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THE SIEGE OF BOSTON
121. The Siege Begins. After the hurried retreat from Concord, the authorities were fairly well secured in Boston by the rebels, who were actually in control outside Boston, with their own governmental machinery and an army that was directly engaged in fighting the administration, though the rebels were not ready as yet to come out openly for independence, since such a move might lose them any hope of aid from outside Massachusetts. Those in power, and the people in Boston, were effectively cut off from all land communication, although it was still possible to enter and leave Boston by sea. It is true, the Boston Port Bill, which had in a way brought about this situation, and which was responsible for the military government, forbade ships from using the port of Boston, but that was easily taken care of by special military permits, which, on account of the emergency, were readily granted.
The rebels, on the day of the battle and the pursuit, had effectively cleared their territory of outlying British patrols, and then proceeded to the task of recapturing the large estates that had been taken away from their original occupants and given to various English aristocrats. The capital of the rebels was moved in from Concord to Watertown, so the insurgents might be better able to supervise military activities in the siege, which, at the same time, must be so conducted as not to appear to the rest of America to be actually a rebellion against the King, to whom the remaining colonies were still at least nominally loyal. Accordingly, while the true story of what happened at Lexington and Concord was well known to the Minute Men and to their followers in and around Middlesex, another version was concocted for public circulation. The tale was spread that the British militia had raided Lexington and Concord, wantonly firing into groups of peaceful citizens at Lexington and Concord. This account, being the one that was circulated outside Massachusetts, reached Boston soon by the sea route, and it became necessary for the British to take steps to combat the report, and circulating the interpretation of the event, which has now become the patriotic rendering in America, portraying the incidents of that day as a battle instead of as a massacre of unarmed citizens. A bulletin was posted in Boston by the authorities, stating what had happened. It is said that one morning a bulletin was found with a correction supplied by some humorous citizen; where the bulletin stated, "We were forced to resort to our arms for defense," someone had struck out the word "arms", and written in "legs."
122. Capture of Ticonderoga. Vermont, of course, had presented for years a situation parallel to that of the "civil disobedience" in neighboring Massachusetts; and this tension was heightened by the order from Albany to oust all the Vermonters.
The fort of Ticonderoga on the west side of Lake Champlain, captured from the French in the Great Ohio War, was a British outpost that threatened the rear of both Vermonters and Massachusetts rebels; so after the civil disobedience in Massachusetts had fairly well intrenched themselves by the Lexington-Concord incidents, the next step was to assemble an expeditionary force from Berkshire County to attack Ticonderoga, securing it as they had done with military posts in Boston.
However, in this case, the "Green Mountain Boys," the independent army of Vermont, "stole a march" on them. Before enough volunteers could be mustered together in Massachusetts, the Vermonters, who were much nearer the fort in question, crossed Lake Champlain quietly and unexpectedly, and on the night of Monday, May 1, overpowered the sentries guarding the fort, who were not prepared for an attack. The fort was thus easily entered, and the commander of the fort was awakened from a sound sleep by Ethan Allen's thundering cry of "Surrender!" The commander himself, not even realizing that there was an enemy, and still retaining, even under such circumstances, the dignity expected of British officers on all occasions, answered: "In whose name?" And Allen, the leader of the Vermont army, replied: "In the name of Jehovah and the Continental Congress!" The commander of the fort had no alternative but to surrender, and the American revolutionists now had a military outpost in the province of New York. Although the Continental Congress did not recognize Vermont, which had actually taken Ticonderoga, still Ticonderoga was not within Vermont's territorial claims, and the Continental Congress was therefore nominally the party to which surrender was made.
This capture of an outpost in the province of New York encouraged people in the upper portion of the province to express sympathy for the rebels. Even in the city of New York itself, far from this scene, and generally hostile to the revolutionaries, and all their works, a small group of minute-men were recruited who, realizing that the city was not safe for them, marched up the river to the protection of the Yankee conquerors of Ticonderoga, although not until one old Dutchman, with some show of bravado, appeared at the gate of the Battery fort in New York City loudly but uselessly demanding that they surrender their ammunition, and that they should send nothing to the aid of the besieged in Boston.
