The month of February was drawing near its close. Washington determined to delay no longer to test his strength against the garrison of Boston. He collected forty-five bateaux, each capable of transporting eighty men, and built two floating batteries of great strength and light draught of water. Fascines, gabions, carts, bales of hay, entrenching tools, two thousand bandages for wounds, and all other contingent supplies that might be needed were gathered, and placed under the guard of picked men.
General Thomas Mifflin, quartermaster-general, who had originally accompanied him from Philadelphia as an aid-de-camp, was thoroughly aroused to the importance of the impending movement. He shared the confidence of Washington.
The movement was carried through with that inflexibility of purpose which marked Washington's career during crises of imminent peril. It seemed as if the very fact of his submission of a military movement to a council, awakened questions as to its feasibility. Jomini, in connection with his statement, that Napoleon never seemed to provide for a retreat, adds, that "when Napoleon was present no one thought of such a provision."
The great acts of Washington's career were performed when he was clothed with ample authority by Congress, or the emergency forced him to make his own will supreme. This was the reason which led Congress at last to emancipate him from the constraint of councils. If he doubted, others doubted; if he was persistent, he inspired the courage and nerve which secured results. He was in such a mood on the first day of March, 1776. He had a plan, a secret, and he kept it secret until the hour for execution.
Just after sunset of that New England spring evening, from Lech-mere Point, past Cobble Hill, and through the long range of encircling batteries, clear to Roxbury lines on the right, every mortar and cannon which could take the range opened their fire upon the quiet city. It was a test of the location, range, and power of the adversary's fire. That fire was returned with spirit, and when morning dawned the American camp resumed its quiet, the men were kept within their lines, and only behind the head-quarters at Cambridge was there ceaseless activity, where Putnam, Thomas, Knox, and Mifflin were "putting the house in order for moving day."
On the night of the third of March, the bombardment was renewed, with equal vigor, and as promptly answered; and again the camp was still and patient. One shot had reached Prospect Hill but no appreciable damage accrued to the American works. Some houses had been penetrated in Boston, and six soldiers were wounded in one guard-barrack. Places of safety began to be hunted out; and artificial obstructions were arranged for a cover from the random shot and shell; but no special parade was ordered, no detail was moved forth, to silence the offensive batteries, no scheme was put on foot, to break up the investment. No excited commander tendered his ser vices, to lead a forlorn hope against Cambridge, to seize and try for treason the arch-commander of the defiant Colonists. Bunker Hill was in sight! Red uniforms were conspicuous in the sun-light; but these had no promptings to an assault upon earth-works, which screened twenty thousand men and were the work of months.
The fourth of March closed, and the night was bright, mild and hazy. The moon was at its full. It was a good night for rest. Surely the Americans cannot afford such waste of powder! They impoverish themselves: but Boston is safe!
But on the night of the fourth of March, and through all its hours, from "candle-lighting time," to the clear light of another day, the same incessant thunder rolled along, over camps and city; the same quick flashes showed that fire was all along the line, and still, both camps and city dragged through the night, waiting for the day-light to test the work of the night, as day-light had done before.
Two strong redoubts capped Dorchester Heights!
"If the Americans retain possession of the heights," said Admiral Shuldham, "I cannot keep a ship in the harbor." Howe wrote to Lord Dartmouth, "It must have been the employment of at least twelve thousand men." "They were raised," wrote an officer, "with an expedition equal to that of the Genii, belonging to Aladdin's lamp."
"The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month," said Lord Howe.
"Perhaps,'' said Heath, "there never was as much work done in so short a space."
The works were very simple of construction. The earth was frozen to the depth of eighteen inches. But hurdles, fascines, and bundles of branches, and abatis, cut from apple orchards, had been supplied in great quantities, and large bales of compressed hay, which were proof against any ordinary cannon ball, had also been furnished, so that the heaping up and arranging of these, under the direction of Rufus Putnam, according to a plan thoroughly digested, was but easy work for a class of soldiers peculiarly handy with the material employed. On the tops, there were barrels, filled with stones, having for their ultimate purpose—to be rolled down hill, and thus disconcert the advance of any regulars from Boston. The manner of doing this work was also very simple.
