George Washington - Ada Russell

The Siege of Boston


At Boston, General Gage and the British troops found themselves in the position of soldiers in a besieged fortress. They could not get out by land, because of the colonial army and the vast unfriendly country, and they could get supplies from America neither by land nor sea, for the same reason.

Great Britain, determined on the subjugation of these unruly subjects, sent further forces and her distinguished generals, Howe, Burgoyne and Henry Clinton, and it is said that as they sailed into the harbour and Burgoyne was shown the "rebel camp" with its 10,000 yeomanry holding imprisoned the 5,000 Regular troops in Boston, he exclaimed in wrath:

"What! Ten thousand peasants keep 5,000 King's troops shut up! Well, let's get in, and we'll soon find elbow room!"

The "peasants" then had the brilliant idea of establishing themselves on Bunker's Hill and Dorchester Heights, on the north side of Boston and from these posts of vantage bombarding the town and harbour. Breed's Hill, within sight and hearing of the town garrison, was occupied and fortified after a fashion one warm summer's night while Boston slept secure, even the sentry's cry of "All's well!" coming to the ears of the rebels as they toiled feverishly to make their position defendable, and by morning the sight of this camp over their heads greatly annoyed the British. Of course the officers as they performed their careful morning toilets and jested in the light eighteenth-century way, in the way of a lost society, delightful and now impossible to recover, saw the "works" with scorn and amusement, turned out to sweep them away with some boredom, and thought to drive the rustics in their country frocks and with their antiquated fowling-pieces back into their "camp." Gage gave the order for the hill to be taken, and, while the rebels were energetically throwing up further works on Bunker's Hill, preparations were made to attack them. Three times did the British ascend to the capture of Breed's Hill, and twice were they thrown back with great slaughter, and the third time they remonstrated at the order to attack, for they learned for the first time that the colonists were unerring marksmen. Burgoyne wrote home afterward:

"Sure I am, nothing ever has or ever can be more dreadfully terrible than what was to be seen or heard at this time. The most incessant discharge of guns that ever was heard by mortal ears!" The Americans retreated only when they had come to an end of their ammunition, and then they retreated in perfect order, as they were to do in the many defeats that awaited them in the early part of this great struggle, and so they lost only 450 men, whereas the British, who fought with equal courage and doggedness, lost 1054 killed and wounded. Among the bravest of the brave was old Putnam, who rode about in a sleeveless waistcoat on account of the heat, and looked, said the British, "much fitter to head a band of sickle men or ditchers than musketeers."

So was the Battle of Bunker's Hill lost and won, and it caused such exultation to the Americans and such humiliation to the British that it amounted in fact to a great moral victory for the former.

While Boston was thus left the centre of British rule, the question of who was to have New York loomed on the horizon, as there was a large loyalist party there. The city was of the utmost importance both on account of its trade and of its position, for in British hands it would be a barrier between the eastern and western colonies. At present it was doubtful which party would get the upper hand, and to General Schuyler, who had obtained much experience in the Seven Years' War, Washington gave command here. A new Governor from England was daily expected at New York, and Washington accompanied by Generals Schuyler and Lee was approaching from Philadelphia on his way to the rebel headquarters at Cambridge by Boston, and the city had to choose. The civic authorities therefore thinking more of safety than political rights and wrongs, gave the order that military honours were to be accorded to the party that arrived first; and as Washington arrived first he was received with every mark of recognition of his position. But New York, far from the simplicity of spirit and single-minded heroism of New England and Pennsylvania, had a strong commercial sense, and when the new Governor from England landed he received the same honours. What was to be done? On leaving, Washington said significantly to Schuyler:

"If forcible measures are judged necessary respecting the present. Governor, I should have no difficulty in ordering them if the Continental Congress were not sitting, but as that is the case, and the seizing of a Governor quite a new thing, I must refer you to that body for direction."

Such an outrageous step Congress was not yet prepared to take, and yet it is clear that Washington was right—it would have cleared the path of America considerably if the Governor had been arrested at the first opportunity.