Ticonderoga was in Iroquois territory, and, while the Iroquois Federation managed to overlook the occupation of a fort on their ground by their supposed allies, it was different when that same fort was in rebel hands. The English settlers in the Mohawk Valley had been trying, like the southerners, to push into the interior and invade the Iroquois domain, but the British authorities were restraining them. Now, however, there was a tendency similar to that in the South, and rebellious demonstrations took place for the right of the settlers to establish their homes on Iroquois land. Thus a small revolutionary center grew up around Ticonderoga, whose main object was to attack the Iroquois.
The Iroquois Federation, then one of the greatest powers in America, held a council over the emergency issue, and finally decided that they were bound by the alliance to Great Britain that they had signed in 1634. All the Iroquois nations, except the Oneidas, declared war against the insurgents in order to support an ally that no longer recognized the alliance―but also for self-protection, which was a much more important issue to them.
123. The Mecklenburg Declarations. It was well into May before word of the Lexington-Concord events reached the South; and the information that reached them was not of the battles and pursuit that actually took place, but the version that the Massachusetts civil disobedience regime was spreading―that the British militia holding the dictatorship over Massachusetts had deliberately gone into Middlesex, and fired on groups of peaceful citizens in the streets of Lexington and Concord. This account of affairs had made no impression in New York, where such incidents had been common and had been taken for granted; and was received even with some indifference in Philadelphia, where some peaceful settlement of the difficulty was hoped for; but in the South, where resentment against British authority was being stirred up for quite different and opposite reasons, such news was well calculated to arouse further agitation.
In Virginia the liberals raised storms of protest about liberty; but in North Carolina, in the interior, where the so-called Regulators were having their own clashes with the regular administration, the reports provoked more action.
On Saturday, May 20, 1775, the secret associations backing the "Regulators" in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina made up their reply to the supposed outrages of Lexington and Concord, in a document that stated that they could owe no further allegiance to a government and a king that could do such deeds; and, with a great preamble about liberty and individual rights such as had been discussed throughout America for some time, they proceeded to declare themselves absolved from all allegiance to the Crown of Great Britain.
This document, known as the "Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence," was a secret paper, passed around among the underground rebel societies, but was never publicly issued, and did not, in fact, become publicly known until some thirty years later. Its authenticity has accordingly been questioned; but the fact that, for instance, the "peaceful-citizen" version of Lexington and Concord warfare appears there instead of the battle news as disclosed later, indicates that the document dates from the period immediately following the Middlesex outburst. The fact that the document was not published at the time is, of course, no real evidence against its authenticity, as a secret group could hardly be expected at the time to publish a statement of that nature.
After the "undercover" organizations had resolved that they no longer owed allegiance to Great Britain, a public announcement was made on Wednesday, May 31, stating that a certain speech in the British Parliament had stated that the colonial governments were null and void (which had indeed been much the British attitude all along); in consequence of which measures were being taken to establish a new administration machinery in Mecklenburg County.
The Mecklenburg Declarations were not the first attempts in the British colonies in America to separate from British rule, since Vermont had been enjoying a de facto independence for seventeen years. The Massachusetts civil disobedience campaign actually created a regime independent of British authority, while the interior colonies of Vandalia, Transylvania, and Watauga were operating in actual defiance of England. But the Mecklenburg Declaration may be considered as the beginning of an attempt to put the defiance into words, though Mecklenburg did not show the resistance to authority that was to be found in Middlesex or Vermont.
124. Revolt in Maine. The legislatures of the other New England colonies, fearing the same sort of extinction as had been delivered to that of Massachusetts Bay, sent over men to aid in the siege of Boston, although showing no resistance to constituted authority at home. This there grew around Boston an increasing insurgent besieging force, representing now not merely Massachusetts but the whole of New England. It was mainly concentrated in Cambridge, Brookline, and Roxbury. Unlike a standard European army, it was not held together by strict obedience to one man, but was a voluntary association of men bound together by a common cause. The general in actual charge of the volunteers was named Artemus Ward, who was rather an elected tactical advisor than an official who could enforce obedience from every individual. In other words, this army was under a democracy instead of a dictatorship.
This, and the "civil disobedience" outposts throughout the interior of Massachusetts, kept Massachusetts proper clear of control by the recognized authorities; but Maine, being a non-contiguous section of the same province, and therefore under the same military rule, was not covered by this administrative procedure. It remained for Maine to have its Lexington and Concord.
