some 60 tons of huge, heavy, bulky pieces, and then headed out to brave the winter with his cargo on December 17.
By the time he arrived at Cambridge on January 27, he had largely changed his exhausted crews twice, and had covered mountain and valley, forest and meadow, river and lake, in the dead of winter with snow and ice as both friend and foe, in a feat of logistics still discussed by historians and military men over two centuries later. His winter trip was successful; Washington now had artillery at last, for use in the long postponed event.
Artillery at last, but not in place
The right place for artillery would be up high, on the Dorchester Heights, a ridge with a commanding view of both city and river, a site then held by neither force. The time was right at last on March 2, so Washington began the shelling to give cover for a big and secret movement when all was ready to go.
As the shelling progressed, keeping British spyglasses from a clear look, Washington had his troops prepare a fortification from scratch. Normally in those days, one would dig trenches, from which trees and fences would spring up, anchored deep in the ground. But March in Boston means cold, hard soil; nobody was doing any digging in that veritable rock anytime soon, nor could anyone there in wintertime, until the industrial revolution produced better tools. But that wouldnt be until decades later, so for the time being, some other kind of fortification would be needed.
Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Putnam (cousin to the more famous Israel Putnam) had the solution: building chandeliers frames of wood we might call them a modular system today which could be mostly assembled in advance, elsewhere, and then completed onsite and filled with a tight kind of hay bales called screwed hay. The frames were built and prepared as he proposed, ready to haul when the order was given.
At the same time, Washington had his troops prepare heavy barrels no high tech here, just barrels, filled with dirt. Washingtons idea was that the straw-filled frames would form the wall in which the cannon would be set, and the heavy barrels would placed in rows ahead of them. Theyd take flack harmlessly if hit, and could be handy to roll down the hill onto oncoming enemy forces, when that need arose, as he expected it probably might.
Once the shelling began, the troops and animals 800 oxen alone, not counting horses and mules. were ready for their assignments; until then, its unlikely that more than a few people knew the exact plan (though rumors of something had been going around for days). As night fell on March 4, the time had come.
Over 2000 men under General John Thomas put shoulder and oxen to work, as they pushed and pulled their prefab army base up the hill. First came a row of haybales for the outermost border, to further hide what was happening behind. Then came the rows of barrels, then the heavy artillery and the chandeliers, all under cover of night, and the cover of two days of shelling. It took a lot of gunpowder to fire guns for two straight days, but it was worth it; the Dorchester Heights had been taken, and the British were none the wiser. The entire project were done in a single night; by the time dawn broke on March 5, a military base had risen up where there had been naught but emptiness a day before.
A Very Different Fifth of March
Imagine the shock of the British troops, when they awakened on March 5 to see a fully defended encampment upon the Heights. A British Lieutenant Colonel, Sir John Campbell, reported that the rebels were up to something at about 10pm, but his commanding officer decided it could wait until morning. Apparently, not just talent and weather were on the side of the Colonists that week; they had luck on their side as well.
Upon seeing it that morning, General Howe was reported to have said these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months. British engineers reported that it had to take 14,000 to 20,000 men to accomplish it. In fact, General Thomas total crew was roughly 800 riflemen, mostly providing cover fire, and 1200 more men doing the actual work.
General Howe knew he could postpone no more; the gauntlet had been thrown down, and he had already taken a two day barrage with minimal response. He gave the orders to send thousands one way by land, and to send ships the other way, down the river, because such an action as this fortification of the heights could simply not be left unanswered. A week earlier, he might have been able to win with such a strategy, but not now.
Six years prior, in what the British called The Incident on King Street, British occupiers overreacted to a mob of civilians taunting a sentry, and fired into the crowd, killing five patriots and wounding others. The British may have called it a mere incident, but to Americans already eighteen months into marshal law, it was a massacre, and so was known in the Colonies, and to this day. The killings of March 5, 1770, in Boston, Massachusetts, were thenceforth known as the Boston Massacre, and that date was to be etched in the memory of every patriot as one of the key reasons for their rebellion.
As Howe was giving his orders across the way, General Washington addressed his own troops, and if the British hadnt yet made this connection, Washington, for his part, made the most of it. Remember it is the Fifth of March, and Avenge the Death of your Brethren! said he, and quickly the word spread throughout the camps, til every soldier knew the long wait was over, that vengeance for eight long years was at hand.
And Then, the Weather Changed.
