The Long Stressful July of 1777

By the summer of 1777, the Revolutionary War had inflicted stress on the colonists, the Continental Army, the British, and the governmental bodies of America, Canada, and Britain.  Lack of everything on both sides of the conflict—food, fodder, clothing, money, troops, horses, confidence, faith, and loyalty—ground the souls of the most hearty and steadfast down. Governments were self-serving and citizens were fickle. The British were trying to conduct and finance conflicts in their many colonies throughout the eastern hemisphere. The Americans were struggling for power among their top ranking politicians and military commanders.  The French, with their promises of rank and dreams of monetary gain and glory in the Continental Army arrived with letters of commissions freely given out by American emissaries in Paris.

On July 4, 1777, America celebrated the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence to the joy of patriots and the disdain of loyalists. The Continental Congress’ and the Continental Army’s troubles escalated into a never ending series of events that would test George Washington, his officers and troops’ skills, patience, and endurance. The British Army, divided by the desires of their commander-in-chief General Sir William Howe, Howe’s subordinates Generals John Burgoyne, Henry Clinton, and Guy Carlton, were in no better condition.

General John Burgoyne began his long march from Montreal with an army of 8,000 troops, Native Americans, camp followers, and some loyalist militia with the goal to ultimately take Albany, New York and cutoff New England from the other colonies.

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British General John Burgoyne

He expected his commander-in-chief to rendezvous with him, but William Howe had other ideas: take Philadelphia, the capital of the American government by loading 18,000 British and Hessian troops and 5,000 camp followers on board his brother, Admiral Richard Howe’s ships, sail up the Chesapeake, and march to Philadelphia. Many of his officers worried their destination was south and the misery of the approaching heat while they rocked on the waves, some for as long as three agonizing weeks while the embarkation took place.

On July 6, American held Fort Ticonderoga situated on the southern tip of Lake Champlain fell to Burgoyne’s army without a fight. Subsequently, other American strong holds fell like dominoes in the following days: Fort Anne, Fort Edward, Skenesborough, and Hubbardton in the New Hampshire Grants. The fall of Ticonderoga generated shock waves in England and America. Its exaggerated importance as the key to the continent produced despair in Philadelphia and jubilation in Whitehall, England.

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King George III

When the news reached London, King George III was rumored to have rushed into the Queen’s chambers exclaiming, “I have beat them! I have beat all the Americans!”

William Howe’s second-in-command, General Henry Clinton, returned from England on July 5 and warned him that the British secretary of state to the colonies, Lord George Germain expected William to rendezvous with Burgoyne’s army in Albany. The ever torpid and stubborn Howe ignored Clinton’s reminders, as the two were longtime rivals.  Thus, William, keeping his plans a secret from his officers except Richard, continued to embark his troops onto ships. Clinton feared that the 7,500 troops planned to remain in New York under his command would succumb to an easy rebel defeat and was too small to assist Burgoyne’s army without leaving New York vulnerable.

Meanwhile, Congress was grappling with decisions on what to do with the influx of French officers arriving to demand the fulfillment of agreements doled out to them by the American emissaries—specifically Silas Deane—were fulfilled. One such officer, who had already approached Congress, was French General Philippe du Coudray, a proclaimed specialist in artillery and engineering. General du Coudray arrived in June to claim his position to replace General Henry Knox as commander of the army’s Artillery corps.

As a result, Generals Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and John Sullivan submitted their letters of resignation. The letters were read aloud in Congress the first week in July. The letters were seen by congress as “an attempt to influence our decisions and an invasion of the liberties of the people, and indicating a want of confidence in the justice of Congress.” They directed Washington to accept the generals’ resignations if they could not serve their country under the authority of Congress.

 

On July 11, after hearing the news of the defeat at Fort Ticonderoga, Washington moved his army from Morristown, New Jersey near the New Jersey-New York border until William Howe’s intentions became clear. This left New Jersey open for Howe to march overland to the Delaware River, but Howe’s attention was already turned to the Chesapeake. Washington spread out the Continental Army to watch the Hudson River, the Delaware River, New Jersey, and the Hudson Highlands at Peekskill and West Point.

General Howe’s experienced officers felt anxiety over where they were going while awaiting their embarkation. Colonel Carl von Donop, commander of the brigade of Hessian grenadiers, jotted down his thoughts in the middle of July: “God knows where we shall go south or north, but the heat which is beginning to make itself felt with the approach of the dog-days makes one wish that the general would choose north rather than south.”