The military government in Maine centered around a was vessel called the Margaretta, stationed in Penobscot Bay, from which the British militia made raids on revolutionary centers throughout Maine. They had already burned down the town of Falmouth (now Portland) as a supposed rebel nucleus; but, on the whole, this ship was not successful in stopping town meetings in Maine―even the royalists had to pretend some form of rebel sympathy in order to obtain permission from the town meetings to take any action.
Finally the minute-men of East Machias, a town on the shore of Penobscot Bay, determined to rid the community of the ship Margaretta which represented the British regime in Maine. A surprise attack was carried out on Friday, June 16, 1775, and the Margaretta was actually boarded by East Machias minute-men before the crew were able to do anything by way of resistance. The British ship fled, closely pursued by two row-boats loaded with Maine minute-men; the Margaretta was finally captured, and the red pine-tree flag was run up in place of the British flag which the insurgents had taken down. This incident ended British rule on the coast of Maine, although the revolutionary divisions in Maine continued to have skirmishes with British troops coming from Canada.
125. The Continental Congress of 1775. Early in May, 1775, soon after the Middlesex raid, the second Continental Congress met at Philadelphia. For the first time the recalcitrant province of Massachusetts was represented there, and the presence of the supposed revolutionaries in a body which considered its purpose to be one of conciliation was a problem, although the Massachusetts delegates were by no means the rebels they were supposed to be. The Massachusetts delegates were met at Frankford, a few miles outside Philadelphia, by a small reception committee from among the other delegates to the Congress, who warned them that, while talk of revolution and independence might be all right in Massachusetts, it would not be tolerated in Philadelphia; that the northern rebels and their supposed leaders were regarded in Philadelphia as malcontents, and that they must govern their speech accordingly. It became obvious that the Massachusetts delegates would be faced with the problem of forcing the rest of the Continental Congress into a position of supporting the Massachusetts rebellion, while not letting them know that such manueuvres were being conducted.
The Congress had originally been planned for Monday, the first of May, which, as we have already seen, had long been used by the Okamakammessets as a day of remembrance of white tyranny (being the anniversary of the declaration of the Pequot War in 1637), and which had recently been adopted as a grand day of observance by the parallel secret society initiated by the Lenapes, the Sons of Tammany (or Sons of Tamenund), among the colonists of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. This association, which had charge of most of the rebel sympathy work in these colonies, made Tamenund, the founder of the Lenape federation, its patron saint, had made May 1 as his saint's day. But, due to the delays of travelling in those days, especially with war conditions springing up in so many places, it was not until Friday, May 5 that a meeting was actually held.
The first resolution passed by the new Congress was one urging all Americans to remain loyal to the British crown. Then the problem came up of the Congress's attitude towards the uprising going on in Massachusetts, especially as regarded the events around Boston, where a group of insurgents were actually attacking a part of the British army. It was hard either to approve or condemn in this case; upholding the right of such rebel action would mean trouble with the government, not to mention that public opinion in most of the colonies was not ready for such opposition to authority; while condemning the revolutionary activities would equally lose the Continental Congress the backing of the New England colonies, and possibly even some Southern support, leaving only the middle colonies, which had been the least active in the matter of complaints against British interference.
It therefore seemed as though there was no way to turn, in the way of taking any definite stand on the question; yet it was too urgent an issue to ignore. To come out against the besiegers of Boston and their allies in Ticonderoga might lose Yankee aid; while indorsement of those rebel activities, which went far beyond the purposes of the Continental Congress, would possibly be displeasing to Southern delegates, and almost certainly to New York delegates.
Samuel Adams, one of the Massachusetts delegates, one of the fugitives from Boston who had escaped under the nose of the British army during the fight at Lexington, was, as might have been expected, in favor of the Congress's approving the minute-men's siege of Boston; he went even further, and proposed that the Congress itself take charge of military operations. This suggestion was partly due to his lack of complete sympathy with the purposes of the minute-men; since Adams himself belonged to the group interested in smuggling, and was therefore concerned mainly with the taxation problem. His proposition was that the Congress take over the combined troops of the various New England colonies operating around Boston, and erect them into a Continental Army, under a commander-in-chief to be appointed by the Congress; and, presumably to placate the South, though actually to force the South into participation as rebels, he further suggested that a Southern commander should be appointed. This proposal to a great extent overcame opposition from the South, and it was a case of North and South together against a divided sentiment among the delegates from the middle colonies. It was accordingly so agreed finally by the Continental Congress, and, on Friday, June 16, George Washington of Virginia was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and sent to Cambridge to take charge.
126. The Attack on Charlestown. The besiegers of Boston, during the spring of 1775, used the time to concentrate their positions in Cambridge, Brookline, and Roxbury, while the besieged British troops in Boston simply waited. The "waiting game" in the besieged city was tedious. All normal activities had suspended in the city almost immediately as soon as the siege began. The Boston Latin School, which had been involved in its rather unusual protest activities the previous winter, closed down on the nineteenth of April, immediately upon the return of the militia to Boston; and it was not long before all other activities of the city likewise ceased, especially since shipping as well as interior communication was at a standstill. There was nothing to do but wait. The soldiers took several steps to show their contempt for the population of Boston, especially for the places that had been used as revolutionary gathering-places. The Old South Church was converted into a riding school for the troops, and tons of earth were brought into the building to make it a better stable for the horses; while the records kept in the building, including the original records of the Plymouth Colony, were looted by the troops. Especially in view of the fact that theaters were much disapproved of by the people of Massachusetts, the militia in control of Boston during the siege converted Faneuil Hall into a theater, where the soldiers and officers themselves acted various dramatic pieces, both those composed in England and some impromptu pieces. The people, being equally idle and finding time heavy on their hands, made up various kinds of amusement, composing new variations when the old ones became too boring; thus a new type of dance, and a new card-game, both named Boston, originated during this period of inactivity.
This "waiting game," of course, helped to break down the morale of British troops in the besieged city. Occasionally, it is true, a cannon was fired from Cambridge at the Somerset or any ships that appeared in the Charles River; but such shots could hardly reach Boston. Thus, while the insurgents were solidifying their position surrounding Boston, the British were simply watching for signs of some new activity; their experience at Lexington and Concord was a warning against another attempt to invade Middlesex directly, while the trenches at Boston Neck (now the South End) effectively kept them from leaving Boston by land. Watching and map-making seemed to be practically all that the surrounded troops could do; and the British army besieged in Boston certainly did make some very good maps of the city and its environs.
In the rebel camp, which had its headquarters in Cambridge, on the contrary, everything was activity. The Middlesex farmers, after driving out the Tory (royalist) owners of large estates, and thus obtaining more land through the activities of the minute-men and their allies from neighboring colonies, were glad enough to trade with the rebel camp, which, indeed, contained many of their own people. New contingents kept arriving from various parts of New England. The Provincial Congress, in nominal charge of the civil disobedience, moved from Concord to Watertown so as to be in closer contact with Cambridge, the revolutionary military headquarters. Cambridge became, for the time being, the actual rebel headquarters of America. Since it was desired to keep Harvard College going, and of course the belligerents wanted it as a means of training the youth of America to stand on the insurrectionist side, it was decided, for its protection, to remove it from the scene of military operations by moving the college temporarily to Concord, where it remained until the siege was over.
As the centennial of the declaration of Metacom's war against the Pilgrims, Saturday, June 17, 1775 was approaching, it was natural for a volunteer body under the influence of such a secret association as the Okamakammessets to choose that date as the time for the attack. It was planned to make the assault on Boston by the same route as the Puritans in 1630 made their charge on Boston's predecessor, the red town of Shawmut; consequently it was planned to occupy the Mishawum peninsula, which the British called Charlestown, preparatory to an advance on Boston itself.
Accordingly, early in the morning of the 17th, an expedition of minute-men set out from Cambridge for Charlestown. They planned to take possession of the isthmus known as Charlestown Neck, connecting Charlestown with the mainland of Middlesex, and then to occupy the northern one of Charlestown's twin hills, known as Bunker Hill. This elevation was not one which actually commanded the city of Boston at all, since another hill, Breed's Hill, lay between Bunker Hill and the Charles River which separated the Charlestown peninsula from Boston. Occupying Bunker Hill would, however, give the minute-men the advantage of a position close to Boston, and invisible to the authorities in the city; if they had a chance to strengthen that position, and with that support, they could advance on Breed's Hill, and be in a position to fire directly at Boston.