Washington then went on his way with Lee and on his arrival at Cambridge he had his first taste of greatness. The uproarious applause of the soldiery and the salvoes of artillery rending the air were heard in Boston, and in a pompous ceremonial he took over his command. The "Great Elm" under which he wheeled his horse and drew his sword is still pointed out, and tales of his splendid appearance are still to be read in American histories. Mrs. John Adams wrote to her husband:

"Dignity, ease and complacency, the gentleman and the soldier, look agreeably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feature of his face."

The Cause of his country, said Washington, had called him to play an active and dangerous part, and he relied on Divine Providence to discharge it with ability and success.

The house at Cambridge where Washington took up his abode was afterward known as Craigie House. Sparks edited his writings within its walls and here Longfellow afterward lived. Washington here continued his old simple way of life, or rather he simplified it still farther, eating baked apples and drinking milk, and often leaving an officer to represent him at the festive board when such rare events as banquets took place. "Old Put" was a kindred spirit, and together they introduced the severest discipline, with punishment of many lashes. If Congress decreed a day of prayer and fasting, officers and men were compelled to observe that day by abstaining from worldly occupations and attending service. As in the Indian wars, Washington was greatly distressed by the spirit of independence of his force, a spirit of independence which amounted indeed to a lack of discipline, and the lack of armour and ammunition of the "Continental Army" was well calculated to strike despair into the heart of an officer who had in his youth worshipped the fittings and equipment of disciplined European troops. He said "No army was ever in a condition so deplorable!" and he had a foundation for pessimism. A British officer wrote home:

"The rebel army are in so wretched a condition as to clothing and accoutrements that I believe no nation ever saw such a set of tatterdemalions. There are few coats among them but that are out at elbows, and in a whole regiment there is scarce a whole pair of breeches."

On the other side Boston was full of picked regular troops under famous generals. To starve them out seemed the only hope, and as their one way of getting provisions was to send out marauding parties by sea to land on the coasts and carry off cattle and stores, Washington had all cattle driven inland. "I have done and shall do," he wrote to his brother John Augustine, "everything in my power to distress them." As it was rumoured that Gage threw captured officers into the common gaol, Washington threatened to do the same with British officers caught, and wrote to Gage to remonstrate. Gage replied that all captives were being treated humanely, although he could recognise no rank that did not come from the King, and by the law of the land these rebels' lives were "destined to the cord." Washington replied: "You affect, Sir, to despise all rank not derived from the same source as your own. I cannot conceive any more honourable than that which flows from the uncorrupted choice of a brave and free people." These sentiments seem neither fresh nor startling now, but they were bold indeed then and mark the beginnings of modern history. If Washington said but little, he spoke to the point.

Ethan Allen, who has been called the "Robin Hood" of the American Revolution, after capturing Ticonderoga, and winning many brilliant successes, was taken prisoner in attempting to surprise and take Montreal in Canada, and he was treated by his captors as an ordinary outlaw. In red wool cap, deer-skin jacket and hunting boots he appeared before a British officer, who asked him with much curiosity if he was that "Colonel Allen" who had taken Ticonderoga. "I told him I was that very man," relates the rebel, "and he shook his cane over my head, calling me many hard names, among which he frequently used the word 'rebel.' " Ethan Allen was put in irons and taken to England on a man-of-war, with the prospect of Tyburn gallows before him.

Such acts as Ethan Allen's unauthorized and reckless attempt to surprise Montreal did no good and were the despair of Washington, who never relaxed his efforts to obtain discipline and coordination, and by establishing officers of the first abilities over the troops he gradually trained them to some resemblance to a real army, instead of very large bands of brigands. From childhood he was a martinet in military matters.

Another great thing he did was to get the various provinces to lay aside local jealousies and rivalries and think as Americans. In his first Order to the army he stated that the soldiers raised by the various colonies were now the troops of the United Provinces of North America, so that one "hoped that all distinctions of colonies will be laid aside, so that one and the same spirit may animate the whole and the only contest be who shall render . . . the most essential service to the great and common cause in which all are engaged."

His "raw material," which left so much to be desired from the point of view of the cast-iron military mind and burned with a zeal sometimes inconvenient, had on the other hand qualities of faith and doggedness that no mere professionalism could create or obtain. Those bygone wars pale before the horrors of the wars of to-day—the wars of the Age of Machinery—but they brought manhood out in much the same way, if they did not destroy it so fatally; and although they had not to face the worst engines of destruction of modern invention the colonists were without any of the conveniences of modern warfare—long guns, railway lines, airships for reconnoitring, or even respectable roads.

