Evacuation Day: The End of the Siege of Boston

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.

General William Howe

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.”

Image from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
General Artemas Ward

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.”

Lithograph: Boston From Dorchester Heights


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. 2013Penguin 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

My historical fantasy novel Angels & Patriots Book One is available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle eBook. Angels & Patriots Book One

Dr. Joseph Warren’s 1775 Boston Massacre Oration

“Our country is in danger but not to be despaired of. Our enemies are numerous and powerful – but we have many friends. Determine to be free and Heaven and earth will aid the resolution. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”  ~~ Dr. Joseph Warren

March 5, the fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre fell on a Sunday. Therefore, the patriots observed the annual commemoration of the tragic clash that took place between British soldiers and town’s residents on Monday, March 6.

Unlike previous occasions of the event, British troops were abundant in Boston (most had been removed to Castle William after the massacre). Almost everyone, including British General Thomas Gage, expected trouble. The regulars were going to resent an oration whose purpose was, in the words of Samuel Adams, “to commemorate a massacre perpetuated by soldiers and to show the danger of standing armies.” Now, months of hostility on both sides propagated rumors that the British would arrest or assassinate the orator.

Joseph Warren had delivered the oration in 1772. He was asked to speak again. If there was trouble, Samuel Adams wanted someone of Joseph’s experience and resolve in the pulpit. This could well be the last time Gage would allow Patriots to freely assemble in Boston. If Gage was authorized to arrest patriot leaders, it may have been prudent for those leaders to leave town.

Joseph was not to be intimidated into silence. He focused his skills to provide an eloquent exposition of the Patriotic cause and an impressive theatrical performance.

A crowd of 5000 gathered at the Old South Meeting House; some were British officers. Samuel Adams invited them to sit in the pews directly in front of the pulpit so they “might have no pretense to behave ill.” This put the soldiers uncomfortably close to the many leading patriots in attendance. The officers were not only sitting in the pews, some, it is said, may have been seated on the steps leading up to the pulpit.

Around eleven o’clock in the morning, Joseph arrived in a carriage and proceeded to change into a toga in the shop across the street before entering Old South Meeting House. A toga was worn by a citizen of Rome and distinguished him from a soldier or a slave. At Harvard, Joseph had performed the play Cato with his classmates. This was Joseph realizing Cato in his own way in the present: the citizen unintimidated by Caesar’s tyrannical threats, declaiming to an honorable citizenry on behalf of liberty and a representative government.

The pulpit of Old South Meeting House today.

Since the meetinghouse was jammed with people, Joseph was taken around to the back of the building, where he climbed a ladder to access the pulpit through the rear window. It was dramatic entrance that intensified the already surging emotions of the moment. For those who did not share his point of view, his “Demosthenian posture”, with a white handkerchief in his right hand, and his left hand in his breeches, was downright juvenile. Joseph began to speak in the high pitched nasal delivery of New England ministers. One loyalist commented on his “true puritanical whine.”

Joseph opened with a statement of natural rights. He went on to contend:

“And no man or body of man, can without being guilty of flagrant injustice, claim a right to dispose of the person or acquisitions of any other man, or body of men, unless it can be proved that such a right has arisen from some compact between the parties in which it has been explicitly and freely granted.”  

Joseph’s biographer, Dr. Samuel Forman, translated and summarized passages from his speech. These are a few culminations of Joseph’s beliefs and observations:

He warned that tyrants did not hesitate to distort religious beliefs.

Britain became interested in the colony [Massachusetts] and came to a mutually beneficial relationship, only after the settlers had done all the hard work to establish it.

He focused the discourse on the responsibility of the individual to do their part for the maintenance of liberty.

He projected the view, uniting Patriots with British Whigs that the fate of liberty in America was crucial to liberty in Great Britain. He spoke to the present while being mindful of providing the foundation for a solid future.  

There are two varying versions of what happened during his oration. A British officer displayed a handful of musket balls in a threatening manner. Joseph, who was steps higher on the podium, answered by dropping his white handkerchief that literally covered the officer’s gesture. A second story related by Thomas Hutchinson, speaks of a botched assassination attempt, that, if Dr. Warren said anything against the King, etc., an officer was to throw an egg in his face as a signal to draw swords and massacre John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and hundreds more.

At this point, Joseph launched into a passage he had written at the last minute, in which he insisted “an independence of Great Britain is not our aim” but went on to caution that if measures to do so “are ineffectual and it appears that the only way to safety is through fields of blood, I know you will not turn your faces from your foes”. 

When Joseph spoke of the events of March 5, 1770, instead of dwelling on the brutality of the soldiers, he focused on the agony and despair of the families who had lost loved ones that night. His father died in 1755, after falling from a ladder while working in the Warren family orchard. The tragic accident was witnessed by his youngest brother, John, who was only two years old at the time. Joseph may have been drawing upon his own traumatic memories when he spoke of of widow and her children witnessing the death of a husband and parent.

“Come widowed mourner, here satiate they grief; behold the murdered husband gasping on the ground, and to complete the pompous show of wretchedness, bring in each hand thy infant children to bewail their father’s fate. Take heed, ye orphan babes, lest, whilst your streaming eyes are fixed upon the ghastly corpse, your feet glide on the stones bespattered with your father’s brain.” 

The British responded to Joseph’s Boston Massacre Oration with ridicule. On March 15, 1775, British officers and Loyalists gathered on King Street and then proceeded to the nearby British Coffee House where they conducted a mock town meeting. The orator, loyalist physician Thomas Bolton, began to read a satirical lampoon of Joseph’s oration.

When Joseph began his speech on March 6, he had humbly insisted that his own words could not match those of previous orators such as James Lovell, Dr. Benjamin Church, and John Hancock. The contemptuous discourse that derided Joseph’s humility, accused him of poisoning street thug and fellow Son of Liberty William Molineux, and scoffed at his association with the atheist Dr. Thomas Young, among other things, may have been written by the traitorous Benjamin Church himself. It was character assassination.

Bolton read “I cannot boast the ignorance of Hancock, the insolence of Adams, the absurdity of Rowe, the arrogance of Lee, the vicious life and untimely death of Molineux, the turgid bombast of Warren, the treason of Quincy, the hypocrisy of Cooper, nor the principals of Young.”

The Rivington Tory press in New York printed Bolton’s speech. It was ignored by Patriots at that time and did not advance the cause of Loyalism.

Read Joseph Warren’s full speech at http://www.drjosephwarren.com/2015/03/1775-boston-massacre-oration-manuscript-transcription-in-full-text/


Forman, Samuel A.  Dr. Joseph Warren, The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty. 2012:  Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, Louisiana.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill A City, A Siege, A Revolution. 2013Penguin Books, New York, NY.


Dr. Joseph Warren is an important character in my historical fantasy novel Angels & Patriots Book One. Available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One