As a military historian, I am drawn most to George Washington, the soldier. Historians have long argued about Washington’s talents as a commander, but there are few who don’t realize the major role that he played in holding the Revolution together. In my mind, without George Washington heading the Continental Army, the war would have ended entirely differently.
This month is the anniversary of Washington’s first major victory of the American Revolution; the forced evacuation of British forces from the city of Boston in March 1776. Washington had not been present at the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 or the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, having assumed command on July 3 of that year. His army consisted mostly of New Englanders; men from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York who at first did not take to the austere, grave Virginian. Washington was equally slow to warm to the New Englanders, railing against what he called their “dirty, mercenary spirit.” Other troubles, ranging from a shortage of muskets for the soldiers to expired terms of service for many regiments, left the army woefully under strength. Coupled with the demoralizing news from Canada in the early days of 1776, it appeared as if Washington and the Continental Army would never succeed in anything.
A bold endeavor, however, would soon provide Washington an opportunity to restore badly needed morale for his troops. Henry Knox, the former Boston bookseller and artillery student, had gone to captured Fort Ticonderoga in order to obtain heavy artillery that Washington’s army was seriously lacking. The determined Knox, with his intrepid soldiers hauled more than 50 cannon and mortars from upstate New York through steep grades and heavy snows to arrive in Boston in late February. With these guns now in hand, Washington ordered the guns to be placed on Dorchester Heights, an unoccupied high ground overlooking Boston. On the night of March 4, 1776, a work detail of 1,200 men supported by a covering force of 800 soldiers dragged a train of more than 300 ox carts filled with fortification materials up to the top of the heights. When dawn broke, two small forts sat atop Dorchester Heights with 50 artillery pieces staring down at the British forces inside the city. General William Howe, the commander of the British troops at Boston reputedly remarked about the Americans, “They completed more work in a night than my army could complete in a month.” Howe recognized that with artillery commanding the heights above the city that resistance could be very costly for the British. On March 17, 1776, 11,000 British soldiers and approximately 1,200 loyalists boarded ships and left Boston Harbor. Boston would remain in American hands for the remainder of the war.
George Washington had won a key victory; a victory due to his determination and perseverance. It would be the only victory he would have for quite some time. 1776 would not be a great year for George Washington and the Continental Army as they would lose New York and be chased all the way across the state of New Jersey to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. But that is a tale for another time…
Today Washington’s Headquarters during the Siege of Boston is preserved as part of Longfellow-Washington Headquarters National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/long). Follow the link for more information and to walk in the footsteps 0f George Washington during this pivotal moment in American History!