Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

The Lost Colonies

Wolfe's victory at Quebec won, as I have said, Canada for England, but it did something to lose possessions far more valuable, the Colonies between the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi. Of these Colonies there were thirteen, founded at various times from 1622 to 1733. They were different in many ways, but in one thing they were agreed, and that was the fear of France. As long as they felt this fear, they could not help looking to England to protect them; when this was removed, they began to consider whether they should not do better if they stood alone. England was ready enough to protect them against any foreign enemy; but, in return for this protection, it desired to make all the gain it could out of them. It compelled them to buy various articles in England, laid duties on goods sent from one colony to another, and taxed various things, such as printed books and the like, that were imported from England. Many of the taxes imposed were afterwards repealed, but a duty on tea was retained; it was about tea that the final quarrel took place. The people of Boston in Massachusetts threw many thousand pounds' worth of it into the harbour sooner than allow duty to be paid upon it, and the English Parliament, to punish them, passed an Act by which it was forbidden to import any goods at all into Boston. This, of course, destroyed the trade of the town, and it was not long before there was war.

The first fighting took place at Lexington, a village in Massachusetts, about fifteen miles from Boston. The Colonists had collected at Concord, undoubtedly in preparation for war, a quantity of arms and ammunition. The governor of Boston sent some troops to destroy these stores. On their way they found some militiamen assembled on Lexington Green. They fired a volley and dispersed them, and going into Concord destroyed the stores. On their way back they were fired upon by a number of riflemen, who lined the hedges, and lost many in killed and wounded.

Braddock's force surprised


After Lexington came Bunker's Hill. This is one of two hills which are outside Boston, on the left bank of the River Charles. The other is called Breed Hill, and this it was that the Colonists occupied, though somehow the battle has got its name from the first. General Gage, who was in command of the English troops, determined to dislodge them. Everything was done in a very blundering way. The troops were landed in heavy marching order, though it was an exceedingly hot day (June 17, 1775), and with three days' provisions, which they were very unlikely to want. They were sent up to attack the hill, on which the Colonists had made a breastwork, at its very strongest point. They had to do with the bayonet what might have been done with far less loss and trouble by a cannonade from the ships. The fact was, that General Gage and the other officers in command did not believe that the enemy would offer any serious resistance. This was found to be a great mistake. Twice the soldiers were driven back. The third time, when reinforced by fresh troops, they took the breastwork, but the Colonists retreated to a neighbouring hill, which they entrenched. The British loss was 226 killed, and nearly four times as many wounded and missing; as the Colonists did not suffer half so much, Bunker's Hill was as good as a victory. Two days before the battle, the representatives of the Colonies had resolved to raise a regular army, and to put it under the command of George Washington. In the winter of the year the Colonists endeavoured to seize Quebec, attacking it from the same Heights of Abraham on which Wolfe had won his great victory; but the affair was ill-managed from beginning to end, and the Colonists were repulsed with heavy loss. They kept up a siege of the city, however, till May, when, some troops having arrived from England, they retreated, leaving behind them their guns, baggage, and stores.

On July 4 in the following year (1776) the Colonists sent forth their famous Declaration of Independence, but for some time it seemed as if they had but a small chance of making good their claim to be free. The British army was transferred from Boston, where the population was altogether hostile to England, to New York, where it was mostly friendly. General Howe, who was now in command, took up a position on Staten Island, which is below New York, and Washington sent a force of 10,000 men to Long Island, which is near to it. Howe began by attacking the Colonists, and inflicted on them a severe defeat. If he had followed up the pursuit, their whole force would probably have been destroyed. As it was, 1000 were killed, and twice as many wounded or taken prisoners. The rest Washington was able to carry off, and he was also able to save some of the guns. A little more than a fortnight afterwards Howe entered New York. The Colonists suffered loss after loss. On November 19 Washington was glad to escape into New Jersey. He had only 3000 men with him, and these were in a deplorable condition. The year, however, was not to end without some compensation. On Christmas night Washington attacked one of the British posts on the Delaware River, and captured 900 Hessians. (The English Government, unable to find soldiers enough at home, had been driven to hire Germans from the Elector of Hesse.)

In the year 1777 things went very differently for the Colonists. General Burgoyne started from Canada with some 5000 regular troops, and a number of provincials and Indians. Almost from the first everything went wrong with him. He divided his forces, though the enemy was near with superior numbers. He did not know the country well enough to take the best route; and he could not keep his army properly fed. The provincials and the Indians took every chance of leaving him, and at last, not quite four months after leaving Canada, he found himself compelled to surrender. He had 3500 regular troops with him. The capitulation of Saratoga was a blow from which the British never recovered.

On February 8, 1778, an alliance was made between the States and France—many Frenchmen had already come over to fight as volunteers in the army of the Colonists—and shortly afterwards France declared war against England. Fortune, however, turned against the Colonists. Their French allies were of little use to them, and the British were better led by new generals. In December the town of Savannah, in Georgia, was taken. Things went on in much the same way in the year following. Washington, for want of men and money, had to sit still and do nothing. When the French tried in the autumn to retake Savannah, they failed disastrously. In 1780 Charleston in South Carolina was taken after a long siege.

But the war was really hopeless, and in October 1781 it practically came to an end with the capitulation of Yorktown, where Lord Cornwallis surrendered with an army of between six and seven thousand men. For two more years there were various negotiations both in America and in Europe. King George III. unwillingly gave his consent to the Independence of the American Colonies on December 5, 1782; but it was not for nearly a year after this (November 25, 1783) that the British troops evacuated New York. England had spent nearly two hundred millions of money to no purpose.