But the rotund pompous General James Grant, who spent seven years as governor of East Florida and led the feint near the Red Lyon Inn during the Battle of Long Island, offered a different opinion. “The most intelligent are wide of the mark from a mistaken idea of climate which is the same all over America in the months of July and August. During that time the heats are as great at Boston as at St. Augustine.”

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General Philip Schuyler

During this time, American General Philip Schuyler, in command of the Northern Army engaged with Burgoyne’s army, appealed to New York state officials for more troops. His appeal fell on deaf ears. Washington, however, was listening and he sent General John Nixon with 600 Massachusetts Continentals, and later instructed General Israel Putnam to send “four of the strongest Massachusetts regiments to proceed immediately to Albany.” George Washington, after writing to Congress, also sent General Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Lincoln to contend with Burgoyne’s movements.  Arnold requested Colonel Daniel Morgan and his regiment of riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, called Morgan’s Rifles, to aide him.

After three weeks of embarking his army onto ships, General William Howe and his brother, Richard, set sail for the Chesapeake on July 23. Washington was still unaware of their destination.

On July 27, the French officers, among them the nineteen-year-old Marquis De Lafayette,

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Marquis de Lafayette

arrived in Philadelphia after a 650 mile trip from Charleston, South Carolina. The sick and bedraggled Frenchmen arrived only to have John Hancock, Robert Morris, and James Lovell shuffle them around until they were finally told they were not needed and to go home.  But Lafayette had sent a letter to Congress who read it, overturned their decision and allowed Lafayette to stay under a modified agreement which gave Lafayette the major general commission Silas Deane had promised.

On the domestic front in Braintree, Massachusetts, Abigail Adams was expecting a child in July. Her husband, John, was away at Congress. She wanted him home in time for her delivery and longed for his soothing tenderness. On a night in early July, she was taken with a “shaking fit” and feared the life within her was lost.

Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams

Two weeks later, after several days of labor she wrote to John that she had given birth to a stillborn baby girl.

“It appeared to be a very fine babe, and as it never opened its eyes in this world, it looked as though they were only closed for sleep.”

I chose to write about this month because I’m writing about it in my work in progress, the third book in my series, Angels and Patriots. Of course, the events were much more complicated emotionally, physically, and intellectually which I have tried to convey in my book. I’ve written of two and a half years of the Revolutionary War thus far in my series and this one month exhausted even me.

I chose to share that exhaustion.

Resources:

Pancake, John S. 1777 The University of Alabama Press, 1997. Print.

Auricchio, Laura. The Marquis Lafayette Reconsidered New York: Penguin Random House, 2014. Print.

O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost America New Haven & London Yale University Press, 2013. Print.

Puls, Mark. Henry Knox Visionary General of the American Revolution Palgrave McMillian New York, 2008. Print.

Snow, Dean. 1777 Tipping Point at Saratoga Oxford University Press New York, 2016. Print.

Harris, Michael C. Brandywine Savas Beatie LLC El Dorado Hills, California 2017. Print.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Valiant Ambition Penguin Books New York, 2016. Print.

McCullough, David, John Adams Simon & Schuster New York 2001. Print.

My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

Angels & Patriots Book Two. The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two

The Taking of Dorchester Heights

General George Washington, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the fledgling Continental Army, arrived at army headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 2, 1775. The amateur general desired to prove himself with an assault on besieged Boston that would end the war in one fell swoop. The Continental Congress and Washington’s war council refused to allow it. Without consent, and a lack of gunpowder, heavy weaponry, and congressional funding, offensive operations were virtually impossible.

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General Henry Knox

But he would have his artillery. By the end of January 1776, Colonel Henry Knox had returned to Cambridge with “a noble train of artillery”. The expedition to retrieve the guns from Fort Ticonderoga, at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, had been an astounding feat of fortitude.

In a meeting of his war council, on February 16, 1776, Washington argued for attacking Boston. “A stroke well aimed at this critical juncture might put a final end to the war.”

General Nathanael Greene was concerned that an assault on a town garrisoned with British regulars could have horrible consequences, “horrible if it succeeded, and still more horrible if it failed.”

“Our defeat may risk the entire loss of liberties of American forever,” General Horatio Gates stated.

General Artemas Ward, the commanding officer of the army prior to Washington’s arrival, maintained, “The attack must be made with a view of bringing on an engagement, or of driving the enemy out of Boston and either end will be answered much better by possessing Dorchester Heights.”

