On March 5, 1776, as the sun rose over Boston, the British were shocked to see two American redoubts atop the hills of Dorchester—one facing east toward Castle Island and the other facing north toward Boston, with two smaller works on their flanks and heavy artillery staring down on the town.
British General William Howe was said to have exclaimed, “My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months!”
Howe had been confident that the rebels would never make a move on Boston, and had promised to sally forth if they did so. As a matter of pride, he would have to attack as he vowed. His council of war believed an attack would be a terrible mistake. Despite their objections, Howe ordered 3000 troops to embark down the harbor to Castle Island from where an assault on the Heights would be launched at nightfall.
Among General Howe’s council, Captain Archibald Robertson, Captain John Montresor, and Lord Hugh Percy contended that they “ought to immediately embark” Boston all together. By nightfall, a storm that some judged to be a hurricane, raged. Howe was glad to accept this interruption as an excuse for not undertaking an attack that would have cost the lives of many of his regulars. The following morning, he called back the detachment and informed his war council of his intentions of evacuating Boston and going to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
After Howe made his announcement ordering the army and fleet to prepare to evacuate, Boston became a scene of utmost frenzy. Howe had received no orders or word of any kind from the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Germain, since October. He had no long-standing plan for a withdrawal of such magnitude, or any comparable past experience to draw upon.
It was not just the thousands of troops and military stores to transport. Howe intended to take every loyalist who chose to go. The necessary care of women and children, and the sick and wounded required every assistance that could be given. There were a sufficient number of ships at hand, but these all needed sailors and had to be supplied with provisions and water; which were scarce.
High winds continued to blow and churn the waters of Boston Harbor. The rebel guns (Henry Knox captured from Fort Ticonderoga) remained silent while they strengthened their position on Dorchester Heights.
On March 8, American selectman Deacon Timothy Newell and other intermediaries crossed through the lines at Boston Neck carrying a white flag, and delivered a message informing Washington that the city would not be burned to the ground if the British were allowed to leave unmolested.
The alarm and anxiety among the loyalists was extreme. “The Tories…carried death in their faces…some run distracted.” They had no idea where they were heading, nor did they know if there was room for all who wanted to go. Most of them had never lived anywhere else. They were disillusioned and disoriented. They saw themselves as the true American patriots; loyal to their King and to the rule of law. Britain had failed to protect them from what, in their opinion, had become mob rule.
These fourth and fifth generation Americans began boarding ships on March 10. Accommodations on the overcrowded ships were wretched. There were no berths in which to sleep. Families, some as large as seventeen members, were forced to sleep on the crowded floor like “pigs“. There was little food and water. All wondered, what miseries lay at sea?
In the next days, the ships began falling down the harbor with the tide as far as the Nantasket Roads, below Castle Island, to anchor out of range of the rebel cannon and to provide space for other vessels to tie up at the wharves. There the exiles sat on the rocking waves, day after day. Not until Sunday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, did the wind turn fair and favorable.
British Captain Archibald Robertson exuberated in his journal: “It was the finest day in the world.”
Led by General Artemas Ward, on horseback, the Americans entered the town with drums beating and flags flying. By all rights, it should have been Washington leading the troops, but in a gracious gesture he gave the honor to Ward, his predecessor as commander of the Provincial Army.
American General William Heath wrote in his memoirs:
“In the morning [of the 17th] the British evacuated Boston; their rear guard with some marks of precipitation. A number of cannon were left spiked, and two large marine mortars, which they in vain attempted to burst. The garrison at Bunker’s Hill practised some deception to cover their retreat. They fixed some images, representing men, in the places of their centinels, with muskets placed on their shoulders, &c. Their immovable position led to the discovery of the deception, and a detachment of the Americans marched in and took possession.
The troops on the Roxbury side, moved over the Neck and took possession of Boston; as did others from Cambridge, in boats. On the Americans entering the town, the inhabitants discovered joy inexpressible. The town had been much injured in its buildings, and some individuals had been plundered. Some British stores were left. The British army went on board their transports below the Castle. A number of American adherents to them, and the British cause, went away with the army.”
More than twenty-five British brigs, schooners, sloops, and ships had been abandoned, some loaded with stores and all of them scuttled. The dragoons had left horses in the stables along with tons of hay. Broken carriages and chaises littered Long Wharf.
After entering Boston, Dr. John Warren, General Joseph Warren’s youngest brother noted:
“The houses, I found to be considerably abused inside, where they had been inhabited by the common soldiery but the external parts of the houses made a tolerable appearance. the streets were clean. . .The inhabitants, in general, appeared to rejoice at our success, but a considerable number of Tories have tarried in the town to throw themselves on the mercy of the people.”
But William Howe had no intention of leaving Boston without a parting demonstration. His fleet came to anchor at King’s Road, and with the arrival of his flagship, Chatham, every warship fired a roaring 21-gun salute. The full guns of Chatham answered in kind—a reminder of King George III’s royal might.
On March 19, the last of the British might in Boston Harbor blew up Castle William and burnt some of the barracks. There was a lazy attempt to cannonade Dorchester Neck. Then, on March 27, they headed for open sea.
George Washington was convinced that their destination was New York. Howe’s fleet disappeared over the horizon, bound not for New York, but Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The siege, which had begun on April 19, 1775, had been a success, and George Washington’s performance had been exceptional. He had indeed bested Howe and his regulars, despite the Continental Army’s insufficient arms, ammunition, shelter, illness, inexperience, lack of discipline, clothing and funds.
By purging itself of loyalists, Boston had reaffirmed its origins and was, once again, its own “city on a hill.”
Flexner, James Thomas. Washington The Indispensable Man. 1974: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY.
Memoirs of Major-General Heath. Containing Anecdotes, Details of Skirmishes, Battles, and other Military Events, During The American War. Written Br Himself. publithtrt accorying to 3ft of Congrefa. Printed at Boston, Bt I. THOMAS and E. T. ANDREWS, Faust’s Statue, No. 45, Newburt-Street. Sold by them; by I. Thomas, Worcefter; by Thomas, Andrew! Is” Pen- himam, Albany j by Thomas, Andrews (9* Butler, Baltimore; and by the Bookfellers throughout the Continent. MUG. I798.
McCullough, David. 1776. 2005: Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill A City, A Siege, A Revolution. 2013: Penguin Books, New York, NY.
Warren, M.D., Edward. The Life of John Warren, M.D. Surgeon-General During The War Of The Revolution; First Professor Of Anatomy And Surgery In Harvard College; President of the Massachusetts Medical Society, Etc. 1874: Noyles, Holmes, and Company, Boston
Lithograph. Title: Boston from Dorchester Heights Creator/Contributor: Coke, E. T. (Edward Thomas), 1807-1888 (artist) Date created: 1830 – 1839 (approximate) Provenance: Statement of responsibility: Drawn on stone by Punser from a sketch by E. T. Coke Location: Boston Public Library, Print Department