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

A Noble Train of Artillery: The Knox Expedition

“We shall cut no small figure in going through the Country with our Cannon, Mortars, etc., drawn by eighty yoke of oxen”   ~~Henry Knox in a letter to his wife, December 1775

General George Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 2, 1775. He had been led to believe by the Continental Congress that he would find 20,000 battle-tested provincial soldiers. What he found was not a proper army. In his opinion, it was a mob of dirty and nasty “puritanical savages”. Further, on his arrival, he was assured that the army had 308 barrels of gunpowder. It was actually only 90 barrels. A lack of heavy weaponry, made offensive operations virtually impossible.

What was Washington, who  was intent on ending the Siege of Boston in one decisive stroke, to do?

Enter a twenty-five-year-old former book seller with militia and battle experience, an interest in artillery, and a talent for building fortifications: Henry Knox.

Henry Knox

Henry impressed Washington with his energy, ingenuity, determination, and knowledge. Which man brought up the cache of artillery at Ft. Ticonderoga in upstate New York is unknown, but Henry volunteered to travel the 300 miles to Ticonderoga and bring the artillery back to Cambridge.

Washington issued the order, backed Knox financially, and wrote to General Philip Schuyler asking him to assist Knox in the endeavor.

Leaving on horseback and accompanied by his nineteen-year-old brother, William, and an expeditionary force, Knox reached Ticonderoga on December 5, 1775. The plan was to transport over 60 tons of artillery by scows from the northern tip of Lake George thirty-two miles to Ft. George on the southern tip of the lake.

Henry had prayed for warm weather, and until that point, the weather had remained mild, but the wind picked up and forced Knox’s freezing men to row into an icy gale. One of the scows fetched up on a rock and filled with water. As long as the scows gunnels remained above the water line, the boat could be floated. With heroic effort, they finally succeeded in getting all the cannon to the southern end of the lake just as it began to freeze over.

Knox Route from Ft Ticonderago to Boston-8x6

On December 17, Henry wrote to Washington, “I have had made forty two exceedingly strong sleds & have provided eighty yoke of oxen to drag them as far as Springfield where I shall get fresh cattle to carry them to camp. . . . I hope in 16 or 17 days to be able to present your Excellency a noble train of artillery.”

Henry began earnest negotiations with local Stillwater (Albany-area) native George Palmer for the expected oxen and sleds. Per Henry’s journal, Palmer walked off in a huff after General Schuyler complained he was charging too much for his services. Thus, Knox relented to using mostly horses to pull the laden sleds.

General Philip Schuyler

While William Knox remained at Ft. George to procure the needed sleds, Henry went ahead to the Hudson River, where he and his men took steps to strengthen the river ice in anticipation of the artillery’s arrival and crossing.

Once the horses and sleds (and some head of oxen) were secured, the Noble Train of Artillery left Ft. George and moved along a difficult and exceedingly slow route following the Hudson River, with the crews forced to cross the frozen Hudson four times before reaching Albany.  On January 5, from Albany, Henry wrote Washington: “The want of snow detained us some days, and now a cruel thaw hinders [us] from crossing [the] Hudson River, which we are obliged to do four times from Ft. George to this town.”  

When the train was able to move on, Henry was forced to break up his caravan into smaller groups of sleds due to logistics. On crossing the Hudson east to Massachusetts, cannon broke through the ice and crashed into the water. With the help of locals, they recovered the cannon. On January 9, the last of the cannons had crossed the Hudson.

Crossing and recrossing the Hudson had proved difficult, but the hills and mountains of western and central Massachusetts were just as challenging. On the down slopes, the huge heavy sleds threatened to run ahead of the teams that were pulling them. They were plagued by lack of snow. Another “cruel” thaw left them stranded in Westfield.

In Westfield, Henry entertained the locals, many who had never seen cannon, by firing a mortar that became known as “Old Sow”. It was here that Henry learned that John Adams and George Washington had named him to succeed the ailing Richard Gridley as colonel of the Regiment of Artillery. (Gridley’s artillery regiments had been an embarrassment at Bunker Hill.)

In the last week of January, 1776, the first of the noble train arrived in Framingham, Massachusetts. Henry Knox was back in Cambridge by January 24.

Knox’s journey provided the Continental Army with a windfall of artillery that ultimately led General William Howe to evacuate his British troops from Boston, taking thousands of loyalists civilians with them, and effectively ending the Siege of Boston without a single shot fired on either side.

Colonel Henry Knox was eventually promoted to major general and remained loyal to Washington throughout the war.

The grit and determination it took to complete the expedition is truly amazing, admirable, and inspiring. Men (and women) like them, who believed they could do anything if they put their minds, hearts, and bodies to the task, gave us the freedom to think for ourselves and express those thoughts without fear of our personal liberties being taken away.

The Henry Knox Noble Train re-enactment begins at Fort Ticonderoga on December 9, 2017 in Ticonderoga, New York.



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



Portrait of Major General Philip Schuyler from the John Trumbull miniature by Jacob H. Lazarus (1822-91) in 1881. The painting is on display at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, Albany.

Painting of General Henry Knox by Charles Willson Peale, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution