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.

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