When we last left off, Brigadier General Percy marched his British regulars back into Boston, licking their wounds from that days encounters at Concord & Lexington (where the troops had been under command of Major Pitcairn and Lt. Col. Smith). They arrived in Charlestown late on April 18th.
On the morning of April 19, we see almost 15,000 militiamen marching & converging on Boston. The men had marched through and been gathered throughout most of North England. Earlier when we discussed the Powder Alarm, we also saw troops marching on Boston, but they later dispersed. Here we see something different, we see a larger force, and also blood has been spilt. These soldiers are here to stay.
In fact, the positioning of these troops became known as the Siege of Boston and it lasted almost one full year from April 19, 1775 to March 17, 1776.
The troops were under the loose leadership of Brigadier General William Heath when they arrived in the area surrounding Boston on the 19th, but by the 20th command had been given to General Artemas Ward.
Ward was to become a Major General in the Revolutionary War and a Congressman for Massachusetts. John Adams (as 2nd US President) would say of Ward:
“he was universally esteemed, beloved and confided in by his army and his country”
Ward was born in Shrewsbury, MA as the sixth of seven children. His fathe r was a sea captain, merchant, lawyer, land developer, farmer, and jurist. He attended common school with his brothers and sisters and later went on to graduate from Harvard in 1748. He achieved his first public office in 1751 as a township assessor for Worcester County.
His military service began in 1755 with the French and Indian War, Ward was made a major and eventually a colonel in the 3rd Regiment where he served with garrison forces along western Massachusetts. In 1774, favoring rebellion, the local militia forces under direction from a Committee of Safety designated Ward as the general and commander in chief of the Shrewsbury militia. During the Revolutionary War, we would see him as Major General second in command to Washington. He was one of the original four Major Generals in the Army, along with: Charles Lee, Philip Schuyler and Israel Putnam.
Ward and Heath had deployed their roughly 15,000 militiamen around Boston, effectively cutting it off from land traffic with a siege line that extended from Chelsea, around the peninsulas of Boston and Charlestown, to Roxbury. They concentrated their forces around the Charlestown neck, which was the only land access to Charlestown, and the Boston Neck which was, at the time, the only land access to Boston. At this point, British control extended only into the towns, harbour and sea around the Boston area.
General Thomas Gage spoke of the militia gathering outside Boston:
“The rebels are not the despicable rabble too many have supposed them to be…In all their wars against the French they never showed such conduct, attention, and perseverance as they do now”
Gage turns his focus on fortifying his position, focusing at first on the easily defensible positions. At Roxbury in the South, he ordered lines of defenses with 10 t wenty-four pound guns. In Boston four hills on the approach and inside the city were fortified, this were the main defensive elements of the city. Gage also makes the decision to abandon Charlestown, he pulls all forces out, including those forces who had fought at Lexington & Concord, leaving the town vacant as well as the high lands near it which included Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill.
While Boston was the somewhat of a pro-British stronghold in the Massachusetts colony, it doesn’t mean that 100% of the population of the city was pro-British. In fact, there were a good nu mber of patriots inside the city. Enough patriots to make Gage fearful of weapons being smuggled into the city. At first, to combat this, traffic into and out of Boston was severely restricted, however an agreement was eventually reached between both sides that allowed traffic on the Boston Neck, provided no firearms were carried. Loyalist Boston residents accquired and turned in almost 2,000 muskets and we see most of the patriots still in the city leave. Conversely, most of the of the Loyalists who lived outside the city, left their country homes and fled to the city. Many felt it was not safe to live outside the city. Some of these men, in turn, joined the Loyalist regiments in Boston attached to the British army.
The siege did not extend to the sea, so Boston Harbour was open to receive supplies sailed in primarily from Nova Scotia. The Colonial militiamen had to accept this as Great Britain’s naval supremacy simply dominated the waters and also there were really no armed Colonial vessels to use to challenge Britain with. Even with supplies from Nova Scotia, British forces were short on rations, which forced prices in Boston up. Also the American forces typically had strong intelligence about what was happening in the city, while General Gage had little to no effective knowledge of what his enemy was doing.
We’re not done talking about the Siege of Boston, as it was an ongoing affair, so we’ll come back and touch on it in several more episodes, for now, we should talk about the events that occurred in May of 1775.
