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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Siege of Boston
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[That the British army and its officers permitted themselves to be cooped up for nearly a year in Boston, without an effort to break through the weak bonds that held them prisoners, was undoubtedly an important advantage to the American cause. For the patriot army of that day, though it had given a noble account of itself at Bunker Hill, was ill fitted in discipline, in arms, in condition, and in all military essentials, to cope with the thoroughly-trained and well- appointed British regulars had they made a determined aggressive movement. Washington, on reaching Boston, found himself provided with very poor material to face a disciplined force. The freedom and equality to which New-Englanders had long been accustomed made them highly intractable to military discipline, and democratically resistant to the aristocratic ideas and manner in which Washington had been trained. It was, therefore, with great difficulty, and with much bitterness of spirit on both sides, that the militia were brought into anything resembling discipline. An account of the operations of this army we select from Ramsay's "History of the American Revolution," a valuable old work, written but a few years after the Revolution had ended.]

As the year 1775 drew to a close, the friends of Congress were embarrassed with a new difficulty. Their army was temporary, and only engaged to serve out the year. The object for which they had taken up arms was not yet obtained. Every reason which had previously induced the provinces to embody a military force still existed, and with increasing weight. It was therefore resolved to form a new army. The same flattering hopes were indulged, that an army for the ensuing year would answer every purpose. . It was presumed that the spirit which had hitherto operated on the yeomanry of the country would induce most of the same individuals to engage for another twelvemonth; but on experiment it was found that much of their military ardor had already evaporated. The first impulse of passion and the novelty of the scene had brought many to the field who had great objections against continuing in the military line. They found that to be soldiers required sacrifices of which when they assumed that character they had no idea. So unacquainted were the bulk of the people with the mode of carrying on modern war that many of them flew to arms with the delusive expectation of settling the whole dispute by a few decisive and immediate engagements. Experience soon taught them that to risk life in open fighting was but a part of the soldier's duty. Several of the inferior officers retired; the men frequently refused to enlist unless they were allowed to choose their officers. Others would not engage unless they were indulged with furloughs. Fifty would apply together for leave of absence. Indulgence threatened less ruinous consequences than a refusal would probably have produced. On the whole, enlistments went on slowly.. So many difficulties retarded the recruiting service that on the last day of the year 1775 the whole American army amounted to no more than nine thousand six hundred and fifty men. Of the remarkable events with which this important year was replete, it was not the least that within musket-shot of twenty British regiments one army was disbanded and another enlisted.

All this time the British troops at Boston were suffering the inconvenience of a blockade. From the 19th of April they were cut off from those refreshments which their situation required. Their supplies from Britain did not reach the coast for a long time after they were expected. Several were taken by the American cruisers, and others were lost at sea. This was in particular the fate of many of their coal-ships. The want of fuel was particularly felt in a climate where the winter is both severe and tedious. They relieved themselves in part from their sufferings on this account by the timber of houses which they pulled down and burnt. Vessels were despatched to the West Indies to procure provisions; but the islands were so straitened that they could afford but little assistance. Armed ships and transports were ordered to Georgia with an intent to procure rice; but the people of that province, with the aid of a party from South Carolina, so effectually disposed of them that of eleven vessels only two got off safe with their cargoes. It was not till the stock of the garrison was nearly exhausted, that the transports from England entered the port of Boston and relieved the distresses of the garrison.

While the troops within the lines were apprehensive of suffering from want of provisions, the troops without were equally uneasy for want of employment. Used to labor and motion on their farms, they but illy relished the inactivity and confinement of a camp life. Fiery spirits declaimed in favor of an assault. They preferred a bold spirit of enterprise, to that passive fortitude which bears up under present evils while it waits for favorable junctures. To be in readiness for an attempt of this kind, a council of war recommended to call in seven thousand two hundred and eighty militia-men from New Hampshire or Connecticut. This number, added to the regular army before Boston, would have made an operating force of about seventeen thousand men.

The provincials labored under great inconveniences from the want of arms and ammunition. Very early in the contest, the King of Great Britain, by proclamation, forbade the exportation of warlike stores to the colonies. Great exertions had been made to manufacture saltpetre and gunpowder, but the supply was slow and inadequate. A secret committee of Congress had been appointed, with ample powers to lay in a stock of this necessary article. Some swift-sailing vessels had been despatched to the coast of Africa to purchase what could be procured in that distant region; a party from Charleston forcibly took about seventeen thousand pounds of powder from a vessel near the bar of St. Augustine; some time after, Commodore Hopkins stripped Providence, one of the Bahama Islands, of a quantity of artillery and stores; but the whole, procured from all these quarters, was far short of a sufficiency. In order to supply the new army before Boston with the necessary means of defence, an application was made to Massachusetts for arms, but on examination it was found that their public stores afforded only two hundred. Orders were issued to purchase firelocks from private persons, but few had any to sell, and fewer would part with them. In the month of February there were two thousand of the American infantry who were destitute of arms. Powder was equally scarce; and yet daily applications were made for dividends of the small quantity which was on hand for the defence of the various parts threatened with invasion.

The eastern colonies presented an unusual sight. A powerful enemy safely intrenched in their first city, while a fleet was ready to transport them to any part of the coast. A numerous body of husbandmen was resolutely bent on opposition, but without the necessary arms and ammunition for self-defence. The eyes of all were fixed on General Washington, and from him it was unreasonably expected that he would by a bold exertion free the town of Boston from the British troops. The dangerous situation of public affairs led him to conceal the real scarcity of arms and ammunition, and, with that magnanimity which is characteristic of great minds, to suffer his character to be assailed rather than vindicate himself by exposing his many wants. There were not wanting persons who, judging from the superior number of men in the American army, boldly asserted that if the commander-in-chief was not desirous of prolonging his importance at the head of an army, he might by a vigorous exertion gain possession of Boston. Such suggestions were reported and believed by several, while they were uncontradicted by the general, who chose to risk his fame rather than expose his army and his country.

Agreeably to the request of the council of war, about seven thousand of the militia had rendezvoused in February. General Washington stated to his officers that the troops in camp, together with the reinforcements which had been called for and were daily coming in, would amount to nearly seventeen thousand men,-- that he had not powder sufficient for a bombardment, and asked their advice whether, as reinforcements might be daily expected to the enemy, it would not be prudent, before that event took place, to make an assault on the British lines. The proposition was negatived; but it was recommended to take possession of Dorchester Heights. To conceal this design, and to divert the attention of the garrison, a bombardment of the town from other directions commenced, and was carried on for three days with as much briskness as a deficient stock of powder would admit. In this first essay, three of the mortars were broken, either from a defect in their construction, or, more probably, from ignorance of the proper mode of using them.

The night of the 4th of March was fixed upon for taking possession of Dorchester Heights. A covering party of about eight hundred led the way. These were followed by the carts with the intrenching tools, and twelve hundred of a working-party, commanded by General Thomas. In the rear there were more than two hundred carts loaded with fascines and hay in bundles. While the cannon were playing in other parts, the greatest silence was kept by this working-party. The active zeal of the industrious provincials completed lines of defence by the morning which astonished the garrison. The difference between Dorchester Heights on the evening of the 4th and the morning of the 5th seemed to realize the tales of romance. The admiral informed General Howe that if the Americans kept possession of these heights he would not be able to keep one of his majesty's ships in the harbor. It was therefore determined in a council of war to attempt to dislodge them. An engagement was hourly expected. It was intended by General Washington, in that case, to force his way into Boston with four thousand men, who were to have embarked at the mouth of Cambridge River. The militia had come forward with great alertness, each bringing three days' provision, in expectation of an immediate assault. The men were in high spirits and impatiently waiting for the appeal.

