Episode 018

Evacuation Day

Evacuation Day is the name given to the day that British troops evacuated Boston, effectively ending the 11 month Siege of Boston. We'll talk about how Washington orchestrated this with cannon captured from Fort Ticonderoga.

In our last episode we took a brief vacation with Patriot forces to the Bahamas on a mission to acquire guns & ammo. Today, in this shorter episode, we’re going back to Boston, or specifically the area surrounding Boston where Patriot forces have been dug in holding the city under siege since the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

This action, known as the Siege of Boston would last a total of 11 months, we’ve talked about how it started but today we’re going to talk about how it ended, to understand that we’ll have to go back to some of our other episodes for background. If you remember all the way back in Episode 6, we began our discussion on the siege of Boston, and we also discussed our favorite traitor Benedict Arnold and his mission to take Fort Ticonderoga and capture cannon stationed there, which he successfully did on May 10 1775.

A short two months later, in July of 1775, George Washington officially assumes command of the Continental Army (we talked about this in Episode 6 and a little bit in Episode 7). This is where the story picks back up today…We know that Washington may have been somewhat reluctant to take command of the Army. In fact he wrote to Martha his wife “I shall feel no pain from the toil or the danger of the campaign, My unhappiness will flow from the uneasiness I know you will feel being left alone.”

Washington, a loyal Virginian, was also concerned that Lord Dunmore, the British Governor of Virginia would attack his plantation and imprison Martha. But, just like soldiers and commanders today, he had no choice but to obey “the kind of destiny” that had given him his command.

Washington may have had these thoughts in his head when he arrived in early July to Cambridge and immediately proposed an attack on Boston. His officers, dissuaded him, they argued that the British were still able to be resupplied by sea through Boston Harbour. They urged him to wait until the winter when the waters around Boston would freeze, and cut off the supply chain.

While he’s waiting, he orders the expedition to Quebec which we talked about in episodes 11, 14, & 15. One order he issued that we haven’t talked about is sending Henry Knox to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve the cannon that Benedict Arnold’s forces had previously captured. Knox left for Ticonderoga in November of 1775 and over the course of Nov – January moved 59 cannon and other armaments by boat, horse, ox-drawn sleds, and sheer manpower along poor roads, two semi-frozen rivers, and through the forest and swamps of sparsely populated Berkshires in the Boston area. Historian Victor Brooks calls Knox’s journey “one of the most stupendous feats of logistics”.

The waters around Boston were now frozen, but Washington’s officers still refused to attack the city and dislodge the British. Washington began to look for another way. In March of 1776, he once again set his sights on Dorchester Heights.

Washington and the British Military leadership, which was headed by General William Howe were both long aware of the importance of Dorchester Heights, which along with the heights at Charlestown controlled commanding views of Boston and it’s harbour. Washington controlled the heights near Charlestown since the Battle of Bunker Hill, but he had no adequate means to go on the offensive from his position. Dorchester Heights sat unoccupied.

Boston Harbour was vital to the British as the Royal Navy provided supplies, transportation and protection for the troops in Boston. The British wanted Dorchester Heights too, and it was this leaked wish that precipitated events leading up to the Battle of Bunker Hill.

When Washington’s officers refused to attack in July of 1775, he also considered taking the unoccupied Dorchester Heights, but he felt that his newly created Army wasn’t ready to deal with the likely British counterattack on the position.

Washington, again, considered taking the heights in February 1776 but his intelligence at the time told him that British strength was too high and his gunpowder and supplies were too low.

But in March of 1776, the situation had changed. Knox had shortly arrived and brought with him the powder, shells, and cannon Washington felt he needed to hold Dorchester Heights.

Washington’s strategy here is actually fairly well executed and extremely simple. All he really does is provide covering fire to pin down the British while his troops take Dorchester Heights. He sends some of the cannon liberated from Ticonderoga to Lechmere’s Point and Cobble Hill in Cambridge and to Lamb’s Den in Roxbury. On the night of March 2, he orders them to open fire on the city of Boston. The British returned fire, with neither side causing significant casualties. He once again repeated the bombardment on the 3rd and 4th of March.

However on the 4th of March, as the batteries opened fire he ordered troops and supplies to Dorchester Heights. Washington sent General John Thomas and 2,000 troops to quietly march to the top of Dorchester Heights. The troops brought with them entrenching tools and cannon placements. They placed hay bales between themselves and the harbor to help muffle the sounds that were not covered up by the sounds of bombardment from Cambridge and Roxbury. The men worked throughout the night constructing earthworks and hauling cannon into position overlooking the town and harbor.

Washington himself rode out to his troops to provide support and encouragement, and he reminded them that today…March 5th…was the 6th anniversary of the Boston Massacre (which we talked about in episode 2). By 4am, they had constructed fortifications that would hold against small arms and grapeshot. The also positioned rock-filled barrels that could be rolled down the hill at any advancing British troops.

What happens next is something that I find to be one of the most intriguing and interesting pieces of warfare at this level. The commanders trying to outmaneuver each other…

Washington anticipated that General Howe and his troops would either flee or try to take the hill, an action that would have probably been reminiscent of the Battle of Bunker Hill, which was a disaster for the British. If Howe decided to launch an attack on the heights, Washington planned to launch an attack against the city from Cambridge. As part of the preparations, he readied two floating batteries and boats sufficient to carry almost 3,000 troops. Washington’s judgment of Howe’s options was accurate; they were exactly the options Howe considered.
In Boston Admiral Shuldham, commander of the British fleet, declared that the fleet was in danger unless the position on the heights was taken. Howe and his staff then determined to contest the occupation of the heights, and made plans for an assault, preparing to send 2,400 men under cover of darkness to attack the position. Washington, notified of British movements, increased the forces on the heights until there were nearly 6,000 men on the Dorchester lines. However, a snow storm began late on March 5 and halted any chance of a battle for several days. By the time the storm subsided, Howe reconsidered launching an attack, reasoning that preserving the army for battle elsewhere was of higher value than attempting to hold Boston. Howe is quoted as saying:

“My God, these fellows have done more work in one night that I could make my army do in three months”

On March 8, intermediaries delivered an unsigned paper informing Washington that the city would not be burned to the ground if his troops were allowed to leave unmolested. After several days of activity, and several more of bad weather, the British forces departed Boston by sea on March 17, 1776, known afterward as “Evacuation Day,” 11,000 redcoats and hundreds of Loyalists left the city by boat. Washington marched into Boston on March 18, but there was little time for rejoicing. He rightly suspected that the British would head for New York City. As he prepared for the next test of battle, one of his few comforts was the fact that his wife Martha, whom he had missed so dearly, had joined him in November.

Also published on Medium.

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