On May 3, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress authorized Benedict Arnold, yes THE Benedict Arnold who would later defect to the British, to raise forces for taking Fort Ticonderoga near the southern end of Lake Champlain in the Province of New York. The fort was extremely useful to the British as a supply and communication link between Canada and New York, but most important to the Colonials, it occupied a strategic location that overlooked the potential invasion route the British would take from Canada down Lake Champlain, into the Hudson River valley, and ultimately onto New York City. If the British took New York, they would then have split the New England colonies from the Southern colonies. Using this approach, they could focus on dealing with one isolated segment at a time. The fort also contained heavy artillery which was in short supply to the colonial militia units.
While Arnold was traveling to Ticonderoga, another patriot, by the name of Ethan Allen was planning his own raid on the fort. Allen was a farmer, businessman, land speculator, philosopher, writer, patriot and politician. He’s best known as one of the founders of the state of Vermont and for the capture of Fort Ticonderoga.
Wait? Didn’t I just say that Benedict Arnold was sent to capture the fort? I did. But so was Allen. In late April, following the battles of Lexington & Concord, Allen received a message from members of a Connecticut militia unit that they were planning to capture the fort. Allen, either fueled by Patriotism, hoping to improve his political position or both, began rounding up the Green Mountain Boys. On May 2, 60 men from Massachusetts and Connecticut met with Allen where they talked logistics and strategy of the operations. By May 7, these men and 130 others joined with Allen at Castleton. The morning of the 8, Allen was elected to lead the operation and he and his Green Mountain boys planned to raid the fort at dawn on May 10.
Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys were not, in fact, a folk music act, the Green Mountain Boys were nothing more than a collection of militia units from the territory between the British provinces of New York and New Hampshire, referred to as the New Hampshire Grants, which later became the state of Vermont.
So to recall, the morning of May 8, Allen is selected to lead the operation to take Fort Ticonderoga. On the afternoon of May 9, Benedict Arnold arrived, unexpectedly, and claimed he was to command a mission to capture the fort.
Well of course the Green Mountain Boys took this as you would expect and stated that they would only follow Allen into battle, not Arnold. The two men retreated to a private discussion and determined that they would both lead, or at least both be at the front of the troops when the attack was made.
Two small companies had been dispatched prior to Arnold’s arrival to procure boats for the men. The attack plan called for the men to cross over to the fort from Hand’s Cove in Shoreham.
Finally, around 2:00 am, on the scheduled morning of the raid, the men were able to find boats and begin the crossing. Only 83 of the men gathered were able to cross be fore Allen and Arnold became worried that dawn was approaching. The two men decided to attack with only the 83 men that they had. The men marched towards the fort, with it’s capture on their mind.
Unknown to the men marching towards it, the fort itself was not heavily guarded, or even in that great of shape. After the British captured it back from the French in 1759, they did minor improvements during the years of 1759 and 1760, but allowed it to fall into disrepair after that, Colonel Frederick Haldimand, who commanded the fort in 1773 wrote that it was in “ruinous condition”. The fort was garrisoned with 48 soldiers and roughly 25 women and children.
The lone sentry on duty that night was no doubt surprised to see 80 some men marching towards his fort. Allen and his men marched in, and went to the fort commander’s quarters. Lieutenant Jocelyn Feltham was the assistant to the fort’s commander as was awakened by the noise. Feltham stalled while the fort’s commander Captain William Delaplace dressed, and as he emerged from his chambers, he surrendered his sword to Allen. The rest of his men in the garrison also surrendered peacefully with no shots fired.
I will share with you a few statements that Allen claimed he made as he went into the fort. He claimed, that as they were waiting on Captain Delaplace, he yelled to him “Come out you old Rat!” and also, while again waiting for Delaplace, Feltham asked under what authority it was that he was there to seize the fort, Allen stated that he proclaimed (rather loudly) “In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!”
Capturing the fort gave the colonial militia a large supply of cannons and other arms, much of which Henry Knox transported back to Boston during the winter of 1775 to 1776. In fact, these very cannon were instrumental to later ending the Siege of Boston (but we’ll talk about that more later). Just to talk briefly about Knox, if you’ve been to Fort Sill, Oklahoma and been in Knox Hall, it’s named after him. He also had two fort’s named after him Fort Knox in Kentucky and Fort Knox in Maine. He also served as the very first United States Secretary of War.
Benedict Arnold remained in control of the fort until 1,000 Connecticut troops under the command of Benjamin Hinman arrived in June 1775. Arnold, never got the word that Hinman was coming to take command and after a delegation from Massachusetts arrived to clear up the matter, Arnold resigned his commission and departed, leaving the fort in Hinman’s hands.