However, the tactics were not carried through as planned by those in charge of the civil disobedience campaign. The minute-men, arriving at Bunker Hill, became impatient at the idea of waiting there, where they were no nearer entering Boston than they were in Cambridge. And so, on their own initiative, they marched to Breed's Hill, where they dug themselves in―much closer to Boston, but under the watch of the British militia under siege in Boston. In the course of this advance, they also left Charlestown Neck unprotected against a possible landing party from the Charles or Mystic Rivers, so that a British force could possibly have landed behind the rebels and have cut them off completely. This strategy, however, was not attempted by the British, to whom the entire move was much of a surprise, and who did not know that the Neck was not as much intrenched as was Breed's Hill.
The British militia immediately dispatched forces to Charlestown, and, for no apparent reason whatever, set fire to the town of Charlestown, driving back into the flames all the inhabitants who tried to escape. This action, which was quite plainly visible from Boston, added to the resentment of the population within the British lines.
The final result of the skirmish at the top of Breed's Hill was successful for the British administration militia―at least insofar as reaching the hill and driving the minute-men back may constitute victory. The minute-men, by advancing too far, had cut themselves off from their base, and, after two successful charges against the army, were finally forced to retreat for lack of ammunition. The Charlestown peninsula was now brought within the British lines, but at a cost of about a third of the British garrison in Boston. The minute-men, however, were able to establish a post close to Charlestown Neck, on Prospect Hill, in the region that is now the city of Somerville; and, in this way, even the defeat on Breed's Hill actually resulted in the minute-men's advancing their lines.
This was the only occasion between the beginning and the end of the siege of Boston that the besieged "ministerial forces," as the rebels called them, attempted a sortie from the city. The resulting victory had been too costly to encourage any repetition of the attempt, and the British army began to feel more respect for their besiegers. As General Gage commented, two more such victories and there would be no army left. The red pine-tree banner of the Penacooks was making itself strongly felt even in defeat, and the centennial of the declaration of Metacom's War was well observed.
It would seem that Dr. Joseph Warren, who had been caught in Boston during the siege, had managed to edge through the lines and participate in the hostilities at Charlestown, where he was killed.
This conflict was quite properly called by the British troops the Battle of Charlestown; but, for some reason or other, the Americans have given the combat the name of Bunker Hill, which is not where the fighting took place, but where the minute-men had planned to post themselves and had failed. The name has clung to such an extent that at the present time the monument on Breed's Hill commemorating the site of the battle, is also called the Bunker Hill Monument. The anniversary of the fray, June 17, which is also the anniversary of Metacom's War, is regularly celebrated in and near Boston.
127. Washington Takes Command. In the meantime George Washington, the Virginian, was on his way to Cambridge to take command of the revolutionary military activities. He had already, as we have seen, been nominated for this post by the Continental Congress, and it was necessary for the minute-men to put military operations in his charge if any outside aid was to be expected.
On Monday, July 3, 1775, Washington reached Cambridge, and, since the minute-men and their allies from the other New England colonies staged a review on the Cambridge Common, Washington, standing under an old elm tree just outside the Common, took command of this military force, thereby placing it under control of the Continental Congress and constituting it as the Continental Army.
This placing of a volunteer army of Massachusetts workers and farmers under the discipline of a Southerner brought to an end the initial, or civil disobedience, stage of the American Revolution, and gave it more the character of a national war between America and England. Washington himself, though, still remained unwilling to acknowledge that he was fighting England, or, indeed, anyone except certain officers in Boston; he still clung to his declaration "I love my king."
The minute-men had been a volunteer group, merely acting in cooperation under guidance of secret associations, voluntarily, and without enforced discipline; this, of course, was extremely distasteful to the commander-in-chief, to whom the monarchical discipline was an important item. As a result, many who had volunteered as minute-men now rapidly deserted, while Artemas Ward, who had been in command of the besieging troops until Washington's arrival, and to whom Washington had given a commission as major, found it impossible to get along with Washington, hence resigned and went home. The volunteer spirit which had started the Middlesex uprising was now being speedily crushed by Washington.
