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.

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”.

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.


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 historical fantasy novel, Angels & Patriots Book One is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

From Life to Legend: Dr. Joseph Warren 1741 – 1775

“Even in this unfortunate event he has served his country, for he has taught the sons of Freedom in America, that the laurel may be engrafted upon the cypress, and that true glory may be acquired not only in the arms of victory, but in the arms of death.”

~~ A eulogy for Joseph Warren published in Philadelphia; 1775 (author unknown).

The Day: perhaps the decisive day is come on which the fate of American depends. My bursting heart must find vent at my pen. I have just heard that our dear friend Dr. Warren is no more but fell gloriously fighting for his country-saying better to die honourably in the field than ignominiously hang upon the gallows. Great is our loss…and the tears of multitudes pay tribute to his memory…

~~Abigail Adams in a letter to her husband, John Adams: June 1775

On June 11, we celebrated Dr. Joseph Warren’s 276th birthday. Happy 276th Birthday Dr. Joseph Warren  Today is the 242nd anniversary of his death at Bunker Hill.

For this tribute, we will join Joseph Warren in the months that comprised his swan song: April – June 1775.

In early April 1775, after the adjournment of the Provincial Congress in Concord, John Hancock and Samuel Adams didn’t return to Boston for fear they would be arrested or hung. Instead, the two leaders of the American rebellion, sheltered at the home of Reverend Jonas Clarke in Lexington.

Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington, MA

Joseph ran a spy ring for the Sons of Liberty out of his home medical office. On the evening of April 18, he received word from one of his informants that, under orders from British General Thomas Gage, troops were assembling on the shore of Back Bay. Gage’s troops were readying to march to Concord, where a stockpile of rebel armaments was stored.

Joseph knew the armaments in Concord had been well-hidden or moved in early April; therefore, weapons were not his primary concern. He feared for John Hancock’s and Samuel Adams’ lives if the British discovered them hiding in Lexington. Joseph summoned Paul Revere and William Dawes to his home on Hanover Street in Boston, and then dispatched them to warn Hancock and Adams, and the countryside that the British regulars were out.

On the morning of April 19, Joseph received news of fighting in Lexington. He slipped out of Boston, and made his way to Menotomy to attend a Committee of Safety meeting. During the meeting, messengers came and went, delivering the latest news.

Afterward, Joseph fought alongside General William Heath. Heath and his men fired on the British as they retreated to Boston along what is now called Battle Road. Joseph was nearly killed when a musket ball hit a pin in his hair.

Despite his unabashed courage, Joseph knew the gallows awaited him if he returned to Boston. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, he lodged at Hastings House in Cambridge, close to the Provincial Congress and Committee of Safety meetings.  With John Hancock and Samuel Adams soon to depart for the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Joseph had emerged as the de facto leader of what a militia captain described as “the intended revolution”. [1]

On April 20, under the auspices of the Committee of Safety, Joseph issued a colony-wide, almost threatening, circular letter urging men to enlist in the provincial army. He wrote, “Death and devastation are the instant consequences of delay . . .” [2]

A few weeks later, Joseph was elected to the loftiest political position of the rebellion—president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. As president, he also presided over the Provincial Congress’ various committees.

In late April, Captain Benedict Arnold told Joseph and the Committee of Safety there was a stockpile of aging cannons in the poorly guarded Ft. Ticonderoga. The committee sent Arnold, equipped with two hundred pounds of valuable rebel gunpowder, to confiscate the cannons. It was a portent of what was to come.

benedict arnold
Colonel Benedict Arnold

Several skirmishes erupted between the British and the Americans, leaving the store of rebel gunpowder severely depleted. Joseph, General Artemas Ward, and Moses Gill, the chairman of the Committee of Supplies, sent a plea to New York to send as much gunpowder as they could spare. The supply never arrived.

By June 15, it was clear that the British were about to make a preemptive strike on Roxbury, Dorchester, and Charlestown. Joseph, who now held a major general’s commission, and the Committee of Safety decided that the provincial army must make a preemptive move of their own despite the shortage of gunpowder.

At 9:00 p.m. on Friday, June 16, nearly one thousand provincial soldiers under the command of Colonel William Prescott assembled on the common in Cambridge opposite Hastings House. Joseph was not among them as they marched toward Charlestown. General Israel Putnam and Lieutenant Colonel Richard Gridley, commander of an artillery regiment, joined Colonel Prescott just outside of Charlestown Neck.

Colonel Prescott and his men commenced building a redoubt on the Charlestown peninsula under the cover of night. The Committee of Safety’s order was to build a redoubt on Bunker Hill, but by mistake Prescott and his men built the redoubt on an unnamed (later called Breed’s Hill) hill closer to Boston.

Joseph was nowhere to be found on the morning of June 17. There are speculative reasons for his absence, but what is clear is that Joseph suffered from a sick headache that afternoon. Around 3:00 pm his former medical apprentice, Dr. David Townsend, arrived at Hastings House with the news that the men on Bunker Hill were being fired upon by the British.

After Joseph donned his elegant wedding suit, he and David made their way to Charlestown Neck. David stayed to care for men who had been wounded in the battle. Joseph went on to Bunker Hill. He encountered General Putnam. Putnam relinquished his command to major general Joseph Warren, but Joseph refused saying that his commission was not finalized, and he had come to fight as a volunteer.

Joseph Warren (right) offering to serve General Israel Putnam as a volunteer.

When Joseph entered the redoubt, Colonel Prescott and his 150 exhausted men, raised a cheer of Huzza! Huzza! The sight of their leader joining the fight invigorated them. Like Putnam, Prescott relinquished his command to Joseph, and again Joseph refused saying that he had come to fight as a volunteer.

The rebels had, thus far, repelled the British regulars. What ended the American resistance was neither lack of courage nor unstoppable British resolve. It was the depleted supply of rebel gunpowder. The British regulars, grenadiers, and marines swarmed the redoubt. The rebels tried to make their last stand by swinging their muskets or throwing rocks at the British. Colonel Prescott ordered a retreat.

Joseph was one of the last remaining men in the redoubt. There has been much debate about what happened next. What is known is that Joseph was shot, at close range, in the face just below his left eye, and probably by someone who recognized him. His biographer, Dr. Samuel Forman, wrote that Joseph would have died instantly, unlike the scene depicted in John Trumble’s painting, “The Death of General Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill”.

The Death of General Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill

The British stripped Joseph of his fine clothes, mutilated his body, and buried him in a shallow grave with a farmer. Exactly who and when Joseph’s body was mutilated has been lost to lore. His youngest brother, Dr. John Warren, attempted to find Joseph’s body, but he was stopped by British sentries at Charlestown Neck.

Joseph’s body wasn’t recovered until after the Siege of Boston ended in March 1776. The corpse was badly decomposed. Paul Revere identified him by a tooth he had made for Joseph.

Joseph Warren shouldn’t have been on the battlefield that day. The people needed him to lead the patriotic movement. They needed him as a friend, brother, and physician. His four children were orphaned.

Dr. Joseph Warren sacrificed his life for liberty, and in doing so, became America’s first martyr. His death encouraged the people of a nation yet to born, to keep fighting despite their grief. It’s what he would have done.


Painting of “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill” by John Trumbull the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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: leader in medicine, politics, and revolution. George C. Wildrick, MSSM, MBA

Massachusetts Gate pic

[1] (Philbrick pg 163)

[2] (Philbrick pg 163)

Dr. Joseph Warren is an important character in my novel Angels & Patriots Book One. Buy it today on Amazon in paperback or Kindle eBook. Angels & Patriots Book One