They were reminded that it was the 5th of March, and were called upon to avenge the death of their countrymen killed on that day. The many eminences in and near Boston which overlooked the ground on which it was expected that the contending parties would engage were crowded with numerous spectators. But General Howe did not intend to attack till the next day. In order to be ready for it, the transports went down in the evening towards the castle. In the night a most violent storm, and towards morning a heavy flood of rain, came on. A carnage was thus providentially prevented that would probably have equalled, if not exceeded, the fatal 17th of June at Bunker's Hill. In this situation it was agreed by the British, in a council of war, to evacuate the town as soon as possible.

[Their enforced delay had permitted Washington so to strengthen his works as to render an assault on them too dangerous to be attempted.]

In a few days after a flag came out of Boston, with a paper signed by four selectmen, informing, "that they had applied to General Robertson, who, on an application to General Howe, was authorized to assure them that he had no intention of burning the town, unless the troops under his command were molested during their embarkation, or at their departure, by the armed force without." When this paper was presented to General Washington, he replied, "that as it was an unauthenticated paper, and without an address, and not obligatory on General Howe, he could take no notice of it;" but at the same time intimated his good wishes for the security of the town.

A proclamation was issued by General Howe, ordering all woollen and linen goods to be delivered to Crean Brush, Esq. Shops were opened and stripped of their goods. A licentious plundering took place. Much was carried off, and more was wantonly destroyed. These irregularities were forbidden in orders, and the guilty threatened with death; but nevertheless every mischief which disappointed malice could suggest was committed.

The British, amounting to more than seven thousand men, evacuated Boston, leaving their barracks standing, and also a number of cannon spiked, four large iron seamortars, and stores to the value of thirty thousand pounds. They demolished the castle, and knocked off the trunnions of the cannon. Various incidents caused a delay of nine days after the evacuation, before they left Nantasket road.

This embarkation was attended with many circumstances of distress and embarrassment. On the departure of the royal army from Boston, a great number of the inhabitants attached to their sovereign, and afraid of public resentment, chose to abandon their country. From the great multitude about to depart, there was no possibility of procuring purchasers for their furniture, neither was there a sufficiency of vessels for its convenient transportation. Mutual jealousy subsisted between the army and navy, each charging the other as the cause of some part of their common distress. The army was full of discontent. Reinforcements, though long promised, had not arrived. Both officers and soldiers thought themselves neglected. Five months had elapsed since they had received any advice of their destination. Wants and inconveniences increased their ill humor. Their intended voyage to Halifax subjected them to great dangers. The coast, at all times hazardous, was eminently so at that tempestuous equinoctial season. They had reason to fear they would be blown off to the West Indies, and without a sufficient stock of provisions. They were also going to a barren country. To add to their difficulties, this dangerous voyage, when completed, was directly so much out of their way. Their business lay to the southward, and they were going northward. Under all these difficulties, and with all these gloomy prospects, the fleet steered for Halifax. Contrary to appearances, the voyage thither was both short and prosperous. They remained there for some time, waiting for reinforcements and instructions from England.

When the royal fleet and army departed from Boston, several ships were left behind for the protection of vessels coming from England, but the American privateers were so alert that they nevertheless made many prizes. Some of the vessels which they captured were laden with arms and warlike stores. Some transports, with troops on board, were also taken. These had run into the harbor, not knowing that the place was evacuated.

The boats employed in the embarkation of the British troops had scarcely completed their business when General Washington, with his army, marched into Boston. He was received with marks of approbation more flattering than the pomps of a triumph. The inhabitants, released from the severities of a garrison life, and from the various indignities to which they were subjected, hailed him as their deliverer. Reciprocal congratulations between those who had been confined within the British lines, and those who were excluded from entering them, were exchanged with an ardor which cannot be described. General Washington was honored by Congress with a vote of thanks. They also ordered a medal to be struck, with suitable devices, to perpetuate the remembrance of the great event. The Massachusetts council and house of representatives complimented him in a joint address, in which they expressed their good wishes in the following words: "May you still go on approved by Heaven, revered by all good men, and dreaded by those tyrants who claim their fellowmen as their property."

David Ramsay

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