Even the red pine-tree flag which had just made such a showing in Charlestown was tabooed by Washington as too radical to be the standard of the true aristocracy of the South which he represented. For the red field of the Penacook pine-tree emblem, Washington substituted the red and white stripes of the coat of arms of the Washington family, the only concession to the Continental Congress which had appointed Washington to the command being that the stripes were made thirteen in number, for the thirteen colonies represented in the Congress. The pine tree in the corner of the minute-men's banner, to which they looked up as their emblem of liberty, was thrown out altogether by Washington, who substituted a British Union Jack to attest to his unswerving loyalty to the king. The result was a British flag, altered only by the introduction of a stripe design, which the British officers in Boston called "the rebel stripes."
Nevertheless, in spite of the changed atmosphere, the individual minute-men, now transformed into soldiers of the Continental Army, were still, in their own estimation, fighting for individual and colonial freedom, and pamphlets on the subject of liberty or equality or individual rights found circulation among them. Many were even optimistic enough to hope that a reorganization of the army under Washington would, in the long run, help the cause of individual freedom. It became a tradition around Cambridge that the elm tree under which Washington took command would last as long as America stood for liberty and kept out of connections with England. (Strangely enough, it was in 1917, when America entered the World War on the same side as England, and when wholesale repressions of civil rights were started, that the tree finally died.)
128. Attack on Canada. At this time, although all the colonies from Maine to Georgia were represented in the Continental Congress which was lending support to the besiegers of Boston, and although all their legislatures had broken with the British administration, there were few parts of America in open rebellion, including mainly Massachusetts proper, Vermont, a small region around Ticonderoga in New York Province, and the Penobscot Bay region of Maine. In addition, there was an incipient state of uprising in the interior of North Carolina, and, beyond the Appalachian Mountain range, were the outlawed colonies of Transylvania, Vandalia, and Watauga, not exactly in insurrection, but settling where they were in direct disobedience of orders. England had as yet made little attempt to send over troops to the South or to the middle colonies, except for a concentration of troops on Staten Island, at the entrance to the harbor of New York, where military rule was the normal rather than the abnormal state. In New England, the British troops were almost entirely surrounded in Boston, and their only communication was by sea. But the grand headquarters of the British forces in America was in the walled and fortified city of Quebec, recently conquered from France. This fortress was a standing threat to the revolutionary outposts in Maine and Vermont, which were within fairly easy striking distance of Quebec. Accordingly a party started out from the rebel center at Penobscot Bay across the Maine woods to Quebec, to attack the militarists in their own headquarters. Meanwhile, Montgomery's band, the insurrectionist sympathizers from New York which had fled for safety to Ticonderoga, seeing in a Canadian journey a chance to get a bit farther from New York, marched northward across the Adirondacks, through hostile Iroquois country, into Canada, and captured St. Johns and then Montreal, neither of which showed much resistance. Using Montreal as a base, Montgomery's New York troops proceeded down the St. Lawrence River to join the Maine expedition against Quebec.
The French population of Canada was very much divided in their attitude toward the invaders. While small armies of French "patriots" organized behind the American rebel lines in Canada, to free their Canada from the British conqueror, there were more among the French Canadians who were afraid that the hated "Bastonnais" might take away their land, and who thus rallied to the support of England. The insurgent "patriots" became known to the bulk of French Canadians as "Bastonnais." Even leaders of the revolutionary movement among the French Canadians were derisively styled by their opponents "Baston;" but the rebels, noting that "Baston" was also a common alternative spelling for the French word "bâton" (stick), made use of the title themselves. It was in the main largely the influence of the Catholic Church which kept the French Canadians loyal to England; the church took that side because England granted it almost complete control of the Province of Quebec.
The small "patriot" bands were naturally a help to the advance of both the New York and Maine armies in Canada, and the two finally joined and surrounded Quebec for a long siege, which went on almost parallel to the siege of Boston. In the case of Boston, however, the population both inside and outside the city was almost overwhelmingly favorable to the insurrectionists, while in the case of Quebec, in spite of the numerous patriot squadrons conducting guerrilla warfare outside the city, and the equally numerous attempts in the besieged city to stir up uprisings by secret handbills signed "Baston," the American revolutionaries found hostility from both the besieged city, and from within their own lines―especially from the "grand seigneurs" or Quebec feudal lords, who were afraid the Yankees had come to take their land away, and who made it hard for the besieging rebel forces to obtain supplies. An attempt of the British garrison to sally out of Quebec on New Year's Eve was repulsed, but finally, in May, after the siege had gone on for ten months, the American rebels, faced with the increasing difficulty of getting supplies in a country so largely hostile to them, finally retreated, and lost all Canadian territory they had gained. The French Canadian "patriot" troops, however, kept up this guerrilla warfare through the rest of the war for independence, and literature concerning the Bastonnai's doctrines of "liberté" and "égalité" and "droits de l'homme" had a chance to circulate among the French in Canada. But Canada itself was now definitely lost to the insurgents.
