by Dan Shippey &

Michael Burns

   When George Washington arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts in July 1775 to take command of the new Continental Army, he was joining a fight already in progress. The British army now bottled up in Boston had been occupying that city for eight years. The Massachusetts farmers, merchants and artisans who made up the Patriot forces had chased the British Ministerial Troops from Concord back to Boston two and a half months earlier and had fought the Battle of Breed’s Hill (Bunker Hill) almost three weeks prior. The only way on or off the small patch of land that was Boston was by boat or the narrow strip of earth called Boston Neck, where the Patriots had drawn up their lines. Both sides had settled in, and neither side knew exactly what to do to break the deadlock. Even though they were trapped, the British had some advantages in the town. They had control of the port and could resupply from the sea. They were professional soldiers and the strong arm of one of the 18th century’s superpowers. The Patriots had no established source of provisions and arms, and no real order or leadership structure. Washington came to change that.

       The crisis in Boston did not spring up overnight. In 1768, the British Government decided that they would send soldiers to enforce the customs laws (indirect taxes) that the American Colonists had been opposing for the past two years. It was against British law to send an army of occupation to a British city, and Bostonians, already angry about taxes that were illegal according to their Royal charter, were irate over this direct breach of the British Constitution. Eventually there were more than 4000 soldiers living in a city of under 20,000, roughly 1 soldier for every 5 citizens. British warships sat like brooding sentinels in the harbor with their guns facing the town. To say that the living conditions were tense is a gross understatement. Clashes between citizens and soldiers were chronicled in local pamphlets and newspapers, which exaggerated these stories to further inflame passions. No one should have been surprised in 1770 when the Bloody Massacre, better known today as the Boston Massacre, occurred. Looking back, it seems obvious where things were heading; in 18th century Boston things were not so clear. The chain of events continued with the Tea Party in December of 1773, the Powder Alarm in September of 1774, and culminated in the shots fired at Lexington and Concord. Within days of the British retreat into the city, 20,000 minutemen, militia and would-be soldiers flowed into the area surrounding Boston.


     The siege dragged on for months, devolving into sniper attacks, raiding parties and minor skirmishes. Washington did his best to instill military discipline in his very independent minded young Army, and pleaded with Congress to send supplies. That Fall a 25-year-old bookseller-cum-soldier approached Washington with a plan to break the Boston deadlock. As a young officer, Washington had been frustrated when his commanding officer refused advice from anyone junior to him, so he made a point of listening to his men. The young merchant standing before Washington hardly looked the part of a great leader.  He was overweight, over tall, and had lost a thumb to a gun accident.  Still, he was brave, determined and had educated himself by reading every military book in his shop. Henry Knox suggested an ambitious plan to take the 59 cannons and mortars from Fort Ticonderoga (recently captured by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold) and bring them 300 miles to Cambridge. Others thought the young man was being ridiculous, but Washington gave Knox a Colonel’s commission and ordered him to retrieve the cannon. The adventure that followed is worthy of it’s own film. Over the course of three months (Winter months) Knox moved 60 tons of cannons and other armaments by boat, horse, ox-drawn sledges, and manpower, along muddy roads, across two semi-frozen rivers, and through forests and swamps. On January 27th 1776, he arrived with the artillery.




The Knox Artillery Train

       January in Boston meant freezing temperatures and the possibility that some areas of water around the town might turn to ice. Washington wanted to launch an attack now that he had the cannons to support his troops, but his junior officers disagreed. The danger from the British ships, the inexperience of the new Army, and the variables in weather all made plans of a direct attack precarious. One alternative was suggested that had tremendous potential; the cannons could be placed on Dorchester Heights. The Heights looked down upon Boston and the ships surrounding it. Cannon placed there could rain fire down on any point where the British might mass, attack or take shelter.


     Washington first placed some of his heavy cannon at Lechmere’s Point and Cobble Hill in Cambridge to serve as a diversion. These distracting batteries opened fire on the town on the night of March 2, and the British quickly shifted their artillery to return fire. This action was repeated the next night, while preparations to take the heights continued quietly. The night of March 4 the batteries opened fire again, and while the British were focusing their attention on that attack, approximately 2,000 troops silently marched to the top of Dorchester Heights, carrying entrenching tools and cannon placements. Hay bales were placed between the path taken by the troops and the harbor to quiet the sounds of the activity. Through the night, these troops moved the cannons and built earthworks looking down on the town and the harbor. General Washington encouraged the men personally and reminded them that March 5 was the sixth anniversary of the Bloody Massacre.  

     At dawn March 5th the British were caught dumfounded. General Howe wrote

"The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month."

The British were left with two options-- flee or try to storm the heights. Washington had anticipated this and had the defenses built to repel just such an attack. The result of an attack would likely be a devastating loss for the British as they marched uphill into well-fortified cannons and soldiers. The ships below could not reach the heights with their cannons, but were themselves at risk. Nonetheless, Howe determined to make the attack. He readied 2,400 troops to make the assault under the cover of darkness, but Washington’s spies in Boston tipped him off first. Washington moved more men into position until he had 6,000 defending the heights. Both sides were surprised by a sudden snowstorm that delayed any possible attack. By the time the storm was over Howe knew he could not win and sent word to Washington that he was ready to negotiate.

         General Howe agreed that he would surrender Boston and the town would not be torched if his troops were allowed to board their ships and leave. Washington had won his first victory and liberated Boston. Preparations and weather caused some delay, but on March 17th 1776 the British soldiers finally left Boston, sailing away to Halifax, Nova Scotia. When they departed, 1,000 Loyalist civilian refugees went with them, including the in-laws of Henry Knox.

      At the time many in Massachusetts thought the war was over. The British aggressors had finally been sent packing, and the Patriots were ready to go home. Washington knew better. He was already making plans to head to New York, where he feared the British would attack next. For the moment, though, the Continental Army was a victorious Army. Boston was free again after years of occupation and conflict. Far away in Philadelphia, the arguments about defense were finally over and a new debate was beginning on the subject of Independence.

For most of the country March 17th is celebrated as St. Patrick’s Day but in the city of Boston it is still remembered as Evacuation Day.