J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Attack Across the Ice on Dorchester Neck

On 13 Feb 1776, Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded a surprising raid by British troops against the sparse Continental forces in the part of Dorchester that stuck out into the harbor.

This night a large body of the Troops about 3. oclock set off on the Ice from the fortification, landed at Dorchester Neck and set fire to all the houses and barns, brot. off six prisoners who were Centinels.

Colo. [Alexander] Lesslie from the Castle, assisted with the Troops there, and returned at seven o’clock—No engagement ensued—The Provincials guards run off.
The next day, Gen. William Howe commended the raid’s commanders and soldiers for their work:
The Commander in Chief desires to return his thanks to Coll. Leslie & Major [Thomas] Musgrave, for their planning & Conducting the Service of last night, & to the Officers & Soldiers of the detachment under their Command for their Spirited behaviour on the Occasion. He also highly approves of the alacrity of the troops in general last night, & of their Soldier like manner in getting under Arms without the least noise or confusion. Such Steady behaviour plainly indicates the powerfull supperiority they must ever preserve over the unnatural enemy we have to contend with, when an opportunity shall offer to determine it.
The following day, Howe added some concrete rewards to his praise:
Major Musgrave will give in a return to the D[eputy]. Q[uarte]r M[aste]r Gen[era]l, of the Detachment that was under his Command on the Morning of the 14th including the men that carried the Biers and Artilly., likewise those Artillery men that were with Colonel Leslie, that they may receive a pair of Shoes and Stockens each.

Coll. Leslie will give a return of the Detachment of the 64th for the same purpose.

The Corps to attend to morrow Morning to receive a proportion of Onions from the Commissary General, at the place where they receive Potatoes.
On the American side, Gen. George Washington tried to downplay the raid’s effect in his report to the Continental Congress, dated 14 Feb 1776:
Last night a party of Regulars, said to be about 500, landed on Dorchester Neck and burnt some of the Houses there, which were of no value to us, nor would they have been, unless we take post there, they then might have been of some service. A Detachment went after them, as soon as the fire was discovered, but before it could arrive, they had executed their plan and made their retreat.
He did not mention the captured sentinels.

Some interesting things about this event:
  • The cold, which typically sent eighteenth-century armies into barracks until spring, had here created new opportunities. Normally Boston was connected to the mainland only by the narrow Neck (modern Washington Street runs along it). But with shallow parts of the harbor frozen over, each army could reach the other’s territory more easily.
  • Both armies had now focused their attention on Dorchester Heights, an area of high ground that neither had yet occupied. The British tried to make the Dorchester peninsula harder for the Continentals to hold by burning houses and other cover, but they didn’t try to hold that land for themselves.
In the following weeks, both those factors would become part of the endgame of the Boston siege. Also, after the winter under siege, new shoes, stockings, and onions were considered a valuable reward for the soldiers who carried out this raid.

Today’s picture is a wax relief portrait of Thomas Musgrave, who was made a colonel in August 1776 and distinguished himself at the Battle of Germantown the following year. Eventually he became a general and a knight. This item and many other handsome historical portraits in the same medium are available from WaxPortraits.com.

1 comment:

RattleSnake said...

reading this has struck me to many things that ordinally i wouldn have known interesting...