129. Evacuation of Boston. After the failure to enter Boston by way of Charlestown, from the north, the minute-men had planned to attempt effecting an entry into the besieged city from the opposite direction, from the south side. On this side of Boston was the peninsula then known as Dorchester Neck, at present called South Boston, on which was a hill (then called Nook's Hill, or Dorchester Heights, but now known as Telegraph Hill) which overlooked Boston; not quite as close to the city as Breed's Hill, but having the added advantage of commanding the harbor as well as the town, so that, with Dorchester Heights fortified, the British military force would be cut off from sea as well as land communication.
Accordingly plans were being made in the early summer of 1775 to take up a position on Dorchester Heights, when an interruption took place in the form of George Washington's taking command of the besiegers. Washington thought the volunteers were too "undisciplined," requiring military drilling. It was also true that the minute-men were short in ammunition, though that was soon remedied; sympathizers in the mid-Atlantic island of Bermuda managed to capture the British naval supply of munitions on that island, and smuggled it to the Continental Army in Massachusetts.
Still Washington refused to act, but insisted on putting the "Continentals" through useless drills for months, to break them into that same against which they were rebelling. All through the autumn and winter this went on, while the Boston garrison still had sea communication, and was able to obtain reinforcements from England by that route. The ineffective General Gage, in command of the British forces in Boston, was replaced by Lord Howe, while among the insurrectionists surrounding the city Washington spent most of his time holding in a condition of inactivity an army with a definite plan of action and anxious to act.
Finally, on Monday, March 4, 1776, after this state of inertia had lasted about eight months, Washington consented to take action on the Dorchester Heights suggestion. Under cover of night, quantities of guns and ammunition were transported to Dorchester Heights, while at the same time trenches were dug and bulwarks erected. Enough men were employed to enable the work to be completed in a single night, so that by morning, Lord Howe's forces in Boston were surprised to find Dorchester Heights, which had been vacant the night before, completely fortified and apparently ready to attack not only Boston but the ships in the harbor. This loss meant destroying the only outside line of communication the British had, and Lord Howe immediately opened negotiations for an evacuation of Boston. Washington granted this request, and the British troops in Boston began preparations to depart. Several thousand Tories likewise made arrangements to leave Boston together with Howe's army, realizing that feeling ran high in the city, and being afraid of what might happen if left without royal protection.
In the meantime, the people of Boston were given reason to fear some final act of revenge from Howe, such as a burning of the town on evacuation. The selectmen of Boston obtained assurances from Howe that arson would not be attempted, and sent Howe's letter on the subject to Washington, asking for similar assurances from him. Washington, who was more meticulous about addressing and titles than the British general, and who looked down on New England's democratic institutions, replied that he could pay no attention to Howe's communication, because it was "addressed to nobody"! That was evidently Washington's opinion of the representatives of the citizens of Boston―they were to him, "nobody."
Although the English made no attempt to burn the town, a New York regiment in Howe's army went through the city with axes, breaking open houses, looting whatever they could find of value, and destroying much else. By March 13, the harbor waters were full of destroyed furniture from Boston homes and shops. The records of the Plymouth Colony, which had been kept in the Old South Church, turned up in England as late as 1910, in the hands of an Englishman who knew nothing as to how it came into his possession, except that it had been in the family for some time.
On the 16th, and the morning of the 17th, everything being ready for the evacuation, Howe attempted a last-minute attack on the Dorchester Heights trenches, but with no result. Finally, on Sunday, March 17, 1776, Howe, and his entire army, and eleven hundred Tories who were afraid to remain in Boston, left the city and set sail for Halifax, although a British fleet remained for several months outside Boston Harbor, off Nantasket. Within a few hours after the British evacuated Boston, the Roxbury minute-men marched into Boston and took possession of Boston and Charlestown. Massachusetts, with the exception of parts of Maine and some outlying islands, was now definitely in revolutionary control, and could turn its attention to aiding the rebellion in the other colonies.