Eight hundred soldiers marched very quietly out of Roxbury, after dark, on the previous evening, and placed themselves, a part between Boston and Dorchester Heights, and a part at the east end of the peninsula, opposite Castle Island. Men with tools, and a working party of twelve hundred soldiers under General Thomas, followed the advance. Then three hundred carts, loaded with the proper material, followed.
To thwart curiosity, and prevent impertinent interference with the work which Washington had ordered to be done, some of these large bundles of hay had been placed in a long row along the most exposed part of the way, so that carts passed to and fro all night be hind this cover, and the moon itself was unable to betray the secret, even if some sentry at Boston Neck had accidentally allowed his eyes to turn away from the rival exhibition of shot and shell practice.
There was a north wind that night which took all the sound of the rolling carts into the country below Boston. This was also very matter of fact, but of real service.
During this time, Generals Greene and Sullivan were standing in front of four thousand men near Fort Number Two, as indicated on the map, with bateaux and floating batteries manned for crossing to Boston, if the garrison should move out and interfere with the order of the day. The incessant firing all night seems to have been but playing a trick upon the garrison. It was of course a feint.
The silent movement of the two thousand men, and of the three hundred carts was not as at Bunker Hill, a forlorn hope affair. It was not hurried nor expensive of strength and patience. Reliefs came and went, and the system, order, and success that marked each hour, could not have been better realized by daylight. An eminent historian explains this movement in a few words, and tells it all.
"One unexpected combination concerted with faultless ability, and suddenly executed, had in a few hours made General Howe's position at Boston untenable." This was "Grand Strategy."
General Howe immediately detailed Lord Percy with twenty-four hundred men to dislodge the Americans from Dorchester Heights, The command moved by boats to Castle Island first, for the purpose of making a night attack. During the afternoon a storm came up from the south, increasing to a gale; rain poured in torrents all night; some of the boats were driven on shore and the project was abandoned.
By the tenth of March the Americans had fortified Nook's Hill, and this drove the British troops from Boston Neck. Eight hundred shot and shell were thrown into the city during that night.
On the morning of the seventeenth of March, the British troops embarked in one hundred and twenty crowded transports for Halifax, the total force including seamen of the fleet being not quite eleven thousand men. It is proper to say that historians differ as to the damage done to private property by the retiring garrison. Distinctions of property are always lost sight of in war. This evil attaches to its skirts and follows its track. General Howe issued an order for bidding plunder, and he is entitled to this credit. Washington did not give him time to watch its execution, but took charge of the city himself as soon as possible.
Five thousand troops under Ward entered as the last boats left.
General Putnam was placed in command, and on the twentieth Washington entered at the head of the whole army.
For ten days the British fleet was weather bound in Nantasket Roads, then bore away for Halifax. Valuable stores were left be hind, including two hundred and fifty cannon, half of them serviceable, and these were still farther increased by the capture of store-vessels which entered the harbor without knowledge of the evacuation of the city.
The siege of Boston was at an end. Less than thirty lives had been lost during the investment, and New England was freed from the presence of British troops.
NOTE. A manuscript narrative of the experience of Mr. Edward Stow during the siege of Boston, besides portrait sketches of the British commanders, relates his attending upon a performance of the play, "Boston Besieged," at Faneuil Hall, in company with his mother, upon the invitation of Lieutenant Haley of the British Fourth regiment. During the play, composed by General Burgoyne, and on the night of March 3d, "one cannon ball from the American batteries whizzed directly over the roof," "another struck Dr. Cooper's Meeting House." It was the first demonstration that the city was in real danger. Mr. Stow was then but a boy, but states, that he remembers perfectly well that "General Burgoyne suddenly came upon the stage, and ordered the officers to their posts," and that himself and mother were indebted to the kindness of a sentry, who met them near the Liberty tree, for a safe escort home. Several of the officers were his mother's guests, Colonel Cleve land among the number. On one occasion he accompanied one of the officers to the Neck where the British artillery made a test of the Roxbury lines. The author acknowledges the courtesy of Mr. A. S. Barnes for the perusal of the manuscript, which abounds with incidents of interest