The Colonists were ready to meet the British they were itching for it but the weather continued to cooperate with the Americans. As mild as it had been during the cover shelling and the fortification of the Heights, once that project was completed, winter returned in fury. The ships that General Howe sent down the river were driven ashore. The snow and sleet made his forward movements impossible; after a miserable day of false starts, he had to admit the amazing conclusion: the British had been beaten, not so much by battle but by this change in the Americans physical position.
It took days to make it public, but just that one day to settle the matter for the British: they would have to turn tail and flee. But this would be no normal retreat; their presence was hardly the presence of an army on the march, retreating from one battlefield in favor of another. They had lived in Boston often in other peoples houses, by force for eight years. The longest-serving had arrived October 1, 1768, and were now to depart in March of 1776? Even a soldier accumulates some breakables with which he wont desire to part, when the time finally comes.
So Howe found he would have to gather his troops, and their wives and children and things as well, not to mention supplies, if he was to evacuate the city of Boston before the Colonists destroyed them. Howe sent a message under white flag to announce his impending departure, and the city was in an uproar loyalists who would feel unsafe with the rebels naturally would accompany the troops out. Much would have to be organized to effect such a move after so long.
Oh, there were still skirmishes, still firing back and forth, here and there, as the two armies eyed each other the rebels as they prepared to move in, the loyalists as they prepared to move out. But the die had been cast, and by March 17 the 11,200 or so British soldiers, their families, and their loyalist friends were ready to leave town, having taken with them nearly everything not nailed down.
Colonists found that the British had spent their two weeks in preparation for the retreat confiscating supplies from the locals. After eight years of freely helping themselves to bunk and board, they gathered up a few more years worth before heading out. The ships were well laden with other peoples things when they finally set sail for the safe port of Halifax, away north in Nova Scotia.
Still, they were gone, and that was the main thing. A triumphant Virginian entered the city on March 18, proud of a successful strategy, the virtues of patience, and the incredible talent of a few key men.
Lessons Learned from a Few Key Men
Even after 23 decades have passed, we can still learn from these great men.
Upon entering the city of Boston after the long siege, George Washington and his staff found greater defenses than they ever expected. Had they overruled their gut and thrown caution to the wind, the taking of Boston would have been costlier than expected, perhaps even impossible. As it was, the cautious Americans retook the cradle of liberty with minimal loss of life. Their patience was rewarded.
While many played a role in these events, General John Thomas deserves great credit for the execution.
No matter how clever the plan, operations can still easily fail if a single key item is forgotten, if proportions are wrong, if the order of tasks is less than optimal. The task of fortifying the Dorchester Heights made all the difference, on that loud, dark night of March 4, 1776. Everyone knew his task, everyone knew in what order to move, in what place to position his materials. The theater has rehearsals for this; there were no rehearsals that week in Boston. At school, at work, at the library, we expect silence so we can think clearly; but in this case, both the planning and the doing were done to background music of cannon and musket fire. And still they succeeded. A massive overnight artillery encampment made the victory possible, without either rehearsal or such basic conditions as quiet or daylight; General Thomas organizational skills carried the day.
Best of all is the tale of Henry Knox, a young man with an idea, and the stubbornness to refuse to accept the obvious fact that it was impossible. He moved 56 cannon, many of them downright huge, from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston in the dead of winter. The snow and ice that would have defeated others, he turned into his allies, using the snow and ice to aid his movement, using the non-navigable forests to supply him with sleds, even turning rivers and mountains to his benefit.
Here it was not just logistical brilliance, but sheer force of will that did the trick. How else could such a wonder have been accomplished, in the years before cranes, trains, trucks, or even roads? What a giant was this remarkable man who refused to let the impossible defeat him.
In the 21st century, its difficult for us to imagine a countryside so rugged, a nation so poor. We were short on gunpowder, on boots, on food. And yet we managed feats of brilliance that amazed the British, accomplishments that astonish us even today.
We fly over the mountains of New York, look out the plane window, and ask how, how on earth did Knox work that miracle? We consider the advantages in training and men and supplies that the British had, and ask how, how on earth did our ragtag crew defeat them?
We owe it to their memory to study their work, to read of their exploits and their sacrifices. General Washington went on to become our first President; General Knox went on to become his Secretary of War. General Thomas, sadly, didnt live to see his nation free; he died of smallpox just ten weeks later.
We owe it to them to honor their service and learn from their commitment, but most of all, we owe it to them to ensure that their work and their sacrifices were not in vain. Our nation is on the brink today; we owe it to our Founders, and to the Divine Providence who guided and blessed them, to return America to the standards of limited government and individual liberty that our Founders intended our nation to champion forever.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. Never having served in the military himself, he recognizes his debt to those who did, and encourages all to study and honor the memory of that noble generation that won the Revolutionary War. A strong recommendation , here, for the best books of the era, those by Forest McDonald, Willard Sterne Randall, and in particular, David McCullough, whose 1776 served as a major source for this article.
Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included at top and bottom. Follow me on Facebook and LinkedIn!
I love history, and especially American History around the revolutionary war time period, but how can the author expect anyone to read past the first three sentences ?
Wonderful essay. Thanks so much for posting!
thank you. inspiring.
The RevWar/Colonial History/General Washington ping list
What a magnificent article! A delight to read. Thank you both, for the post and the ping.
Thanks for the ping! Very informative...
Thanks, all, for the kind comments, and thanks, Pharmboy, for the correction.
Hmmm... I wonder if I could make an excuse by saying that if Champagne Charlie HAD still been around in 1868, he would have thought up so new taxes to inflict then too?
Nah, guess not.
Liberty: The American Revolution - PBS:
LIBERTY! is a six-part series of one-hour documentaries for PBS. It describes how the American Revolution evolved and how a new nation was born in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, using actors, Revolutionary era scholars, and eyewitness accounts of the time. LIBERTY! is hosted by award winning journalist and ABC news anchor, Forrest Sawyer. Edward Herrmann is the narrator. It was originally broadcast Nov. 23 - 25, 1997.
EPISODE 1: The Reluctant Revolutionaries 1763-1774
In 1763, the capitol city of America is London, George Washington is lobbying for a post in the British army, and no one thinks of Boston harbor when they hear talk of tea parties. In a dozen years, the colonies are on the brink of rebellion. What happens to bring this country so quickly near war with England?
EPISODE 2: Blows Must Decide 1774-1776
A total break from Great Britain remains hard for Americans to imagine, even after shots are fired at Lexington and Concord. Words push matters Over the Edge in 1776. Common Sense argues that it is the natural right of men to govern themselves. The Declaration of Independence declares this same idea a self-evident truth. For Americans, there is no looking back. There will be war with England.
EPISODE 3: The Times That Try Mens Souls 1776-1777
Days after the Declaration of Independence is signed, a British force arrives in New York harbor. Washington and his troops are driven to New Jersey. With only a few days of enlistment left for many of his volunteers, a desperate Washington leads his army quietly across the Delaware River on the day after Christmas, 1776, to mount a surprise attack on a sleeping garrison in Trenton.
EPISODE 4: Oh Fatal Ambition 1777-1778
The united states remain in dire need of funds and military support. Congress dispatches Benjamin Franklin to France in hopes of creating an alliance which will provide both. Meanwhile, a British army marches down the Hudson River trying to cut off New England from the other colonies. The British are crushed by Americans at Saratoga. The French enter the conflict on the American side.
EPISODE 5: The World Turned Upside Down 1778-1783
The British hope to exploit the issue of slavery and to enlist the support of loyalists in the south. They fail. After a series of brutal engagements, the British army heads for Virginia, only to be trapped by the miraculous convergence of Washingtons army and the French fleet at Yorktown. The end of the war is at hand.
EPISODE 6: Are We to Be a Nation? 1783-1788
Peace comes to the United States, but governing the worlds newest republic is no simple task. Congress is ineffectual and individual states act like sovereign nations. By the time the Constitutional Convention convenes in 1787, many wonder if the country can survive. The long ratification process helps define what sort of nation the United States is to bea process that continues to this day.
You can watch the first 5 (of 6) episodes here. There is a link for the final (6th) episode, but no video:
I'm always amazed at the hard work and ingenuity used by the colonists to fight Britain. The submarine Turtle, the Chains Across the Hudson, the ironworks to provide the iron for the chains, the transportation of the artillery from Fort Ticonderoga, and the Chevaux de Frise on the Delaware River at Philadelphia -- all brilliant technology, incredible hard work, and magnificent improvisation.
"Ever since the bloody affair at Breed's Hill in June of '75 ... the army led by George Washington had kept the British bottled up in Boston, but the rebels could do little more than that until a fat former bookseller named Henry Knox, who had a penchant for artillery, brought forty-three cannon and sixteen mortars over the mountains from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, and work crews hauled them into position to command the enemy fleet, the shipping channels, and the town of Boston itself. That sealed the fate of the army under General William Howe: the British had nowhere to go but out — out of the range of those guns and out of Boston Harbor. And so they did, more than a hundred shiploads of them ..."I also believe it was in Hancock's biography where I read that the rumble of the cannon passing by brought out Abigail Adams and her children to witness the spectacle and to say hello to Mr. Knox.
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