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

Washington’s previous plan had been to attack across the frozen waters of Back Bay. Holding on to part of that plan, he proposed a backdoor amphibious assault launched from Cambridge. The Americans would cross Back Bay to Boston’s western shores. They could possibly take the city before the British troops had a chance to return from Dorchester Heights.

General William Heath pointed out that if the enemy did “make a sally” from Boston, British General William Howe would provide for defense of the town. Washington’s plan to expect his soldiers to cross a mile and a half of open water in the face of British artillery “was madness”.

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General William Heath

It was finally agreed to build fortifications on Dorchester Heights on a single night before the British knew what was happening, just as had been done at Bunker Hill. The operation would require the procurement, supply, and maintenance of equipment, as well as, movement of troops and hospitalization of the wounded. Those things would prove to be as challenging as the military engagement.

Freezing temperatures meant that building a redoubt atop the bare, rock-hard, wind-swept hills of Dorchester was going to be difficult. The solution came from an unexpected source—Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Putnam, a cousin of Israel Putnam. Rufus had worked beside a few British engineers during the French and Indian War. Washington asked him to devise a way to quickly build a fortification on the Heights.

Rufus borrowed a book from General William Heath titled Attack and Defense of Fortified Places by the British engineer John Muller. On page 4, he discovered an engineering term he had never heard before: chandelier.

A chandelier was a double-ended wooden scaffold that sat on the ground: when it was placed beside another chandelier, the open space between the two frames was filled with fascines; bundles of tree branches that when covered with dirt formed the basis of a cannon-proof bulwark. With dozens of precut chandeliers and fascines, the Americans could create the beginnings of a redoubt atop Dorchester Heights.

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Two chandeliers, stacked with fascines.

Putnam took his plan to construct chandeliers to colonels Richard Gridley and Henry Knox. In turn, the three went to see George Washington. The solution was a scheme whereby the fortifications would be fabricated elsewhere out of sight, then, with massed manpower and oxen, hauled, along with the heavy cannon, to Dorchester Heights, where all would have to be in place and ready for action before daylight on March 5; the sixth anniversary of the Boston Massacre.

As a diversion, a cannonade and bombardment would begin against the British works on Boston Neck and Bunker Hill from the American works on Cobble Hill and Lechmere’s Point in Cambridge and from Lamb’s Dam on the Roxbury side. This required the placement of some of the heavy cannons from Ticonderoga. The causeway from Roxbury to Dorchester would be lined with a long barrier of hay bales to block the enemy’s view of the Americans moving to the Heights.

Men were dispatched to round up wagons, carts, and 800 oxen. The army’s hospital in Cambridge was readied. Notices in the Boston Gazette, published out of Watertown, called for volunteer nurses. 2000 Massachusetts militia were called out.

Work details, in Roxbury, cut down trees to make chandeliers, barrels, abatis, fascines, and gabions. The barrels would be set in rows in front of the parapets to present the appearance of strengthening the works; but the real design was, in case the British made an attack, to roll them down the hill toward the approaching enemy. Carpenters in Cambridge built 45 flat-bottomed bateaux, each capable of carrying 80 men, along with two floating batteries.

For miles around, everyone was expecting something. Bets were wagered on what would happen and when. Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, in Philadelphia:

The preparations increase and something is daily expected, something terrible it will be. I have been in a continual state of anxiety and expectation . . . it has been said ‘tomorrow’ and ‘tomorrow’ for this past month, but when the dreadful tomorrow will be I know not.”

Washington’s fear that the American operation would be discovered was fueled when a Virginia rifleman deserted to the British. Generals William Heath and John Sullivan personally inspected the lines to ensure that the guards on duty were vigilant on the chance that British got wind of what was happening and moved first to occupy the Heights.

On the night of February 27, Colonel Henry Knox led a group of his artillerymen to install cannon and mortars on Lechmere Point. The cannonade began from there on the night of March 2. Cannons began lobbing shot and shells into Boston to divert the enemy and drown out the noise of the work parties. The British responded with a furious cannonade of their own.

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On the night of March 4, at 7:00 p.m. Henry Knox’s regiments began firing from Roxbury, Lechmere Point, and Cobble Hill at a ferocious rate. The roar of British guns answered.

British captain Charles Stuart described sheets of fire filling the sky, and that “the inhabitants [of Boston] were in a horrid situation, particularly the women…drove from their houses by shot, and, crying for protection.”

When the cannonading began, General John Thomas, with 2000 men, started across the Dorchester causeway, moving rapidly and silently, shielded from view by the long barrier of hay bales. An advanced guard of 800 men made up largely of riflemen, went first, to fan out along the Dorchester shores. A work party of 1,200 men followed the riflemen. Then came the hundreds of heavy wagons loaded with chandeliers, fascines, hay bales, barrels, and the guns from Ticonderoga. Progress up the steep smooth slopes was extremely difficult, yet some of the ox teams and wagons made several trips.

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At Cambridge, generals Nathanael Greene and John Sullivan readied 4000 troops for an amphibious assault in the event of a signal from the Roxbury meetinghouse.

The night proved to be perfect for the work operation to come. The weather was unseasonably mild. A low-lying haze prevented the British from seeing much of anything beyond Boston, and a full moon provided the Americans with the light they needed to see their way. On the Heights, the troops went to work with picks and shovels to arrange the chandeliers and fascines, and dig ditches and build breastworks. By 10:00 pm, the fortifications were sufficiently ready to defend against small arms and grapeshot.

A British lieutenant colonel, Sir John Campbell, reported to British General Francis Smith that the rebels were at work on Dorchester Heights. Smith chose to ignore it. From that point on, the work proceeded unnoticed.

General William Heath wrote, “Perhaps there never was so much work done in so short a space of time.”

At first light, the British were shocked to see two 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.

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General William Howe

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 however, 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 altogether. 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.

On March 17, 1776, General Howe and his army evacuated Boston ending the eleven month long siege. 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.

Resources:

http://www.processhistory.org/gw-cambridge/

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/chandelier

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.

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

McCullough, David. 1776. 2005: Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.

My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

Angels & Patriots Book Two. The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two

The New Year’s Day Raising of the Union Flag on Prospect Hill

On New Year’s Day, Monday, January 1, 1776, British officers approached the American lines in Roxbury under a flag of truce. At least one of the men was carrying copies of a broadside for distribution among the soldiers of the Continental Army. This was King George III’s speech, delivered before Parliament back on October 27, 1775. It had been published with the hope of putting the fear of God into the rebel army.

The king declared that the colonists’  “strongest protestations of loyalty to me” were both absurd and offensive given that they were presently engaged in a “rebellious war . . . carried for the purpose of establishing an independent Empire.” The colonists must either return to the British fold or admit that they were engaged in a war of independence.

The reaction among the army was rage and indignation. The speech was burned in public by the soldiers. Its charges of traitorous rebellion and its ominous reference to “foreign assistance”, assuredly ended any hope of reconciliation or a short war. The effect of the King’s speech on George Washington was profound.

If nothing else could “satisfy a tyrant and his diabolical ministry,” he wrote to Joseph Reed, “we were determined to shake off all connections with a state so unjust and unnatural. This I would tell them, not under covert, but in words as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness.”

As it happened, Washington had already acted to strengthen the solidarity and resolve of his troops.  January 1 was the first day of “a new army, which in every point of view is entirely continental.” He stressed the hope that “the importance of the great Cause we are engaged in will be deeply impressed upon every man’s mind.” Everything “dear and valuable to freemen” was at stake.

To celebrate this event, Washington replaced the large red flag previously raised by Israel Putnam on the heights of Prospect Hill. With the crash of a 13-gun salute, he raised a new flag — a flag of thirteen red and white stripes, with the British colors (the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew) represented in the upper corner. The works at Prospect Hill were the equal of any fortification in Boston being situated on a large outcropping with a commanding view of the Mystic River and all of Boston Harbor.  Prospect Hill

Soon after the Battle of Chelsea Creek, Israel Putnam’s men had transformed the British schooner Diana’s seventy-five foot mainmast into a flag pole, and it was from this tar-stained pine that the Union flag of the Continental Army proudly waved. When the British in Boston saw it flying from Prospect Hill, they at first mistook it for a flag of surrender.

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Prospect Hill and the Union Flag today. 

It has been argued that the Somerville, Massachusetts annual New Year’s Day flag ceremony on Prospect Hill commemorates something that never really happened. There are others who claim it is accurate.

Resources:

https://patch.com/massachusetts/somerville/research-upholds-traditional-prospect-hill-flag-story

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

McCullough, David. 1776. 2005: Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.

 

My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

Angels & Patriots Book Two. The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two