The advantages of stores and equipment were markedly with the British, of course, at the beginning, although the colonists were better placed for remedying these disadvantages. The colonial army as Washington gradually moulded it was on a Cromwellian model, and was to show how greatly piety and sobriety count in warfare. General Lee, cynical and skeptical like nearly all educated people of his age, laughed when he heard of the days of prayer and fasting, and said, shaking his head, "God is on the side of the heaviest battalions!" It is an old mocking saying, not always true.

Washington thought almost as little of the American forces at one time as did his foes:

"I have often thought," he wrote, "how much happier I should have been if, instead of accepting the command under such circumstances I had taken my musket on my shoulder and entered the ranks; or, if I could have justified the measure to posterity and my own conscience, had retired to the back country and lived in a wigwam."

However, after months of patient training and equipping, on the 4th of March, the anniversary of the "Boston Massacre," he determined to make an attack on that town. On the night of the 3rd breast-works were to be stealthily thrown up on Dorchester Heights and be so strengthened that by the morning of the 4th it would be too late for the enemy to do anything. Putnam was to make a simultaneous attack on the other side of the town, with 4,000 troops. The plan was brilliantly carried out, and when on the morning of the 4th the British, entirely taken by surprise, saw the redoubts which had sprung up in the night on Dorchester Heights they saw that, on this second occasion, they must dislodge the rebels or leave the town. Was it to be a new battle of Bunker's Hill? Howe, who had succeeded Gage in command, remarked:

"The rebels have done more work in one night than my whole army would have done in one month."

He began an assault of the Heights by land and sea, but a storm coming to the aid of the Americans, as it had done to England in the days of the Great Armada, they were able to make their position almost impregnable before they could be attacked. It was one of the dark moments in British history, and the garrison of Boston found itself check-mated. To take Dorchester Heights now was not to be thought of, and yet they could not stay in the town to be destroyed by colonial artillery. They must therefore go, but they could not capitulate to rebel subjects of their King—rather die at their posts. One wonders what sort of jests the gay garrison exchanged now, for although I have said that they would rather die at their posts than capitulate to rebels, we know very well that that was not the sort of remark that was made by educated Britons in the eighteenth century. They would probably say, as Britons have always had a habit of doing at grave moments: "We shall have to get out of this, but how on earth can we do it? Generals Howe, Burgoyne and Clinton send plenipotentiaries to ask for terms from these boors in smocks who have managed to catch us in this nice trap? And how ever shall we address our note? We can't possibly use the official names they have taken. General Washington! General Putnam! It's a nuisance!"

Finally Howe, without recognising the rebels as an equal opponent to whom submission could be made, determined to depart. Famine had already appeared in the town, and sickness was rife, and this problem of capitulation without submission had to be solved in the one way possible—simply walking out, exposed perhaps to a murderous fire from the Heights. Washington was indirectly but clearly informed of Howe's intention and warned that if the Americans fired the British army would set fire to Boston before leaving it. All the Tories, as the colonial loyalists in the town were called by their fellow colonials, took the precaution of departing with the British, and so earned for themselves the execration of the Continental Army. On the 17th of the month the whole party embarked on seventy-eight ships in the harbour. Washington in indignation remarked of the defaulting Tories that they chose to commit themselves "to the waves at a tempestuous season rather than meet their offended countrymen." It was certainly an event to startle the loyalists—it had never entered their heads that Great Britain could be defeated by the small, miserably equipped army that had invested it for the last year. At "Home" in the House of Lords the Duke of Manchester said:

"The army of Great Britain, equipped with every possible essential of war; a chosen army with chosen officers, backed by the power of a mighty fleet, sent to correct revolted subjects; sent to chastise a resisting city; sent to assert Great Britain's authority—has for many tedious months been imprisoned within that town by the Provincial army, who, their watchful guards, permitted them no inlet to the country, who braved all their efforts and defied all their skill and ability in war could ever attempt."

A unanimous vote of thanks to Washington was passed by Congress, and it was ordered that a gold medal should be struck in commemoration of the fall of the town and should bear on it the effigy of Washington.